Power and identity in island communities

Traditionally, Scotland has always been a country of two lands: one of industrious, urban lowlanders and another of  rural, much romanticised highlanders.

Of course these kinds of generalisations are never adequate for the people living in the places they are supposed to describe; too much nuance has to be cut out for the sake of simplification. And although you could divide Scotland into an infinitesimal number of microcosms, each with its own distinct identity and culture, sometimes there is no need for us to draw the lines ourselves; nature does a good enough job on her own.

This month two quite superficially similar, but very different motions, have been brought forward regarding Scotland’s island communities. One, presented by the government, is the proposal for an Islands Bill. Among promises of greater autonomy the bill, which is now in its consultation stage, would ensure that islands with large populations would not be placed in the same council ward as a significant portion of mainland. This is particularly poignant for islands such as Arran, which risks having no local councillor living on the island itself when their resident councillor, John Bruce, stands down in 2017.

Other conditions of the bill include enshrining in law that future governments prepare a National Islands Plan, which would place a legal duty on government ministers and public bodies to “support, promote and empower” island communities. These plans would be approved roughly every three to five years, akin to the current Gaelic Language and British Sign Language bills.

For the SNP, a party whose very existence is founded on the aspirations of self- determination, perhaps all of these developments are unsurprising – the idea of an Islands Bill was first mooted in their independence white paper. This current drive for more powers began back in 2013, when Alex Salmond made the “Lerwick Declaration”, itself a response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign run by Scotland’s three solely island councils – Orkney, Shetland and Comhairle nan Eilan Siar (Western Isles).

We are the people

“With freedom to make your own decisions, life is going to improve dramatically” – these could easily be the words of Nicola Sturgeon as she promoted the consultation of the bill during a visit to Skye this week. But they were actually spoken by a man from a quite different movement.

John Tulloch is the chairman of Wir Shetland, a multi-party political movement set up earlier this month to promote greater autonomy for the Shetland Isles. In short, the group wants Shetland to become a British Overseas Territory like the Falklands or Bermuda, meaning it will establish its own government (possibly using the council as a template) and be able to set its own tax and spending rates. Although the group have yet to rule out participation in the bill’s consultation process, Tulloch doubts what difference it will make. He believes that, in order to create as broad a consensus as possible, the bill will fail to address the more pressing, idiosyncratic concerns of the islands – namely, in Shetland’s case, fishing.

What is most interesting about Wir Shetland, and perhaps what brings them most at odds with the SNP, is their stance on the EU. Brussels is criticised just as much, if not more, as Edinburgh or London. The reason is obvious enough. In their draft constitution they write:

“Membership of the EU is damaging for Shetland’s fishing industry and the rationale for remaining a member is weak.”

Given the position and isolation of the archipelago, fishing is a far greater source of employment than for the rest of Scotland’s isles; around a fifth of Shetland’s population works in the industry. Having greater autonomy over fishing grounds, such as enjoyed by non-EU member states like Norway or Iceland, is naturally an important issue for Shetland. But given the SNP’s heavily pro-EU stance, Shetlanders have become weary of any meaningful change while remaining under the political radar of the Scottish Government.

Scotland United

A strange dichotomy always appears when the “issue” of Shetland arises. Although the SNP are not quite as toxic a brand in Shetland as the Tories are in the rest of Scotland, they have treaded lightly on the matter. In some ways, they do not have to say anything. Recent changes such as the conglomeration of Scotland’s police forces have left Shetlanders with a bad taste in the mouth (as it has done in many rural communities in Scotland) and without a 24-hour police station. The creation of Police Scotland, more than any other policy, has highlighted a surprising lack of understanding on the government’s part as to how rural and island communities ought to be run.

It is undeniable, however, that Wir Shetland’s platform has benefited from the debate on self-determination that  continues to rise from the ashes of last year’s independence referendum. It is perhaps also a symptom of the times in general. We are living in the era of the great political dissatisfaction, writ large.

But there is something else to be said about all this. In his article, Tulloch is quick to note the cultural and historical differences between Shetland and Scotland, especially in relation to Scotland’s other isles. Unlike a vast majority of them, Shetlanders (alongside Orcadians) do not speak Gaelic, nor were shaped by the feudal clan system: historically the Lord of the Isles never held sway there. In short, as written in Wir Shetland’s constitution: “the geography, history and culture of Shetland and Orkney are unique.”

Rethinking identity

Scotland’s identity is more multiform than we give it credit for. It is what it is because it is kind of Celtic, kind of Anglo- Saxon, kind of Norse… But not wholly any one of them. For Shetland or Orkney to no longer be part of that identity would feel, to me at least, as if an essential part of the wider Scottish psyche were depleted in some way. And as one of those ignominious urban lowlanders, I am all too painfully aware that this is the same line towed for Scotland remaining in the UK and (to a lesser extent) for the UK in the EU. To be asked what appears to be the same question several times gives you perspective on things.

In many respects, Scotland’s current culture as a whole has suffered from historical streamlining. The tartans and the clan system, kilts and sporrans meant as much to Central Belt dwellers as they did to the Northern Isles up until Walter Scott’s meticulously stage-managed visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822. Since then so much of what has constituted our national culture has not been for the benefit of ourselves, but a show put on to please other people. When we take such a simplistic, monotonous view of ourselves, culture suffers. It becomes novelty.

The Highlands and its culture are and always will be very much an integral part of Scotland’s identity, both abroad and at home. We should never renounce that. But maybe it is time we began to look elsewhere for inspiration. It should be no surprise that the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid, in shaping a new, modern Scottish identity, spent much of his time in Orkney and Shetland.

“Scotland small?” MacDiarmid asked us. “How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete!”

Image courtesy of the author


  1. says

    Well observed, it’s a bit of a dilemma. Most of Scotland might well favour staying linked to Brussels, we want to keep human rights legislation and many other positive social changes, but when some communities suffer, it doesn’t always seem fair. Then there is Kate Howie campaigning to exit.
    whatever happens, things will change.

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