BBC Radio Scotland recently aired a programme about how Shetland’s contemporary culture and society has been influenced by the North Sea oil boom of the 1970s and 80s. It featured several knowledgeable contributors, each of whom sensibly articulated why the isles’ council has joined with its counterparts in Orkney and the Western Isles, under the campaigning banner Our Islands Our Future.
The aim is for certain powers over fisheries, renewable energy developments and control of the seabed to be devolved to the islands, whatever the outcome of the vote on 18 September.
In this context, Shetland has recently become the unfortunate subject of much attention from the London-based media. The reportage is often framed around a reductive set of issues, with the result that the isles – or the ‘Shetlands’ as metropolitan correspondents tend to call them – end up being viewed as a cabinet of curiosities.
Guaranteed to feature highly is the idea that what islanders really want is not devolved powers, but full independence. This will be founded upon the notion that Shetland has plenty of oil money saved up to look after itself. The reality is that the council has been axeing services and closing schools in a desperate attempt to reduce spending. Only two years ago it was drawing £100,000 each day from oil reserves to run day-to-day services. Had this continued, it would have been broke by the end of the decade.
Next is the idea that because some Shetlanders might not feel particularly Scottish or British, gaining full control over their own affairs would make a lot of sense. Yes, there are people from Shetland who speak of having a distinct sense of identity – myself included – but by no means can this be described as a uniform feeling. Many people from many parts of the country will feel rooted to a particular place, yet this does not mean they want to disown their other held identities, whether civic, national, continental, international or otherwise.
Then comes the Scandinavian connection. This is where it will be said that Shetlanders feel uneasy about their history, that they have never quite got over their forced separation from Norway at the hands of a Danish king who pawned the isles to the Scots in the 15th century. It is true that there are cultural links with Scandinavia, some woollier than others, but they are not manifest in any kind of political movement for a Nordic model of governance.
Another certainty is that one or two ardent locals will be found to stand in front of a visiting TV camera and speak in support of any or all of the aforementioned non-realties. They will generally be the same people who expend much ire in sending frosty missives to the local press. These individuals do not have any mandate to speak on behalf of anyone else, for there is not one elected official in the isles calling for Shetland independence. Nor is there any groundswell of grassroots activism campaigning for the same aim.
There is a good chance that the London press will get their facts wrong, as happened recently when the Channel 4 news website ran a piece about what would happen if the isles ‘separatists’ got their way. They got Orkney and Shetland confused on their map, giving one the name and flag of the other. After being made aware of the error, the names were reattributed to their rightful subjects. The flags, however, remained adrift. It might seem a trivial matter, but such carelessness feeds the dread one feels whenever London decides to take an interest in what is going on, or not, up north.
When I worked for BBC Shetland a few years ago, I remember feeling grateful when news came from the south that the isles were to be featured on TV or national radio. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, the focus was usually on a proper local story, something that connected Shetland with Scotland and the wider world. When I later moved to Edinburgh, I made a point of making sure I caught up with any broadcasts from the isles. Now I do my best to avoid them as the media reach for increasingly daft and desperate angles to satisfy the appetite for indyref news.
Thankfully, Shetlanders are more fortunate than many folk on the mainland in having a healthy local media scene, which regularly reports on how islanders are responding to the independence debate. There is a Shetland Yes group, a Shetland No group, a Shetland Women for Independence Group and a Shetland branch of the National Collective arts movement. Just don’t expect to hear about any of them the next time you tune into the six o’clock news and hear the words: ‘Coming to you live from the Shetlands’.
This article was first published in the Scottish Review on 21 May.