The Isles are Full of Big Noises

The Orkney islanders have their doubts about Scottish independence

Dispatches Scotland
Out of the mainstream: Stromness, Orkney. The islands treasure their Norse heritage but want more respect from the mainland (credit: Geoff Wong)

The small propeller plane from Aberdeen out over the North Sea is packed. We are 20 passengers bound for Orkney, an archipelago of 70 inhabited and uninhabited land masses protruding from the grey-green swell. Our arrival coincides with the midsummer cultural festival of St Magnus which wakes through the mist like Brigadoon each year to welcome the outside world and then fall asleep again before the visitors can change it. Change, however, is afoot. The northern half of the greater island to which Orkney is adjacent, and therefore politically attached, has proposed to split itself off from the south, and every northerner who has reached the age of 16 has the opportunity to say, on the 18th day of this month, whether they wish to continue united or divided.
  The plane is a leveller. There are well-known faces crammed into the tiny one-class fuselage. The composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is sitting with his eyes closed and his hands clasped between his legs. He prefers the ferry, but it is slower and there is a reception to attend. The actor John Sessions sits by a porthole and scans the playscript of his one-man show. The general manager of the BBC Singers is flying separately from his illustrious vocalists, who are already in rehearsal. The Minister of Culture for the Scottish National Party (SNP) leafs through papers in the seat nearest the emergency hatch. Some Italians applaud when the plane lands at Kirkwall, the capital, although His Excellency the ambassador in their midst remains aloof from demonstrative relief. 

The reception is fuelled by Highland Park, a single malt whisky sponsoring the festival. A local hotelier sporting a green Yes badge beams bonhomie at the canapé table and is keen for Scotland’s independence. “We can go it alone,” he says, “We have the oil, we have the renewables, we have the golf.” Later he will withdraw from the agreed interview after a haranguing from his wife and the resignation of his plumber for his indiscretion. A certain naivety attends the Yes campaign. A retired gentleman acknowledges the swelling enthusiasm for independence, but mourns what might be lost of history and ancient friendships. “It’s creating division where none exists,” he says. “The UK has an outline which gives it security. Why impose a new border? People always argue over borders.”

Councillor Stephen Clackson is decisively indecisive. “On the one hand, I think Yes,” he says, “because the Westminster coalition seems to be opening the country to exploitation by big business and demonising the poor, while with independence we’ll be larger fish in a smaller pond with more influence on shaping a new nation.” The fish analogy is apt as Clackson has spent the day travelling round his council ward by boat. “On the other hand, I think No,” he continues, “because the SNP has a centralising agenda, removing control from the regions. There is now a single police force, Police Scotland, for the whole country. In power, the SNP has rewarded only the areas which support it. Orkney and Shetland vote Liberal Democrat and have been left out of the ferry investments the Hebrides get.”

The festival director, the composer Alasdair Nicolson, welcomes everyone to the event, which costs a quarter of a million pounds but is worth much more to the local economy. Foreign guests are acknowledged. A Norwegian delegation is present to talk about the cathedral which their country gave Orkney in 1472 along with its independence. The Orkney flag is Norway’s but for a band of yellow. There are Viking exhibits in the museum among the Neolithic bone implements and Bronze Age weaponry. Whole pre-Christian settlements have been dug up on the islands. They treasure their status as a World Heritage site and there is some resentment of the Scottish mainland’s patronising attitude towards them.  

The Italians attend because of the World War commemorations. The islands were a POW camp for 1,200 of Mussolini’s conscripts who were captured at Tobruk in January 1941 and sent to build the Churchill Barriers between the islands, after a German U-Boot had dared to negotiate the narrow channels and sink HMS Royal Oak while it was anchored in Scapa Flow. One of the former prisoners, Gino Caprara, is among the party. “I am 94 years old,” he boasts. I ask him where he learnt his English. “I study in the camp. I am the captain and in charge of the building of the capella.”

The chapel, which still exists, was a concession after the Italians had gone on strike. It was constructed with Nissen huts and a concrete façade, and is one of the festival’s venues. A concert of Italian baroque lutesongs takes place before the Madonna and Child altarpiece, painted by a prisoner from a tiny keepsake his mother had given him. The Italian ambassador, Pasquale Terracciano, makes a speech mentioning his nation’s current six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union. The chapel, he says, is a commemoration of dark times and an emblem of faith, the music a language comprehensible to all in a continent of many tongues. He suggests that if the founding architects had based the European project less on coal and steel and more on culture, Europe would now be closer to its citizens. I ask him privately what he thinks of the Scottish proposal to break from the UK. “In general,” he says, “we are in favour of integration, not disintegration. We are concerned with bringing people together. This, to me, is the purpose of culture.”

The barriers unified the islands and I cross them on a local bus to visit Jim Fogarty, an ex-Marine and Falklands veteran who lives in isolation on South Ronaldsay. “When I first came here,” he tells me, “I thought I’d gone back to the South Atlantic.” The Leicester-born commando fought at the Battle of Mount Harriet in June 1982 alongside Welsh and Scots Guards, under a flag now threatening to lose one of its constituent parts. “Orkney is out of the mainstream,” he says. “People here have quite strong views. Generally, most are against Scottish independence though increasingly the Yes vote is coming out, which doesn’t surprise me. When it was first mooted, I was a definite No and I’m still of that opinion, but you’d expect that with my background. The Britain today is not the Britain I fought for and I’m starting to think the Scots should have a bit more control over what happens in their country. I’m not a great one for being told what to do by people in Westminster and I can understand the Scots wanting to get away. Westminster are doing a far better job for the Yes vote than the SNP.”

After five years in the Marines, Fogarty worked for security firms and the fire service. He describes himself as “stroppy, awkward and intolerant”, hints at a violent past and tells me of his diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which precipitated his move north. He has brought up two children: his daughter is in business in Aberdeen and his son crews a lobster boat. His wife works for the Orkney health service and he devotes himself to sculpture, currently of Viking warriors frozen in acts of violence, which have proved popular with ex-servicemen and fellow Orcadians who value their Norse roots. 

“One of the reasons I came up here,” he says, “is that I didn’t like the way things were south. It suits me here where my nearest neighbour is away down the hill. The best Yes argument for me is immigration. That’s the beauty of Scotland — there aren’t the numbers here. If the Scots had more control over their borders I think it would remain that way. A lot of English people have come up for the same reason. It’s a good way of life, property is cheap, you get free prescriptions and there are no tuition fees.”

Fogarty drives me to Stromness, Orkney’s second town, facing west to Kirkwall’s east. It has more picturesque winding streets and harbour-front bars than the capital. In an estate agent’s window I note that a three-bed house on Shapinsay is £53,000, and the entire island of Hunda, including farmhouse, is up for sale at £600,000. I run into the SNP Minister of Culture, Fiona Hyslop, answering public questions at the community centre. She bats away concerns about the pound, assuring the 20 or so members of the audience that “there will be fiscal union — it’s our pound” and that the government in Westminster was all about “vested interests and power”. She says independence will “stop us going into illegal wars”. I suggest it’s like divorce and wonder how as Culture Minister she proposes to divide up the record collection. 

“It’s quite simple,” she says. “In terms of our share of UK assets, we either take a population share, or we take a historical share of what we’ve contributed. Culture knows no boundaries, but in terms of the galleries, exchanges will take place as they always have done. In other areas, broadcasting for example, we will have our own broadcasting company SBC which will go into joint venture with the BBC. We’ll have an additional music channel, radio station and TV channel. The output in Scotland will rise from 2,000 to 4,000 hours.” 

Employees of the state broadcaster give the festival clout. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performs Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in a brand-new school gym. The principal percussionist tells me the independence issue has split the orchestra, with the Yes voters claiming the moral high ground as “true Scots” and the Nos fearing for their jobs should Britishness and Scottishness become mutually exclusive. The London-based BBC Singers are less concerned and give a moving concert in St Magnus Cathedral of works by the 79-year-old Maxwell Davies, who founded the festival after moving to the islands 43 years ago. Schoolchildren sing his songs in the school’s theatre. “I think Scotland will eventually become independent,” Sir Peter says, “although perhaps not now. There’s a feeling everywhere for small countries achieving independence. The propaganda from London has been pretty silly. I think I could have done better than just trying to scare the pants off the Scots. Of course, there’s even an independence move from Scotland here. It’s all quite, quite difficult.” 

Kirkwall High Street is aflutter with a single strip of festival bunting as I stroll down to the harbour. I meet Fiona MacInnes, who describes herself as a leading volunteer for the Yes campaign. She is surprised at my sorrow for the prospective split. “Why should you care? It’s a Scottish issue. It’s not a divorce. I think it will improve the relationship between Scotland and England. It will remove irrational frustration, a kind of impotence, an inability to be responsible.” She stresses that the referendum is about independence, not politics, not a vote for Alex Salmond, although it is hard to see how it is for anyone else. I press her on the immigration issue. “That’s a political decision that will be taken at an election depending on the party that you vote in,” she says. 

It may be that the 16- and 17-year-olds are a significant factor since they will be voting for the first time. I congratulate a sixth-former on her performance at the Maxwell Davies concert and ask how she intends to vote. She says she’s “basically No”, but increasing numbers of her friends are being persuaded by the Yes picture of the small nation oppressed by its neighbour, prevented from becoming the great power it undoubtedly is. The teachers here will have undue influence. It is clever of the SNP to disguise a vote for themselves as a patriotic cause. The tragedy is that, except in the event of an absolute trouncing of the Yes campaign, Scotland will be changed. For either the No will win narrowly, engendering bitterness and resentment, or the Yes will win and the long and costly process begin of dismantling the institutions, arguing about money, flags, passports and border controls.

The extent of the naivety was summed up by a festival-goer from Edinburgh who told me his heart was in the Yes campaign and he would vote that way “unless it looked as if they were going to get in”. Then he’d be worried.