Coffee House

Freedom for Shetland!

31 January 2012

6:20 PM

31 January 2012

6:20 PM

If Scotland can claim independence — and a ‘geographical share’ of the oil
regardless of population — then why can’t Orkney & Shetland? It’s the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick tonight, where men dress up as vikings and set a longship ablaze. Not a very Scottish
festival, but when your nearest city is Bergen how Scottish do you feel? Laurance Reed, a former Hebridean resident (and ex-MP), has a piece in this week’s magazine pointing out that, by the
Salmond doctrine, there is nothing to stop the Scottish islands breaking off, claiming the oil wealth and becoming the Dubai of the north. His piece is below.

Freedom for Shetland!, Laurance Reed, The Spectator, 28 January 2012

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.

Laurance Reed is a former MP for Bolton East, and a resident of the Hebridean island of Soay in Loch Scavaig.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • nova scotia guy

    should Quebec separate from Canada, the native population of Quebec has voiced its’ intent to separate from Quebec.

  • UKOK

    Shetland DOES claim freedom and we are FREE on our own like Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Our ship the Norröna serves us all. The Northlink also goes to Scotland. Learn more at The United Kingdom of Shetland, Iceland, Faroe and Norway.

  • Gareth

    Nice to see the usual cut n’ paste retorts from the SNP acolytes littered with the SNP-prescribed words: ‘ negative, scaremongering, etc’ Nearly as funny as Salmond’s ‘independence is a natural step’ argument. Surely unity is the ‘natural order’ – after all we evolved from blue-green algae to multi-cellular organisms? I wonder which part of my anatomy will declare independence soon as it’s ‘part of the natural order?’

  • Thormod Morrisson

    The writer takes it upon himself to speak for Orkney and Shetland. According to him, governmental distance geographically is an issue. Most of the people I know don’t feel isolated or wrongly done by with regard to a government based in Edinburgh, but by an English government in London that has absolutely nothing to do for their interests. The writer is trying to use the islands to fabricate a weak unionist argument. And if he is so proud of being Hebridean in culture and harking back to the Kingdom of the Isles, then he should know that it was not one bit subservient to a London government, nor prepared to write like a base toadie for it.

  • hearts upwards

    Heres to the oldest national flag on this planet , Scotlands Saltire, being raised in all of Scotlands officialdom instead of the replacement Butchers Apron.

  • Kavi Ugl

    I’m from Shetland, and there’s a low-level animosity against the SNP, rising from a feeling that it rewards those Scottish constituencies that returned an SNP MSP and penalises those foolish enough to return a Labour or Lib-Dem MP. Our antipathy towards the SNP was reflected in last year’s election results, when the (parachuted in) SNP candidate came in a poor third behind a single-issue independent.

  • Tammy_Tinky

    The Uk is going to the Falkands 8000 miles away to protect our oil interests there .

    Whats to stop it making the Shetlands and Orkney a British Protectorate ?

    Salmond could hardly stop the Royal Navy , and it would take away halve the oil revenue !
    making him “prey for Wind ” from those infernal turbines .
    To generate the revenue , to pay the benefits for his new found “Tartan Army “

  • Stergios

    The UK has recognized the independence of former federal entities such as Moldova, Georgia, and Croatia, but has refused to recognize the independence of self-proclaimed independent regions that have been formed within those countries such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Serbian Krajina.

    The borders of federal entities are deemed unviolable in case of a breakup of the federation, the UK Government has taught us.

    So, in case Scotland decides to become independent, the UK is obliged to accept the decision of the Scottish people and recognize their independence without the usual “divide and rule” treacheries that have earned it the nickname of “perfidious Albion”.

  • R.G. Bargie

    If the Shetlands and Orkneys want independence they are as entitled to pursue it as anyone else. All they need to do is the same thing the SNP had to do – form a Northern Isles National Party, stand in elections, get voted in until such times as they can legitimately demand a devolved Parliament, achieve a majority in that Parliament, pass a referendum bill and secure a Yes vote.

    Until such times as they take at least the first of those steps, articles like this will remain the tedious and hackneyed scaremongering they are.

    If there was a demand for the Northern Isles to run their own affairs, why would they wait for Scotland to become independent first? Why aren’t they asking for it now?

    • Tony Quintus

      They don’t need to do any of that, they simply petition the crown for a referendum based on popular opinion, just like the Falklands direct democracy is really rather easy with such small populations.

  • wee shetlander

    Shetland has not had a happy relationship with scotland. Ask the shetlander how the scots abused their ancestors. Don’t assume that they will be keen to trust an independent scots goverment.

    There is a large english population living up here so don’t assume anything. If you could be bothered to look Tavish Scott lib dem ex leader had a very nast scare in the last ballot.

  • Shetland Resident

    I’m an Englishman living in Shetland. The idea that Shetlanders would choose to stay in the UK is comical. Shetland Islanders are a conservative bunch and they have strong ties with the Scots upon whom they depend in many ways. Independence from Scotland seems a bit far-fetched and even the scenario of Shetland seeking union with Norway or to become an autonomous Nowegian overseas territory is more likely than an kind of union with an ailing, distant and disinterested England. Let’s face it, sharing the oil and and gas wealth with Scotland with its small population will make Shetlanders more prosperous than propping up the English economy. Goodbye Scotland Shetland!

  • Amicus Alba

    Good article that outlines “what’s good for the goose” and is true to a large extent. However if the ‘continental shelf’ has any validity it would be just mischief making with a sense of humor. These islands have always been anti Independence and I suspect our bulbous chinned FM would happily allow Shetland / Orkney to leave.

    And boy do these Nats get uppity and intolerant when views contrary to theirs are espoused!

  • Styles

    I was born and live in Shetland. We the natives feel in many regards more Norse than Scottish, due to our very different heritage. It is felt that the SNP favour the central belt and Western Isles, they dont care about us, but do want our oil resources to pay for everything.
    Us being controlled by Westminster or Hollyrood, its all the same, they all seem the same long distance away.
    Ask a Shetlander what nationality he is and he will say he is a Shetlander foremost, not Scottish or British.

  • Rab the Cairn Terrier

    El Sid
    February 1st, 2012 3:24pm
    “Geographical size isn’t everything – Scotland has about the same population as Yorkshire.”

    Google yourself a list of countries by population size – Scotland isn’t even halfway down the list, and is above such well-known failed states as N Zealand, Denmark (yes, them again) and Norway. One of the attractions of an independent Scotland is the good balance between population and available resources. Left on its own England is the most overcrowded country in Europe.

    “The Northern Isles have been far from happy members of Scotland – along with the Highlands.”

    Highlands were solidly SNP in the last Scottish election. None of my Orcadian or Shetlander friends (and there are many) talk of their islands seceding from Scotland.

    “There’s quite a good argument for the Northern Isles being Crown Dependencies rather than part of Scottish territory.”

    If the argument is so good, how come the islanders aren’t arguing for it?

  • Lachie

    A thought-provoking article, and the thought it provoked was – “Here we go, the same old poorly written, scare-mongering shit”.

  • J. Patrick

    He’s wrong about Wales being a nation before Scotland. Wales is at least a hundred years younger, possibly closer to two hundred, depending whose version of events you accept.

  • El Sid

    Geographical size isn’t everything – indeed it can be a hindrance to the development of a national identity. Scotland has about the same population as Yorkshire.

    The Northern Isles have been far from happy members of Scotland – along with the Highlands. The Scottish civil war of 1745 is more recent than the Union, and was fought by “rebellious Scots” from the Highlands resisting the imperialists in Edinburgh and their “loyal Scots” from the Lowlands.

    There’s quite a good argument for the Northern Isles being Crown Dependencies rather than part of Scottish territory.

  • gavin

    The Northern Isles ARE part of Scotland.However, if they wish to leave,there is still a small matter of the dowry to be paid off. With compound interest that will take care of the oil money for some time in advance!

  • scotto

    educated at Gresham’s School in Norfolk and University College, Oxford.

    Reed served his National Service with the Royal Navy from 1956 to 1958, and from 1963 to 1966 worked and studied at Brussels, Bruges, Leyden, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, Paris, Rome, Bologna and Geneva.

    So an English former Tory MP (for just 4 years until 1974 in Bolton East)is now telling us what can and should happen to our northern and western isles. Mr Nelson, how low can you go?

  • EC


  • Unionist Lies

    EC, that is simply not the case. There is no unified movement within Shetland for independence to speak of, simple as. In fact, the local council’s performance in the past decade has largely discredited the notion of even gaining further autonomy from Edinburgh/London.

  • Hexhamgeezer


    Can we have an independent Northumbria? We’ve got more water than we know what to do with. And coal.

    • Tony Quintus

      Or an independent Yorkshire with all those lovely productive gas fields that the Scots seem to think belong to them.

  • EC

    “The Northern isles have been happily Scottish for the past 540 years and show no inclination to unite with Norway -try again.”

    “Happily?” Whenever I’ve spoken to islanders up there they’ve always been keen to tell me how independent minded they are. If they get a sniff of independence backed by petrodollars then it’ll be bye-bye SNP & LIbDems etc. Do you really think that they are going to trust Salmond look after their money and best interests?

  • Rab C

    Peter From Maidstone
    February 1st, 2012 9:45am

    “Orkney and Shetland were Norwegian until the 15th century”
    The Northern isles have been happily Scottish for the past 540 years and show no inclination to unite with Norway -try again.

    “Scotland may notionally be a country, but it is not really much more than a large county itself”
    Yet more patronizing guff – like, twicw the size of Switzerland, denmark or the Netherlands to name but three. BTW dis you know that England is only a fifth of the size of France? maybe they should annexe it.

  • Steve Tierney

    I can’t really see why some comments are running this article down. It may well be mischief-making, but it’s no less valid for that.

    I believe there is a shift in public opinion towards smaller states – I think that shift is driven by a desire to “belong” to a nation which has been undermined by international developments over the last hundred years.

    I suspect the thrust of this piece is actually correct – it will accelerate and we cannot imagine what the repercussions might be in the long term.

  • Wilhelm 1

    London is already a foreign country, it’s an African muslim third world slum.

    It’s got more in common with Soweto than the rest of England.

  • Ian Walker

    You’ll be paying the Independent Republic of Kent some hefty toll fees if you want to use our ports for your exports.

    Mind you, we’ll need the money to afford the War Of Bromley with Widmerpool’s London, since some parts of the county are inside the M25……