“Shetland is changing, the long familiar life-style based on our modest natural resources being replaced by an affluence which depends ultimately on the riches of North Sea oil. This is a good time for taking stock of our situation, for trying to see where we are going while taking a realistic backward look at what is being left behind.”
So began the very first editorial in this magazine, 30 years ago this month. And it was right: Shetland was changing, and changing fast. The oil industry, which was then only in its infancy here, transformed these islands. It brought great wealth; it brought people and employment; and it brought choices.
Three decades on, the benefits of those changes are palpable. Ours is a community of high wages, low unemployment, enviable local services, and few of the real hardships of yesteryear. But not every change has been good. Today the islands are blighted by the same levels of crime, drug use and mental health problems that exist in any other part of Britain. And the losses are real too – the things left behind. Those who can look back to a time before oil will remember a kind of community life that has been pushed aside by the frantic individualism of the present day.
There are few, though, who would choose to turn the clock back.
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Shetland today lies on the edge of another era, led by yet another industry.
Wind power, for some, represents our best hope for maintaining the lifestyle to which we have now become accustomed. For councillors, certainly, the Viking Energy project is seen as a magic pill – money for nothing – which can allow us to go on just as we are, without the necessity for thought or for change.
What we risk losing now cannot be expressed in numbers – not in pounds, nor in tonnes of CO2 – and so it will be ignored. Many Shetlanders feel a deep sense of betrayal over this project. Initial promises that the wind farm would only go ahead given community support turned out, of course, to be lies. Councillors and other backers had assumed that the public would just roll over and say “yes please” when the millions were mentioned. They simply never accounted for the possibility that money might not buy acquiescence.
And so we move forward awkwardly, dividedly. A decision that will affect the future of every person living on these islands will be taken by someone in Edinburgh, someone whose eye is only on the numbers – the pounds, the tonnes – and not on the place itself, or its people.
History suggests that the interests of industry almost invariably win out over all other interests, and so, barring any last minute surprises, that person in Edinburgh will most likely put a tick in the box that will change our hills forever. The gut reaction that many felt when they first digested the details of this project – that untranslatable sense of attachment to the land, and of revulsion at its proposed disfigurement ¬– will turn then to a knot in the stomach.
But no matter which way the decision goes, there will be many who believe adamantly and sincerely that it has gone the wrong way. The division of this community will perhaps be Viking Energy’s most malignant legacy, and it is a legacy that money cannot begin to overcome. The community will have to do that work itself.
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Nationally, things are changing too. Having spent all the country’s cash propping up a financial sector that did not deserve to be propped up, the government in Westminster is now going to cut, drastically, the money that is spent on its citizens.
These cuts, according to some leading economists, are ill-advised. They will kick an economy that is already on its knees. But many Tories have been waiting a long time for this moment, and the Liberal Democrats will, it seems, do just about anything for a shot on the front bench. So the cuts will happen.
As the threatened loss of the coastguard tugs demonstrates, Shetland will not be immune to these cuts. Changes are coming and we must meet them head on, with a clear understanding of what we want from our community and of what we have to lose.
Now is a good time for taking stock.