How About a Vote for Shetland? Hypocrisy of the Scottish Independence Referendum

As Scotland moves towards a referendum on independence next year, First Minister Alex Salmond must prove that an independent Scottish nation could survive economically without British support. His premier argument for Scottish economic security is that vast reserves of North Sea oil are within Scottish waters and that this, somehow, will provide a sustainable future for his new country.

Salmond faces a hard task of convincing Scots that independence would be beneficial to them
Salmond faces a hard task of convincing Scots that independence would be beneficial to them

What Salmond conveniently overlooks is that many of the North Sea energy reserves lie within waters surrounding the Shetland Islands. Given that Shetland is nominally a Scottish archipelago, it has been assumed that it would remain part of any independent Scotland.

Salmond, however, overlooks the dubious ‘ownership’ of Shetland. Colonised by the Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries, Shetland has a far greater association with Scandinavia than it does with Scotland.

The Up Helly Aa festival celebrates Shetland's Viking heritage
The Up Helly Aa festival celebrates Shetland’s Viking heritage

Indeed, it was only the financial desperation of Christian I, King of Norway and Denmark, in 1469 that led to Shetland’s Scottish transfer. Christian pledged Shetland to the Scottish crown as an alternative dowry for his daughter Margaret’s proposed marriage to James III. The contract that led to this commercial transaction gave Christian and his heirs the legal right to resume control of Shetland providing the right financial remuneration was given.

Over the course of the next couple of centuries, the Danes attempted to exercise their right of redemption of Shetland yet were rebuffed by a disinterested Scottish crown. Despite retaining close trade ties with Scandinavia and the Hanseatic League, Shetland would remain bound to Scotland.

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, Shetland was passed back and forth between the monarchy and designated stewards, thus occupying a legal grey zone of possession. When the Act of Union creating the United Kingdom was passed in 1706-7, Shetland was theoretically excluded from the arrangement as it remained under the ownership of the Earl of Morton.

Despite this, and the fact that Shetland retained a steward until 1822, the British took for granted the ownership of the islands despite having no legal basis to do so. When Norway regained independence from Denmark in 1906, the Shetlanders openly declared an interest in breaking away from the UK to reunite with a people they felt historically and culturally closer to.

Because of the growing military power of the UK, and the subsequent decline of the Scandinavian kingdoms, the Danes and Norwegians were never in a position to assert their claims of sovereignty over Shetland. This has remained the same despite the issue of ownership remaining unresolved.

Surely, if Alex Salmond believes the Scottish people are entitled to a referendum on independence then the people of Shetland should be given a similar opportunity to decide whether: a) they want to join an independent Scotland, b) they want to declare independence themselves, c) they want to remain a part of a Scottish-free UK or d) they want to cede to Norway?

The legal ownership, and the allegiance, of Shetland remains controversial
The legal ownership, and the allegiance, of Shetland remains controversial

Salmond, though, is aware of the economic conundrum such a referendum would pose. How would it affect Scotland’s already-dubious claims to North Sea oil? Probably not very favourably if the Shetlanders were to establish their own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off their coastline.

As Scottish and British leaders have done for centuries, the issue of Shetland and its sovereign status is being ignored for the potential benefit of said leaders. If the Shetlanders are overlooked in the referendum next year, then this ignorance will be nothing less than knowing hypocrisy.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

7 thoughts on “How About a Vote for Shetland? Hypocrisy of the Scottish Independence Referendum”

  1. Dude, for a historical blog i find your work Shoddy.
    !st. ok kicking off, Shetland was part of the Pict Kingdoms. Which when they unified was one of the nations that combined to become Scotland in 843AD of which time, at that time the Nor isles were part of Scotland until 875 when Norway ethnically cleansed and settled the islands.
    2nd. the Islands were effectively Scottish from 1230 onwards, when Scottish earls and Scottish people came to settle the land. Whilst having nominal Norse over lordship.
    3rd. They came to the Scottish crown when the Norwegian king never paid the dowry promised to the Scottish king! there is no legal right for any Norwegian to regain anything in regard to Shetland.
    4th. Shetland was part of Scotland during both the Union of the crowns and the Union of the parliaments. There was no legal grey area. And even during the times the earldom was held by some one other than the crown it was still part of Scotland, No different from the dukedoms of Rothsey, Atholl or any other dukedom that was not unified to the crown at the time. The dukedoms/earldoms existed within the Kingdom.
    5th Your “hypocrisy” claim is just another cog sprouted by the old British tactic of divide and rule. It is part of Scotland and Tavish Scott is just being a trouble maker and headline grabbing. this from a man who was the Scottish liberal leader and doesn’t want Scotland to be independent, but is OK stirring the pot for Shetland independence. and by the way if you do your research most Nor Islanders want to stay part of Scotland
    6th. And even if the Islanders want and become independent they would be entitled to diddly squat of the oil in the first place, as the waters are Scottish territorial waters. And the Shetlands according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which is signed and ratified by the UK would become an enclave within Scottish waters and would only have the right to resources within a 12-mile radius of their coastline.

    But i would love to debate it if your up for it!

    1. Ok Dude…obviously had a busy day at work:
      1) There is some contention as to whether the Shetlands were part of the Pictish Kingdoms. If they were, then their allegiance to any individual king was tentative at best. By 843, the Picts had assimilated with the Gaels. The Picts were never united and the idea that there was some grand unification to create the Kingdom of Alba is Scottish mythologizing. When the Norse people settled the Shetlands, there is no evidence to suggest that ethnic cleansing took place. Again, the people may have been assimilated into Norse society, emigrated (forcibly or otherwise) or, perhaps, killed. We don’t know for sure.
      2) The islands were not Scottish from 1230 onwards. The earls of the Shetlands were Norsemen whose links to the Scottish mainland resulted from Norse expansion, not the other way around.
      3) The Danish king (Norway by now a part of the Danish kingdom) used the Shetlands as a ‘deposit’ for eventual payment of his daughter’s dowry, so they passed into Scottish hands. This arrangement had provisions for the Danish kings to reclaim possession of the Shetlands should a requisite amount of money be paid. Subsequent Danish kings attempted to raise the issue with the Scots, who simply ignored the deal. The Danes (and by extension the Norwegians) had no chance to exercise their right to regain the islands.
      4) Fair enough – although the Danes continued to petition James I for an honouring of the dowry contract even after 1603.
      5) I don’t believe I have stated that Shetlanders today would prefer independence. This does not necessarily mean they shouldn’t get a referendum of their own. After all, the Scots are unlikely to vote for independence and when their referendum was announced, more people favoured staying in the UK.
      6) Talking of legal grey areas – UNCLOS is just that. If Shetland were a truly independent state (however unlikely) it could justifiably claim a 200 mile exclusive economic zone from its coastal baseline, including some of the North Sea oil fields. Obviously, UNCLOS leaves room for overlapping claims which must then be decided by other complex means ( The possession of island territories is why countries like France can claim fishing rights in far flung Pacific outposts and China lay claim to the whole of the South China Sea (the law is not decisive)

      1. Cheers dude for the reply… Ive had a nightmare of a week and i apologise if that came off “cheeky” or nippy.

        ok ill get to these points.
        1. The picts were Established on the Nor Isles, If you look at what we know about the picts there is evidence that while there were many kings controlling certain Kingdoms there were also High Kings as well who got fealtiy from the lesser kings. Sort of how a king would get fealty from a duke or an Earl. The Picts did unite on more than one occasion and are one of the founder kingdoms of scotland when they graduly merged with dal raida to become the kingdom of scotland (alba). As for the Ethnic cleansing that is what is thought to have happened, lets face it killing the picts or capturing then slaving or forcing them to leave is ethnic cleansing and its not unlikely from what we what we know of the norse.
        2. Sorry i was taliking in general of the scottish encroachment on the Nor Isles from 1230s Such as the Scottish earls under the norwegian crown starting 1236AD in orkney. Also tho any Norse Earls who had land in scotland would have had to Swear fealty to the Scottish crown for the land in Scotland. And by 1230 they were getting pushed out fo Scotland and by 1266 Any norse lord in scotland (minus the nor isles but including the west and mann) owned his fealty to the Scottish crown.
        3. If the dowry wasnt paid then how could Scotland be breaking or idnoring the deal? I will certanly look up the rest and get back to you and confirm defeat if i am wrong. Ah see it there he secured a right to buy for a certain sum but inst that if the owner wants to sell?
        4. and again in 1660. Bit cheeky as no doubt they were worth more at the time. ahh foreign deplomacy.
        5. I agree but that should be an issue they take up with the Scottish goverment after independance if it comes. Also whilst they might be in the minority at the moment they are also more likely to go out and vote where as the no’s and the posibly might be less inclined to do so.
        6. Again if they were truly independant that would be an issue for the Scottish goverment, as they are firmly part of scotland any tomfollery with the Norn Isles by the west minster goverment will be looked down upon in Scotland as not a good situation. But the fact is they would not be entitled to an EEZ as there is an existiong agreement in place and they would not get scottish waters.

        cheers for the reply

    2. 1. pictish kingdom unified my arse.
      2.colonists don’t mean you own anything. your just havering shite.
      4. Still havering shite.
      5. I’m Shetland born and bred and I can’t wait to get clear o da lot o you parasites.
      6 Even mare shite. most of the fields you claim would be outside Scotlands EEZ of 200nm. Enclave would only be if we were in 12 nm of Scotland that is your territorial waters EEz only aplies to the median line idiot.
      But I would love a debate if your up for it.

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