ANN CLEEVES, AUTHOR

Where is it?

Fair Isle, Shetland.

How did you discover it?

I first went in 1975 after I dropped out of university. I was working in childcare in London and hated being in the city. By chance, I met someone in a pub who was going off to become assistant warden at the bird observatory on Fair Isle.

I said: "That sounds nice, I wouldn't mind doing that for a summer." He replied: "Well, if you are serious, they are desperate for an assistant cook." So, off I went, not really knowing where Fair Isle was. I come from the south-west of England and hadn't realised it was part of Shetland.

It was 13 hours on the ferry and then I had to wait on the Shetland mainland because there had been a storm and the mail boat didn't come.

In those days, before mobile phones, it meant calling the bird observatory and saying: "I'm here. Why is there no boat?" Even though I should have realised because it was blowing a hoolie. When the boat did arrive three days later, I was very ill going over to Fair Isle.

HeraldScotland: The airport on Fair Isle. Picture: Jamie Simpson/NewsquestThe airport on Fair Isle. Picture: Jamie Simpson/Newsquest

Once I got over my seasickness, I loved the island and the people. Fair Isle is beautiful. Although it is small – only three miles by a mile-and-a-half – because of the indentations in the cliffs, it is a good walk. You never feel bored. There are different places to explore every time.

How often do you go?

When I was writing the Shetland books, I would go three or four times a year. I was last on Fair Isle not long after my husband Tim died [in 2017]. I went with a close friend I had met on Fair Isle and who was married to an islander.

We stayed with a lovely couple on one of the crofts. It was very moving. I burst into tears as soon as I got off the plane.

The Fair Isle Bird Observatory burned down [in 2019]. The island is dependent on visitors, but it is not just Covid that has stopped people travelling. With there being no observatory for people to stay in that is like a double hit.

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My publisher is reprinting the Shetland books, including Blue Lightning which is set in Fair Isle. It seemed a no-brainer to give all the royalties earned from that reprint to the rebuilding fund for the bird observatory. We hope people will buy a copy to help boost the fundraising.

What's your favourite memory?

This is soppy and romantic: Tim proposed to me on Fair Isle. I was invited to be head cook in 1976. We had been visiting the lightkeepers up at the north light and had quite a party. We were chatting about getting married but, at that point, there had been no formal proposal.

I said to Tim: "You haven't proposed yet." The next day we were helping with the haymaking and riding back to one of the crofts on a pile of hay on a trailer. That's where he proposed to me. 

Who do you take?

I have six grandchildren and it has become a rite of passage that I take them one at a time up to Shetland. We go on the ferry overnight and they love that excitement of going to sleep on the boat and waking up in Shetland the next morning.

What do you take?

When I was first in Shetland, you would go to Fair Isle with a list of things that people couldn't get easily. But so much is done by mail order now that you don't need to take supplies in. I would probably just take a nice bottle of wine for the people I am staying with.

HeraldScotland: Ann Cleeves photographed in Lerwick, Shetland. Picture: Martin Shields/NewsquestAnn Cleeves photographed in Lerwick, Shetland. Picture: Martin Shields/Newsquest

I can't wait to visit Shetland again because one of my good friends makes beautiful Fair Isle chairs. It is a research project where she is learning from some of the older islanders. I have commissioned a Fair Isle chair. It is a real work of art.

A Fair Isle chair is similar to an Orcadian chair with a high, woven rush back to keep the draughts out, but unlike the Orcadian ones, it doesn't have a hood. I'm looking forward to getting my chair and taking it home with me.

Sum it up in a few words.

Bleak. Beautiful. Welcoming. Open-hearted. Open-minded.

What travel spot is on your post-lockdown wish list?

I'm not a city girl but I love New York. There is something about the buzz and the excitement and the romance. I think partly because the first time I went to see my American publisher I stayed at the Washington Square Hotel in Greenwich Village.

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There was this guy playing sax in the square and it just felt like every movie of New York you had seen. It is much easier to go back to America with a clear conscience now that the politics are slightly different. That will probably be one of the first places I go.

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves is out now in paperback (Pan, £8.99). The reprint of Blue Lightning, with all royalties going to Fair Isle Bird Observatory, is published on March 18 (Pan, £8.99)