SHETLAND’S deep connections to Scandinavia could not have received greater recognition than the first ever visit of a Norwegian prime minister to the isles on his country’s National Day.
On the second day of his visit on Thursday, Jens Stoltenberg said he had accepted an invitation to open the new Scalloway Museum because of the islands’ strong historic links with Norway, particularly during the Second World War.
For four years until 1945 Shetland was the base for the heroic Shetland Bus operation that provided a lifeline for the Norwegian resistance movement during the country’s occupation by the Nazis.
After visiting Norwegian war graves in Lerwick, Mr Stoltenberg and his entourage drove to Scalloway, Shetland’s ancient capital under Norse rule, to join a sombre wreath laying ceremony at the Shetland Bus memorial.
Also present were three Norwegians, including Sverre Syverson, who served in the private wartime navy that used fishing boats to smuggle refugees out and fighters, weapons and equipment back in to the occupied country.
“For me it is very natural to celebrate Norway’s national day in Shetland because there are such close historic ties between our two countries dating back to the Viking era when we were part of the same kingdom and during the Second World War,” the prime minister said.
“It has been very touching to meet people who participated in the Shetland Bus operation and open this museum which tells the story of this important lifeline between occupied Norway and the free world.
“It is important for Shetland and Norway that we remember that important part of our history.”
On Wednesday Mr Stoltenberg arrived in Scalloway on board a Norwegian navy vessel and paid a visit to the Walter and Joan Gray Eventide Home, which played a major role in the Shetland Bus operation.
That evening he attended a civic dinner at Lerwick Town Hall hosted by former SIC convener Sandy Cluness, where chief executive Alistair Buchan presented the prime minister with a Bobby Robertson painting of a Shetland Bus vessel passing the Ward of Bressay.
On Thursday hundreds of local people braved the rain to join local and Norwegian dignitaries, including Scottish local government minister Bruce Crawford and Lord Wallace of Tankerness, in a parade from Scalloway primary school to the Shetland Bus memorial, where Reverend Magnus Williamson led prayers.
At the museum opening, local children dressed up to tell George Peterson’s story of the first Shetland lace shawl before presenting just such a shawl to Mr Stoltenberg’s grateful wife Ingrid, who herself had come dressed in national costume.
Scalloway museum had been housed for years on the village’s main street, in a building which found it hard to cope with 10,000 visitors a year, many from Norway itself.
The Shetland Bus Friendship Society under the guidance of former SIC development director Jack Burgess spent 10 years raising £750,000 to convert a former knitwear factory beside Scalloway Castle.
They only managed to complete the building work thanks to a £350,000 interest free bridging loan from Shetland Charitable Trust pending a grant from the Scottish government’s rural development programme.
Shetland Bus Friendship Society secretary and former councillor John Nicolson said the new museum had brought a new pride back to the village, which has suffered so many economic blows over the past few years.
“Local folk certainly feel proud of this project and of course it reminds them of their heritage, which somehow or other has maybe been forgotten – and that has reinforced the fabric of the community.”
He explained that they had never expected to attract such a high profile figure when they first approached the Norwegian embassy for a dignitary to open the museum.
“We were planning for the 18th of May to avoid a conflict with the Norwegian national celebrations on the 17th. Then we got an email saying if we could change it to the 17th they believed Jens Stoltenberg could be here.
“It was quite exciting. Someone mentioned the word ‘coup’, but it just came that way.”
One man for whom the occasion had special meaning was Stephen Howarth, whose father David was second in command of the Shetland Bus and wrote the famous book about the operation.
Mr Howarth said his father, who would have been 100 this year, would have been proud to see the new museum being opened by Norway’s prime minister.
“This museum is a wonderful achievement and a very impressive tribute to the tenacity of the volunteers who have pulled together over 10 years to bring it to reality,” Mr Howarth said.
“It’s incredibly impressive that Mr Stoltenberg has chosen to come here on Norway’s national day and so many other Norwegians as well.
“It really shows the depth and power of the relationship between Shetland and Norway.”
While Mr Stoltenberg was in Shetland, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond was in Norway making an announcement about investment in a new deep water quay for decommissioning oil rigs at Dales Voe, north of Lerwick.
The Norwegian leader said he was keen to develop co-operation between the two countries.
He also appreciated the warm welcome he had received from islanders, many of whom feel a stronger connection with their Scandinavian than their Scottish neighbours.
However when asked if Norway would ever consider taking the islands back if they rejected being part of an independent Scotland, he said it was not a discussion he wanted to enter into.
“I think the basis of any relationship is that we don’t raise that kind of question because that only creates uncertainty.
“We appreciate having good neighbours and Shetland is a very good neighbour and we want to work closely with the people of Shetland.”
The prime minister leaves Shetland on Thursday afternoon heading for Faroe.
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