Independence thinking...

Malachy explains some the subtleties of Shetland's relationship to Scotland amid talk of independenc

As last week’s New Statesman special feature demonstrated, for those of us living north of the border, independence is truly the topic of the day.

But here in Shetland the issue is not just a simple matter of 'yes' or 'no'. These islands have a complex and strange relationship with Scotland. And it is a relationship which, ultimately, could have an impact far beyond these shores.

For most islanders, identity lies at home: we are Shetlanders, whatever that may mean. And while Shetlanders today are usually willing to describe themselves as Scottish, this has not always been the case. Until not very long ago, to be Scottish in Shetland was a more heinous crime even than being English!

Culturally, historically and, of course, geographically, Shetland is different from Scotland. And it has never voted SNP.

Shetland, along with Orkney, only became part of Scotland in 1469, when they were pawned to the Scottish crown as part of a dowry payment from the king of Norway and Denmark to James III of Scotland. The agreement made was that once the full dowry was paid the islands would be returned to Denmark, and until that time Norse laws would remain in place. But Scotland reneged on the deal.

Denmark appealed to the crown several times over the ensuing centuries, but to no avail. Norse law was eventually ended in 1611, though Denmark has, in theory, never renounced its claim to the isles. Following the Act of Union between Scotland and England in 1707, at a time when many islanders still spoke the native Norn as their first language, the vast majority of Shetlanders were forced into serfdom. The people were cruelly exploited by their new Scottish landlords until the end of the 19th century.

This tainted history explains not only the antipathy towards Scotland, which continued well into the 20th century, but also the persistent nostalgia for a romanticised, Nordic past, which is most apparent in the Viking festivals of Up Helly Aa, held around the isles each winter.

But the uniqueness of Shetland identity would hold little interest beyond the pubs and homes of the islands were it not for one, significant factor: oil.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, while the Scottish nationalists were shouting from the rooftops about “our oil”, there was a faint but significant murmur from the Northern Isles that, actually, it’s ours.

When the North Sea was first being explored for oil, Shetland was quick to see the possibilities. The Zetland County Council Act was passed by parliament in 1974, giving the local council full control over all developments around the isles, and also allowing them to build up a massive oil fund over the following years. It has made Shetland into one of the wealthiest parts of the UK. The oil terminal at Sullom Voe became the largest in Europe, handling, at its peak, 1.4 million barrels a day, and although production has decreased since that time, the terminal is expected to last until at least 2020.

It is no surprise then that an independence movement developed within Shetland. It saw as its models the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, as well as our closest neighbour, Faroe, an autonomous dependency of Denmark.

Interestingly, the SNP has never rejected the right of the isles to autonomy, and the party did not stand against the coalition candidate of the Orkney and Shetland Movements in the 1987 election. The SNP has promised that, should Scotland move towards independence, Shetland will be free to choose its own path. But what that path will be is not at all clear.

The oil boom, which potentially made Shetland independence financially viable, also, ironically, made it less likely. The population of the islands was boosted dramatically during the ‘70s and ‘80s by Scottish and English oil workers and their families, many of whom have chosen to stay. Culturally and demographically Shetland now looks more like the rest of the UK than ever. But a radical and cohesive independence movement is certainly not out of the question, and, who knows, Denmark might even take the opportunity to try to regain its old territory!

As if in penance for the environmental damage caused by the oil industry, from which the isles have benefited so much, Shetland Islands Council is now developing another hugely ambitious energy project. The largest community-owned windfarm in the world is planned for Shetland – 200 giant mills covering much of the central mainland. It is a project that could potentially supply as much as 25 per cent of Scotland’s power, and it would also see another significant cash-boost for the isles. Our importance as an energy provider to the rest of the country is not set to be diminished anytime soon.

Politicians, both in Westminster and the Scottish central belt, are quick to forget about the little islands in the north, but Shetland holds some interesting cards in its hand, and at the moment it remains anyone’s guess as to how it will choose to play them.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.