Robin McKelvie: Shetland on TV and in the movies

With Shetland’s career criminals mystifyingly seemingly unknown to the police, and police losing gangsters on an isle you can only get to by ferry, the BBC TV police drama Shetland makes me smile. I do love it as a drama and for how it brilliantly conveys the sheer natural beauty of Shetland, touching on its rich layers of culture and myth too. I can see why the producers love Shetland so much; indeed it is just the latest in a long line of TV programmes and movies seeking inspiration here.

Those film producers are drawn to a magical archipelago – a land of sweeping sea, swathed in moorland, kissed with white sand beaches and alive with the tantalising traces of the Vikings.

Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement
Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement photo © Copyright Charles Tait

Those film producers are drawn – like me – to this magical archipelago. It is a land of sweeping sea, swathed in moorland and kissed with white sand beaches, perfect film locations that look like they have been touched up with CGI. It is also a land alive with the tantalising traces of the Vikings, the Norse heritage always tangible. Mankind goes back a long way here as I’m always reminded when I walk amongst the Viking, Iron Age and Stone Age remnants remarkably brought together in one place at Jarlshof.

Ashley Jensen and Alison O'Donnell shooting a scene of Shetland
Ashley Jensen and Alison O’Donnell shooting a scene of Shetland photo © Copyright ITV Studios

Let’s start with the BBC’s Shetland. It is a TV series that has grown arms and legs since it took its inspiration from Ann Cleeves’ series of books. I thoroughly recommend you dig back into the originals before you binge watch it if you haven’t already. The award-winning Raven Black is especially good.

Ashley Jensen (DI Calder) shooting a scene for season 8 of Shetland
Ashley Jensen (DI Calder) shooting a scene for season 8 of Shetland photo © Copyright ITV Studios

Moving back to TV, Douglas Henshall brilliantly brought world-weary, big-hearted DI Jimmy Perez alive. They did that well too with Henshall and a brilliant supporting cast such as the talented Alison O’Donnell and Shetland-raised actor Steven Robertson. Of course, Dougie and Shetland have moved on with two strong female leads – O’Donnell and new to the series Ashley Jensen – doing a great job of breathing continued life into the programme. The drama does not end there as other TV series have featured Shetland or worked it into their stories, such as The Swarm in 2023.

Pushing on from fiction, the BBC are fans of Shetland with their non-fiction too. Over the years a series of wildlife, cultural and anthropological TV programmes have headed to Shetland. The best has engaged with and shed light on the community and/or shared the archipelago’s world-class wildlife with audiences around the globe.

Filming taking place for 'Island Medics'
Filming taking place for ‘Island Medics’ photo © Copyright Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

I’m thinking especially of Sir David Attenborough’s Wild Isles. The dalliances with the local killer whales are nothing short of spectacular. Ewan McGregor also did Wild Shetland in 2019, while the Time Team ventured to Fetlar. Then there are the BBC’s Island Medics and Simon King’s Shetland Diaries. If you want to spirit your heart and soul off to Shetland through the small screen you are not short of options.

Grab some popcorn now as we head to the movies. You might imagine that the film The Edge of the World about St Kilda was filmed out on St Kilda itself. But no, this superb period film used Foula as a more than capable stand in. 

Hiking on Foula in the Shetland islands
Hiking on Foula in the Shetland islands photo © Copyright Robin McKelvie

I fell in love with Foula, an isle that drifts 20 miles from the west of the Shetland mainland. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, its soaring sea cliffs amongst the highest in the UK; its birdlife remarkable too; its dynamic community deeply impressive. The first time I came here it was like a movie. I hiked all alone on the moody mountains and spotted a killer whale below as great skuas whooshed overhead. It was one of my favourite Shetland moments and one of the kinds that keeps inspiring people to create stories, books, TV and film about Shetland.

It is not the only fictional film starring Shetland. We have The Sacrifice from 2016. This movie stars Radha Mitchell and Rupert Graves. Mitchell plays an obstetrician who moves to Shetland with her husband Duncan (Graves). There are echoes of the Shetland police series with the body of a girl found with runes carved into her skin, which then ties back into ancient legends. The film is based on the book by Sharon Bolton.

If you’re keen to check out how Shetland has been captured by all sorts of filmmakers – both professional and (mainly) amateur – check out the work of the Shetland Film Archive, which was set up in 2007. They are a ‘community led charity with a passion for collecting, preserving and celebrating moving image content from the Shetland Isles‘. They stress they are, ‘delighted to share this wonderful cultural and historical resource with the people of Shetland and beyond’. Their work includes digitising films showcasing Shetland life, with a particular focus on the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. This year they created a film, Sights and Sounds of Shetland, that was shown at the Mareel in Lerwick. You can find them at

Shetland's Screenplay is an annual international film festival
Audience members at Shetland’s Screenplay Festival photo © Copyright Dale Smith

Another glorious initiative that I’m really impressed with is the annual Screenplay Festival, an annual international film festival initially curated by the film critic Mark Kermode and the film historian Linda Ruth Williams, which has been a huge success since launching in 2006. Then it somehow took place in a gaggle of off-the-wall venues, but since 2012 it has been staged in The Mareel arts venue in Lerwick. The education opportunities it provides come in conjunction with Shetland Arts and the University of the Highlands and Islands. The Screenplay Festival celebrates not just filmmaking, but the multitude of local talent. I do like that Kermode once declared it, “better than Cannes”. Look out for big changes in 2024 with some new blood coming in behind the festival.

Shetland is full of spectacular scenery like Eshaness Lighthouse
Shetland is full of spectacular scenery which inspire filmmakers photo © Copyright VisitScotland / Stuart Brunton

If you’re a filmmaker or location scout and you feel inspired by Shetland then Shetland Islands Council are very proactive about encouraging you to come here, so get in touch with these details. Who knows, maybe we will all soon be sitting down to be inspired to visit by your new TV programme or movie featuring Shetland. It is easy to see why people are constantly drawn to this deeply cinematic archipelago. Whether you make TV shows or movies, or just like to watch them, you will soon agree when you visit Shetland, that nothing quite beats the real thing.

Robin McKelvieBy Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie is an award-winning travel writer and broadcaster who has been published in over 200 magazines and newspapers worldwide.

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Header image: Behind the scenes of filming the renowned Shetland TV series photo © Copyright ITV Studios