TV review: Shetland

This BBC series is set in the Shetland Islands off the northeast coat of Scotland. It tells the story of a small police department investigating crimes on the sparsely populated islands where everyone pretty much knows everyone else. I found the series to be quite gripping, even though the murder plots did not quite satisfy me, having some serious implausibilities. The first two seasons consist of four two-hour episodes based on books by Ann Cleeves and the third season consists of a single six-hour story that was written by others using the same characters. It is in the portrayals of the gritty life of the people that the series has its strength.

One thing that is almost a character in itself is the scenery of the islands. It has a kind of beautiful bleakness. The small islands consist of open moors, completely devoid of all trees, whether due to the harsh climate (the islands are at a latitude of 60o, close to the Arctic Circle) or because like in much of England forests were ruthlessly cut down many years ago. It is strange to have an uninterrupted view of isolated houses pockmarking the distant hillsides. It feels like there is no privacy at all, in that if you step out of your house someone far away can see you.

Adding to that lack of privacy are the ubiquitous closed circuit cameras that the police have on almost every street and intersection in the towns, a feature that seems to be common in the UK. It is undoubtedly helpful in solving crimes because it enables the police to track activity around crimes scenes before, during, and after a crime is committed.

One of the features of show is the strong Scottish accent and the use of an unfamiliar dialect. While most of them did not go full Robert Burns, I had enough trouble understanding some that it was a relief to turn on English subtitles.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. mnb0 says

    “close to the Arctic Circle”
    I wouldn’t call 600 -- 700 km close. The Shetlands are farther from the Arctic Circle than Paris from Amsterdam. Helsinki and St. Petersburg have about the same latitude as the Shetlands.
    Towns in Alaska and Canada with about the same latitude are much colder, because the Shetlands like all of Western Europe benefits from the Gulf Stream. The harsh climate on the Shetlands are due to eternal winds.
    Somewhat to the northwest you can find the semi-independent Faroer Islands, with a similar climate.

  2. rjw1 says

    ‘Shetland’ has the flaw common to many UK series, a loose structure and somewhat poorly integrated characters. After watching the first episode I still can’t work out who is related to whom and it’s not due to difficulties in understanding the local dialect.
    The British do ‘bleakness’ very well.

  3. starskeptic says

    Yes! Douglas Henshall!

    Try the Scottish Gaelic television soap opera Machair on YouTube if you want more scenery and don’t mind a bit of reading subtitles…

  4. Mano Singham says


    Yeah, the first episode was particularly confusing with regards to family connections. The next episodes are less complicated.

    It turns out that Perez married a woman who was formerly married to the character Duncan who pops up in the show and had a daughter Cassie with him. After divorcing Duncan she married Perez but later died. Perez brought up Cassie as his own daughter, though Duncan plays some role in her life. Duncan married again but is a philanderer who is not above shady business deals. That relationship was a bit confusing to me.

  5. Dunc says

    It would have been very strange if they had gone “full Robert Burns”, since Burns spoke an entirely different dialect from the opposite end of Scotland. The accents have clearly been toned down for mass consumption, and they’re certainly not Shetland… I guess there aren’t many actors from Shetland. Although if they’d been more authentic, even most Scots would struggle to keep up.

    For at really fun, quirky Scottish police show, try “Hamish Macbeth”, if you can find it… That’s where Robert Carlyle got his big break. It’s less murder mystery and more authentic small-town disputes. Growing up in a wee Scottish village, I certainly recognised a lot in it.

  6. EigenSprocketUK says

    Lack of trees? Sheep.
    CCTV? The police don’t own / control most of it in the UK, they just knock on the doors of all those who do: householders, nearby business owners etc. Whilst the largest setups may have live feeds to police control rooms, most smaller scale high quality systems will be owned by towns for town centres, often community-run (which always seems weird to me), but under professional rules. And the police will be regular visitors to take away copies of recordings. This sort of small setup applies usually to busy town centres with high footfall and lots of businesses like pubs, clubs, shops etc. The businesses’ interests are to minimise (or, more realistically, displace) crime and maintain a friendly welcoming atmosphere.
    The idea that Shetland has much CCTV outside of the town centres’ closets streets within 100-200m seems quite fanciful to me, but I’ve never been to Shetland so I’m guessing.
    But it’s a TV drama, so they can make it up to suit the story.

  7. EigenSprocketUK says

    Closest streets, not closet streets. Damn autocorrect and my lack of proofreading.

  8. nickrud says

    I’ve watched the entire series and it stays quite good. That family relationship -- the ‘two dads’ thing -- develops over time and becomes much clearer over the length of the series. You had problems figuring out how that relationship worked because the characters hadn’t figured it out yet.

    The continuity of life there is a constant subtext -- those (TV) families have been interacting in relative isolation for hundreds of years, and cherish their distinct identity. They may be Scots, but they’ll always be Shetlanders first. Popping over to Glascow or Edinburgh is natural but it’s also nearly going to another country.

    And, by the end of the series I’d added another intelligible dialect to my list 😉

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