Malachy on tour

How escaping from island life can remind you of the benefits

I am sitting in a hotel room. The walls are a sickly, bright yellow, and the quilt cover is a peculiar tartanesque pattern, identical to the curtains. Outside my window is a large car-park; beyond that, a housing estate.

I am in Glenrothes, three nights in to a four night musical tour of Scotland. We began in Aberdeen on Thursday, and will end, on Sunday evening, in Edinburgh. This is the first time I have found myself 'on tour', and it is a fairly strange experience: long days with not much to do are punctuated by moments of stress and nerves, and then the concerts happen, and are over in an instant. They are followed, inevitably, by a sigh of relief, usually lasting several hours.

My friend Steven and I have spent the days driving around, visiting places both new and familiar. It has been good to see, albeit briefly, parts of the country that we had previously only heard of – Loch Leven, Gleneagles, Auchtermuchty – and the weather has been, for the most part, beautiful. Spring has definitely arrived here in the south: daffodils lined the road in some of the villages we passed through, and there is a definite freshness to the green in the fields and hills.

But travelling also leads thoughts back towards home. It is slightly depressing to remember that when I arrive back in Shetland on Tuesday morning, after the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, the world will not look nearly so green, and the sun won't be nearly so willing to shine.

Many people living in Shetland (and, I suppose, other remote islands) feel the need to escape once in a while – to be in a bigger place, with more people, and to feel less detached from the rest of the world. They take shopping trips to Aberdeen or Glasgow, or weekend breaks to Edinburgh or London: places where the world looks and feels different from at home.

A sense of claustrophobia can develop when living on an island – a feeling of restricted movement, which can grow into a more complex sense of being held back or restrained. Some people find it difficult to cope with. But an occasional journey to mainland Britain, or further afield, can help to alleviate that feeling.

There are restrictions on the mainland too, of course. Whereas in Shetland, the views stretch out across the sea to the horizon, here you are hemmed in by trees and buildings. Cities in particular can feel very constricting and claustrophobic, as well as being noisy, dirty and intensely alienating. For someone used to life on an island, city dwellers can seem like very unnatural creatures indeed.

And perhaps that is the reason for these journeys away from home; it is not the escape from the limits of the island that is important, it is the reminder of why you live there in the first place. One person's freedom is another's prison, and sometimes it takes a change of view to remember which side of the wall you are actually on. For me, freedom lies back at home, with the horizon all around, and I will be heaving one final sigh of relief on Monday evening, as the ferry leaves Aberdeen harbour, heading north to Shetland.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Getty
Show Hide image

Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.