Shetland divided, and not just between Yes and No

With rich revenues from oil and fishing, at least one resident is for full independence for the remote islands

Jack and Ruby Pottinger, both natives of Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, have a small "No thanks" poster in a window of their home, which is on a narrow, wall-lined lane up a hill over the ancient harbour.

Both lived away from the sub-Arctic islands for a long time, Ruby in England, with her late first husband, who was in the RAF, and Jack in Wales, with his late first wife. It was when they were both back in Shetland, after the deaths of their first spouses, that they met and married and set up home on their native island, 110 miles north of the Scottish coastline.

Ruby has grandchildren who live in Manchester, but says it is not just that that makes her opposed to Scottish independence. "A lot of it is based on a sort of envy of the English," she says. "Alex Salmond [leader of the Scottish National Party] is very clever. Every time he opens his mouth, he speaks about Westminster. But all the English people don't live in the south east."

No emotional tug

Jack says he was born British and would like to die British. Also, Shetland is closer culturally to Norway and Denmark than it is to


. “When we were young, we didn’t think of ourselves as Scottish at all,” says Ruby, who feels no emotional tug towards voting for independence. Anyway, they both say, what would it mean, with membership of the EU and a currency controlled by the Bank of England?

In their view, a lot of the support for Scottish independence comes from traditional Labour supporters who don’t want to live under permanent Tory rule. “They’re voting yes because they hate the Tories so much,” says Ruby.

Both feel that it would be wrong to take such a huge step as independence on the basis of what is likely to be a very tight voting margin.

The Shetland economy, with its huge fishing sector and its association with North Sea oil and gas, is booming. The population is a healthy 23,000, and there is de facto full employment. A new oil and gas facility being built on the islands has led to large ferries and cruisers being semi-permanently berthed in Lerwick harbour to house the 2,000 construction workers who work three weeks on, one week off shifts on the site.

Still dithering

Brian Nicolson, musician and partner in the High Level Music centre in Lerwick, says the referendum has prompted a lot of debate within the community, with some for, some against, and some who are just “totally sick with the whole thing”. He himself, he says, is “still dithering.”

“As far as we are concerned, Edinburgh and London are both quite a long way away,” he says, expressing a commonly expressed view among Shetlanders, especially older ones.

When the annual island festival takes place each year, says Nicolson, people dress up in Viking costumes, not kilts.

There is a £300 million per annum, mostly locally-owned fisheries sector on the islands. Lerwick is the second largest fishing port in Scotland, and the first, Peterhead, gets a lot of its fish from around Shetland. More fish is landed in Shetland than in England and Wales combined.

London government

According to

Simon Collins

, chief executive of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, many in the sector feel that Edinburgh has not done any better at representing their interests than has the London government. When Alex Salmond speaks of Scottish oil, or the Scottish fishing industry, says Collins, really what he’s talking about is Shetland oil, and Shetland fish.

Shetland gets a cut from the oil from its waters and has a £200 million-plus type of sovereign wealth fund, controlled by its local council. The roads are top-class and every community has excellent schools and recreation centres.

Fish processor Kevin Llewelllyn, coming out of the Royal British Legion Scotland, Lerwick Branch club, says he would support independence for Shetland, not Scotland. “We have all the oil and the fish. Why give the money to anybody else?”

Shopkeeper M. Kahn, in JJ Taylor’s newsagents across the road, has been in Shetland for the past five years, having been in Glasgow for his first 28 years after leaving Pakistan. He would prefer Scotland to stay in Britain. “I think they are better together, with the Queen. She is a very respectable woman. And there would be a lot of difficulties, not just with the economy and finance, but also with defence. Great Britain is strong.”

In favour

Island native Louise Thomason (31), a member of the women for independence group, is in favour of a yes vote not for nationalistic reasons but because she thinks it will allow people get free of the “neo-liberal” policies that come from London. An independent Scotland would have a proportional representation electoral system, as against the first-past-the-post one that operates for UK elections.

Brian Nugent, chair of the Shetland yes campaign, who has Irish parents, was raised near Glasgow, and has lived and reared a family in Shetland.

“I am in favour of independence for Scotland. I think we are a different country, and it is time for voters to prove it.”

He says younger people on the island are more open to the yes argument, and older people more resistant. “The inbetween, that’s where it will be won or lost, as far as Shetland is concerned,” he says.

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