Another book in a year – Once Upon a Valley

Here we go again

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to write a story that begins ‘Once Upon a Time’. (A story that means something, that is, rather than just an obvious re-working of already well-known tale.) But there were always too many other projects, so it remained firmly on the back burner.

As 2020 dawned, work on two of my books were proceeding nicely. A trip to Bergen was planned to help complete key sections of Earl of the Southern Vale. Meanwhile, final edits were underway on The Rescued Year. Following feedback from trial readers, there was just a refining of the backstory to the latter. A backstory which included the near-future world setting having been afflicted by a strange (ahem) virus…

And then COVID-19 happened. All of a sudden it was definitely not the time to launch The Rescued Year, and nor could the research trips for Earl of the Southern Vale really be called ‘essential travel’. Still, far worse things have happened in the last two years to far better people than one aspiring writer seeing their projects grind to a halt. So, with the lockdown restrictions in place in the UK, what else was there to do? Just pick up that pen and start filling some beautiful notebooks with something fresh…

Set of notebooks used for the story

Once Upon a Time…

“Write from what you know” is a common saying. For me, the setting is as important as the story. As many know, Shetland has long been my inspiration (directly or indirectly), but a trip north wasn’t on the cards. Instead, I turned to somewhere I know so well I don’t need a visit to recall it: the beauty of Snowdonia. Or more specifically, the wooded slopes, clear air and idyllic location around Betws-y-coed. (a.k.a., Weissdale – yes, I know, in name if not place I ensured Shetland still had a role!)

That gave me the tapestry; though the story isn’t set in Snowdonia, it helps provide the scenery. I already knew some of what else I wanted in this story/world I was creating. Somewhere in the future (but not too far in the future; A world where things weren’t necessarily going great, but perhaps not as gloomy as in A Rescued Year; A settlement that was so remote from the centres of power that it would feel a world apart to any stranger. If you’ve read my article on getting ideas for a story, you’ll know I build my work around key scenes. And what better way of exploring this world than through the eyes of a stranger arriving in the remote valley?

Thus the opening of the story was born, as we descend from the summits into this world.

A wooded hillside in snowdonia

It begins

“Once upon a time, a horseman came riding over the top of Ronas Hill. His horse raised slow clouds of snow from the dead ground while he shivered inside a jacket that looked two sizes too large and several feathers too thin. He reined in the beast as they reached the crest and he stood up on the stirrups, surveying the landscape around and behind them. Other snow-capped hills littered the way to the horizon, grey beneath the cloudy sky, valleys hidden beneath the rampaging forests which lay in between.”

That was pretty much ‘it’ in terms of the opening scene I had in mind as my pen’s nib touched paper: A stranger from the cities, Kris Saunders, almost swallowed up by the landscape around him. New to such wilderness, almost as new to his horse, and still fairly new to the exalted rank of ‘Messenger’.

Of course, there was more to my initial ideas than just that. For example, I had snapshots of the cast who might be in the tale. And with a story beginning ‘once upon a time’, there certainly needed to be a ‘princess’ at the heart of it. (One who was self-reliant at that; no hapless Disney princesses, thank you.) There were also real people making a life in this remote valley; including someone – even a few – who would be a foil to the lead character. Naturally I had some crisis for the characters to deal with, though we don’t necessarily get to see that right away.

I also had other key scenes in my mind, including both a few ‘waymarker’ scenes and how the final scene looked… Not all of those made it into the final cut, but relating those here would give you some hefty spoilers!

So, I just let my pen flow, I let the characters act things out, I listen to them talk. Some parts of the tale changed from what I imagined, some of the characters differed from my initial thoughts. Some of the changes were quite different! But that’s the way writing often goes, and I will leave it up to prospective readers to judge the end result.

Woodland in the autumn

So what happens next?

Well, as you might imagine, the Messenger carries with him not just a message but many secrets. And for a ‘city boy’, things don’t go the way he expects in such a remote place as Weissdale…


I see, you mean what happens next in terms of getting the book out?

Currently it’s with the second-stage proof-readers. Depending on how much work they give me, and the final copy edit, I’m hoping to publish this year, hopefully by Summer. This will initially be as an e-book, though I am looking at physical copy options to follow.

Once this first book is out, it will hopefully pave the way for the others which are already queuing up ready to follow (whether through the same publishing method or other channels). Though I expected that to happen with The Rescued Year back in 2020…! Needless to say, there’s already more stories I’m drafting up and storyboarding. If there’s one good thing that the past two years have taught us, it’s that our minds can take us anywhere, even when our bodies can’t.

Last edited: 29/01/2022

Shetland Memories

Right now under lockdown (as everywhere tries to cope with the impact of COVID-19) I can’t make a planned trip to my beloved Northern Isles. But that can’t stop me remembering past visits. So here’s my first ‘proper’ trip, when I well and truly fell for the place.


Grey shards of rain moved across the distant little grey town and I held onto the deck railing. I had awoken early on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, and eager to catch my first glimpse of Shetland, had gulped down a fried breakfast before heading out on deck. The weather made this not the most auspicious of arrivals. Indeed, Lerwick looked positively dowdy compared to the colourful little towns of Ireland that had been my regular destination for the previous few years. The ship sounded its deep horn to announce its presence, the boom echoing back from the hills.

Lerwick viewed from the sea

We sailed past the centre of the town to its northern outskirts, where the ferry docked between a floating dry dock and a rust-streaked cargo ship. A modern slab-sided hotel faced the quayside, an assortment of industrial units and a nearby power station completing the scene. Definitely not the most inspiring start! Still, I made my way back inside to retrieve my luggage from my cabin.

My fellow passengers from the ship were quite a mix. An assortment of locals, several businessmen, a group of loud American golfers intent on ticking off the ‘furthest north’ courses, and a very few other tourists. These all quickly dispersed in unknown directions, and I stood alone in the terminal building, unsure what to do. It was only eight and I didn’t expect the town would yet be awake. I took my time inspecting the tourist leaflets and bus schedules before heading out.

A walk into town

Thankfully the rain had stopped, but it was distinctly breezy, and the grey skies seemed to complement the housing estate and industrial units which the road skirted. Quite amusingly, after the 14-hour crossing, it now seemed the land was moving like the see as I walked along! After a mile I reached the town centre proper. Sure enough most shops still weren’t open, apart from the post office and a newsagent. It took me just ten minutes to walk the length of the ‘main street’ (what I now know is called Commercial Street). A few people were around though, hurrying purposefully against the wind, and I wondered what place I had chosen for a break.

Commercial Street on a quiet morning

Things were looking better an hour later; ensconced within a snug cafe, reading a ream of leaflets plied on me from the friendly tourist office a few doors away. (There was no point in picking up a morning paper; a quick foray into the newsagent had shown them to be a day old.) The coffee was welcome but the huge slab of cake even better. The locals around me were engaged in their own good-natured chatter. To me the Shetland accent sounded a beautiful lilt, to my ears like a mix between highlands and Scandinavian. But I could also hear some talking in a dialect that also sounded wonderful but was completely foreign to me.

“My, are you just off the day’s boat?” the waitress asked, catching sight of my well-loaded rucksack squeezed under the table. “Are you waiting for da bus?” I replied in the negative, naming my guest-house for the night in Lerwick. Her hand flew to her mouth almost as if in horror. “But they’ll be aye wondering where you’re at. They’ll probably be checking with da ferry to see if you missed it!” And for good measure, to spur me to action, she flapped the menu at me.

“Da Toon”

With three days gone I had grown used to life in Lerwick. People I barely recognised seemed to remember me and passed their hand in greeting as I passed, and I never tired of ambling around the little town. My first impression had been right; Lerwick wasn’t the largest of places but I never tired of exploring. Sometimes I walked up and down the hidden lanes behind Commercial Street; at other times I would stroll along the waterfront, taking in the constant procession of different vessels.

Along the Lerwick waterfront

On my first evening, as suggested by my host, I took a walk past the ‘lodberries’ and around The Knab. This is a rocky promontory circled by a footpath, where seals occasionally slumber on the rocks below. I watched the ferry leave on its way back to the British mainland. It was quite strange but satisfying to think that was the link to the rest of the world sailing out.

The Lodberries in Lerwick

When some of the frequent showers swept in, the weather would drive me into the Shetland Museum (back then part of the library), one of the cafes or inevitably, the friendly little bookshop. And there was plenty of time for another chat with the amiable staff at the tourist information centre. But it was time to get out of the capital and explore beyond.


The wind was gusting as I started up the winding lane towards Sumburgh Head, where the land ran out. The local bus grumbled slowly away on the main road behind me, and I kept an eye on the skies; it would be three hours until there was transport back, and little shelter lay around. Actually, correct that; in the exposed treeless landscape there was no shelter to be had!

The road towards the end of the land

The road ended by a weather-beaten lighthouse in an old scratchy car park, with a view to the horizon. (Note: this in now a more upbeat visitor centre!) The sea was picking up with an ominous swell, white-caps and an unpleasant grey colour; a small trawler rolling awkwardly as it headed further out. But then, just on the shoulder of the cliff, was what I had come to see. As had been predicted, cluster of puffins covered the area; making their way in and out of their burrows, plunging into the sea for sand-eels, or landing back on the cliffs… Although to be honest, puffins don’t so much land as crash. As tame as you like, any number of them landed within a few feet of me.

Puffins at Sumburgh

I could have watched the loveable little birds – clowns of the sea – for ages, but the increasing clouds spurred me to retreat. The bus still wasn’t due for ages, but the map spoke of a general store a few miles away, where I could probably grab a coffee while I waited. I hadn’t been walking for a few minutes when the rain started to spatter and a car pulled up beside me. I vaguely recognised one of the staff from a shop in Lerwick. “Need a lift?” That became a familiar litany throughout my trip. I’m not suggesting you could or should rely on hitch-hiking to get around (you can go a long time without seeing a car!) but it was certainly welcome at the time.


Pristine beach, sunny day

Some days later, I sat with my toes in the sand of a pristine beach, the sun blazing high overhead, a strong wind in my hair, and the sound of gentle waves all around. But perhaps that should be two beaches. I was halfway across a ‘tombola’ – a broad ridge of sand connecting an offshore island to the mainland in all but the highest of tides. Before me was a north-facing bay; or I could turn and watch the waves in the south-facing bay.

A few cars arrived on the distant small car park; some local families piled out with their young children, but they were all but lost in the vastness of the landscape. A short while later and a Leask’s coach drew up and disgorged a complement fresh off a cruise ship. But even these were barely noticed, most taking photos from the grey of the car park, a few gamely trudging over the beach for a more detailed view. (Tourists were not exactly a large quantity in the isles then; even now things thankfully never get as hectic as on Skye). Bored with sitting still, I trudged down to the waterline, and followed the feet chilling swash along to the island.

The tombola to St Ninian's Isle on a windy day

…And hills

One evening both the grey clouds and wind lifted, leaving a dry sunny evening ahead, with the northern sunset not due till 11. Following advice from where I was staying, I followed a track up to the top of the range of hills which formed the spine of the South Mainland. Now, islands are always hard-working places, and Shetland is no exception. The summit of the hill was marred by a huge transmitter and supporting infrastructure; the neighbouring hill by what I later learned were the ruins of a form RAF ‘listening’ post. Neither of those could detract from the view though.

Looking east, I was facing across the North Sea, the sky turning a deep purple with a creeping speckle of distant stars; occasional flashes of lights from cars on the main north-south road. Even better, looking west the sun was starting to lower in a molten pool of gold into the Atlantic. This was the ‘Simmer Dim’, the time of year when the sun barely sets. Vague shadows on the horizon were formed by the offshore islands, nearer to hand arcs of white carved by the sporadic beaches. There were no towns within sight; just a scatter of remote houses forming dispersed villages.

Shetland ponies. you'll find them everywhere!

But I was not alone for long. Soon one of the inquisitive greedy little Shetland ponies joined me, hoping that I had brought some treats. I hadn’t, but that didn’t stop a compatriot joining it; and then ten more, who insisted on following me the entire way back down the hill. Fortunately they stopped at the gate and didn’t try to join me into the hotel bar!

People and place

I criss-crossed my way across the Isles. Now I was heading north, up the long spine which makes up the ‘mainland’, and onto some of the outlying islands. That included the beaches of Yell, enterprising Unst (home of everything ‘furthest North’), and the beautiful little Fetlar. I rented a bike, sometimes used the sparse bus service, and cadged lifts here and there.

The Haroldswick bus stop. Yes, really!

I stayed in B&B’s, a hostel, and some of the small hotels that somehow eked out an existence, and wondered what Shetland was for.

To be sure, some people worked in jobs connected with the oil industry. The money from that seemed to have been wisely invested, which I could see everywhere I went: the good quality of the island roads; the well-equipped schools; and a network of leisure centres. But beyond that? (This before the Internet started to bring more opportunities!)

There were certainly plenty of people working in fishing; but Shetland felt different from the Outer Hebrides where that was also true. Tourists certainly weren’t an essential part of the mix (still being quite a rarity), unlike on Skye which even then was something of a hotspot. Nor were other industries and farming as prevalent as on other offshore islands closer to the rest of the UK.

Pretty village of Voe, on my way back from The North

I asked my hosts the question one evening, over a pint of locally-brewed Simmer Dim ale: “What is a Shetlander these days?”

He scratched his head: “I’ve heard it said an Orcadian is a farmer who happens to have da boat, a Shetlander is a fisherman who has da bit of land.” He looked at his wife. “Or did I get that da wrong way round again? Either way, we’re all a bit of this and that; you aren’t just da one thing.”

Last Night

Scalloway seen at 11 o clock at night

I ended up in Scalloway for the last few nights. This is a beautiful small town on the west coast, and is the original capital, complete with ruined castle, fisheries college, and a busy habour at the end of an inlet. One evening by one of the slipways I fell into conversation with a girl busy tinkering with an outboard engine, who I had met a few times at the local bar. I hadn’t started University myself, and asked whether it was difficult attending there from so far away.

I received the pitiful look my comment rightly deserved: “Been there, done that. BSc and MSc in Environmental Studies down in England.” After that, I hardly wanted to ask why she was poking around in a Honda that had seen its best days, but she took it on herself to continue. “There’s probably more overeducated people in Shetland than anywhere. I could get a better job elsewhere, and that’s for sure. But why would I want anything that took me away from this?” A sweep of her arm, clad in an oil-streaked yellow jacket, took in the town, the hills and patchwork of islands beyond.

Scalloway seen by day

Leaving, but not leaving

The ferry carved a white swathe across the calm waters as we left. Lerwick lay on one side, the sheltering isle of Bressay on the other. All familiar sights that I had explored on foot.

The isle of Moussa seen from the ferry

Again at the ship’s railings, I was in conversation with the ship’s purser, but I couldn’t resist breaking off for a last look at the landscape. The skies were again grey, the wind and the ship’s speed crackling the P&O house flag at the mast, but the conditions didn’t lessen the scene in my eyes. He chuckled and gave an open wave to a passing fishing boat, duly returned from a tiny wheelhouse.

“So. Da place has well and truly bitten you, hasn’t it?”

And I had to admit, it most certainly had.

Ferry leaving Shetland

I may not be able to travel to Shetland for the moment, or to finish off the books I am writing that are set there – but as soon as I can and it is sensible I will do so. In the meantime, be kind to each other; better times will be ahead.

On the ferry to Shetland

Read more about Shetland on my pages here, or for the official tourist board site click here.

Post created 06/06/20

Why Shetland?

This is something that a lot of people have asked me over the years; why am I always drawn back to Shetland? And if the truth be told, not something easily answered.

A special place

On one of my recent trips, the Saab carrying me away climbed higher and higher. I watched first Sumburgh Head then Fair Isle faded into the distance, and I wondered about that why.

Partly I think it’s because we all have that ‘place’ where we feel an instant affinity and sense of belonging; somewhere our memories are comfortable and friendly. For some, that’s their idyllic Caribbean isle, for others the street they grew up in. I know some who would claim it as a particular bar! There are a thousand and one things which make these wonderful isles unique to me, and which urge me to return, again and again.

Then, there will always be ‘those things’ I think of, whenever I imagine Shetland – too many to list in one post, but to be selective: Walking across the sand to St.Ninian’s Isle; Cycling along the lane through the trees at Kergord; An evening in the Pier Head bar in Voe, while the rain hammered outside; Hitting a ball on the Asta golf course against the wind; Enjoying an excellent meal at the Shetland Museum restaurant in Lerwick, overlooking the small boat dock; Seeing what the latest addition is to the Haroldswick bus shelter; getting re-acquainted with the Puffins, those loveable clowns of the sea.

First times can be deceiving

On my first visit to the islands, I stared with a mixture of bleary-eyes and trepidation from the overnight ferry as it approached the capital in a grey dawn. Barren hills slid past and the cluster of buildings that comprised Lerwick drew near, and wondered where on Earth I was heading.

I still wondered that a few days later, when I had already taken in the town’s streets and museum. This time I was not on a ship but a quiet bus, heading along under a sky full of wind-driven clouds to my accommodation for the next few days, in an even remoter part of Shetland.

But if I can tell you a secret… The place soon got under my skin. By the time I had caught the incredible afternoon light gleaming on the voes, made friends with some locals whilst sheltering in a cafe from the rain, watched an otter making its way along the shore at midnight, and generally became attuned to the islands’ character, I was longing to return.

Is it for you?

Is Shetland for everyone? No. Even I wouldn’t claim that. For example, tourism is still very much growing in the Isles, so there isn’t the level of facilities you might find elsewhere (not always a bad thing). And for those who enjoy high street shopping, once you’ve ‘done’ Commercial Street and the Toll Clock in Lerwick, that’s pretty much it, although there are smaller shops scattered throughout the isles. (These are well worth seeking out, they seem to sell just about everything).

Also, everything you’ve read about the weather is true and probably understated! Not to mention that just getting there is not always easy – and never cheap. Sorry Loganair / Northlink, but that’s, oh, so true.

And yet, and yet, and yet… If you enjoy wildlife, history, relaxing, fresh clean air, a genuinely warm welcome, archaeology, walking, deserted beaches, cycling, bird watching, good local food, diving, golf, fishing, museums or just outstanding scenery, then I recommend a trip to Shetland – before the hordes discover it!

If I were to give one piece of advice about your trip it would be to ask around locally about whatever it is you want to get out of your visit; Shetlanders (both natives and incomers) are rightly proud of these fantastic islands.

This whole site is expanding to provide more information which will be on the Shetland page, but for now see the links below – including that from the Lonely Planet, which in 2011 recommended Shetland as one of the top places to visit in the world. (Needless to say, they were right.)

Information for visiting Shetland – the official site

Getting to Shetland by Sea – Northlink ferries

Lerwick Youth Hostel – voted the best in the world

Lonely Planet recommends Shetland as one of the top destinations to visit


Post updated 15/02/22