Monday, May 05, 2014

The Phantom Thistle Thief of Shetland strikes again! Vikings, bagpipes, separatists and someone with a tin of paint

This is an expanded version of my ‘Spaekalation’ column in this week’s Shetland Times

First of all, it’s no’ me. For years now, someone in Shetland - and everyone but the constabulary seems to know who - has, under cover of deepest darkness, been erasing the thistles on those Visit Scotland tourist destination signs. He (or she) has struck again, recently,in the North Mainland. I’ve never quite understood how Europe’s biggest oil terminal, Sullom Voe, is a tourist attraction, but there are otters in the vicinity, attracted by the smell of burning gas and, obviously, the money. Those otters just love that hydrocarbon cash.

All this erasure of Scottish iconography led me to ponder, not for the first time,  the differences between  Shetland and Scotland, and also Scotland and England. Always bearing in mind, for the sake of openness and transparency, my basic position, which is that of Albert Einstein, a little known and now almost forgotten thinker of the 20th Century:

“Nationalism,” he said, “is an infantile disease. It is the measles of the mind.”

So, those English.  Things are different down there. Here’s some legal  precedents for you: 

Should a lost Caledonian be discovered wandering within York’s ancient walls, carrying, as is so often the case, a bow and arrow, he or she can be shot with impunity, except on Sundays.  

Alistair Campbell, erstwhile spin doctor and eminent bagpiper, should be cautious regarding any impromptu pibroch performances. In 1746, a James Reid claimed his piping was merely music. A court ruled he was utilising ‘an instrument of war and insurrection’. He was duly hanged.

Then there’s  Carlisle. According to the 440-year old Dormont Book, any Scot ‘found wandering’ in the city can be whipped and thrown in jail. Mind you, any local resident can be fined, whipped and banished for throwing dead animals down city wells or leaving piles of excrement outside their house for more than eight days. Perennial social problems.

And perhaps significant ones, illustrating just how different the folk of Carlisle, imbibing of an evening in Botchergate and commuting along English Street, are from their neighbours 10 miles to the north. Cross that border, and everything changes. Because, say the separatists, the Scots are so different from the English. In Scotland, people are nicer, more community-orientated, more committed to social justice, and what’s more, most of them have never voted for a Conservative government. Something which is factually untrue. A majority of Scots (and ‘Scotland residents’, as the classic Shetland usage has it) did not vote for the current Westminster coalition. A majority of Scots did vote for the previous Labour administration, though. It’s how democracy works.

 Shetland, of course, feels different from England and Scotland. The Norse ancestry of many in the Northern Isles is a  matter of genetically proven fact. Much is made of the proximity of the Bergen railway station, and the first image that many have of Shetland and Shetlanders is a man in a viking helmet, standing with a raised axe against the background of a burning galley. We don’t do thistles. Except on those Visit Scotland notices.

The thistle is of course not an historical symbol of all Scotland, but only - and apocryphally, it should be said - of one chunk. That would be the bit that defeated the Norse at the Battle of Largs in 1263. It’s an anti-Scandinavian sign. Allegedly, the Scots forces were alerted to a party of Viking land raiders by the agonised yells when one barefoot Norseman stood on a thistle.  Or perhaps two thistles. Or, for the sake of argument, let’s say three. So much for Scandic solidarity. If it hadn’t been for those three  thistles, things would be so different. And I would’t be lisping like this…

Anyway. That Gretna border seems very far away from the recently vandalised signs pointing oil-tanker-spotting tourists  towards the Sullom Voe Oil and Gas Terminal, so central to the UK’s offshore hydrocarbon future. 

Of course we in Shetland are Very Far Away, in one sense. From the soothernmost climes of Scotland.  So much so that we have allowed the misconceived  ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ Campaign to become our talisman. Leaving aside the uneasy alliance with Orkney and the Western Isles (The Battle of Largs handed the Hebrides to Scotland, leaving the Northern Isles in Norse possession for another 200-odd years), the sight of  local politicians lying on their backs, waiting to see which government, Westminster  or Holyrood, is going to tickle them the most, is, to say the least, tawdry. There is much talk about decentralisation and local democracy, but in the torrid referendum climate, anyone will say anything. In particular the separatist Government at Holyrood has a history of making promises it  has absolutely no intention of keeping, or indeed the ability to keep. Seeing as no-one knows what the result of post-separation elections might be.
And in any case, the central problem for Shetland is quite different. There is our geographical proximity to the North Sea and Atlantic oil and gas fields, our crucial importance for the importance of renewable energy and our population’s extra special niceness. And there is the question of the Zetland County Council Act (1974).

Leaving aside any other question of local authority that the SIC’s goatee-bearded-and-pierced leader and his archipelagic cohorts may put to the Powers that Would Be, the ZCC Act is unique to Shetland and gives us development control, and therefore income control, over not just oil developments affecting our immediate coastline, but aquaculture and all the looming possibilities of tidal energy and offshore windfarms. It exists. It is on the statute books, and it is a Westminster Act, fought for brilliantly by the late Jo Grimond, and for which we have to thank all the glory and wonder of Shetland’s welfare economy. One which it seems this council is industriously trying to dismantle.

The ZCC Act, used wisely, also offers Shetland control over the kind of seaborne renewables-based future that Scotland’s other island authorities can only dream of. In an important article for Shetland Life Magazine, Kate Johnson of Heriot Watt University argues that the ZCC Act provides a model for community coastal governance not just in Scotland, but throughout the UK.

Of course, come a separate Scotland, the ZCC Act would cease to exist. I’m sure that Fergus Ewing has made soporific noises of reassurance, if The Pierced One has thought to ask him about it, but the track record, the mantra of the SNP’s Edinburghian Government is: Centralise, centralise, centralise.  There is no way on earth or sea the separatists want the ZCC Act to survive, no matter what they say now.

And they will say anything.

Despite the weasel whining from a tiny, deluded minority, Shetland will vote overwhelmingly ‘No’ in a referendum which has sucked cash, energy and commitment from the real political issues of today, and instead focussed attention on nothing more than a line in the land, many miles away from here.

Should a separate Scotland happen we could face a future where the prime motor in  a no-voting Shetland’s economic regeneration, past, present and future, the ZCC Act, has been obliterated or is left as nothing more than a quaint relic of times past, like the ability of York residents to shoot any archery-inclined Alistair Campbells.

What will we do then? Well, It’s unlikely to happen. But if, in, a nightmare triumph for knee-jerk, Braveheartian anti-Englishness, Scottish separation happens, there will doubtless be compulsory bagpipe lessons for all. Which might be a bit risky for those planning any trips south of the border.

As for Shetland’s Phantom Thistle Thief, what will she (or he) do? Lead a movement pleading for assimilation into Greater Norway (note to Norwegian military strategists: no bare feet this time)? There are those in Shetland who would seek exactly that, especially if it means we could start roasting puffins for food again. Or, we could ask for UK offshore status, a friendly occupation by the Welsh Guards, or some other non-tartanised regiment. After all, there’s that oil and gas…

I will ask the Phantom Thistle Thief next time I see him. Or her.

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