There is a little spiel that a lot of Orkney’s councillors and officials have learned by rote.

It usually takes them 20 minutes or so to pronounce - if they get the time, or don’t get distracted. And their story will change, subtly, from islander to islander. 

But its central theme will broadly be the same: how an archipelago off the north coast of Scotland actually functions.

Some call this Orkney 101. 

Kristopher Leask has his version. The Scottish Green was one of the local councillors who told this paper last week that his local authority was having to consider worse-case scenarios for outer islands - even evacuations - as it struggles to keep its ageing ferries at sea.

“If you are someone someone based in Orkney and you engage with national stakeholders be they companies politicians, NGOs, lobby groups, you sort of build up the Orkney 101 chat we have all got inside us” he said. “This explains how Orkney works, because Orkney works very differently from most Scottish islands.”

Read more: Shetland proposes inter-island tunnels and new funding as answer to aging ferry fleet

The quick spiel is not just about ferries, about how the islands are have a complex, bespoke hub and spoke transport system, rather than the linear links to the Scottish mainland typical of the Hebrides. “We also explain how we have a different economy and society to the rest of Scotland,” Leask added.

There has been a lot of newspaper ink spilled and broadcast air filled with talk about what happened in Orkney at the beginning of this month. 

A majority of councillors, including Leask, backed a motion calling for the local authority to investigate constitutional change options. 

Newspapers said the islands - or “county” as some locals still call their community - would even consider rejoining Norway. That scenario was not spelled out in the motion. Leask said: “I am willing to hear the argument but my first thought is that it is a nonsensical idea.” 

The councillor is not alone. Many Orcadians - where census data shows the majority describe their nationality as ‘Scottish only’ - see chat about Norway as an attention-seeking prank. The joke, moreover, is not new: it has a modern history of more than half a century.


So why is being raised again now? Well, specifically, say islands insiders, because of sheer frustration with the pace of ferry procurement. Orkney has a budget of just over £100m a year and needs more than £400m worth of new boats. 

There are a couple of other grievances too, with the general level of funding from Edinburgh and difficulties getting a good hearing on how best to exploit Orkney’s renewables potential and share its bounty. 

But is the fundamental issue that it is hard to teach Orkney 101 to a revolving door of ministers and civil servants? That it’s hard for decision-makers at Holyrood to ‘get’ issues that affect just 22,000 or so islanders? 

Is that why leaders in in Orkney - and Shetland too - occasionally talk up getting more power over how they are governed?

Academic Mathew (correct) Nicolson of Edinburgh University is finishing a PhD on autonomist sentiment in both Orkney and his own native Shetland. 

Read more: Warning that CalMac’s woes have 'masked' a ferry crisis in Orkney

He has his own introductory spiel in which he stresses that talk of everything from decentralisation to full-blown independence for the two archipelagos tends to come when there are more pressing bread-and-butter issues.

“It is a common kind of strategy that's available, I suppose, for local politicians in the islands in a way that it wouldn't be in Glasgow,” he said. “The issue tends to be raised in response to contemporary issues - such as disagreements on resources or policies they see as harmful to their interests.”

But Nicolson reckons talk of rejoining Norway also stems from what he calls a “wider question about the relationship between central government and local governments.”

In other words, autonomism is not just a response to specific grievances but also to simmering, wider longer-term angst about local democracy.

“Orkney and Shetland are certainly not the only places in Scotland to complain that their autonomy, and their fiscal autonomy in particular, has been eroded over recent decades,” Nicolson added. “I do think this is also a reaction to that general trend of perceived centralisation. If that trend continues, then I could see these reactions continue in many communities in the north of Scotland and especially in the islands.”

The Herald: Kirkwall in Orkney

Orkney - and Shetland - have their slightly different back stories to the rest of the country. And history, while often misunderstood and routinely misreported, is not irrelevant.

Nicolson talks of the first modern calls for autonomy. Back in the last 1960s Orcadians started putting up  hand-made posters appears calling for the islands to go “back to Denmark’. 

As the academic points out this was, as it happens the 500th anniversary of the islands - and Shetland - being formally incorporated in to the Scottish state. 

It was also a time when local government reform was being mooted and the old Orkney county feared being consumed by a larger Highlands and Islands regional authority. That did not happen.

The old “back to Denmark” slogan might sound confusing - since recent chat is of rejoining Norway. 

Read more: 'We might need RAF airdrops': The 'forgotten' ferry crisis gripping Orkney

Newspapers have repeatedly referred to Orkney and Shetland as “being under Norwegian control” up until they were annexed by the Scottish state in 1472. This is misleading.

In fact, Orkney’s rulers were Scottish for two and half centuries before the formal union and they, laterally, at least had to pay formal allegiance to the Danish king (who held the Norwegian crown).

Nicolson said the 1960s protests were “an example of the history directly influencing protests”. He added: “That’s not the case now.”

The researcher has been struck by how often Vikings are used to illustrate stories about Orkney and Shetland. The islands’ history is always reduced to a single period.

“Some islanders do have the sense of Norse affinity and desire for closer connections to the Nordic world, and this grew out of Norse romanticism in the 19th century,” he said.  “But I think ‘Vikingness' is a kinda of a trope that's imposed from the outside.”

The Herald: Members of the Jarl Squad dressed in Viking costumes carry flaming torches alongside their galley before torching it, during the Up Helly Aa Viking festival in Lerwick on the Shetland Isles. Photo credit: Jane Barlow/PA Wire.

Nicolson cites how news about the northern isles - including the recent Orkney “re-joining Norway” news - is often illustrated by photos of Up Helly A, the Shetland winter festival when locals dress up as Norse pirates.  

He understands the need to highlight cultural distinctiveness. “But essentially,” he added, “these debates are about these much more day to day issues, like ferries  and funding, and are far removed from from ideas of Viking heritage”.

Orkney and Shetland do play up to Norse stereotypes, at least in their marketing. The  big state-owned ferries which link the islands to Scotland have a giant Viking painted on their sides. But Nicolson argued this gimmick is also based on outside view of the islands.

The academic stressed how hard it is to measure opinions in Orkney over autonomy, or connections with Norway or Denmark. There is no reliable recent polling on any of the recent political pronouncements. 

There is another problem gauging opinions: the options being explored by the local council are so varied that it is impossible to ask citizens to endorse them. It is one thing to seek some more powers from Scotland and another thing altogether to call for your islands to leave the UK.

Read more: 'Should we be normalising the Scots language?'

Some locals are furious that the issue has even been raised without any democratic mandate.

“Where has this great desire for constitutional reform come from?” asked local journalist Fiona Grahame in her column in the online Orkney News. “Was it a hot topic at the local elections last year? No it wasn’t.”

Grahame accused the local council leader, James Stockan, of populism and using the media to deflect criticism of his own failures. Stockan, meanwhile, has long expressed frustration with UK and Scottish authorities as he tries to secure funding for his priorities, such as new ferries for outer isles.

There have been local campaigns for autonomy, including the Orkney and Shetland Movements. These put up a joint candidate for Westminster and - after the SNP stood aside for them - took more than 3000 votes in the 1987 general election and finished fourth.

Nicolson stressed that the very nature of local politics - when most councillors are independents - makes it hard to determine what islanders actually think of any specific policy stance.

The Herald: holyrood.jpg-pwrt3.jpg

“This is not something I think most founders would agree with but when you do have a nonpartisan political system, it's very difficult to have a council or  island-wide debate over policy, or different vision,” he said. “It would be very difficult to actually produce a mandate [for autonomy]. I suppose if  many candidates put autonomy in the manifestos, and they were to make up a majority of the electorate councillors that would do it it.”

That is not what happened in Orkney.

Leask, one of just two party-political councillors in the county, stressed there was a good side to collegiate not confrontational politics in Orkney. But he raised another aspect of the whole saga of calls for autonomy: more unspecified powers are, in theory at least, on offer to Scotland’s islands, under a 2018 Holyrood law. Nobody has ever taken the SNP up on this.

“This has never been tested,” he said. “The Scottish Government has never really engaged with us over what powers they think could be transferred. And the island authorities have never come up with proposals. This will not be an easy process. But it needs to be explored.”

For Leask, this too is Orkney 101.