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.
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.
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?
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.