Decision time for Shetland? (Duncan Kerr)

Last week as the Scotland bill made its way slowly through Parliament Lord Caithness tabled some controversial amendments. His intervention drew a rapid response from the SNP  that quickly descended into personal attacks.

So what was it that had provoked such a reaction? It wasn’t the amendment on Rockall that drew their ire, instead it was the proposal that should Scotland vote “yes” but Shetland vote “no” to independence in 2014 then the Shetlanders should be given the option to stay in the UK. In short he was suggesting that the people of Shetland could choose a different path from Scotland.

This is sensitive terrain for nationalists and unionists alike. Nationalists are afraid of loosing their grip on the oil wealth that lies in Shetland’s waters. Any transfer of additional power north would threaten a source of income upon which the finances of an independent Scotland would be heavily reliant.

For these reasons nationalists will be determined to shut this subject down in the coming months, asserting that a lack of demand makes the question not worth being asked. Unionists are also wary of dipping their toes into this subject for a similar reason. Fear of a Shetland renaissance could well result in a Scottish “no” in 2014 but if the price to pay for defeating one nationalist cause was the generation of another then unionists may well think twice.

As the SNP reaction to Lord Caithness also showed, anyone from outside the islands raising the prospect of Shetland self-determination are at risk from being labelled as outsiders meddling in bad faith and not having the interests of the islanders at heart. This questioning of motivation or mandate cannot detract, however, from the fact that what is at issue is a fundamental right recognised in the UN charter: the right to self-determination.

Theoretically at least the range of constitutional arrangements open to Shetland, either alone or with Orkney, is wide. The default position if no action is taken is that Shetland would remain incorporated within Scotland as it becomes independent or stays in the UK.

The Lord Caithness amendment opened up the possibility of leaving Scotland and remaining in the UK. If Shetland were to find itself in the position of being allowed to choose between these two then the prospect of looser relationships would suddenly become available as both sides sought to improve their offering.

Greater autonomy and devolution are likely to be available but so too could crown dependency or overseas territory status. These would allow Shetland to share a currency and defence but be independent in all other matters. This could for example even allow for leaving the EU or sharing sovereignty with Norway without having to establish a central bank or navy. Ultimately of course the option of full independence would also exist.

Shetlanders are faced with an opportunity to shape their future that they have never had before and may never have again. The nationalist reaction to Lord Caithness’ intervention also hinted at the attitude Holyrood would take to a Shetland after independence. Shetland, it was declared, was “as much Scottish as Thurso or Tain”. Waiting for the dust to settle after 2014 could therefore be waiting for the opportunity to pass.

Without Shetlanders speaking up now while the terms of the 2014 referendum are being settled then Shetland will remain tied to Scotland for richer or for poorer. Neither the nationalists nor the unionists will, for their different reasons, take this question forward.

If you support the default option then you need take no action. If, however, you support a different constitutional status, whatever that may be, or simply the right to be asked to decide then now is the time to mobilise and make your voice heard.

Duncan Kerr




Add Your Comment
  • Tom Neal

    • February 6th, 2012 14:20

    The question for Shetlanders is essentially economic. If the oil wealth beneath the waters that surround these beautiful island is substantial over the long haul, then, of course, the opportunity to consider independence should not be wasted. If, on the other hand, the oil wealth is short-lived (?), then Shetland would be well advised to look at an option that best suits the circumstances of this and following generations. In any case, one hopes that Shetland’s leaders will be astute enough to negotiate a better future for Shetlanders than is currently in the offing.

    Thanks for listening,

    Tom Neal

  • John Lamont

    • February 6th, 2012 14:27

    I’m from Lerwick born and bred.

    It has not escaped Shetlanders attention that the only interest in the Northern Isles from Unionists is greed, and to conspire to keep oil revenue flowing to London, not Edinburgh.

    If oil was not a factor, not one Unionist would give two hoots about Shetland, Scottish independence or not.

    The very fact that someone based in London is trying to float the idea of partition a la Northern Ireland say much about the real motives.

    Ugly ugly stuff. This will backfire badly, and rightly so.

  • Tom Neal

    • February 6th, 2012 16:12


    You are absoutely right and that is why it’s so important for Shetlanders to determine their own destiny . . . without interference from Holyrood or Westminster.
    Shetland is, irrespective of political greed from without, a nation of its own . . . with its own unique heritage, its own hard-working independence-minded people, and its own natural resources.
    If we forget, Holyrood and Westminster will prevail.
    If we remember, Shetland prevails.

    Thanks for listening,

    Tom Neal

  • Andy Smith

    • February 6th, 2012 16:37

    As a Scot I have always regarded Shetland as a unique place – in Scotland for administrative purposes but with its own culture and heritage, part Norse and part Scottish. It will always be the aim of the British establishment, through the unelected House of Lords, to attempt to unpick Scotland – partition has always been the imperialist approach and has laid the foundations for much of the strife we see today in the middle East and Africa. No matter what happens come the referendum, let Shetland and Scotland go forward together, to the mutual benefit of both.

  • Tom Neal

    • February 6th, 2012 16:58


    Your point is well taken. I wish I could have put it as well as you did.
    That said, I wonder . . . is Holyrood capable of working as hard to protect Shetland’s interests as it will obviously work to protect Scotland’s interests?
    I look forward to your response.

    Thanks for listening,

    Tom Neal

  • John Lamont

    • February 6th, 2012 23:28

    Proportionally we will see much more of our oil if Edinburgh is the seat of Government, rather than London.

    My family has Norse origins but, like many Shetlanders I see my self both as a Shetlander and Scottish, rather than British.

    London is only out for what it can gain from Shetland, rest assured. If there was no oil involved they wouldn’t care less. Why isn’t it making the same fuss about the Western Isles?

    Scary stuff.

  • Duncan Kerr

    • February 7th, 2012 10:16

    At the moment up and down the UK people on both sides of the referendum debate just presume to speak on behalf of the Shetlanders. As a Scot in exile I take a keen interest in the debate and I’ve seen too many people talking about what Shetlanders want without any apparent authority to do so. I was reluctant to put my location as I thought that would be a detraction. The article was meant to be about seizing the moment and speaking up for yourselves while there is the chance to influence events. Not pushing for one thing or another.

    I meant the article to be balanced and on reflection I could have said more about speaking up for retaining union with Scotland. If as Andy Smith said quite well (well minus the imperialist charge), kinship with Scotland is an overriding factor then articulating this now (perhaps in the consultations) and foregoing self determination would be a positive step. It would smooth out some of the debates in the run up to 2014 and possibly lead to healthy relations between the Isles and Holyrood after 2014 whatever the results of the referendum.

    As to the question posed by John Lamont. Well there is less of a case for the Western Isles being self governing on historic / cultural / geographic grounds but also (apparently) less demand. The principle of self determination is a powerful one and if there was demand it would have to be listened to. The same goes for say Berwick (rejoining Scotland) or Cornwall (splitting from England). Oil plays a part in two opposite ways; first by making the territory concerned a more valuable asset and secondly by making self governance more economically viable. So looking at the Western Isles or Cornwall: without oil self governance looks economic suicide so few people seriously push for it, were oil to be discovered then suddenly that changes at the same time as the other side suddenly don’t want them to leave.

    Incidentally I don’t think it likely that Shetland would choose Westminster over Holyrood without a lot more local control being on offer. As such I think it extremely unlikely that if there was a ‘yes’ in 2014 that the UK would retain any of the oil money which ever way Shetland goes.

  • Colin Hunter

    • February 7th, 2012 14:46

    I find it ironic indeed that, in 1470, it was William Sinclair, the First Earl of Caithness, who was involved with making the Isles “Scottish” in the first place, and the current one is now trying to undo that, and give us the choice of remaining part of the “Union” (read English). If it was not for the presence of some of the worlds richest fishing grounds and oilfields on our doorstep I cannot imagine that there would be any interest in us at all! As has already been said, they don’t seem to care what the Hebridean people think. Wonder why??

    They didn’t give us a second thought when I was a boy in the ’50s and ’60s, when the isles were so poor that most of the menfolk had to leave to find work in the Merchant Navy (When we still had one worthy of the name!) as I did myself in ’71, or at the whaling. Indeed, at one time there were so many Shetlanders at sea, they became known as “North Sea Chinamen”! The only incomers at that time were either servicemen or Doctors, Teachers and other “professional” people. Ordinary working people would never have come here seeking employment simply because there wasn’t any!

    How times change! If you walked along “da Street” (Commercial street in Lerwick for the uninitiated) and heard someone “Knappin” (Speaking English) they were either a “tripper” (tourist) or one of the aforementioned people, or, of course, “Batty” the Soloti’s Ice cream man, who was a Cockney! Now, it is almost as unusual to hear the dialect being spoken!

    Much is made of what “Shetlanders” want, but what IS a Shetlander? I have been accused of xenophobia and even racism because of what I believe constitutes one. My wife (of 26 years) is from Yorkshire and would not take kindly to being though of as such, no more than I would consider myself a “Yorkie” should we ever return to Rotherham to live. A “Sheltie” I am, and always will be! Wherever I am.

    Much is also made of our quality of life and prosperity. It is often said that the prosperity we now enjoy has diluted the old ways and made the isles a much less pleasant place to live than they once were, and that the way of life which was so attractive to people settling here, has been largely destroyed (unintentionally) by the influence of those very people.
    Shetlands destiny will be shaped by whoever can be bothered to go to their Polling Station on the day, and put their X in the relevant box. If they are on the electoral roll they will be entitled to that, whether they are Shetland born, Scottish, English, Irish or indeed anything else. It would be interesting to know how the vote is influenced by the non indigenous population!

  • Eric McLean

    • March 20th, 2012 18:30

    @Colin As you are a ‘sheltie’ anywhere, I am ‘Scottish’ anywhere. Identity is truly important to any man. Similarly, we both believe in the right of Self Determination as is enshrined in UN charter.
    My understanding is that the charter is dependent on culture, geography, identity, language and so on. In other words, there has to be a basis for self-determination to be legitimate. My neighbour and I couldn’t simply declare our houses UDI and float of into the sunset. That would be taking self-determination too far.
    But Scotland and the Shetlands have distinct identities that make Independence reasonable and desired. Like you, but perhaps not as extreme, I recall the ‘leaner’ times. The Shetlands were almost destitute after the Act of Union where trade was limited. Given that and the fact that the Shetlands were originally Norwegian, and that Norway has supported you on many occasions, its hardly surprising that you would choose them over the UK.
    I hope that we both finally get Independence and can work together as neighbours. Never forget that the McCrone report was hidden from Scotland, Westminster will continue to do or say anything to obtain economic, political and pecuniary advantage. Scotland doesn’t need to grab and control resources that are not its to control. We have around five million people. There are sixty million on our doorstep.
    Scotland didn’t want the Act of Union, but the riots in Glasgow and Edinburgh were of no consequence. We have endured 300 years of manipulation, lies and treachery which has led to an impoverished Scotland relative to the South of England.

    I say, go for Independence now. Make alliances and allegiance to countries that you trust. And don’t look back at the UK, if you get the opportunity. Thats what I wish in my heart for Scotland as well. All the best.

    Eric McLean

  • Clifford Boome

    • June 27th, 2012 15:33

    As a proper Scot, I hope the Shetlands go their own way after independence. Just as it doesn’t serve England to continue in union with a Scotland that no longer buys into the British myth, so we Scots should ditch the ethnically fixated Shetlanders and their misconceptions of an otherwise culturally homogenous Scotland. In a lot of respects, it doesn’t surprise me that Shetlanders pine to return to the 1400s.


Add Your Comment

Please note, it is the policy of The Shetland Times to publish comments and letters from named individuals only. Both forename and surname are required.

Comments are moderated. Contributors must observe normal standards of decency and tolerance for the opinions of others.

The views expressed are those of contributors and not of The Shetland Times.

The Shetland Times reserves the right to decline or remove any contribution without notice or stating reason.

Comments are limited to 200 words but please email longer articles or letters to for consideration and include a daytime telephone number and your address. If emailing information in confidence please put "Not for publication" in both the subject line and at the top of the main message.

200 words left

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.