Thursday 31 March 2016


One wonders how the image of a place is formed in the minds of the viewers of media: movies and television. The thought arose after watching the latest of the TV series, Shetland. These are mystery stories, crime writing that takes the traditional format of the 'whodunit?' books popularised by Agatha Christie. This strategy cleverly fragments possibilities suggestively, creating distracting interludes that are fabricated suspiciously. Eventually these are all shown to be completely innocent affairs, but only at the very end when the real culprit, usually the least suspected participant, is revealed. Confusion lies at the core of this approach. The characters in Shetland are based on those created by Anne Cleeves in her series of crime stories based in the Shetland Islands. The lead role of the troubled detective, Jimmy Perez, is played by Douglas Henshall. The television series is shot, well, filmed, perhaps taken, maybe photographed in Shetland. 'Shot' is too emotive in this context; 'film' is no longer used in this digital age; and 'taken' sounds strange, as though something has been removed: even ‘photographed’ sounds too static.

Bressay Sound

The mini-series offers a sequence of wonderful images and details of this remarkable place; but to those who are familiar with the islands, the show presents a shambles of a collage of attractive vistas and views assembled from various locations across the Shetland Islands: the starkest of remote landscapes, the quaintest of cottages, the most dramatic forms of coastline, the quirkiest of details, and the narrowest tracks and lanes are juxtaposed as if in a photograph album, or stacked ad hoc on a rack of postcards. The selection seems to have been made in parallel with the mix of 'interesting' characters – purely for heightened intrigue. Just as everyone has an accented presence to emphasise the dramatic ‘Shetland’ role, every image is considered and iconic. How does this geographically random selection of places, apparently made only to maximise pictorial attractiveness, create an image of place in the mind of the viewer who is not familiar with Shetland in any way? What misunderstandings are perpetuated?

Menacing characters
Ann Cleeves on the Lerwick waterfront

Tangwick Haa Museum, Eshaness

Northern lights

Ninian's Isle

To those who know, phrases like 'Up at Ninian's' grind with a silent abrasive moan when the action is supposed to be in Lerwick. The perception of the hoax is heightened, clarified. Locals know place well, and place it geographically. Simple matters like north and south are ingrained in everyone's understanding of locations in this compact scattering of small islands. Everything is familiar. Recollection of place comes complete with the detail of every feature, its context and relationship – see: Ninian's Isle is south of Lerwick on the west coast of Mainland. One wonders: is it just the naming that is important, like Nibon, that gets a mention in the dialogue once, without any illustration or further role in the narrative? Is it too distant to be in the production pictorially, or is the author merely name-dropping?


The cliffs of Eshaness

Up Helly Aa

Mousa Broch

Images of action at Eshaness, Vidlin, Weisdale and Voe are all intertwined in the mish-mash of pretty choices made for the eye of the camera rather than for any contextual reality. The jigsaw confuses those who are familiar with the islands, and muddles, muddies, any attempt to follow the plot. In the same way, the bus with its destination labelled as Aith-Walls only begs the question from those who know: why go to Aith or Walls and get off nowhere in particular, at a place that has so little to do with the story other than, perhaps, as providing a good site, a set for a shooting scene? It is all very puzzling, especially when the drama, that sees one 'baddie' removed as a possibility in the 'whodunit?' quiz, melds into that of the bold cliffs of Eshness. Aith and Walls are west of Voe, with the road passing through some of the most rugged country in Shetland: but this rocky landscape is never revealed. Is it not pretty enough? The preference is for idyllic, romantic, empty distance spreading across treeless hills and shiny lochs under bright, clouded skies, much like the image selected for the 2016 calendar without the poles: see - The rocky terrain only reminds one of the toil, the harsh, hard, old Shetland life, before the oil dollars arrived. Eshaness is north of Brae that is north of Voe. Vidlin is east of Voe; Weisdale is south of Voe. Yet this disparity in place offers no impediment for the story teller who chooses to illustrate the yarn with the most attractive images possible, from anywhere. Oddly, Voe has no core role in the story. It is as though the whole of Shetland has become a fake stage set to be used willy-nilly to suit the eye and the story, as an illusion for the camera to recreate a dream world in its own cunning manner. This is Shetland, but it is not Shetland.


Shetland, the movie set

Douglas Henshall

What does this editing of place do for those who only know Shetland through the mini-series? One can only guess that, like the story itself that stops and starts, darts around, and develops suggestive, shady scenarios with a variety of implications just to keep the reader/viewer guessing, that the camera is doing the same – creating a visual story of place that it as fictional as the writing; as blindly suggestive as the story line. It is a little like pretending that a cricket match is the collection of highlights selected for the evening news. In the same way that a cricket match can be long, tedious and boring, sparked with occasional excitement, Shetland can be seen as generally ordinary with a speckling of special places. One says 'ordinary,' but it is 'ordinary' in a unique way, in the same manner as a cricket match is - it is not a tennis match. Like the 'who dun it?' story itself, this collage of specially selected images creates its own 'Shetland' fantasy – a place of continual wonder, distance and light; pure concentrated delight. One soon knows that it is not this when one arrives. Yet we learn so much about the world that we live in from movies and television! This is the concern. The circumstance carries much the same hype as tourism brochures that grab the memorable images and promote them as grand, glossy collections that generate too much false hope from armchair drooling. The problem with tourists is that they seek out these dreams, force the fantasies to be; demand that they be there to be experienced: see - and

Bird Observatory, Fair Isle

Mousa Broch

Sumburgh Airport

The runway crossing

After flying to the most northerly part of the UK, one has to negotiate the grandiose, sombre mass of Sumburgh airport that is as annoying as most, but more modest in its operation other than with security. Little places seem to heighten the necessity for over-strict control. It is as if this is the only way that they can claim some authority and importance: significance. Once through this 1960's-styled concrete monster, one drives the narrow track that follows the broad arc of the airport security fence, to exit this most-southern peninsular to start the drive north. So narrow is this lower tip of Shetland that one has to cross the runway that one has just arrived on. What might happen if one chose to turn and speed down the welcoming length of this voided strip? Why is the airport fenced when it stands so broadly open here?


Croft House Museum

The road passes various locations and slips along some marvellous coastline; but it is no singular delight. One drives though some small settlements, each with their variety of cottages of all types, sizes and styles in all states of repair and disrepair, presenting an identity that does not conform to the classic tourist image, to eventually reach the sprawling edge of Lerwick filled with the most uncontrolled mess of housing with an even greater variety of styles and identities, (see: ). Eventually one reaches the Georgian zone around the old harbour-side heart that is stitched together with winding Commercial Street at the base of a hill threaded with lanes that rise to the west and fall to the east, the harbour. The town itself is marked at its core by the Market Cross. This is coherent old Lerwick that the cameras love. Shetland uses these old thoroughfares whenever it can. One never sees the mess in movies or in postcards, unless it is character-forming, stylish rubbish: artful. Here one recalls the developer of the RAF base on Unst who wanted to promote the island abroad, telling the locals, “But don’t clean it up too much. It needs to keep some of its character.”

Commercial Street, Lerwick

The 'shoot'

Yell Sound

Lerwick waterfront

Viking House and Longboat, Unst

Further north, the journey takes the visitor through more of the same as seen before, until the ferry to the northern isles is reached. Once crossed, one is in another place with a slightly different feel. It is a little like Darwin's finches: each island is similar but has its own distinctive charm. This island connects north yet again, to another ferry and another island. One can travel east and west likewise; but Shetland has a budget. Most of the action is photographed somewhere between Lerwick and Voe, a distance of about fourteen miles, with an occasional trip north to Eshaness, and south to Ninian's Isle. Even the story that Cleeves based on the island of Whalsay lying east of Mainland, was filmed on the island of Bressay, just opposite Lerwick. The camera can make anywhere, anyplace; any place something else. It lies; it lies at the heart of our world today. What is it doing to us? - c.f. BBC report of a four-foot rat (12 March 2016): the explanation is 'forced perspective;' the rat is placed closer to the camera than the person holding it. What is being 'forced' in our world today? The cheating is crystallized in Shetland with the 'Lighthouse Hotel.' Sumburgh Lighthouse, recently renovated as a museum with much caring and careful attention to detail, has its accommodation and beautiful new conference space used selectively in shrewd framings with limited scans to pretend that it is a classy hotel. For those who know, the transformation is too thin, too shallow, inept; a little like some of the acting: but we forgive it because we almost seem to expect somethinnaïfrom such a remote place that lacks the so-called 'sophistication' of big cities. The developer wanted to keep this naive presence and use it as a marketing tool.

'Character' place


'Lighthouse Hotel'

Sumburgh Head

Refurbished lighthouse with new 'hotel' space on the right

Sumburgh Lighthouse

In spite of, perhaps because of these charades, Shetland the show becomes Shetland the show-piece. It is indeed just like the tourist brochure that selects and promotes the 'highlights' to encourage visitation, to build dreams that will never be. The illusion is such that one can only be disappointed, or perhaps sustained only by the intellectual understanding of discovered parallels rather than any true enjoyment of place with the 'This is like this; box ticked: been there; done that' approach. One wonders if Shetland, the show, is doing anything more than promoting itself with a clustering of interesting places and detailed 'aesthetic' images. One can see the camera's eye choosing, for example, the axial vista from the Police Headquarters as a preferred selection with its vista down the road to the harbour. This can be and has been used metaphorically – to emphasise entry and leaving: hope and loss. What other emotions are being manipulated in this series? There is something strange happening with the random collation of a great diversity of places, from Voe, to Weisdale, to Vidlin, all within a few screen minutes with no differentiation to tell of the geographical separation, or any of the journey between. It makes the place almost meaningless. Isn't the cliché that the experience is the journey, never the destination? 'And when you get there, ask not . . for she has given you the journey.' Was this said of the oracle at Delphi? - (see Cavafy below).


Take 3
So what is a blurred collection of destinations other than a misguided shambles? We need to differentiate between place and fancy. The danger is that we come to know places as fragmented fantasies when it is the whole that is the everyday experience, created by all of the parts, in their particular places. Is our technology recreating our perception of the world as though through rose coloured glass? Do we exist in a state of perpetual disappointment, discouraged and depressed by a reality that we have learned to expect to be otherwise? Is this why the gadgets are being constantly referred to every second of the day – to confirm the fantasy that is not around one, or between individuals in lived experience?*

Fair Isle

Eshaness, with lighthouse

Are we designing too many destinations today? Are we ignoring the journeys? What does this mean? What can be done? Architecture can do only so much at its own scale. It is planning that is critical once we understand things in this 'Shetland' manner. Yet our planners do not even consider journeys or destinations - neither the between spaces or the outcomes. They concentrate, head in ground, on rules, only rules: how the regulations can be implemented or adjusted with rationally argued negotiation: see - 'Journeys' are left to become quaint phrases of learned discussion – a core part of the enduring 'narrative' of clever, academic one-up-man-ship that is itself a destination. C.P. Cavafy tells of the place of the journey and personal responsibility most beautifully in his poem, Ithaka. The contrast with Shetland could not be more stark. The importance of the ordinary, its extraordinariness, is revealed for our world that is becoming only more and more selfishly 'heroic' – more Gehry-like than gentle and good: Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. . . . And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.

Shetland does.

by C.P. Cavafy
translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

* Here one is reminded of the tourist 'experience' that seeks out what it knows and ignores discovery: the particular view of a cathedral, e.g. Durham, high and proud; Salisbury, the icon as painted by Constable; the dome of St. Paul's, prominent, as seen in the brochure; etc. It is as if one has to confirm reality, to test it against the vision held: but what does one do with this? Been there; seen that: the view is them photographed, recorded yet again as if to personalise it, to make it 'mine,' to 'capture' it, to allow one to move on to seek out the next match, and to 'get' the next photograph with me in it. There is always the 'next' to be desired after the disappointment of the reality of the dream. Everything will always be better 'next' time.

Scenically, Shetland caters for this ambition in much the same way as other places: by identifying preferred locations where one can pull over and photograph the landscape. These sites are signed with a 'photo opportunity' marker complete with its own graphic. Similar signs litter Scotland too. If one stops, the first thing one does is to look for the special, unique quality of place that has caused it to be so selected; to discover what there is to be photographed. One does not just look at the landscape; one looks with a defining intent that changes what is seen, and how. One usually sees the tourist brochure photograph: “Ah! Yes! Wow!” and the camera is raised. There are a few artworks in the world that play with this idea by providing a frame through which to view the distance, the chosen vista, as 'art.'

Fair Isle