Sutherland was brought up in Orkney and Blairgowrie, Perth and Kinross by his adoptive Scottish parents, who moved to Scotland from Lincolnshire in 1976. He was educated at Glasgow University, where he read English and drama. He is a musician and songwriter, and was a founding member of the band Long Fin Killie, with which he released three albums. He subsequently formed the band Bows, who released two albums, and has played violin with Mogwai and accompanied them at both Reading and Glastonbury festivals (amongst others) as well as in the studio.
Sutherlands debut novel, Jelly Roll, was nominated for the Whitbread Prize in the first novel category in 1998. His novella Venus As A Boy (2004) talks extensively about Sutherland's own childhood in the Orkney Islands, where he was the sole Scots-African.