Past Life: Are we, in fact, British?

From Shetland Life, August 1984, No.46

By Henry A. Stewart

The boundaries of countries have been, from time immemorial, decided on the field of battle or by conflict on the high seas. As far as Britain is concerned two such conquests, namely Falklands and Gibraltar, still cause much international tension, fomented by countries who feel slighted by the British presence on their doorstep. Hitherto international law has respected the conqueror but there is evidence now that today’s power politics might well reverse this trend and it is quite possible that Britain could lose the two places mentioned without a further shot being fired. Knowing full well the outcome of a ballot by the inhabitants, Britain says, quite rightly in my opinion, the question of sovereignty will be decided by the people who live there.

Shetland’s case is unique; there was no conquest. A very knowledgeable and responsible man, over 175 years ago, wrote: “The annexation of the islands of Orkney and Zetland by act of Parliament to the crown of Scotland, appears to have been made without the formal concurrence of the king of Denmark; for we nowhere find an express renunciation of his right to them.”

There is written evidence that Denmark claimed the islands no fewer than seven times, culminating in 1667, when the following effect was introduced into treaty. “That the suspension of the restitution of the said islands (Orkney and Zetland) should not operate to the prejudice of his most serene and powerful Majesty, the king of Denmark and Norway, nor diminish his right to recover them, which they acknowledge to remain open, entire and uninfringed, and which he may prefer at a more convenient time.” The writer went on to call it: “A clause which leaves open the right to redeem the islands by any of the Danish monarchs, and no argument can be fairly drawn in opposition to it from any discussion previous to that treaty.” As far as the law of sedition was concerned our writer of 1800 was sailing vey close to the wind, and, having got his message across, his last paragraph goes: “But the silence of the kings of Denmark on this subject since 1667 (then approximately only 140 years) has surely buried the claim in prescription, and it may now be considered as for ever lost.”

It appears that the annexation of the islands to the British Crown was and remains, in international terms, an illegal act committed by politicians who claimed by any or every devious means every part of the earth known to mankind, leaving us, the debris in our instance, wondering whether morally and constitutionally, we are still part of Denmark, or, in the best of British tradition, remembering our fallen comrades, and just taking it for granted that we belong to the British Crown. The claim of Argentina to their Malvinas or Spain to Gibraltar would not nearly be so justified as one Denmark could make for our islands, and, presumably, we who live here would make the ultimate decision.

Obviously the only way we could decide is by comparing our treatment by Britain with what we could expect from Denmark. If the cases of Faroe, and now Greenland, can be cited, and fishing waters taken as a yardstick, we would be infinitely better off with Denmark. If, however, we judge our prosperity from dubious handouts, there seems every reason to remain the way we are.

Only when we are about to be hammered by punitive legislation do the chickens come home to roost, and the day is now passed, with oil supplies in full swing, or about to wane, when the obsequious polished approach will not have the slightest effect on Home Office motives. I have long favoured a more militant stance to keep our heads above water and regret that Shetland is not to be represented at the Small Nations Conference in Lapland.

It would seem no harm to remind the Secretary of State that Britain is being kept out of the red, depending on one’s way of thinking, by the oil of Scotland, or Shetland, or even Denmark if you start thinking about past wrongs. It would also be appropriate to remind him that it is unwise to kill the goose that lays the golden egg, for some day this goose may follow migrational trends and fly away when the time suits.


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