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Weekend: Would Vikings choose London?

Posted on August 11, 2012 by

We haven’t said much about the Lib Dems’ recent revival of their assertion that the Northern Isles should be allowed to remain in the UK if Scotland voted for independence, largely because we’re shamefully ignorant on the subject of the islands. So we were delighted when Páll Thormod Morrisson, curator of the Viking Scotland site, offered to help us out with some informed comment.

The attempts of the Liberal Democrats to cause distraction and disruption in Orkney and Shetland continued this week. Their presumption appears to suggest two main scenarios – that Orkney and Shetland would remain tied to Westminster if Scotland chose independence, or that the islands would cut loose entirely from both Scotland and the UK and look after themselves.

The problem for the Lib Dems, however, is that these ideas appear to lack general public support in the Northern Isles. Like flies coming in unwelcome and proceeding to buzz around where they have no business, Tavish Scott, Liam McArthur and Alistair Carmichael’s fuss over nothing can be viewed as little more than attention-seeking and sour grapes from a party of increasing irrelevance.

Beaten in Scotland and maintaining the unenviable thrall image of a whipped dog in England that barks feebly now and again, the Lib Dems have two choices – keep quiet while the Conservatives continue to make a mess of everything, or stir up a bit of mischief to give themselves the idea that they matter. This appears to be what they’re doing in Orkney and Shetland.

True to their Nordic and Pictish roots however, the islanders appear to be unruffled by such crude manoeuverings. And why should they be ruffled? They had more to get excited over with the recent visit of Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg to Scalloway. That was worth them getting the flags out for – the Shetland and Norwegian flags that is.

The Shetland flag is a white Nordic cross on a Scottish saltire-blue field, symbolic of the islanders’ mixed roots. The Norwegian flag represents the enduring influence of the northlands on these islands, where Norse rule lasted for around three hundred years – not only in Orkney and Shetland, but Caithness and Sutherland, the Hebrides and Man, Argyll and Galloway and even parts of Strathclyde and Lothian.

Many Scottish clans are of mixed Norse origin such as MacLeod (Ljotr), MacAulay (Olaf), MacIvar (Ivarr), MacCorquodale (Thorkel) and Gunn (Gunnar), to name just a few. In historical terms Scotland has always had closer links to Scandinavia than to England, culturally, economically and spiritually. Scandinavia was our chief trading partner. The Norse Scottish realm existed for centuries under Scandinavian rule alongside the kingdom of the Scots, playing a major role in the development of the latter. The Scots tongue itself has a substantial amount of Norse words.

The Norse Scottish cultural legacy has produced a people who are hardy and self sufficient, little different in outlook than many similar folk in Iceland or the Faeroes or the Norwegian islands. Even language offers no real barrier between the Northern Isles and greater Scandinavia, as many of the latter have English as their second tongue. All have little time for a centralised authority, especially one that is remote from local concerns, and for the folk of Orkney and Shetland in particular. London is almost a thousand miles from Lerwick.

There is little other motive to be seen from the Unionist position than to keep the Northern Isles’ oil (said to be around £1.5 billion a year, though probably a lot more) currently in Scottish territorial waters flowing south. So what do Scott, McArthur and Carmichael feel is so attractive about that for Orkney and Shetland? In a recent interview, Paul Riddell of the Shetland Times said:

“Of course Mr. Scott should be pushing for the best possible deal for Shetland, but he says he does not believe that Scotland, never mind Shetland, will vote for independence, so this is surely political troublemaking and not a serious negotiating position.”

So much for Scott (whose majority in Shetland was slashed by over 63% at the 2011 Holyrood election, to just 1617 votes) being a champion for the islands. In reality the Unionist parties have done nothing for Orkney and Shetland but plunder them. Their policy is exactly the same as that of London toward Scotland – take what is of use to you and give back as little as possible, such as the “goodwill payments” from the oil companies that amount to little more than dole money.

But what of the two potential scenarios outlined by the Lib Dems? The only significant period of complete Northern Isles independence was the reign of Jarl Thorfinn Sigurdarson, the grandson of Malcolm, King of Scots, who appears to have thrown off direct Norwegian rule. It did, however, return after he was gone. (At no time was Norse Scottish territory ever under London rule. The notion would have been utterly absurd.)

The second Lib Dem scenario is for the islands to break away from Scotland if it chose independence. Scott, McArthur and Carmichael are unlikely champions of self determination – it’s hard to imagine them carrying a banner for independence when they’ve spent so long trying to discredit the idea with regard to Scotland. If you’re “better together”, after all, how can it make sense to become smaller and more divided still?

There is, however, no evidence at all that the islanders have any urge to split from Scotland as an autonomous territory, nor that they would want to swap an independent Scottish Government for an even more distant administration to the south that shamelessly exploits them. The Unionists, led by the Lib Dems, will make the same promises to Orkney and Shetland as Cameron recently made to Scotland – greater powers if you play ball (and let us continue robbing you). That’s like telling us that we can get to use another couple of rooms in our own home. Well, you know what? We can do that anyway.

Scottish Government popularity has risen in the Northern Isles, while that of the Unionists has fallen. Greater Scottish and Scandinavian investment probably has a lot to do with that, such as the Aegir and Vattenfall wave power scheme, the Viking windfarm and the Scotland-Norway electricity interconnector. In other words, since the SNP has come to power things are actually being done now.

So would the Vikings choose London rule? I think it’s safe to say “No”.

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15 to “Weekend: Would Vikings choose London?”

  1. Holebender

    I think the LibDem mischief makers have exhibited a serious lack of knowledge of international laws and conventions about territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, etc. If the Northern Isles were to become fully independent they might have a case for laying claim to all those northern oilfields, but if they stay with London (which seems to be the LibDems’ preferred option) they will get nothing. Orkney and/or Shetland, if they remain part of the rUK would be considered as island enclaves on an otherwise Scottish continental shelf. As enclaves they would only be entitled to an exclusive economic zone of up to 12 nautical miles around their coasts.
    The precedent for this was set by, among others, the good old United Kingdom itself when it agreed enclave status for the Channel Islands in relation to France.
    Anyone who has not read the excellent lawyerly review of the situation at should do so. It is very enlightening, and unbiased.

  2. Theuniondivvie

    ‘The Shetland flag is a white Nordic cross on a Scottish saltire-blue field, symbolic of the islanders’ mixed roots.’

    And designed by an SNPer, according to Wiki

  3. An Duine Gruamach

    It’s certainly a funny one.  You often comments from frothing-mouthed British nationalists on the Grauniad triumphantly grunting that “Isn’t it Shetland’s oil? Eh? Eh?  What if Shetland wanted to be independent? Eh? Eh?  You Jocks always go strangely quiet when someone asks that, don’t you?” – You know the sort.

    Whereas, of course, it’s not that we go especially quiet, since the only that ever needs given is that, as this article points out, there has never been any notable autonomost movement in the island.  Fourth place in the ’87 election after the SNP agreed to stand aside (and never standing since) doesn’t exactly suggest a burning desire to throw off the yoke of Scottish oppression.

    It’s only an issue for those who would be horrified at the prospect of those circumstances arising anyway. 

  4. gedguy2

    Something that seems to be forgotten by everyone is the historical fact that these ‘Norwegian’ islands to our north were first inhabited by the indigenous peoples of these isles (as was Iceland:  ‘according to both Landnámabók and Íslendingabók, Celtic monks known as the Papar lived in Iceland before the Norse settlers arrived, possibly members of a Hiberno-Scottish mission‘) The ‘Vikings’ only had control of that area, under the Norwegians, for only approximately 300 years. As far a historical evidence is concerned it hints that the ‘Vikings’ were not the blood thirsty bunch of pagans hell bent on rape and pillage as we have been taught. It seems that the original Vikings were traders and one of their main products was salted fish which they would trade with the monks. The monks were determined to control supply of salted fish and may have incurred the wrath of these traders (ripping them off?) which led to the assault on these isles. Prior to that there seems to be ample evidence that trade between Scotland and Scandinavia was a peaceful and ongoing concern with traders from both geographical areas of the north sea plying their wares.
    What the LibDems are doing is stirring the s**t in the hope that their Unionist policy of attacking everything the SNP do will, hopefully, lead to a situation where it will cause so much discontent in the isles that, even if/when the Scots vote for independence, the islanders will align themselves with the rUK; some hope of that. 
    I worked in the Shetlands in the 70s helping to build the oil camp in Mossbank. There were quite a few Shetlanders working there and I never met one who could be described as a Unionist. Having said that I never met any who were staunchly independence minded either. At some point the LibDems will have to answer to their voters in the isles so it is a politically dangerous path that they have chosen to follow. However, they are fighting for their political Westminster jobs and desperate situations require desperate measures.
     “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they come to fight you, and then you win.”: we are at that penultimate stage now.

  5. ronald alexander mcdonald

    Lib Dems. Desperate people say desperate things. That’s what happens when you willingly become Tory patsys.

    Perhaps the most interesting comments to date have come from Kenyon Wright and Henry McLeish (todays Herald).  The Unionist parties will have to agree to a second question(with real powers) and legislate for it, or the people will vote for Independence.

    The Unionists can’t handle that pressure now. Another two years of it?           

  6. Derick fae Yell

    Just check the unionist candidate results recent elections in Shetland
    Scottish Parliament constituency 2011 Sandy Cross Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party 330 votes three hundred and thirty. 3.5%
    Council 2012 Ian Tinkler Shetland West Independent but with very public unionist views 78 yes a whole seventy eight votes. Not elected.

    2005 UK General Election Scotty Dyble also know as Scotty Van der Tol (don’t ask me why) UKIP 424 votes 2.4%

  7. Don McC

    I think the whole Lib dum accusation that the peoples of the Shetlands are somehow less Scottish than the rest of us is simply despicable. It’s the usual divide and conquer idea and shows how desperate these low lifes now are.  The prospect of losing their troughing privileges is looming large and they’ll try anything to hold on to their easy street lifes.

  8. An Duine Gruamach

    Another thing I wonder about – where was all this passion for Shetlandic/Orcadian autonomy during the eight years that Mr. Scott’s party was in government?

  9. baycitytroller

    I have to disagree slightly with the author as to the motivation behind the calls for annexation of the Northern Isles. I think the dependenistas are fully aware of the legal review Holebender linked to and its consequences. This is their main scare story, no more no less. They want the voters in Scotland to believe that an independent Scotland will be shorn of the bulk of its subsea resources. So, in a round about way, yes, the motivation is to keep the oil coming south but only as a result of Scotland remaining within the UK.

    As an aside, I posted Holebender’s article to reddit just the other day (great minds etc) but was soundly chastised for posting irrelevant material (as the press was not currently discussing it) and for dragging up an eleven year old article. The question that raises is that if this article is that old then why has the MSM not picked it up, analysed and discussed it, and enlightened the Scottish electorate as to the actual ramifications of annexation. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

  10. Holebender

    BCT, I don’t use reddit, but may I suggest you inform Mr. Potatohead that the subject was recently reported (within this past week) as a result of the Northern Isles’ MP reviving the hoary chestnut of the islands’ population voting no.
    There is, e.g., an article in the Herald dated 6th of August.
    Indeed, isn’t the recent revival of this scare story the reason for this very blog post?

  11. baycitytroller

    @ Holebender

    Sorry – no excuses – missed that article completely and hadn’t followed the author’s link. Serves me right for blanking out the LibDems as an irrelevant distraction. Thanks very much for the heads up. Think I’ll wait for the overwhelming feeling of being the stupidest person in Scotland to subside before my next move.

  12. Tim

    Many people in Orkney are still pretty sore about Thatcher’s plans to turn its second town (Stromness) into a uranium mine. Can’t see people wanting to stick with a government like that.

    As for autonomy, are 50,000 people who rely on subsidised lifeline ferry routes really going to want that? I know I don’t.

    (Maybe the subsidy junky criticism has some truth after all) 

  13. Stuart M

    I’ve always thought that the Lib Dem (and before them Liberal) stranglehold on the Northern Isles constituencies was a sort of “anti-politics” vote. They were, after all, electing a Liberal MP when virtually nowhere else in the UK did. As such, when the likes of Carmichael, Scott and Wallace get all party political, they get the backs up of islanders. If they were ever to do it near an election with a strong Independent candidate in the mix, I suspect they’d struggle (particularly if the other parties stood aside).
    It’s notable that Wallace has only became a frothing-at-the-mouth Unionist following his elevation to the Lords: we never heard similar from back in the day when he was Orkney’s MSP.

  14. Jeannie

    I’m glad this subject came up because, coincidentally, I’m reading “The Sea Kingdoms” by Alistair Moffat – The History of Celtic Britain and Ireland. I would definitely recommend this book.
    Many Unionists are arguing, especially in the context of the Olympics, of the benefits of maintaining social, cultural and economic links with England. However, there was a time, long ago, when our social, cultural and economic links were much less relevant to shared land masses and much more relevant to our shared seas.  Hence, Antrim and Argyll were part of the same sea kingdom of Dal Riata.  (To see this more clearly, you have to visualise the sea area between the west of Scotland and Ireland as a land mass and see Antrim and the West of Scotland from Dumbarton on up as the sea).
    Similarly, Orkney and Shetland had strong links with Scandinavia – the link being the sea and not the land.  Eventually, that Norse link extended all the way down the west coast to include present day Ireland, Wales and Man.
    Perhaps our ancestors can shine some much-needed light on alternative ways for an independent Scotland to interact with ALL of its neighbours, rather than obsessively focussing on the one to the South.

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