Laurance Reed

Freedom for Shetland

Freedom for Shetland
The Jarl Viking Squad at the Up Helly Aa Festival, the Shetland Islands (photo: Getty)
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If Scotland can claim independence — and a 'geographical share' of the oil regardless of population — then why can't Orkney and Shetland? The Shetland Islands Council has voted 18-2 to begin exploring options for achieving financial and political self-determination, which sounds daft – but is it any less daft than Scottish independence? Laurance Reed, a former Hebridean resident (and ex-MP), wrote about this a few years ago for The Spectator pointing out the Scottish islands could become the Dubai of the north. His piece is below.

On Tuesday night in Lerwick, capital of the Shetland Islands, hundreds of men dressed as Vikings will parade through the centre of town, carrying torches to set fire to a wooden long ship in a festival known as Up Helly Aa. All will march to a repertoire of battle songs, with blood-curdling lyrics. ‘Our galley is the People’s Right, the dragon of the free’ runs the main hymn of the evening. ‘Sons of warriors and sages: when the fight for freedom rages, be bold and strong as they!’ And not even Alex Salmond would be bold enough to suggest that they are singing about Scotland.

The people of Orkney and Shetland share little of Salmond’s enthusiasm for independence, as was reflected in the 1997 devolution referendum. It is hard to join a tide of Edinburgh-focused nationalism if your nearest city is Bergen. And if Scotland does vote to secede from Britain, might it be the start of a further unravelling? On what grounds could you stop Orkney, the Shetlands, even the Hebrides claiming their own independence? And what effect would this have on Scottish oil revenues and the ability of Edinburgh to pay the pensions which London no longer funded?

The Shetlands were pawned by King Christian of Norway centuries ago, and no one has bothered to ask lawyers how a claim to independence would work. But the Salmond principle is clear: if a country votes for separation, it should be granted it — together with a ‘geographical share’ of the oil revenues decided by drawing an imaginary border across the North Sea. Using such methods, Salmond is laying claim to 90 per cent of the oil revenue. Were the Orcadians and Shetlanders to do so, then Lerwick (pop 7,000) might well end up as the Dubai of Europe.

And what of my former home, the Hebrides? The people of the islands were, after all, separate from Scotland for hundreds of years — first under the Norse and then the Kingdom of the Isles. They have their own language, their own culture and their own outlook on life. If a government in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, elected to go its own way and laid claim to its share of the continental shelf in the vicinity of Rockall, the gaeldom could also live quite comfortably on oil and gas revenues.

If oil and its riches can transform the fortunes of the Scottish National Party and destabilise the United Kingdom just a few decades after its discovery, what makes us think that the people of the Hebrides will not be changed by the black stuff? Wait until the oil price goes through the roof as the result of demand in Asia, making the exploitation of the Hatton/Rockall Basin profitable. The Icelanders and the Faroese may soon scramble for the riches.

The notion of Scottish independence throws up all sorts of other difficult questions. If England voted to leave the European Union, and a separate Scotland chose to stay, some form of physical border would have to be built between us to control trade and the movement of people. Would there be frontier police examining papers at checkpoints on roads leading south into England? Or customs officials on the night sleeper to Inverness?

All this is conjecture, but that is the point. We don’t know what will happen if a Pandora’s box of secession is opened. And if Salmond is a champion of separatism, may we ask whether on his latest trip to China he had an opportunity of raising with his hosts the question of Tibet? Or are we to understand from his silence that a separate Scotland — with, we are told, its own defence force — would defend its own freedom but never  come to the defence of anybody else?

Once, Europe consisted of hundreds of polities: Italy, as a country, is no older than the London Underground. The idea of nationalism is a relatively modern concept. If this trend is to reverse, with the focus on what divides us rather than what unites us, then who is next? The Bretons in France, the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Northern League in Italy and the Flemish in the cockpit of Europe. And we must not forget the Principality. Wales is an old country. She was a nation when the Scots were still on their way from Scythia. Not to mention Cornwall, which has its own flag, anthem, history — and nationalist movement.

Where might the fragmentation of Britain and Europe end? Salmond’s separatists should certainly be invited to tell us.