BY JOHN ROBERTSON
IF THERE is one thing certain about Stuart Hill it is his ability to generate headlines, although he will need to be careful to avoid a final curtain call for himself on the treacherous waters of Papa Sound. This is, after all, Captain Calamity, a man popular myth suggests should embark on no more nautical a mission than searching the suds for his bath soap.
Assuming no sea-crossing calamity (and he knows people are almost wishing for one), he is certain to produce more sensational stories from the stunts he plans for the near future with Forvik, the best of which he is keeping secret for now. But it is the old uncertainties surrounding this 65-year-old English enigma which seem of more importance right now to Shetlanders. Sample these: is he a nutter, a crank, a nuisance, as publicly caricatured, or a bold crusader for truth and justice, as he views himself?
Is he a liability in a boat or a skilled, safety-conscious and brave adventurer not so far removed from our homegrown sailing hero Andrew Halcrow?
Is he a serial failure, lurching hopelessly from one daft scheme to the next or is he instead an original thinker, a risk-taker possessed of the sort of estimable ingenuity the Shetland economy is crying out for?
Ultimately for Shetland the most important uncertainty does surround his claim that we can legally quit Scotland, the UK and the EU overnight (should we wish to). Or is the idea, as surely most assume, preposterous hokum? The answer to that is what Mr Hill has embarked on his biggest voyage to discover and it is one to leave to the lawyers and other big people.
On Tuesday I steamed off on a more modest trip to find answers to those more-personal uncertainties about the bearded man himself. The inquisition kicked off on the road out to his boat at Sandness for a proposed tour of Forvik. I figured his biggest challenge right now is not establishing historical fact about Shetland’s ownership status or, as he would have it, proving a deliberate deceit by our rulers down the centuries. It is in persuading the people of Shetland that he is not the laughing stock of the 21st century and is deserving of at least a closer hearing.
Stuart Hill’s reputation was rock-bottom when he was flown to safety here in 2001 and it has somehow succeeded in sinking even lower since. While the internet world fawns over his Forvik escapade, pinging messages of support his way by the hundred (plus £4,000 so far), it’s safe to assume the rump of Shetland’s native population is, let’s be brutally honest, cursing the antics of this most unloved of settlers. That might be unpalatable but it is close to the truth. Witness, as a small sample, the venomous personal slagging from a stream of anonymous contributors to the Shetlink website, which has hosted a number of discussions about him.
Elsewhere, people are worrying what Mr Hill has already done to Shetland’s dignity worldwide by his declaration of independence and he has only just got started on that mission.
It turns out he is well aware of his credibility problem but he laughs about his Englishness impeding local people’s support for him. “Bloody English coming here interfering!” he says.
“Before I came [to Shetland] I had absolutely no interest in either history or politics. In England it doesn’t seem to have any relevance to daily life but here to me it seems to impinge directly on everybody’s daily life and I suppose I feel some kind of surrogate responsibility for what the UK has done to Shetland over these past years and a need to do something to redress the situation. It is, I think, a deliberate and continuous abuse of power that they don’t actually have. My contention is that we have at the moment an illegal administration.”
He was – and continues to be – vilified for wasting Coastguard and lifeboat service time after a string of call-outs during his successful single-handed non-stop sailing trip in a 14-foot sailing boat from Suffolk to Unst. But, as he says, the call-outs while sailing up the English coast were not instigated by him. They were sparked by members of the public seeing his tiny boat about a mile offshore with its windsurf board sail and believing that he must be a windsurfer in trouble. He did not need help but the press seized on the story and gave birth to the nickname he is stuck with today.
The genuine emergency only occurred after he left Unst, heading for St Kilda, when he capsized in a gale off the Schiehallion oil field. The boat, which he had adapted, was designed to be self-righting. But his downfall was that he failed to test its stability when loaded and it had not flipped back upright when he really needed it to.
He says he has been sailing since he was 12 and he knows what he is doing with boats. “You could not have equipped a boat better than that one,” he told me, adding that it had been given a gold sea safety award by the RNLI after he had converted and equipped it with all the latest gear, including multiple navigation systems and radio.
“People call me Captain Calamity but I’m no fool,” he maintains. “What would people pay to have that kind of name? It’s a bit of fun isn’t it. I’m not offended by it.”
Surprisingly he doesn’t see that it undermines any credibility he hopes to amass.
By his own account he made a modest start to his career. After growing up in Reading he drove vans and helped convert houses in Bromley. This did not particularly impress his father, an engineer with the dubious status of being the man who pressed the button on Britain’s early nuclear test explosions, including at Christmas Island and Woomera.
The young Stuart Hill also became involved in designing double-glazing and established himself as a shop-fitter, doing work for stores in London’s Oxford Street until the firm ran into problems.
He fell into blacksmithery after buying a house in Claydon which had its own forge. His self-taught skills were unorthodox, which quickly became their strong point, leading him to innovate and come up with unusual techniques and award-winning products. Such was his individuality and reputation that a German architect planning to write a book about blacksmiths dedicated the whole volume to Mr Hill’s work instead.
Five of his works were apparently acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. He went on to establish a pioneering metal fencing company Claydon Architecture Metalwork which is still going strong today and, in another twist to a varied career, he ran an internet directory company which sank when the first dot.com recession came along.
Adding another flourish to his life and times, he built a castle-style house in the Kyrenian mountains in the Turkish sector of Cyprus. In Shetland he set up the free Shetland Independent Newsletter, cheekily entitling it Shetland newsletter of the year. He tried to run a local voting system on topical issues, called Da Muckle Poll, but with little success.
His lack of acclaim from his ventures in Shetland may be why not one islander has so far parted with £120 to buy a tiny plot of Forvik’s 2.5 acres, securing the right to vote on its future and on how its money should be spent. Surely there should be at least one person in Shetland willing to have a gamble, even just to become the first to know what Mr Hill is to get up to next?
He admits the abscence of local cash backing has been disappointing. “I’m not surprised. Having a Shetland partner has made me very much aware that Shetland people don’t like to stick their heads above the parapet. They don’t like to be in the limelight. I think it’s been bred in over the centuries. I’m exactly the opposite. If I find something that I think is not right, I will try and do something about it.”
To some that will seem a patronising and offensive comment but others might admit he has a point, to a degree. The example he most uses is the power of the lairds down the generations to throw a tenant off the land if he stepped out of line. “It engendered in the crofters themselves that fear of authority and that unwillingness to stick their heads up and say anything.”
Yet he has no popular local support for his cause. There is no clamour for an independent Shetland and he admits nobody local has asked him to stoke up confrontation, opening up a potential Pandora’s box of trouble in the process.
“It is difficult in a sense because Shetland is comfortable enough not to have to have a revolution, not to have to have those kind of feelings. But at the same time if I’m seeing what I think is a basic, fundamental injustice – that’s what drives me to try and do something about it and I really do believe that what I’m doing can be not only to the benefit of Shetland but to other communities as well.”
My car noses into Sandness and he catches his first glimpse of the day of Forvik and swells with pride. But even as we sit dissecting his arguments the wind stiffens noticeably, the white horses kick up in the sound and it becomes obvious a crossing would be foolhardy. Instead we inspect his boat-building handiwork and I chance asking him whether indeed he is a nutter.
He doesn’t help his case by claiming he will live to 117 – twice the age he was on his arrival in Shetland in 2001 at which point he feels his life began again.
His wife took that opportunity to sell the family home in Suffolk and move to France without him. His two children, in their 30s, think he is “crazy”, he says. But he is loving his escapade and says being out working in Forvik is thrilling and great exercise, making him feel like a 12-year-old.
He says he can absolutely understand the suspicion that many have that he is a nutter. “Until I am successful in any of these actions that will not change. I don’t have any illusions about that. I’m not asking for people to follow me, join me or anything until I can show them the benefits of doing so and then I won’t even have to ask.
“What I do see is a basic injustice that for whatever reason I have acquired the knowledge to do something about. It’s not up to me to tell the Shetland people what to do. My responsibility is to say: here is a door, if you want to open it then open it. If you don’t then I will simply go away.”
He has not had much encouragement so far to pursue this task and, once pressed, he admits he would eventually give up flogging an unwilling horse. “If, after I have finished demonstrating with Forvik how beneficial a Crown dependency status could be to Shetland, people do not want to follow that path then as far as I’m concerned my job is done – I have fulfilled my obligation and I would willingly step down and simply go away.”
Some internet messagers, eventually realising Forvik was not some idyllic paradise but a featureless wart of rock and long grass, have been accusing him of perpetrating a fraud to line his own pockets. He, of course, denies this although he will take some of the money generated as recompense for the work he is doing for Forvik.
To prove it’s no get-rich-quick con he claims that an American corporation offered him £2.4 millon to buy the whole isle and its 8,000 land holdings.
“I simply am not interested. It’s far too important to me the principle of this and it is not to do with some big corporation taking it over for international banking and casinos. That would have been an easy option and many people would not have thought twice about it – neither did I. I didn’t even consider accepting that proposal.”
Perhaps he could have used the money to buy a more viable island, I suggest, such as Mousa with its official residence ready and waiting. Or the cash would be useful for hiring eminent barristers when his day comes in court.
He thinks there may be bigger islands around Shetland which might want to declare themselves Crown dependencies and take in some of the volunteers who have been asking to come to tiny Forvik to provide their services as builders, doctors, nurses and business managers.
“It’s equally possible for any person in Shetland to declare their property a Crown dependency because it already is. It would be good if they federated with Forvik and we started to have, if you like, an alternative Shetland.
“I’m not advocating by any means a revolution. The whole thing could slide into a Crown dependency without any disruption simply by people saying ‘this is what we want’. If there are sufficient people here demanding the return of that status how can it be refused?”
Yet it still seems odd to embark on such an ambitious venture on Shetland’s behalf while lacking any local foot soldiers on his side. He believes there is that groundswell of support in the background, evidenced by people like the Shetland man who stopped him in the Co-op the other day offering himself as a recruit for Hill’s army.
He has had emails of support from locals and he has a number of people, including native-born Shetlanders, that he is in regular contact with, principally the supporters of Soul, his pro-udal law group.
“I think they are representative of a much larger underbelly of support for this kind of action and I think all it needs is for me to be publicly successful against the authorities in one aspect and that support will visibly grow.”
He mentions SIC convener Sandy Cluness, a long-time supporter of the defunct Shetland Movement, which campaigned for more autonomy for Shetland. Mr Cluness has expressed interest in where Mr Hill gets to. For his part, Mr Hill says many of the convener’s aspirations for Shetland, like restoring control over its services, would follow naturally if the islands asserted their right to be recognised as a Crown dependency.
“I find myself in total agreement with Sandy’s aims but in total disagreement with his methods because my belief is that Shetland already has the power, it only needs to be asserted to achieve all of those things whereas he sees a need to fit within the existing framework and go and ask permission to do these things.”
The perfect example he cites is the Crown Estate, which charges rent for an array of activities around Shetland’s coastline, including use of marinas, fish farms, the laying of pipes and cables or the building of a pier.
Mr Hill says: “We don’t have to ask for the Crown Estate to go away we just have to tell them to go away. Put them in court and ask them how they think they have title.”
That, of course, has already been tried by local salmon farmers in the 1980s among others, without success, but Mr Hill says there are many lawyers who believe those verdicts were unsafe, relying on proof of ownership which simply does not exist.
Throwing a few more charges in his direction I discover he is not a monarchist nor a religious zealot, viewing organised religions with the same deep suspicion he harbours for any force seeking to concentrate power and exercise control over people; he is political but is not the sort of Home Counties Tory his anti-EU views might suggest. He claims no party allegiance, although he does credit former Orkney and Shetland Tory candidate John Firth with sparking his interest in whether udal law might be reapplied in the Northern Isles to banish the Crown Estate and its revenue-raising taxes.
He believes the British people are currently having a new injustice perpetrated on them by the government, the police, the EU and other forces in the shape of the erosion of democracy and personal freedoms, commonly in the name of fighting crime or terrorism.
His worst vitriol is reserved for the EU which he holds responsible for trying to suffocate British life, citing the example of crofting and a requirement that sheep trailers do not have ramps with an incline of more than 12 degrees. “That has caused no end of cost to people using double-deck containers. They’ve had to change all their equipment in order to comply with this regulation. If a sheep cannot go up steeper than a 12 degree ramp it should not be going on the lorry!”
How the Forvik adventure translates into his fight against the EU might not be obvious but he says: “It all boils down to trying to find a way to give people the confidence in themselves to stand up and say ‘no, I don’t want this’. In a society like this it is difficult because nobody wants to actually stand up.”
He believes only a small number of people perpetuate these wrongs and it would take only a small number to stand the other way and bring about change. For his cause he says he would not be ashamed to go to prison.
His positive thinking helps him a great deal in believing his goals are achievable and he points out that all new ideas face an uphill struggle. “First of all you’re ignored then you’re ridiculed, then you are getting violent opposition before it becomes accepted as the norm.”
Spending four hours up close to this man had never been near the top of my “To Do” list but to my surprise I found myself coming away rather charmed and hoping that in some way his big theory does turn out to have some basis in truth (or law). Back at the office a cynical colleague blinked in disbelief and asked if
I’d been hypnotised out there. Well, would I know for sure if I had?