Past Life: A flag for Shetland

From Shetland Life, January 1986, No.63

Ten years after the issue was last raised Shetland Islands Council is to make a final decision on the question of a flag for Shetland. The issue has dragged on far too long with the result that two entirely different flags are being flown from the mast-heads of Shetland fishing vessels, each pretending to be the “Shetland” flag, but without official blessing both are entirely meaningless.
The story goes back to 1969 and the celebrations that marked the 500th anniversary of Shetland being mortgaged to Scotland. Two students in Aberdeen, Roy Grønneberg and Bill Adams, decided that it would be a good idea for Shetland to have its own regional flag – not to displace the Union jack but merely as a community flag to symbolise the islands’ unique history. They decided on the Scottish national colours, blue and white, and the cross that is common to all Scandinavian countries. The resulting white cross against a blue background symbolises Shetland’s links with both Scotland and Denmark.

In July 1975, after Shetland Islands Council had taken over the functions of both Zetland County Council and Lerwick Town Council, Mr Grønneberg wrote to the director of administration pointing out that the ZCC flag was no longer valid. He enclosed the design he and Mr Adams had drawn up six years earlier.
The SIC responded by forming a flag committee of five members drawn from the public with Mr Patrick Regan as chairman. After two meetings several designs had emerged as contenders and in the resulting confusion the flag committee died a natural death.

There the matter rested until last year when Shetland’s tourist officer, Maurice Mullay, visited Sweden as part of a promotional campaign. He was asked if Shetland had a special regional flag and he remembered the Grønneberg/Adams design with its Scandinavian association which immediately appealed to his Swedish hosts. As a result two Swedish yachts that visited Lerwick last summer flew the blue and white “Shetland” flag out of courtesy from their mast-heads.
Later in the year this flag flew, along with those of other islands, to mark Shetland’s participation in the inter-island games in the Isle of Man. Since then several of the new boats that have joined the Shetland fleet sport the Grønneberg/Adams design on their shelterdecks.

The only serious rival to this flag is the design drawn up by Mr Donnie Williamson of Lerwick, who has chosen the Scandinavian cross in white against a blue background and superimposed on the centre of the cross a red square. Mr Williamson claims that the symbolism embodied in this flag is more complete than that of the other. To begin with, the colours are those of the Union Jack and also the national colours of our nearest neighbours, Norway, Faroe and Iceland. Mr Williamson’s flag had also been seen on several occasions and has been adopted as the “Shetland” flag by some skippers.

The attitude of our fishermen adds urgency to the whole question. They clearly see the need for a special flag and it is up to the council to act as quickly as possible to remove the present confusion. The fishermen had been influenced by their counterparts on the mainland who for some time have been using the Scottish Saltire as their own regional flag flown from their mast-heads and painted on their shelterdecks.

Last month Shetland Islands Council decided to hold a postal referendum so that the public could choose which of the designs they prefer. The trouble with a referendum is that it takes time to organise, not to mention the cost (nearly £4,000) of sending ballot papers to all of Shetland’s 15,900 voters, plus printing and administration costs. It is understood that councillor John Graham will be trying to reverse the council’s decision and will seek, instead, for a small sub-committee to select a flag.

It seems, however, that a final decision rests not with the SIC but with the Court of Lord Lyon which does not look kindly on people flying a flag that is not on the statutory register. Assuming that the council eventually pick a design for a community flag they will have to apply to the Court of Lord Lyon to have it registered. This flag could then be flown in the islands and used for badges and car stickers and as a design for tourist souvenirs. Scottish Tourist Board chairman, Alan Devereux, has already pointed out that this could be a “great marketing idea” and he is wholeheartedly behind the proposal. However, if vessels choose to fly such a flag at sea the issue becomes more complicated since permission has to be sought from the Admiralty.

It seemed a good idea at the time to set up a committee to choose a flag for Shetland but none of those concerned could have foreseen the problems they were creating for themselves.



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