2007 - 2021

Being a Shetlander and a Scot: Some Reflections on the Election

The SNP came closer than anyone expected to victory in Shetland. 806 votes separated Beatrice Wishart, of Shetland’s traditionally preferred Liberal Democrats, and Tom Wills. As surprising as the result is in terms of the numbers, the biggest shock is more fundamental: Shetlanders were willing to vote for the party of Scottish identity. This remarkable among a community who famously reject that nationality: ‘I’m Shetland, not Scottish’ is a familiar theme for someone raised in the isles. This begs a few questions I’ve been reflecting on. Why does Shetland resist Scottishness, what is changing, and what can be done to include Shetland in Scotland’s progressive nationalism? 

Shetland’s history contributes much to its difficulty with Scotland. Any Shetlander you ask could tell you how Scotland only gained Shetland (and Orkney) by reneging on a deal with Denmark-Norway, setting the tone of Scottish dirty tricks. This is supplemented by Shetland’s long and painful history of feudal-tenure crofting. Like much of the highlands and islands, Shetland was a deeply impoverished community under the thumb of the lairds. There is one key difference: Shetland’s lairds were exclusively of lowland Scottish stock, the result of favoured families being granted huge estates in Shetland by the Scottish crown no matter the actual ownership of the land. Thus, Shetland’s narrative is one of being oppressed by a foreign people called the Scots, including the ministers and other hangers-on of the laird, who formed the ruling class. Unfortunately, the Shetland lairds were noted for their brutality, trapping the people in inescapable debt bondage. This is also living as opposed to ancient history. I am 26, a latte-drinking millennial. My grandfather was born in a But and Ben, one of eleven surviving children in a family who rented their croft from an absentee laird and scraped a meagre existence from Shetland’s bare hills. It was a life which had barely changed since medieval times. 

This is, of course, a vastly simplified picture – it inaccurately makes Shetland out as parochial, ignoring Hanseatic trade, German merchants and the Dutch-established town of Lerwick, among other things. However, the narrative strand of oppression remains relevant for a lot of Shetlanders. It also contributes to a general casting of Scotland as the other, no matter that modern Shetlanders are descended from the Nordic, Scottish and many other peoples who made Shetland home. To put it very crudely, if England is the baddy in Scotland’s story, then Scotland is the baddy in Shetland’s. 

The oil boom of the 60s and 70s substantially changed the islands. For one thing, Shetland became wealthy. Shetland also underwent demographic changes as workers and their families were attracted north from the mainland. Statements from some of the incomers of this era are illuminating:

Like a lot of south folk coming to Shetland, I didn’t realise I was coming abroad—that I’d suddenly become a foreigner. I thought Shetland was just another corner of Scotland… The defining moments were Norse-linked: the arrival of the Vikings, the pledging of Shetland. Glencoe and Culloden, those two Scottish moments, were irrelevant here.

Shetland is changing. While I am doubtful that Shetlanders will ever root their identity in Culloden, nor get over calling all non-Shetlanders soothmoothers (the catch-all term for anyone from the south), Shetlanders increasingly identify with Scotland. Younger Shetlanders, myself included, have few qualms about calling themselves Scottish, recognising that Scotland has that familiar feel of home unlike further abroad. This can be contrasted with the fantasies of Shetland secession promoted on the mainland. 

Shetland is supposedly considering its own independence, we’re told. In fact, there are countless clumsy and inaccurate pieces about Shetland, clearly written by people who don’t understand the place (using the term ‘the Shetlands’ should also be an instant disqualification for writing about the topic). These writers and politicians cynically use Shetland’s complex identity as a political stick to beat up Scottish nationalism. The idea that London rule would be any better is also laughable and another example of ill-informed meddling from the mainland: Shetlanders do not operate under the illusion that Westminster cares. In addition, reading a traditional discomfort with Scottish identity as an endorsement of British identity is tone deaf and inaccurate. Shetlanders see themselves as Shetlanders, not the British of the north.  

The pro-independence side would also be wrong, however, in entirely dismissing the role or extent of difference in Shetland. Certain markers of Scottishness simply do not apply in Shetland: beyond the tartan and bagpipes, the use of Gaelic is unhelpful. It is doubly problematic: first, Gaelic has never been spoken in Shetland, raising the suspicion that mainlanders don’t know that, and second, its promotion highlights the lack of attention paid to Shetland’s own native dialect. If mainlanders do know of it, then, they’ve decided that Shetland’s own language tradition is not worthy of a similar place in the isles. I don’t want to join the chorus of hostility about the Gaelic language, nor join the romantic types in reviving the long-dead Norn language. Instead, surely Shetland’s way of speaking now, whether it’s a language or a Norse-inflected dialect of scots, is worthy of respect. Scotland’s civic nationalism is rightly welcoming to all, but also takes note of Gaelic and to a lesser extent Scots. Why can Scottish identity not do the same in Shetland?

This sense that Scotland just doesn’t get Shetland is pervasive, and every complaint is filtered through that lens. When Shetland’s ferry route was tendered out to Serco, who must surely rival Abellio for shittest provision of vital services by a private business, people asked why other Scottish islanders got publicly owned CalMac ferries. The ever-present feeling is that Shetland is ignored and unwanted. Scotland does not care, if it even remembers that Shetland exists.

Unionists do worse with Shetland, though. The racial aspects of Shetland identity are the root of too many mainland talking points. Shetlanders are not Vikings. While Shetland does possess higher percentages of Scandinavian DNA than the wider UK, Shetland’s modern Viking character is the result of 19th century romanticism. The idea that Shetland’s identity is the result of some ethnic difference with Scotland is frankly ridiculous. Flirting with Wir Shetland, a right-wing anti-SNP and Eurosceptic group cosplaying as a grassroots autonomy movement, reveals much about unionist politicians and their level of care for the Shetland community. A more convincing case for Shetland’s cultural distinction is the fact that it’s just very far away: Orkney and Na h-Eileanan Siar can be reached by ferry from mainland Scotland in under 3 hours. Getting to Shetland takes at least 12. Shetland is like a remote, tiny mirror of Scotland, with both defined by diverse waves of migration and a much larger ‘other’ to the south. Links with Scandinavia are, of course, very important in Shetland – but it’s not a zero-sum game of Nordic identity cancelling out Scottish, nor does it make Shetland want to leave Scotland and become independent. Instead, it forms a part of the blend of Shetland culture, which should not exist in tension with Scottishness.

In terms of politics, then, many SNP policies are clangers in Shetland. English and Gaelic as the languages on official signs, buildings, and vehicles, for example, just seems to highlight that the party doesn’t get Shetland. Why not add the Shaetlan words in Shetland? Some cultural fine-tuning would go a long way for the SNP’s prospects. Over-centralization in the central belt is also a concern, but not one which will to drive Shetland to secede from the nation. Shetland’s unique reliance on single ferry and air services is important, too. Many Shetlanders feel cut off by the eye-watering costs of visiting Scotland and vice versa. Shaetlan road signs and better ferries may sound a farcical approach to accommodating Shetland. But cosmetic changes that recognise Shetland’s difference, accompanied by an understanding of Shetland’s sheer remoteness, I believe, are all that is needed to make Shetland as Scottish as any other corner of the country. 

In sum, then, there is a simple to-do list: the SNP should engage with Shetland Islands Council in their exploration of greater autonomy – but be wary of how much the SIC’s aspirations are shared by other Shetlanders. They should look at Shetland’s precarious travel links. They should also be sensitive to cultural difference. Tom Wills is an excellent candidate and I believe that he will win the next election in Shetland, should he choose to stand. However, the SNP have an opportunity to make themselves the party of both a progressive Shetland and Scottish identity, eliminating the barrier between the two. It’s a chance that should not be ignored.


See also The Shetland Card: https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2013/12/12/the-shetland-card/

Comments (39)

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  1. Maclean says:

    Shetland is like scotland caught in the history of a Westminster government, a government that only has eyes for the rich and Tory and unionist supporters. Shetland opportunity is Scotland’s opportunity to change the political dynamic by withdrawing from the Westminster control . Westminster has been a financial and social drain in the expectation of local people’s to have a say it the way that their society has and can change to events happening around them . Shetlands first steps to change comes with being hand in hand with the Hollyrood government to seed the change with a local twist . The environment and its diversity comes from local people’s input over hundreds of years of work with and for the landscape , livestock and fishing . Let’s all these who seek a brighter and better future is possible if giving the chance of change to local communities,with help when needed of the Scottish independent government that has the Scottish people at its heart and not on a page of a lost book in Westminster .

  2. Tom Ultuous says:

    Thanks for that Catriona. It has demystified much of the Shetland puzzle for me. I’m particularly pleased to find that Shetlanders don’t look to London. What a result that would have been had Tom wills pulled it off (well done to him) but even the numbers were a pleasant surprise to me.

  3. Iain Lennox says:

    It’s a complete disgrace if road signs on Shetland are in English and Gaelic.. I find it hard to believe that ANY Scottish Government would actually be so ignorant as to do that. Thay should be replaced ASAP ..possibly including Norn names if available.

    I remember when I was young and still a stamp-collector, the Post Office issued something to do with Shetland (it may have been a First Day Cover). They made the crass error of using Gaelic.
    I spotted it even then, and wondered what clown had thought up that idea.

    PS I’m not fae Shetland, but I do love playing Shetlandic tunes on my fiddle.

    1. Catriona Mullay says:

      Apologies Iain – I’ve blurred two issues in the article. There aren’t Gaelic road signs in Shetland, but Gaelic is used on police cars, ambulances etc. The road signs are all in English. This is problematic itself because they’re anglicisations of the Shetland words: Walls for Waas, Channerwick for Shandrick, etc. My point was that if Gaelic and English are to be the languages of Scottish institutions, then this should be moderated in Shetland to account for Shetland’s own language tradition. Second, promoting Shetlandic in Shetland through something as simple as road signs would be a boon for the SNP, as it would show that they know Shetland is a bit different from the rest of Scotland/the highland and islands.



      1. Am Braghadanach says:

        My understanding is that Shetlandic is Scots with a sizeable inclusion of Norse derived vocabulary. I always enjoy listening when a native Shetlander in interviews, the seem much more easy in their own tongue than the strangulated code-switching Scots speakers on the mainland. I would support signs in Orkney and Shetland reflecting the local usage and pronunciation.

        By the way Gaelic may have been spoken on Shetland by early medieval Celtic Church missionaries and Pictish almost certainly was. The Norse put a stop to that though!

      2. Michelle Shortt says:

        This same argument can be and is used for the NE with Doric. It isn’t unique to Shetland that the culture and language of your islands aren’t distinguished from central belt lazy think of Scotland being homogeneous.

      3. Billy Mycock says:

        The road signs are not up to the Scottish Government is that not the jurisdiction of the Council?

      4. Robin Barclay says:

        Am no sure dat Shandrick is as right as Channerwick – baith corruptions. Da OS haes a lok ta answer fur, but dey consulted so-called local “educated” folk – schoolmasters an ministers, no fae Shetland avo, an hits aa in some auld tome somewhaur dat dey still insist tae dis day is authentic. If you haed oot o Shandrick aest, do first headland you come tae is kent locally as Da Hellicks, but OS haes it as Cumliewickness. A hellyk is a flagstone in Norn, an dat’s exactly da kinda stane dere. Tink you will OS listen. Dirs mony mair examples aroond Sandwick (laek Burland v OS “Burraland” despite local usage an auld census usage – an 1895 example o laird clearances as weel). Dats aa needin sortin afore you start on whit ta pit on roadsigns.

        1. Steve says:

          I suppose da point is dat naebody fae da sooth end o da isles daday, wha wis spikkin Shaetlin an no knappin (or mebbe younger bodys wha irna wint wi usin Shaetlan) widna say ‘Channerwick’, dae wid ey geng wi ‘Shandrick’. Dats da wye o hit tae an auld sooth-ender laek mesel. Corruption or idderwise, dat’s da kent nem o da plis.

          I suppose the point is that no dialect-speaking Shetlander from the south mainland of the isles today, unless they were conversing with a non-dialect speaker and had thus switched to standard English (or perhaps one of the younger islanders who no longer speak dialect), would ever say ‘Channerwick’, they would use ‘Shandrick’. That’s certainly my experience as an resident of the area. Corruption or otherwise, that’s the commonly used dialect name.

          1. Robin Barclay says:

            Weel, a’m born an bred Sandwick (72 years) wi Levenwick ancestors, an wid say Shandrik tö – but a’m telt dat’s a corruption o da original Norn name – which I kinna mind eenoo.

  4. Cammy says:

    Learned a fair bit, thanks for that. The 12 hour travel alone I knew but on reflection it is something to be understood. Unionists looking to exploit difference is of course their modus operandi.

  5. seonaidh says:

    Agree that current Shetlandic names should be used but Scottish/ Gaelic has a history in the Northern Isles too as is evidenced by the Bressay Stone on which there is both Gaelic and Norse text. A 9th Century bilingual Gaelic roadsign?

    The Northern Isles like much of Scotland has a mixed heritage – Scottish (Gaelic), Norse and Pictish all mixed. This should be taught.

    1. Steve says:

      The script on the Bressay stone is generally thought to be a blend of old Norse and native Pictish; the debate goes on as to the similarities between Pictish and Scots Gaelic, but most scholars agree that by the time this stone wascarved there was commonality between the languages. The fact is there is no historical record of Gaelic being spoken in Shetland; Norn, a variant of old Norse, was spoken from the time of the Vikings, lingering until the 19th century. It still forms a significant sub stratum in the dialect. Gaelic is as foreign to Shetlanders as Cornish is. There is no clan system here, no cultural tradition of wearing plaid/tartan etc. The cultural ephemera of being Scottish is not the same here. The fact is that the Shetlanders are the least Scottish of the Scots.

      1. Time, the Deer says:

        One point: there is no ‘debate’ as to the similarities between Pictish and Gaelic. They are both Celtic languages, but Pictish was P-Celtic, like Welsh, Breton, etc., and Gaelic is Q-Celtic, like Irish, Manx, etc. They are both branches of the same linguistic ‘family tree’, if you like, but very different.

        1. Steve says:

          Thanks. However, even the most cursory search of the literature will evidence a lack of agreement as to what spoken Pictish was, certainly until the time of the merging of the historical Pictish kingdom with that of the Scots, when it was broadly supplanted by Gaelic. Opinions that it was a relict non Indo-European language (some carved script has been found which cannot be understood), that it was more akin to either Q or P Celtic languages (and increasingly combined elements of both over time) all have their academic adherents. The fact is, nobody knows for sure and debate certainly does exist.

    2. Robin Barclay says:

      Rubbish – no Gaelic tradition in Shetland and no attemp should be made to foist it on us, denying our culture.

  6. Kevin Gibney says:

    Great informative article thanks.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    Debt bondage is definitely something I’ll be looking into when trying to reconstruct the missing book of Unfree Labour in the British Empire. Aside from that, Shetland as a bridge to modern Norse culture? Shetland Noir? I didn’t know that modern Lerwick had Dutch founders. There are so few pristine states, and much island colonialism. One of my managers, many years ago, was from Shetland, if I recall. Had to have a complete grasp of everything, no delegate-and-forget. I wonder if that was typical of islanders who learnt skills on multiple jobs and were wary of absent management.

  8. John Goodlad says:

    Excellent piece Catriona. Shetland identity, history and culture are important – not only to Shetlanders but to Scotland as well. Voting for SNP does not mean that you are any less of a Shetlander – on the contaray in fact

  9. Hilary Graham says:

    Thanks Catriona for an interesting and enlightening article. I now realise how little I know about Shetland. Do hope the SG listens and acts appropriately.

  10. Niemand says:

    I have only been to Shetland once but it left a profound impression of a place that was sort of ‘of Scotland’ up to a point but mainly not so. The ethereal atmosphere there at times has never quite left me, especially on Unst and at Walls.

    I remember chatting to a local who was annoyed with the ‘government down south’ and I assumed he meant Westminster, but he said no, we’re not really interested in that, I mean Holyrood! Had a similar experience on Orkney in fact which I know much better.

    The language issue is really interesting and the accent is so distinct on both Orkney and Shetland. One time on North Ronaldsay I was waiting at the the airport (small hut in a big field) and was chatting to the guy there – a man of North Ronaldsay through and through, and though his accent was strong (and really beguiling), perfectly understandable and with precise English; but then he answered the phone and was obviously talking to a local and I could not understand a single word. It wasn’t just the accent – it was almost like a different language but one I could not place other than being a bit Scandinavian but with a lot of English in there but accented in a way I could not understand. I asked him about it and he dragged down a dictionary from a shelf of the local dialect which was fascinating. I should know more really but I don’t.

    Great article Catriona, many thanks.

  11. Tom Hubbard says:

    A braw and enlightening article. It’s been good to have such friends among such brother/ sister poets as Christie Williamson, Christine De Luca and Allan Jamieson, and I remember meeting and hearing Bill Tait in the Scottish Poetry Library many years ago. All fine colleagues, and with outgoing, European and international attitudes to blend easily with their native culture and tongue. For example, Christine participated in a CHEKHOV project to make versions of the great Russian’s work available – in a Zoom performance – in Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic. I could quote other examples of this universal spirit – let me just mention the memory of Bill Tait’s versions of the French poet Villon – they brought out all the irreverence and roguishness of the original! Vagaland’s poems are classics and should be known beyond Shetland; we acquired his collected works for the SPL in our determination to represent Scottish poetry in all its variety up and down the mainland and islands that constitute the country.

  12. Libianne says:

    Excellent article, thank you. My grandfather was a Church of Scotland minister in Shetland in the early 1900s and my father was born there, but they did not identify as Shetlanders. It’s a magical place to visit, with a fascinating history. Our governments should recognise the unique identity of the people and islands. This piece is timely – I’m hoping to visit again in the next few months.

  13. Patricia says:

    Great and enlightening article. I have learned so much that I did not have a clue about. Thank you.

  14. Steve says:

    I’d question the idea that Shetlanders want CalMac as a brand running their ferries, even if public ownership might be desirable

    1. Robin Barclay says:

      Northlink was a consortium of CalMac and RBS that won the contract bid from P&O who had had it for ever (P&O was founded by Shetlander Arthur Anderson, we were told). Serco outbid (undercut) Northlink but kept the name and ferries, despite little experience in running ferries – but lots of experience in bidding for Government contracts (and several Tory MPs on their board – maybe now ex-MPs)

  15. Robert says:

    Thanks very much for this really informative article, Catriona. Have never been to Shetland but this gives a great feel for the distinctive culture of the place.

    Speaking of ill-informed meddling from the mainland: I wonder, how do Shetlanders feel about Tom Wills, who got the most votes from SNP members when selecting candidates for the H&I regional list, losing the top list slot, and therefore the Holyrood seat, to Emma Roddick? — who would have got nowhere near the top except for the fact that she self-identifies as disabled (a policy that went against legal advice from the party’s own lawyers), and whose first action as MSP has been to grab the headlines by complaining about having to wait a month for the first paycheck from her new £65k p.a. job?

  16. Papko says:

    Excellent article I did learn a few things there.
    Its a calm and collected read.

  17. Stan Evans says:

    A great read Can someone make sure it gets to the SNP policy makers?

  18. Aly Bain says:

    Excellent article, agree with all of it. Complicated history with influences varied and many. Catriona has it right when she says the SNP Government should realise how distant Shetland really is not merely in miles but in cost. Most people can pop home and visit their families at the weekend. Not so if you live on the Mainland. Taking a family home to visit is an expensive business. Getting home for emergencies and bereavements can cause hardship for many. Family travelling to Shetland on the boat with a car and cabin can be upwards of £700. An unfair hardship for where you are born.

  19. Robin Barclay says:

    What an excellent article. I am a different generation from Catriona, part of that Shetland diaspora who went off to higher education in the 1960s and never came back to live in Shetland (but always came back year after year with their families and to renew contact with friends and family, and keenly follow Shetland affairs, made easier now by social media, and participate in Shetland communities on the mainland). I thought maybe the younger generation of Shetlanders felt differently – but this reflects how our generation (or at least I) feel. Maybe the biggest difference is the youngsters seem happy to wear kilts, especially to get married. We wouldn’t be seen dead in one – far too lairdy. I could go on….

  20. Trondra Norquoy says:

    All too often, Scots seem ignorant of Shetland’s history and culture, and ride roughshod over it. The loss of Norn was hastened by Shetland scholars being told not to use to use it at school, where it was referred to as “dat aul dirt”. An economic depression in Shetland was caused by the loss of trade with the Hanseatic League, following the introduction of high taxation which made it prohibitive.

    In the last hundred years, the Scots Court of Session has failed to recognise the distinctive features of Shetland land law (udal law, which confers outright holding of land not the feudal based landholding of Scotland) and we now have inflicted upon us Gaelic via the ambulance and police signs.

    Scottish immigration has only hastened this trend. On the issue of whether all this Scottish influence has actually been good for the people of Shetland, I think you only need to compare the population of the Faeroe Islands, a self-governing territory of Denmark, similar size but further north with worse weather and less fertile land and no oil, which has more than double (53,000) the population of Shetland (23,000 although the high was 31,670 in 1871) and which benefits from road tunnels linking the islands and much higher levels of investment generally. Whatever the Danish government is doing for the Faeroe Islands, it is doing it right because they are undergoing a population boom while still retaining its history, culture and language. Faeroese is highly distinctive from Danish, yet its use has never been discouraged there.

    I can see the SNP getting in via the younger vote, where it has become fashionable, and more unique culture and identity being lost. This is sad, because even in modern times, Shetland has followed the Scandinavian – liberal-in-the-true-sense of favouring personal freedom and self responsibility, and the Scottish State as it is now heavily leans towards being a nanny state and introducing legislation such as the Hate Crime bill but even rules on the purchase and rent of housing which promotes state control in a way which we don’t see in other parts of Europe.

    So the trend seems to be away from being Scandinavian towards being more Scottish, and even the article is cagey about the mere suggestion that Shetland is quite Scandinavian. Is this a good thing? Well, thats up to personal opinion, but I’ll leave you with the response of my Danish friend when asked whether she would ever consider moving to Scotland – “ugh”.

    1. Steve says:

      What Catriona’s article sums up very well is that if the SNP recognised, acknowledged and supported the narrative (and the cultural symbols/signifiers of that) which many middle-aged and older Shetlanders have -‘we aren’t really Scots, we’re Shetlanders’- it’s highly likely they wouldn’t be waiting for younger islanders to reach voting age to be electorally successful; they’d pull in many of those older voters too.
      Importantly, also, the best (and only realistic) means of preserving Shetland’s uniqueness is via a supportive Holyrood government which is fully aware of that uniqueness.

  21. Alan Bissett says:

    What a brilliant article! I remember visiting Shetland many years ago and being struck that Shetlanders spoke of going ‘to’ Scotland. As though they were not already there! Since then I have always been aware that Shetland is not *quite* Scotland in the same way that other parts of the country are, and have kept one eye on the cynical Unionist tactic of trying to carve the island away from the the rest of the Scotland politicallly, wondering how much support they had on the ground. I have also craved a one-stop-shop that would allow me to understand the political and cultural complexities of the place. This article is that, and I can now see the mistakes that many mainland Scots make in approaching Shetland. Thank you.

  22. Garry Mabon says:

    Great article, and interesting for someone that knows very little of Shetland! Much of this I feel could be find and replaced with Shetland for other parts of Scotland. I’m not belittling Shetland’s sense of identity – of course the isolation and unique history I would imagine makes it even stronger, but i feel it is this uniqueness and identity that makes people have pride and want to tear away from the people that are ruling and “don’t understand our context” in other parts of Scotland, too. Take the borders for example, where I am born and bred and currently live. My very pro-Union old boss (from Kent) told me pre-referendum that he thought the borders was so unique in its ways, language (or at the very least, dialect) and identity that it should have its own referendum to peel from the uk and Scotland!

  23. LewIs Shand Smith says:

    An excellent article – she sums up the historical and contemporary issues well. A further analysis of the impact of oil, and now Viking Energy would be helpful. Shetland found a way to live with the petrochemicals industry, not so sure we are achieving the same with renewable energy.

  24. Vic Thomas says:

    I could not disagree with anything Catriona has written here and it should be taught in our island schools so the bairns grow up with some idea of where we are and why.

  25. Jacqueline Jensen says:

    I have learned much from this article, clearly there is the need for broader understanding of the diversity across Scotland including the subtleties of our languages and language use, and consequently much to be celebrated. I hope we do prioritise as you recommend Catriona

  26. ray wallace says:

    if shetland wants Independence from scotland its their right we should never stand in their way unlike Westminster who stands in scotlands way

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