Ripe for self-determination? The Shetland Islands

Northerly winds of change

Graham Stewart visits Orkney and the Shetlands to find the islanders keen on independence — from Scotland

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Few airports in the British Isles are more exciting to approach than Sumburgh Head. Bouncing in a propellered aircraft towards a single airstrip that runs the width of the rocky tip of the Shetland Islands (road traffic crossing the runway is sensibly held at bay during final descent) allows the passenger to imagine the thrill of aviation in the 1930s. It certainly beats falling towards Hounslow.

The Sumburgh lighthouse — built in 1821 — flashes past your window, and seconds later you touch down, squeeze out your bag from the tiny locker above your seat, and stride into a modest terminal building from where no taxis are waiting to take you anywhere.

This is the first in a series of dots that don’t quite join up. You have reached the sixtieth parallel and the most northerly archipelago of the United Kingdom. The Arctic Circle is closer to the Shetland Islands than London — a geography all too obvious in wintertime. It could scarcely be more remote. Yet here you are, searching for a bus timetable, yards away from the site where in 1977 airport contractors uncovered beads, pottery and the remains of 18 souls whose bones were carbon dated to 3,235 to 3,135 BC. Some of the oldest habitations in Europe have been unearthed on Shetland and the Orkney Islands, a 30-minute flight to the south. Of all the unpromising weather-lashed spots to choose, why did Neolithic Man settle here?

Lerwick Harbour: By weight, more fish is landed in Shetland than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland put together

More immediately, where is the Hilton, Four Seasons or Best Western Premier Collection? For the last 40 years, billions of dollars of black gold has flowed into these islands, thanks to the Brent and Ninian pipelines feeding directly into the oil and gas terminal at Sullom Voe. So where are the R&R facilities for the international oil executives when they sweep into town? No Trump golf course has been laid out for their downtime, no Emirati mega-mall erected to entice their custom. Nobody could say that oil money has been the ruination of this unspoilt, distinctive and welcoming community.


Yet, despite first appearances, Shetland was not entirely bypassed by the North Sea oil bonanza. Through the 1974 Zetland County Council Act, it secured a revenue stream from Sullom Voe and subsequent contractual agreements that has swelled to around £350 million. A further £350 million fund is administered for the public benefit of its 23,000 inhabitants.

The bus I finally board shuggles me along to the main town of Lerwick, an hour away by these winding roads. Modest but well-kept bungalows circle the bays and protrude from the undulating slopes. Most are coated in Scotland’s ubiquitous grey pebble-dash, whilst a few constructed more recently emulate the cheerier Norwegian flat-pack aesthetic. Beyond some roofless crofts that look to have been abandoned at least a century ago, there are few signs of obvious deprivation. But the ironies are not lost on the islanders that they suffer among the highest fuel poverty in the UK and are not yet connected to the national grid.

The Union Flag is now a rare sight in Scotland

Rising from its bay, the stone masonry of Lerwick’s sturdy and confident late-Victorian architecture is the product of a previous 40-year economic boom, when in the decades before the First World War the herring trade brought wealth, purpose and seasonal labour. A Union Flag flutters from the harbour’s giant flagpole. This is now such a rare sight in Scotland (before devolution it was a perfectly normal civic decoration) that to see the red, white and blue being waved on high rather than a Scottish saltire seems almost like a provocative stand against the drift of things.

Lerwick is on a slope, along which runs Fort Charlotte, its ramparts strengthened to protect the harbour from marauders during the American War of Independence and thereafter the Napoleonic Wars in which 3,000 Shetlanders served in the Royal Navy. Atop the ridge is the town hall, a noble expression of Victoriana, whose stained-glass windows depict the kings, saints, sailors and warriors of Shetland’s Scottish, British and particularly its Scandinavian history. Between the eighth and the fifteenth centuries, Orkney and Shetland were possessions of the Norwegian crown, a 600-year settlement whose influence remains as discernible as the 550 years of the Scottish, then British, realm that has followed.

It is in this late gothic revival council chamber that a rebellion is being planned that may reforge that identity. On 9 September, Shetland’s councillors voted by 18 to 2 in favour of examining options for self-determination. This followed a similar vote, three years ago, to explore home rule by the council of the Orkney Islands. Whilst Orkney’s bid to break free has been parked pending wider consultation and overcoming Covid-19, Shetland’s leaders are in earnest and are working up a plan.

Local councillors imagining what they could achieve if only they had more money and unbridled power may be an everyday town hall daydream. But Shetland’s bid to break free may determine the fate — or at least the limits — of the United Kingdom. For the desire for secession is spurred by the looming prospect of an independent Scotland.

With their seafaring tradition (in the fifteenth century they were part of the Hanseatic League) and relatively brief experience within the pre-1707 kingdom of Scotland, the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland have long been among the least fertile ground for Scottish nationalists. In 1979, Orkney voted 72 per cent and Shetland 73 per cent against devolution, while in the 2014 referendum they voted respectively 67 per cent and 64 per cent against Scottish independence.

It may seem surprising that the parts of Scotland most distant from London (Bergen is closer) have proved most sceptical about Scottish home rule. But as former Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond once put it, “The last thing the Northern Isles want is to be ruled by Glasgow trade unionists and Edinburgh lawyers.”

Shetland has lost control of public health, its water utilities, police and fire services

In the 1970s, with the prospect of North Sea oil giving Orkney and Shetland political leverage, Grimond secured what amounted to their right to opt out from the planned Scottish Assembly — the 1979 referendum result meant that the process was not triggered. Now, more than 40 years on, the Grimond amendment offers a precedent that could be upgraded to allow the islands to secede if the rest of Scotland votes for independence.

Whether they would indeed opt out is only part of the equation. Merely the threat could make Scottish voters hesitate to break up the UK if it risks the dismemberment of Scotland. After all, the islands would potentially take with them the lion’s share of natural resources that have not only long been central to the economic case for independence but to Scotland’s sense of itself and what it provides — the fish, oil and gas of the North Sea.

Is this the winning hand floundering Unionists have been searching for to halt the momentum of Scottish nationalism? And will it suit Westminster to help the movement for short-term gain, even if the ultimate loser might be the UK Treasury?

Past autonomy movements on the isles have come and gone. However, “there’s been an unfreezing of the constitutional settlement,” Malcolm Bell, convenor of Shetland Islands Council, now believes. “That state of flux gives us the opportunity for movement.” Born and bred in Lerwick, the former police officer is now helping his community’s drive for autonomy. He thinks Alex Salmond’s SNP government started off well in 2007 when it lacked a Holyrood majority and needed to make alliances, but Nicola Sturgeon’s administration has now become hooked on aggrandising its own authority.

“Devolution has changed a lot — for the worse,” Councillor Bell believes. “Edinburgh has both gained powers from London and sucked them from Scottish local councils.”

Consequently, Shetland has lost control of public health, its water utilities, police and fire services. Much of its education authority’s power is now in the hands of Sturgeon’s deputy, John Swinney. Shetland is likely to lose control of its care sector, too. Such consultation as the Scottish government undertakes is through Cosla, the body representing Scotland’s 32 councils. “It’s very rare we’d have any meaningful dialogue directly between the Scottish government and us as a local authority,” adds Steven Coutts, the relatively young but clear-focused leader of Shetland Council, who shares Bell’s enthusiasm for greater autonomy. “The way the national services are directed is one size fits all, so there’s not much in the way of direct consultation, if any.”

The SNP’s power-grab has been relentless

James Stockan, the leader of Orkney Islands Council, strikes a similar note of despair. “The draining of power to Holyrood is palpable. In 2013, 70 per cent of our budget was at our discretion. Now it is about 40 per cent.” He agrees Scotland’s “one size fits all” policy is more suitable for the big conurbations than the rural periphery, adding: “Orkney has hidden poverty because the metrics the Scottish government uses don’t identify it.

“Their postcode metrics don’t work because 25 per cent of our poorest people live in our most affluent area and many of the things that cost us money are not counted.”

The standardisation and overriding power of Scotland’s “central belt” — the SNP heartland — is particularly evident in policing. In 2013 the SNP abolished local constabularies to create the centralised Police Scotland. Alastair Carmichael, the avuncular MP for Orkney and Shetland explains: “Scotland now has one set of policing objectives — the objectives of what was Strathclyde police force. That is an agenda that serves badly the people here.”

Carmichael, who was Scottish Secretary in the Cameron-Clegg coalition, has since 2001 held off the SNP challenge to maintain his seat’s 70-year tradition of returning a Liberal, now Liberal Democrat, MP regardless of — or in repudiation of — the political fashions elsewhere in the country.

The SNP’s power-grab has been relentless. Significant centralisation has even come to Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the government’s economic and community development agency. Meanwhile, Holyrood-owned Highlands and Islands Airports has unveiled plans to centralise air traffic control at Inverness, so there will be cameras, rather than humans, in the control towers at the Northern Isles’ airports.

Carmichael sees an overarching ideology behind decisions. “The Nats are committed to centralisation because they are Nats. These people love their flags. They talk of ‘One Scotland’ as the only identity, even although many people in Glasgow and Dundee have more in common with citizens in Newcastle, Cardiff, Belfast and Birmingham than they have with the residents of Bearsden or the north-east of Scotland.”

In theory, there is a decentralising mechanism available. The 2018 Islands Act permits communities to seek devolution of competences. But the SNP is confident it is sweeping all before it and such appeasement appears to be now alien to its nature. As James Stockan intones in his plaintively lyrical Stromness cadence, “Is there any point in asking for powers if the final arbiter is the Scottish government’s own minister? I know there is no chance of getting devolutionary powers through.”

Covid-19 has little touched either set of islands. But Nicola Sturgeon’s policies to combat the virus have had considerable impact. The manner of their imposition has raised hackles. Shetland depends on its ferries for the great bulk of its trade and supplies, so Edinburgh’s decision to restrict the service was shattering. “We heard about it by tweet, just like everyone else,” recalls Malcolm Bell. “It was our lifeline and we didn’t get as much as a telephone call.”

Whether in Whitehall or Holyrood, central government’s indifference to local sensibilities is resented. The umbrage is greater because any cost/benefit analysis ought to factor in the natural resources that the islands bring to the national economy.

Potentially, a quarter of the UK’s energy could be provided within 150 miles of Orkney

“More fish is landed in Shetland than England, Wales and Northern Ireland put together,” affirms Steven Coutts. James Stockan goes further: “From the 1970s until now, 30 per cent of North Sea oil went through Shetland and 10 per cent through Orkney: 40 per cent of the UK’s North Sea revenues were coming from these isles. It is really quite interesting the significant role we have played in serving the United Kingdom.”

But suddenly the oil boom has bust. Brent crude is trading at around $40 a barrel (it was more than $100 a barrel in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, which was central to making the SNP’s sums add up). Modelling by Alex Kemp, professor of petroleum economics at Aberdeen University, and Linda Stephen, suggests that Brent crude priced below $45 a barrel would make 28 per cent of the remaining reserves uneconomic to drill. While potentially major gas fields remain to the west of Shetland, Steven Coutts concedes, “The scale of oil and gas is not sufficient to generate a tax haven scenario for Shetland now.”

It’s easy, then, to assume that Orkney and Shetland have missed their moment. But as one energy source has peaked, another rises to take its place: there is nothing finite or half-hearted about the winds that blow across the Northern Isles. Potentially, a quarter of the UK’s energy could be provided by offshore wind farms within 150 miles of Orkney’s Scapa Flow. “I invited the prime minister up in the summer and I was delighted he came,” says Councillor Stockan. “He got that message. He was off his chair twice with excitement about Scapa Flow and its green benefits.”

The prospect of the UK becoming, as Boris Johnson puts it, “the Saudi Arabia of wind power”, is a compelling reason for Westminster to resist granting the Northern Isles crown dependency (the status of the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey) or any form of autonomy beyond the reach of the UK Treasury. But surely deft strategising in Whitehall could combine with local antipathy to Holyrood to devise a form of home rule for Shetland and possibly Orkney that would damage the political integrity of Scotland more than it might the UK.

Finding that pathway is fraught with difficulty. It would be tricky for “better together” Unionists to support a separatist agenda for the Northern Isles for mere tactical advantage. Nationalists would paint an ugly picture of a scheme hatched in Whitehall and backed by English Tory MPs to deprive Scotland of 40,000 islanders and significant resources. But Westminster could pass a Clarity Act establishing the legal preconditions that have to be met before a Scottish independence referendum can be held with a Grimond amendment-style clause allowing Orkney and Shetland to pursue their own destiny.

Timing will be crucial. Shetland Council has formally submitted its requests to the Scottish and UK governments to begin discussing terms for the islands’ self-determination — a considered reply is presumably on the “to do” list somewhere below concluding post-Brexit arrangements and fighting coronavirus. Indeed, Shetland’s council leader, Steven Coutts, is the first to concede that “the timing is tight and challenging”, adding: “This is the right thing to be doing regardless of the wider constitutional debate.”

Currently, such constitutional change is the preserve of Westminster, but if the islanders waited until after Scotland had achieved independence they would face the task of persuading Holyrood. Nicola Sturgeon’s likely riposte to such impertinence can be imagined along the lines of “the people of Scotland voted as one, to become again one people and we will remain one people.” In other words, separatism is for us, not for you.

Much admired is the sort of relationship the Faroe Islands has as an autonomous territory of Denmark

Scotland goes to the polls next may to elect a new Holyrood parliament. Council elections are due in 2022. This is the timeframe for having a costed plan in place. Shetland Council’s convener, Malcolm Bell, suggests that “we will work up options to be put to the community, probably by a referendum.” A clear choice would be offered but not a wide choice.

On Orkney, James Stockan also believes the time for prevarication is over. “Some councillors believe this is not the time, but it would be negligent to miss the moment,” he says. “ I would hate for the people not to have the opportunity to express themselves. It is only right that the democratic view of the people of these islands is expressed and acted upon.”

Whittling down the options is a task in itself. If the crown dependency model that could transform Shetland and Orkney into self-governing territories on a par with the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, is not adopted (because it would take them out of the UK), there are other options. Much admired is the sort of relationship the Faroe Islands has as an autonomous territory of Denmark.

The Shetland Islands’ north-westerly neighbours, the Faroe Islanders have created a thriving economy and community as an offshore slightly more tax-efficient (but not tax haven) alternative to mainland Denmark. By remaining outside the EU they are able to fish their own waters without the quotas of the Common Fisheries Policy. Although both Shetland and Orkney voted Remain in 2016, few policies are less appealing than handing their waters back to the Common Fisheries Policy as part of an independent Scotland’s zeal to rejoin the EU.

Another Scandinavian model is the Åland Islands, a Swedish-speaking autonomous region of Finland in the Baltic Sea. Indeed, a blurred identity may resonate to Orcadians and Shetland Islanders, given their Scandinavian heritage. Shetland’s most famous annual cultural festival remains Up Helly Aa, a knees-up that enlivens January’s dark days when the islands’ menfolk dress up as Vikings and torch a ceremonial longship.

The British heritage has meaning too. Both Orkney and Shetland have a historic affinity with the Royal Navy. An Orkney autonomous from Scotland might offer a strategic usefulness to the UK in the event that the SNP made good on its pledge to deny the Royal Navy’s Trident submarines access to Faslane. The belief that “whoever controls Scapa Flow controls the North Atlantic” could be revived if the islanders were happy to welcome the White Ensign to a base so large at the end of the First World War it could accommodate the Royal Navy on its surface and the scuttled German Imperial Navy on the seabed.

“People have said since I was a boy that we should go back to Norway because we are more similar to them,” recalls James Stockan. “But that is a huge tearing of the last 300 years of a union and five or six hundred years of Scottish influence. Although,” he concludes with a twinkle, “some of the old folk here would say the only thing we ever got from Scotland was bad meal and poor ministers.”

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