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Daniel Aubrey’s Dark Orkney Island

  • Submitted: 25th April 2024

Dark Island settings

Daniel Aubrey is the author of crime novel Dark Island set in the Orkney islands and St Kilda in particular. The Orkney setting is as unique as the main character Freya –  she realises she is on the Autism spectrum and may in fact be neurodivergent in some way she doesn’t yet realise.

Locations in Dark Island

Dark Island set on Orkney - Daniel Aubrey

Locations in Dark Island

I knew the setting for my debut novel before I even knew what it was going to be about. I knew the title too – Dark Island – because it was the name of the beer I was enjoying outside the Orkney Brewery on a bright summer’s day when I came up with the idea.

Dark Island beer

Dark Island beer

Locations in Dark Island

I love reading crime fiction, but up until that point I had written speculative thrillers and wanted to try my hand at writing straight up crime. Orkney just seemed the perfect place to set it – the wild, rugged coastline; the Scandi vibe; the dark northern winters. Plus Shetland has its own crime series, and anything Shetland can do…

(c) Daniel Aubrey

(c) Daniel and Dylan

Locations in Dark Island

If you’ve never been to Orkney, it’s a mistake you need to correct. On my first ever visit, a stranger on the ferry (who’d struck up a conversation solely so they could meet my Labrador, Dylan) told me I’d love it so much I’d be back again the following year.

Locations in Dark Island

They were wrong – I was back within three months! It’s an incredibly magical place – an archipelago of small islands beyond the far north shore of Scotland, battered from both sides by the North Sea and the North Atlantic. A place where the past is continually unburied, but it’s also at the forefront of discoveries of new technologies. It’s often called remote, but it’s a thriving island community, home to 21,000 people.

Locations in Dark Island

It’s Scottish, but only just – it was under Norse rule until around 500 years ago, and it’s the only place outside of modern-day Scandinavia to have its own Icelandic Saga. In it, you can read about a band of Vikings who got trapped in the 5,000-year-old tomb at Maeshowe during a snowstorm. You can still see the runes they carved on the walls there today. How could you not fall in love with such a place? And the question that was playing in my head – how had it never been the setting for a crime fiction series??

Skara Brae

My favourite stories are the ones where the setting becomes a character in its own right. Places like Michael Connolly’s Los Angeles in the Bosch series, or 1940’s Paris in Chris Lloyd’s Eddie Giral books. The setting makes the story. I wanted to attempt the same thing, and so pretty soon I had the idea of the central crime in the book being something to do with bones having been exhumed by a gale.

Harbour front, St Margaret’s Hope:

Locations in Dark Island

Anyone who has ever been to Orkney will understand why – there are several Orcadian words to describe the wind, from a kuil to a skreevar. Saying ‘It’s windy’ just won’t cut it. In 1850, a winter storm unearthed the Neolithic village of Skara Brae – a cluster of Stone-Age houses and workshops, huddled on the shoreline before the raging Atlantic Ocean. It had to be the setting for my opening scene.

Waulkmill Bay

Locations in Dark Island

From there, other scenes came into my head based on the real locations I’d visited. Freya investigating a spooky abandoned house under the cover of night on the sleepy island of South Ronaldsay. An interview with a source in the bustling cafes of Kirkwall.

Kirkwall

Locations in Dark Island

The final showdown and twist reveal on the windswept clifftops at Yesnaby. I even made sure to include Leigh’s burger van at Finstown because I’d eaten there so much, it seemed a crime not to. Freya and DI Fergus Muir meet there at the book’s midpoint. ‘Try the Smoke Stack,’ he tells her. ‘You won’t regret it.’ He’s not wrong!

Locations in Dark Island

It’s hard to write about a place you’ve never lived and make it feel authentic. I truly hope I’ve done the majesty of these wonderful islands justice. Orkney is actually one of the safest places in the UK, so in some ways it feels wrong to portray it as somewhere dark and nefarious. But what I hope I have captured is the sense of magic of the place – the half-light winter days, the seemingly-infinite horizons, and the tombs and stone circles and long-buried relics that continue to come out of the ground. If nothing else, the opening line of the novel is certainly true: These islands are terrible at keeping their secrets. Nothing in Orkney stays buried forever.

Thank you so much Daniel for such a unique insight into both your novel and Orkney! Right, I’m off for one of those burgers right now!

 

BookTrail Boarding Pass: Dark Island

Twitter: @SpacemanDan13

 

 

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