The former LibDem Leader Tavish Scott MSP has an op ed piece in today’s Hootsmon in which he waxes lyrical on Shetland’s Norse heritage and another rousingly successful Up-Helly-Aa—as impressive and unique a local festival as you could sail a longship into. We hear too little of this splendid ritual in the rest of Scotland, for we share more in common with the Shetlanders than many of us realise. And if Tavish is successful in his railing against the rather prohibitive transport costs involved in visiting there, perhaps more of us could discover that for themselves.
But, if I am entirely supportive of Tavish in his enthusiasm for the mid-winter festival that binds local people and their heritage together, I am less so of his rather clumsy attempt to beat the evil ‘Central Belt’ with it as a stick and use it as a lever to prise the North Isles away from the rest of Scotland. As with many other distinctive regions of the country, the North Isles are not to be confused with anywhere else. And I accept that the phrase “going to Scotland” that they use has more than geographic overtones. But to set hares running about UDI is both mischievous and simplistic.
Though not resident as Tavish and some 50,000+ people are, I have visited on a number of occasions and look forward to returning for the North Isles are a special place that breeds special people, some of whom I’m privileged to call my friends.
It is irrelevant that Up-Helly-Aa has been THE celebration of Norse heritage for 100 years when the islands’ allegiance Norway was severed 400 years before that. The link goes back over 1,000 years to when the first Norsemen overran much of what is now Scotland as part of their great expansion that reached Labrador, Dublin, Kiev, Normandy and Sicily. Those hardy (and, at the time, hated) navigator-warriors became settlers and, by burning their boats, showed their firm commitment to their new homes.
Although seldom celebrated, that Norse link applies across Scotland. The Earls of Orkney ruled not just the North Isles but Caithness and south, hence Norse names like Dingwall and Sutherland. The medieval Lord of the Isles ruled a gaelic reincarnation of Norse Soder that once included all the Hebrides, Kintyre and Man. The Forth/Clyde valley was once formed the trade route linking Viking York with Viking Dublin.
Even my own East Lothian—about as far from Shetland as you can get in Scotland—is peppered with Norse names: Fidra; Humbie; Begbie. There is even an unsubstantiated legend of a 9th century Viking Kingdom of Dunbar before it was subsumed into Viking-York-powered Northumbria. Even further south, Lockerbie and Langholm trace their settlements all the way to the Solway and beyond.
So in mongrel Scotland, the next-biggest external influence on who we all are (after the English) may not be the Irish but the Norse. Do names like Gunn or Ericson or Chisholm sound Scottish? I find Christine de Luca’s Shetland poems barely more comprehensible but certainly more engaging to me than Sorley McLean’s in the original gaelic. Whether any more Viking blood than elsewhere flows in East Coast fisher folk like me has yet to be established by DNA testing. But it feels that way to me.
So, while I admire Tavish’s pride in local heritage, he loses me when he drifts into a ‘Little Shetlander’ mode that ill becomes him. And I disagree that we Scots take advantage of a fraction of our historic links with Scandinavia in general and Norway in particular we’re entitled to.
In the past we sent intrepid explorers to Malawi, unflappable administrators to Mumbai and phlegmatic ship’s engineers (and the ships they sailed in) to every corner of the globe. We should be exchanging students with Norwegian universities—the skiing and the scenery are both fabulous. We should be flooding Norway with tidal generation projects because their long deep fjords offer more options than even we do.
It’s obvious that the Shetland should be to the fore in relations with Norway—almost as many ships from the Norwegian fields use Lerwick and Sumburgh as ours do. But though Lerwick is closer to Oslo (420 miles) than to London (580 miles), that last is also the Edinburgh-Oslo distance. Central Belt Scotland is as close to Olso or Copenhagen as it is to Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris.
I’m sure Tavish’s loyalty to his North Isles is genuine and well intentioned. But what if he opened his mind to the bigger picture? What if Scotland became independent and joined the Nordic Council? Would Shetland not then, rather than being a forgotten outpost of imperial Britain, become a central hub of the Nordic Council, linking Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes with Scandinavia proper? And would Scotland’s Central Belt, far from being a remote master, not become their gateway access to England and southern Europe?
No-one in Liechtenstein, Monaco or even the Faroes wants someone distant telling them how to live. Like many of his deluded unionist colleagues, Tavish needs to learn that anywhere—Scotland or Shetland—is small and oppressed only if you think it is. Who can say whether, one day, Shetland might not become another Singapore to Scotland’s Malaysia? But first, we both need shot of the self-absorbed, uncomprehending influence of London and its environs.