Voters have been heading to polling stations in the isles to elect political representatives to various bodies for almost two centuries, and now a council-funded project has brought together the results of every single election staged here.
The research, which has led to the creation of an online digital database of all Shetland’s election results, was carried out with the aid of an SIC grant by student James Stewart and was completed earlier this month.
The fruits of his labour, beginning with the Lerwick Town Council election of 1818 and ending with this May’s European elections, can be viewed at Shetland’s online encyclopedia Shetlopedia.
Archivist Brian Smith lauded the “very detailed and careful” work which Mr Stewart has put into drawing all the information together. “Nothing like this has ever been done,” he said. “It’s superb to have it at the click of a button, very easy to use and important to have all that information in one place.”
The first town council elections saw Arthur Edmondston appointed as senior bailie, with George Linklater as junior bailie, along with nine councillors some 191 years ago. But at that time only a very small number of people, mainly property owners, had the right to elect town councillors.
On the national stage, things were even less democratic with no-one in Shetland having the right to vote prior to the 1832 Reform Act, meaning the MP was elected exclusively by owners of land in Orkney. Mr Smith said: “No Shetlander had the vote unless they had a lot of land in Orkney. The reason for that was that Shetland didn’t have a proper valuation of land and therefore there was no legal right.”
He continued: “The county council election in 1890 is the first really democratic election held in Shetland. There are national elections held after the third Reform Act in the 1880s where a very large number of Shetlanders voted for the first time, then the arrival of full suffrage in the 1920s [followed by the election of] Shetland’s first woman county councillor in 1935. It’s a very, very interesting survey of the way things changed in Shetland – a terrific piece of work.”
National elections date back to the early 1830s when Whig George Trail won the seat and three years later when Tory candidate Thomas Balfour ousted him by 30 votes in a participating electorate of only 198. That was in stark contrast to the last general election, in 2005, which saw Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael maintain his party’s hegemony after winning 9,138 of the 17,742 votes cast for eight different candidates in Orkney and Shetland.
Such is the Liberals’ dominance that next February will be the 60th anniversary of Jo Grimond overturning a 1945 defeat to Conservative Basil Neven-Spence, since when a Liberal or Liberal Democrat candidate has been habitually returned to the Orkney and Shetland seat – invariably with a thumping majority.
From 1890 onwards, Mr Smith explained, it became a “pretty democratic situation” with large numbers of men and some women given the right to vote for the first time. The inaugural County Council elections were staged that year, with 27 seats contested by 40 candidates – although four seats did not have any nominations.
The isles have still yet to elect a female parliamentarian, but 1935 was something of a seminal year as it saw the first women elected to both Lerwick Town Council and the County Council. Coming seven years after women were granted the right to vote on the same terms as men, Charlotte Nicol won 512 votes in a field with six men to become one of the town councillors in November that year.
A month later, Selina Garrick convincingly defeated James Mouat to take the Tingwall seat, although equality of representation still remains some way off today with women making up only five of the current 22 SIC councillors.
In 1974, the County Council and Lerwick Town Council were merged to form Shetland Islands Council as a result of changes brought in by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. In the first SIC elections, a host of well-known public figures were successful at the ballot box including Edward Thomason, A I Tulloch and James Irvine.
Latterly there has also been the introduction of elections to the Scottish Parliament every four years, and new regional ballots for the European Parliament, both beginning in 1999. Current MSP Tavish Scott has comfortably won all three Scottish elections here, being returned to Holyrood with a massive 66.7 per cent of votes cast in May 2007.
Mr Stewart, who has just started his fourth year of a degree in politics at Aberdeen University, thanked Mr Smith and other staff at the archives for helping him “immensely” in carrying out the research. In order to find many of the election results, Mr Stewart had to pore painstakingly through microfilm copies of The Shetland Times and The Shetland News because no official records, particularly for the earlier elections, existed.
“Since neither the archives or the council had a record of even the dates of elections and by-elections, it was no easy task,” he said. “The [papers] are on microfilm which … can be grainy, damaged and difficult to read, particularly for someone with bad eyesight.”
Mr Stewart noted that, while Shetland has “never been at the forefront of some sweeping change or had an unusual structure to our politics”, the Westminster constituency of Orkney & Shetland has existed with the same boundaries since 1707 and is the only constituency to be protected by law.
• The database is searchable by year, election and individual constituency and can be accessed at: http://shetlopedia.com/Politics