The Crime Readers' Association

Where A Book Begins – The Back-story of Death on a Shetland Isle by Marsali Taylor

3rd December 2018

Death on a Shetland Isle began with a story, a true one, of how of how two people went missing from Eynhallow, an island in Orkney.

I enjoy putting Shetland folklore in my books, and for this one I was thinking of using the Finn people, a race of sorcerers and shaman who could transform themselves into fish and seals, see at a distance and influence the weather. Reading about them, I felt my murderer take shape. A charmer, attractive to look at, a shape-shifter… The site I was using was an Orkney one, Orkneyjar, and it had a lot about the Finmen’s island in Orkney: Hildaland, a magical island which they could shroud in mist at will. The Finn people were chased from it by one Thorodale in a ritual which involved sowing the boundaries with salt, and it was renamed Eynhallow to keep them out. Now, more prosaically, the island’s a bird reserve, though still off-limits to visitors.

Then I spotted a link in the side bar of the site: ‘Eynhallow – a Modern Mystery’.  What writer could resist clicking on that?

It was in July, 1990. It was a birders’ visit to Eynhallow, organised by Orkney Heritage and the RSPB. The crew counted 88 people off, but only 86 back on. A huge search by the coastguard teams, helicopter, and lifeboat found nothing, and the official view was that the crew had miscounted. The Orcadian view was that two Finns had come back to their former home.

I phoned Orkney’s newspaper, The Orcadian, and was lucky enough to get the reporter who’d actually covered the story. ‘Yea, yea, the story’s right enough,’ he confirmed. ‘It was a queer thing. But I’ve seen these boats, and it’s a great number of people flooding off them, so I reckon the crew miscounted.’

My heroine Cass is a sailor, and immediately I started thinking of how she could have been one of the crew on that trip, and certain she’d counted right, but forced by the evidence to accept that she hadn’t – and then it would happen again, on Shetland’s Island of the Finns (now that was a good title). How could I make two people disappear from an island so thoroughly as to evade a search? Then I realised that back in 1990 Cass would have been only two, a bit young to be crewing, even for her, so that idea had to be abandoned. I liked the idea of the Finn folk, though, and began to research the Shetland stories. I’d meant to set this story on Papa Stour, an island off the west side of Shetland, bang in the heart of my sailing territory, with fantastic sea caves (could the missing people hide in those?) and rocky passages for an exciting chase scene.

The Shetland Finns were a territorial people too, it turned out. There was one story from Papa Stour, but a good dozen from an island on the east of Shetland, Fetlar, along with a Neolithic wall known as Finnigarth, supposed to have been built by the Finns in a single night, and an area called Funzie, pronounced Finnie. Fetlar would be my setting. So I began to think about other things associated with the island. Like every other small community it’s fighting for survival against centralisation, the drag into town of jobs, education, services. In a Shetland-wide context, there are also key services being centralised south.

Here’s another true story. One of my fellow tour guides had a party on the uninhabited island of Mousa, and one of the guests broke her ankle. The guide called the emergency services to get either the rescue helicopter to airlift her to the hospital in Lerwick, or an ambulance to meet their ferry when they got back to the mainland. The emergency services control centre was then in Inverness, and the person who answered insisted she needed a postcode. No, the guide couldn’t talk personally to Shetland Coastguard, only fifteen miles away, who could have sent the chopper or lifeboat. Realising it was hopeless, another member of the party phoned the coastguard direct, and help arrived half an hour later. A week after that our tour guide boss issued us all with a little card with Mousa’s GPS co-ordinates on it. Then the control centre moved to Dundee, and on one occasion the air ambulance for a sick baby in Shetland was sent to Orkney instead.

Understandably, folk up here aren’t happy about this. Just as I was planning Death on a Shetland Isle, the air services came up with another one. Instead of an actual person looking out of a window at fog and wind conditions in Sumburgh airport, they’d have a central control room with video screens in Plymouth. If they were that confident with the technology, our MP retorted, why didn’t they build their control centre up here, and give us jobs instead of taking them away? Funnily enough they didn’t take him up on the offer. Hard on the heels of that, the electricity company decided that they’d get rid of the Lerwick power station, and install a deep-sea cable from Scotland instead, right in the middle of fishing-boat trawling territory.

All this gave me a background theme for the book – the struggle of people in smaller places to stay in the homes they love. Fetlar isn’t remote geographically from the rest of Shetland – it’s tucked neatly in between the two north isles of Yell and Unst – but to get there is a two-ferry trip. From the mainland, going ferry / drive across Yell / ferry, it takes an hour and a quarter to set foot on Fetlar. Secondary school children have to lodge in Lerwick for the week, which puts families off moving there. The main jobs are the ferry crew, the primary school and tourism. The Fetlar Development group have been pro-active with creating more. They’ve done hosting a day on the island for visiting cruise ships, as they do in the book for Cass’s tall ship Sorlandet, and they hold the World Hnefatafl Championships.

Hnefatafl! I had another inspiration moment.  Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is a game of chessmy ancient Penguin copy has drawings of the board showing each move, as Alice goes from pawn to Queen. I thought that would be fun to try as a structure for the book, only with Hnefatafl. I got online, and found the British Museum shop sold boards for ‘The Viking Game’, with a bearded king and decorative warriors based on the Lewis Chessmen. I bought one, and got it sent to my daughter in London, where I’d soon be visiting, so that my grandson and I could try it.

The actual game is simple. The king begins dead-centre, with his twelve white warriors gathered around him. The twenty-four attackers are spread along the four sides of the board. Moves are like a rook in chess, vertical or horizontal, as far as you like. The king’s aim is to get into one of the corner squares with three of his warriors protecting him; the attackers’ aim is to surround the king.

My grandson and I set out the board and launched in. He’s chess-minded and I’m not, so after the first game he was thinking several moves ahead, and I walked straight into every trap he set. He mopped me up three times in half an hour. I got the idea though: clever planning, thinking ahead, opportunism, ruthlessness in sacrificing your men. Those sounded like murderer characteristics too.

It’s a real help to a writer to have a structure for a book. Now I got planning the story that was evolving in my head. My opening section would be ‘The board set up’ and would bring all the characters together, and after that, each three-chapter section would have two moves from each side. The final section, with the forces of good closing in on my murderer, would be the end of the game: ‘The King Surrounded’. Naturally I hoped that the reader wouldn’t know clearly who was on each side as they read, but re-readers could have fun spotting the moves. There weren’t as many moves as there would be in an actual game, so it would be more an impression of Hnefatafl, but I had fun working it out.

A further idea was to have photos of the progression of a game of Hnefatafl beginning each section – actually, I had my .doc really pretty, with a warrior at the end of each chapter as well, and the king at the end of each section. Alas, my publishers’ graphics people didn’t pass the photos. However, part of my revision of each book, when I think it’s really finished, is to get a copy printed from Lulu – that lets me read it as a book, rather than on the computer, or on A4 pages. That copy had the photos in, and the readers who flipped through it at the launch really liked the idea. Maybe my publishers might add them in the paperback edition…

The structure gave me the bones of the story, but of course once I got writing the characters took over. My unemotional Cass was hit with a bombshell: the sudden reappearance of her long-dead lover, Alain, which threatened to rock the stable relationship she’d finally achieved with my policeman, DI Gavin Macrae. After the previous novel set at sea, I was back with my Shetland cast: Cass’s flamboyant French mother, who does her best to take over any chapter she appears in; Cass’s Irish father, who, proud as he is of his Cassie in her second officer uniform, believes deep in his heart that she’ll never be really happy until she marries a good Catholic boy and settles down to produce six children. Cass’s fisherman friend Magnie was on hand to tell the stories of the Finn men, and be the ship’s guide to Fetlar. Inga was crusading on behalf of country places, and her toddler son, Peerie Charlie, sauntered in to twist Cass round his little finger – I do enjoy seeing my independent heroine being outmanoeuvred by a three-year-old.

Disappeared people means a search, and one of my drama group is the leader of the Walls Coastguard volunteers, so I asked if I could go out on an exercise with them. No problem! I met them at their station, and listened, scribbling, as Jon described the ‘missing person’ and where they’d last been seen. The team got their gear together, and we followed the black and yellow Coastguard Land Rover to where Jon had planted the ‘body’. We were on what I’d have called a straightforward piece of hill, where you’d expect a person to be easily seen. It was only once I was walking in the line of searchers that I realised how rough the terrain actually was, with peat banks, low walls, and heathery knowes all ready to hide someone lying down. We’d been out for half an hour and only covered a square 500 yards when Jon got a ‘call’ with more information: the missing man had been seen down by the loch, 100 yards downhill from where we’d been looking. It still took us another fifteen minutes to find the dummy in his navy boiler suit; the boys got him on the stretcher and whizzed him off the hill.

I’d visited Fetlar often enough to have a reasonable grasp of the terrain, but I needed to go back, once the book was at the second draft stage. I booked the ferries and enlisted my husband as chauffeur. We headed out on a beautiful summer day of the week the book was set in. I had a list of what we needed to see: the pier Cass would be landing her dinghy at, the walk along to Funzie, what you could see from the top of the hill there, how steep the cliffs were. We called in at the camping Bod, and went into the hall for a look around. We visited the shop and approved their homebakes – my Cass would like them too. We went up to the airstrip and looked at the Fiddler’s Crus, a stone circle, and then headed along the road to the Gothic monstrosity that is Brough Lodge. Once the home of the wealthy Nicolson family, it deteriorated badly, and was bought at the last minute by a trust. It’s being restored for a knitting centre, and to host conferences – more jobs for the island. It bristled with scaffolding, and there was a large ‘Keep Out’ notice, which, naturally, I ignored. It was the perfect place for Cass to play hide-and-seek with a murderer: passageways, walls, a flock of starlings flying up at me, and a folly up on the hill.

I came home with dozens of photographs and a notebook full of description. As Cass is a first-person narrator, I’d spent the day in her head, trying to experience the island as she would: the contrast between the heathery westside she grew up in and Fetlar’s lush, green fields; the shoreline, headlands and cliffs through the eyes of a sailor; the feel of the air, and the flowers growing by the roadside; her sardonic comments on ‘land notices’ like the one saying ‘Do not use’ on a pier which visibly had a gaping hole in the middle;  even the odd breed of sheep grazing by the hall. Cass would just register them as different, but Gavin, whose brother is a farmer, would know what they were.

I hope that as well as enjoying my characters and being drawn in by my plot, my readers will be transported to a very special island – Fetlar, the island of the Finns.


Read more about Marsali, her Shetland life and her crime writing:

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