Shetland on Screen

by Steve Mathieson

Photo: Steve Birrell Zoom Photo: Steve Birrell Shetland seems to be appearing with increasing frequency on our TV screens, whether through reality documentaries or detective dramas. This is a very welcome development from a tourism perspective, as bigger and more diverse audiences are discovering the allure of these beautiful islands.

Shetland’s relationship with the film and television medium started in 1931, when young Glasgow-born filmmaker Jenny Brown arrived with a 16mm camera and made A Crofter’s Life in Shetland, a documentary of the lives of the local crofters and fishermen, but also remarked upon by John Grierson, a pioneer of British film documentary-making, for its “very beautiful pictures of Shetland”. Brown made many Shetland documentaries up until 1969, including The Rugged Island, a Shetland Lyric in 1934, a drama-documentary about a young Shetland couple agonising over emigration to Australia or keeping to the harsh crofting life in Shetland. The lead actor was Johnny Gilbertson, whom Brown later married.

Photo: Brydon Thomason Zoom Photo: Brydon Thomason In 1936, Michael Powell (later to produce and direct classic British films such as the Oscar nominations One of Our Aircraft is Missing and The Red Shoes), in association with Emeric Pressburger, arrived on Shetland’s westernmost island, Foula, to film the drama The Edge of the World. Based on the true story of the evacuation of 36 people from the island of St Kilda in 1930, Powell was not allowed to film on St Kilda so turned to Foula instead. In the film the Hebridean island is called Hirta and included in the cast was John Laurie of later Dad’s Army fame. Powell and some of the surviving cast returned to Foula in 1978 to shoot a 22-minute two-part documentary intended to bookend the original film: Return to the Edge of the World was about the making of the film and meeting the locals and illustrated the fact that Powell had never forgotten his time in Shetland.

With television replacing film as Britain’s most watched visual medium, aspects of life in Shetland would often appear on the small screen, one of the most popular being the fire festival of Up-Helly-Aa. In January 1973 the legendary John Noakes was in Lerwick to film the proceedings for Blue Peter, while later presenters to be involved have included Ben Fogle, and Neil Oliver for Coast.

Photo: Peter Parker Zoom Photo: Peter Parker In 2002, Channel 4’s Time Team made the journey to the island known as “the garden of Shetland” –Fetlar. They excavated two sites on the island: Da Giant’s Cave at Aith, where local legend held that a shipwrecked Viking whose ship was beached during a storm was buried with both his treasure and the ship itself; and Gord Garden, where Viking soapstone carvings had been found. Both digs were successful, with proof found that a Viking burial had taken place at Aith and a woman’s bronze, tortoise-shaped brooch discovered, while at Gord a beautifully-paved Viking longhouse was revealed and an almost complete soapstone bowl retrieved.

A year later, in 2003, the BBC programme Restoration featured Easthouse on the island of West Burra, where work was begun to bring the abandoned and derelict traditional Shetland croft house and outbuildings back to their former glory. The work, by the Burra History Group, continued through to 2006 and Easthouse is now a wonderful local heritage and exhibition centre.

Photo: Gordon Siegel Zoom Photo: Gordon Siegel The BBC were back in Shetland in 2007, this time to film a ‘Shetland to Orkney’ episode of Coast, featuring the story of the Shetland Bus (one of the themes of Scalloway Museum) and the tsunami that swept over Shetland 8,000 years ago. In 2011 they returned for ‘The Western Isles and Shetland’, one of the stars being the Shetland pony, and again the following year, this time featuring Fair Isle. Their last visit to date was in 2014 for ‘Winter’, when Neil Oliver attended Up-Helly-Aa in Lerwick.

Shetland wildlife has featured regularly on television over the past four decades, with one of the first shows being Hugh Miles’ On the Tracks of the Wild Otter for the BBC in 1983, a documentary that attracted an amazing 17.3 million viewers and beautifully showcased the islands’ thriving otter population. BBC’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch series often have a Shetland wildlife element, whether it be piratical bonxies, friendly puffins or elusive orcas, and presenter Simon King went a step further in 2010 by spending a year in Shetland and producing Simon King’s Shetland Diaries. This fulfilled a long-held dream of his, presenting Shetland through all four seasons and demonstrating the warmth of the community as well as the incredible wildlife.

Photo: Steve Birrell Zoom Photo: Steve Birrell In 2013 a small Shetland pony called Socks took the advertising and social media world by storm by moon-dancing on Eshaness cliffs to the Fleetwood Mac song Everywhere in an advert for a mobile phone company. After more than seven million viewings on the internet he was brought back for a Christmas campaign, complete with Christmas sweater!

Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild of December 2015 travelled to Fair Isle, with the star being Tommy Hyndman, a native New Yorker who left his metropolitan life behind to move to Shetland’s southernmost isle. Ben was treated to some amazing meals made with fresh Shetland produce, shown how to catch a lobster and introduced to clifftop golf. Fair Isle was also the focus of a two-part BBC documentary, Fair Isle: Living on the Edge. Broadcast at the end of 2016 it followed the ups and downs of life on Shetland’s southernmost isle, showing that life in a small island community is anything but routine.

Photo: Agnieska Gardner Zoom Photo: Agnieska Gardner Britain’s most northerly island, Unst, was the setting for BBC2’s An Island Parish in 2016. Far from being bleak and dreary, in the six episodes of series eleven the island is shown to be a hive of activity, especially social, with a whole raft of fascinating characters from the parish vicar to the local “horse-whisperer”, with the beautiful scenery as a back-drop.

The following year saw a brand new series for BBC1 morning viewers, a reality documentary called Island Medics. Set in the Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick, the show follows the working and sometimes the personal lives of the dedicated medical professionals who provide such high quality care in the hospital, plus GPs, paramedics, coastguard, lifeboat crews and police. The second series was aired late in 2018.

Photo: Chris Brown Zoom Photo: Chris Brown Last, but definitely not least, is the incredibly successful BBC detective drama Shetland, based on novels by Ann Cleeves and starring excellent Scottish actor Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez. First broadcast in 2013, four series have been broadcast and attracted millions of viewers, with series five due to air in 2019. The programme has exposed Shetland to a whole new audience with the great storylines, atmospheric filming and stunning scenery inspiring many viewers to come and experience the setting for themselves. First on the list of “must-sees” is Jimmy Perez’s house in Lerwick, a fascinating house built into the sea and with a history of smugglers and secret tunnels. In fact the programme is so popular and inspiring that it has its own dedicated web page for visitors, Come and see for yourselves!