aef8p7pgh5mhhv4o7ji0m0l6ebmpnbWhen you go on any journey it is a search for something. On the other hand, as the great Roman Stoic Seneca put it, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” My journey this Summer was a search for Scotland and what it means to me and, a bit like that undertaken by Edwin Muir in his “Scottish Journey” of 1934, I headed North – from Caithness to Orkney and then to Shetland and back again.

I was suffering from a surfeit of babel regarding this somewhere place, cunningly disguised as Scotland, so I needed to get out of my native patch and to return in order to ask myself some questions and to hear other voices. Clarity, stillness, truth, distance: these were my mottoes. Cities were out of the question as they were the opposite of this: loud and too available. I needed clean air and reality. So I headed North. The acoustics of Scottish politics were getting too loud. The foul stench of Brexit, the false choice between two unions, the act of dark hubris that was the Trident vote: each one of these, and more, was like a rivet hammer banging down on the steel of my resistance. Why can’t we be free of this, I asked the fulmars. You can, they answered. So I was off, to find my nation in the places where the idea of Scotland is marginal at best, distant and awkward to most of the people who live in Orkney and Shetland; a place at the edge of our geography but central, I think, to our political future. As to Caithness, I will come to speak of her later.

I needed clean air and reality. So I headed North. The acoustics of Scottish politics were getting too loud. The foul stench of Brexit, the false choice between two unions, the act of dark hubris that was the Trident vote: each one of these, and more, was like a rivet hammer banging down on the steel of my resistance. Why can’t we be free of this, I asked the fulmars. You can, they answered.

Journey or no journey, one thing is clear enough to me: Scotland has a big decision to make and she will have to make it soon. These are the days of wonder and blunder. If a Scottish Government advisor came in to a planning meeting, pre June 2016, with a fictional scenario for a strategy meeting and they had put together something resembling what has happened since the end of June 2016 they would have been laughed out of the room. I fear no-one in Scotland is laughing now, to throw Nigel Farage’s weasel words back at him. Our politics is being dictated and managed by barefooted pantomime actors who are leading us into tragedy – they speak false verses. Quite frankly I am fed up with it. Something fundamental is being missed here. Everyone who reads Bella Caledonia knows what it is.

The Tories in London may have won the Brexit vote even though they lost it – especially in Scotland – but that does not interest them. They are still in power and that is all they concern themselves with. Political commentators may like to split the infinitive over how Theresa May’s government is different form David Cameron’s government and it is a good sport, I’ll grant you, and it fills column inches in newspapers and air time on Tv and radio. But here’s the truth: they are no different from each other. They just are a different sameness – especially in Scotland. They have prayed for a thing and in Brexit it has come their way, but it is a thing, a reality, which is a long way from being their own. Their selfishness will destroy them. What they have seen as an opportunity time and circumstances will withdraw. What then? What do we do in Scotland when the regime in London, so devoid of feeling or empathy, without sincere political, economic and cultural relationships does not so much manage a society but create a prison? At the moment our Scottish political leaders are dithering. They are acting, as was once said by a 17th century critic of my beloved Seneca’s writing style: “as a boare does pisse – scilicet, in jirkes.”

The people, however, have other needs than those which benefit a politician’s career. In Orkney they were cutting silage and baling hay. This is a vital time for these gentle and fertile islands. Cattle and agriculture generally is the mainstay of their economy. Tourism comes a close second but like the weather it can be fickle. The Orcadians have loaned themselves to tourism in a way which can act as both an example and a warning to other places. Their abundant archaeology is a great tourist draw as the daily crowds who visit the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, Maeshowe and now the recently discovered revelation which is the Ness of Brodgar prove. There are many other beautiful places to visit. The countless campervans and cars that drive off the ferries and the hundreds of passengers who disembark from the John O Groats ferry and transfer to coaches swell the traffic visit most of them. Every day during the Summer a cruise liner docks at Kirkwall and if they are too big, as they sometimes are, they anchor out in the bay and the cruise passengers are shipped ashore to mill around Kirkwall like ants. Sometimes I wonder if they actually know where they are.

Certainly, recently, the behaviour of some of them indicates that they don’t. One Saturday as a couple and their families were exiting from their wedding ceremony in St Magnus Cathedral they were besieged by a throng of “tourists” as though they were an exotic species of animal. At a funeral, as the coffin left the cathedral, some cruise liner “visitors” thronged round it taking “selfies” and one demented individual even tried to lift the coffin lid. Now, I will admit, these are maybe random incidents but they do indicate the reality that tourism, when it over exposed to a relatively small place, does corrode and distort the thing it proposes to promote. Tourism and location are not necessarily harmonious. They undertake archaeology in Orkney because it is there to be discovered not because it will benefit the tourist industry although you would be hard pressed to make that distinction. Meanwhile the cattle are in the fields and the population of the islands go about their daily business. That their “daily business” may be changing due to the pressures of tourism is another issue. Who knows but maybe we all secretly worship the things we criticise.

In the EU referendum Orkney was the first Scottish area to declare and with a turnout of 68.4% voted to Remain by 63% which was 7,189 votes as opposed to Leave’s 37% or 4,193 votes. Orkney may be a set of islands off the North coast of Scotland but she is firmly in Europe by recent democracy and by history, tradition and culture.

In the EU referendum Orkney was the first Scottish area to declare and with a turnout of 68.4% voted to Remain by 63% which was 7,189 votes as opposed to Leave’s 37% or 4,193 votes. Orkney may be a set of islands off the North coast of Scotland but she is firmly in Europe by recent democracy and by history, tradition and culture.

As is Shetland. A more contrasting set of islands to Orkney would be hard to imagine. From the Fair Isle to Muckle Flugga the cliffs of Shetland soar up to the sky in a stone hallelujah. Shetland sweeps the sea as if it were a massive ship, like the magical Skidbladnir or Naglfari from Norse myth, so huge that it can contain all the gods and their gear but so ingeniously constructed that you can fold it up like a cloth and put it in your pocket. The reality of the place and the memory of it are like that. If Orkney feels independent Shetland feels like a republic. In Norse it is Hjaltaland, variously meaning “hilt” or even “horse”, from which we get the Scots world “sheltie”, or “cat” as the Gaels referred to Shetland as Inse Cat, or “the island of cats”. No escaping cats in this world. Like everywhere North of Inverness Shetland is etymologically a mixture of Pictish and Norse and this alone makes her European. A cursory glance along the major port that is Lerwick harbour would dispel any doubts as to Shetland’s European position. The last Norse Earl of Shetland and of Orkney, Jon Haraldsson, was murdered in Thurso in 1231. Both sets of islands were pledged by Christian I of Norway and Denmark in 1469 as a dowry for his daughter Margaret who was wedded to James III of Scotland. The islands were claimed by the Scottish crown in perpetuity because the cash side of the deal never materialised. So it has remained ever since. The Union of 1707, the establishment of a Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the drunk dancing of the Brexit vote have all directly affected Shetland and at the same time passed her by.

From the early 15th century Shetland was an important link in the chain of the powerful trading block known as the Hanseatic League. Shetland exported wool, butter and salted fish and imported such things as she needed. This aspect of international trade still influences Shetland. The main industry of fishing, of which mackerel represents a good half, is worth over £80 million a year is almost exclusively exported abroad. Last June Shetland voted by 56.5% to Remain which is 6,907 votes as opposed to Leave which mustered 5,315 votes which is 43.5%. However Shetlands fishermen voted almost unanimously to leave the EU. In a poll conducted by Aberdeen University it revealed that 92% of British skippers voted to leave the EU. This was mirrored in Shetland. I have heard that the island of Whalsay, where the mackerel fleet is based, voted by 80% for Leave. The tragedy is that no matter whether Britain is in or out of the EU the fishermen, of all of Scotland will lose. For British politicians fishing is a bargaining chip and Scottish politicians, and more especially Northern Isles politicians, have no power, presently and constitutionally to change that. Independence for Scotland and real self government for both Orkney and Shetland will go a long way to address the injustice that the fishermen feel has been inflicted upon their industry. They will find that voting for Leave is about as constructive as shooting yourself in the head.

However lyrical Orkney appears and no matter how majestic Shetland presents herself we live in a complicated world. The oil industry and all that goes with it guarantees that. On the other hand, as Seneca would have it, “there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. The current tension over the role, function and operation of the Shetland Charitable Trust is testament to that. Since oil first came ashore at Sullom Voe in 1978 the Shetland Islands Council brokered a deal with the oil companies and in a British context found itself in a unique position of actually benefiting from North Sea Oil and now from the reserves of the Shetland Basin West of the islands. The criticism of the Charitable Trust which administers the £220 million fund is that it is made up of establishment figures and is guilty of cronyism and suffers from a lack of direct democracy. A significant amount of Shetlanders feel that they have no say on how this money is spent and that too much is directed towards prestige projects such as the Mareel (a multi purpose entertainment centre) and not enough on poverty and homelessness. The claim of D4CT, which is an action group who have set up an online petition, is that the Trust members are a self-appointing clique who are guilty of self-interest, channeling cash into in-house projects such as Viking Energy which is a windfarm company and a subsidiary of Scottish and Southern Energy. Space does not allow me to go into the details about all of this but go to www.democracy4sct.com for more information, to sign their petition, and for the general low down.

Whether you agree with them or not the energy, if you pardon the pun, behind the D4SCT group is typical of both Shetland and Orkney. Getting up off your reclining position and doing things is second nature to them. It is a culture that does not wait to be told what to do. The actions of the Orkney Four, in relation to their MP Alistair Carmichael and his deplorable attitude to the truth, is a case in point. However far from Edinburgh and London these islands may be they are close to the reality of what politics should be: active, local and with international horizons. They are used to determining their destiny for themselves and the Scottish Government would be smart to pay attention to this now. Like Scotland, Orkney and Shetland have been ill served by their politicians. Caithness, sadly, has been routinely betrayed by hers. The social and economical dog’s dinner which it now represents will have to wait for another day to relate.

As I got off the ferry at Scrabster and made my merry way up to Thurso I watched the Hamnavoe sail back across the Pentland Firth to Orkney. By the time I got half way along Victoria Walk I saw the sinister sleek blue shape of the nuclear waste ship caress the outer boundaries of Holborn Head. Its two cranes folded midships like the arms of Mussolini. In that ship is all that is wrong with our history. What is independence for if it does not free us of that? One day, I swear, we will all live in the Republic of Hjaltaland.

©George Gunn 2016

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