A multi-party campaign group aiming to deliver self-government for Shetland is making the political weather in Britain’s most northerly island group.
Wir Shetland – emblem above – launching as recently as 14th October 2015 in a lively session at Lerwick Town Hall, already has more members than any of the mainstream political parties in the islands.
Its target is to achieve for Shetland the status of something like a British Overseas Territory, the same British-protected semi-autonomy as the Falkland Islands enjoy.
With a population of 22,200 compared to the Falklands 2,930, Wir Shetland’s is no unrealistic ambition.
The cost of being utterly peripheral to government
A twelve and a half hour sea passage from Aberdeen – which in bad weather can take over 24 hours – Shetland is ‘overseas’ in anyone’s book.
Its 90 minute distance by air from Edinburgh is little different to the distance from Edinburgh to London the SNP used to claim made independence a practical necessity – until 56 of their candidates made it to Westminster as MPs in the UK General Election, an event that appears to have changed that party’s perspectives in ways well beyond a new understanding of acceptable journey times. [And these days it takes a great deal longer than that to get from Kirkcaldy to Edinburgh.]
The cultural distance of Shetland from Edinburgh – and the impact that this has on the views from the Capital could not be more manifest than in the Scottish Government’s discriminatory deployment of Road Equivalent Tariff [RET] discounts on ferry fares.
Ferry operator CalMac, describes the impact of this discount thus: ‘The price of a single passenger fare on these routes will fall by an average of 44%, whilst car fares will be cut by an average of 55%.’
The west coast islands, from those in the Firth of Clyde to the Outer Hebrides, now universally enjoy that massive benefit to residents and that galvanic for their tourism sectors. Even the tiny passage from Fionnphort on Mull across the sound to the holy isle of Iona has RET fares.
Neither the Orkney Islands nor the Shetland Islands enjoy such an easement.
Peak season single fares on the Aberdeen-Lerwick ferry are £146 for a car, £41 for an adult and £20.50 for a child. A return car trip for the nuclear family in school summer holiday time would see them spend £538 before they paid for so much as a cup of coffee. never mind accommodation and subsistence.
RET, according to CalMac’s thumbnail, would see that come down to £266.77. That could only drive up the numbers of those able to fullfil everybody’s bucket list ambition to see Orkney and Shetland.
There is absolutely no logic in the discrimination against the Northern Isles in RET fares. There is only the arbitrary position of ‘You can have it and you can not.’
What we’re missing
Apart from the shelter RET offers island residents, it has powered a proven and continuing increase in the number of visitors to the islands graced with its discounts – with tourism a centrally important staple industry for all islands.
Orkney and Shetland share a distinctive Norse cultural heritage. Temperamentally they are go ahead, untroubled by the gentle Gaelic fondness for lament that can neuter ambition and is a feature of the west coast islands.
Both have significant architectural remains – Orkney breathakingly so, on a worldwide level up there with Machu Picchu – and it has its wartime naval heritage which physically shaped its internal connections as well as giving it an enduring series of chapters in modern history. All of this is potent and unforgettable stuff. And then there is the Ba game. Get there on Christmas Day or Hogmanay and be amazed.
Shetland is Vikings, oil and music. Up Helly Aa is the annual spectacle of fire the world comes to watch, with eruptions all over the islands. Shetland fiddlers are widely acclaimed for the style of fiddling unique to these islands – and the local dialect reflected in ‘Wir Shetland’ has very recently become the language of a commissioned opera – that sounded and looked fascinating from the television news clips.
The oil industry in the North Sea pretty well started in Shetland, with the nation quickly building ‘Sullom Voe’ into its vocabulary if not its visceral map; and it’s coming back – if not quite yet. The global glut in supply, to which there is no end currently in sight – is keeping oil prices so low investment is unthinkable. But while some production is now coming from the big finds in difficult and dangerous waters ‘west of Shetland’, the time will come where those reserves will be extracted.
Seeing Sullom Voe, seeing the accommodation ships, seeing the helicopter traffic and the air traffic in and out of Sullom Voe airport – offers a much closer and more focused engagement with the reality of the oil industry than is possible even in Aberdeen. This is a great slab of our common history and most of us have no first hand sense of it at all.
Along with the beauty, the mystery and the industry of Shetland, which also majors on fishing, there is its specific cultural history and the question of its ownership – still disputed by the redoubtable Stuart Hill [read all about that here].
Wir Shetland ‘s direction of travel
The Wir Shetland emblem’s background is the Shetland flag, designed in 1969 by Roy Grønneberg and Bill Adams, using the colours of the Scottish saltire in the Nordic cross, symbolising Shetland’s hybrid culture. Wir Shetland foregrounds on this the Raven from the story of Floki and the Ravens.
In the 9th century, Flóki Vilgerðarson set sail from western Norway with his family, consciously heading for – and making it to – Iceland. The first man to do so, he landed first in Shetland, where he may have lost a daughter in a drowning; went on the Faroes where he saw a second daughter married; and took three Ravens from there to guide him to Iceland – which one of them achieved.
Is Wir Shetland the single 21st century Raven to guide Shetland to British Overseas Territory protected autonomy?
As the campaigners see it:
- The interests of Shetland differ markedly from Scotland and the UK.
- The geography, history and culture of Shetland and Orkney set them apart from the UK.
- Membership of the EU is damaging for Shetland’s fishing industry and the rationale for remaining a member is weak.
- In the absence of an autonomy deal with Scotland, Scottish independence will be damaging for Shetland.
- Shetland needs to be self-governing
In working towards this end, the Wir Shetland group’s preferred approach is to involve local political parties in discussions aimed at achieving their goal.
However, should developments indicate that registering as a political party would be a more effective route to their intended destination, the group will be prepared to consider that option.
Their purposes are:
- To achieve Falkland Islands-style British Overseas Territory or similar, status.
- To secure the legal rights of Shetland residents, businesses and similar bodies.
- To develop trade and cultural links between Shetland and her political and geographic neighbours.
Free of the restrictive and divisive dogmas of mainstream party politics – and the SNP are now very much in that stream, the attraction of Wir Shetland is its refreshing pragmatism.
It is centred on the practical advantages of the aims it pursues and is free of the trite and tedious separatist need for demonisation. Generally forgotten and left to its own devices out in the wild northern approaches of the Atlantic, it is distinctive but it is not constantly preaching its cultural distinctiveness. It is not overburdened with a longing for the grandiose. It is not planning for embassies and panjandrums. It does not want to send MPs to Westminster.
Wir Shetland is not driven to escape from but to escape to.
It wants to be free to develop its own trade as it sees fit; and to maintain the substantial advantages it freely recognises of the protective relationship with Britain it currently and consciously enjoys.
It is also canny and will drive hard bargains with all bidders for its favours.
This is a game to watch – and if the Northern Isles, as they ought, campaign for RET on their ferry fares, the rest of us should get behind them – and then get ourselves there to get to know them.