If you start giving out independence, where do you stop?

Published 26 March 2014  |  
A petition is asking for a referendum on independence for the Orkney, Shetland and Western islands of Scotland, in the event that the mainland votes for independence on 18 September

There are murmurs around the Orkney, Shetland, and Western islands around whether they should break away from Scotland should the mainland decide in favour of independence in the September 18 referendum.

A petition making exactly that call has so far gathered 725 signatures. That may not seem much on the face of it, but given the relatively sparse population of these islands, the figure is enough to stir up the hopes of the pressure group behind the petition, 'Referenda for the Islands', which has set itself the goal of gaining more than 1,000.

With just over a month to go before the petition ends, Christian Today spoke to the minister of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the Reverend Fraser McNaughton, about how sympathy there is among locals with the idea of independence from Scotland.

CT: Reverend McNaughton, what are your initial thoughts on the idea of the referendum which this petition is proposing?

FM: Well, I am aware that regardless of the outcome of the referendum in September, the three islands' councils, Western, Shetland and Orkney, have collectively been lobbying and consulting with representatives of the UK and Scottish governments.

The goal there is to seek out more autonomy and independence for the islands, with particular focus on issues that concern many people here, like transport and the Crown Estates.

In terms of the idea of independence, I'm not really sure where it is coming from. This idea seem to have slowly grown legs. But you've got to remember that when one submits a petition, it doesn't necessarily mean very much.

All it could mean is there is a small group of people somewhere wanting to bring attention to the issue.

This is something that has raised its head in the past in Orkney. Whenever there has been devolution or independence debates in the rest of Scotland, the question of independence for Orkney gets raised. But this has never really come to very much before.

I suspect there is really not very much appetite for it across the population.

CT: Do you think that such independence is a good idea or a workable idea?

FM: It depends what people mean by independence really. Independence from whom?

There's a very cultural sensitivity, particularly in Orkney and Shetland, about the Norse connection. This goes back to the middle ages, when those island groups were in fact part of Norway.

Only in 1468 did they become part of Scotland, so there's always been a very strong awareness of that in our history, and our connection with Scandinavia. Whether or not that means people want to say "let's be independent and become part of Norway again", I don't know.

CT: What about one of the other options the referendum is proposing, like remaining with the UK, if Scotland decides to leave?

FM: That's an interesting possibility, but I'm slightly puzzled by the notion of this entity of 'the remainder of the UK'. If you look at it in historical terms, the UK is the United Kingdom of Scotland and England.

If one part of that united kingdom decides to be independent, there cannot be a 'remainder' of the United Kingdom really. Wales is a principality and Northern Ireland is a province.

The UK as a constitutional entity is the union of two kingdoms, Scotland one kingdom and England another kingdom. If one of those breaks away, there cannot be a UK.

CT: What about the idea of the three island groups becoming an independent country?

FM: For the island group to be an independent country, one has to recognise that the northern islands, Shetland and Orkney are very different from the Western islands.

The Western islands are steeped in the Gaelic tradition. That's totally different from Orkney and Shetland, who are much more of a Norse connection. These kinds of differences could then make issues of uniting these three island groups together something of a nonstarter.

Also, if you start giving out independence, where do you stop? In the archipelago of Orkney, is each individual island going to want to become independent from the mainland of Orkney? This could cause all kinds of problems potentially.

CT: What have you heard in your community in terms of discussions about independence for the islands? Is that something people are talking about?

FM: No, certainly not. In Orkney, like in all parts of Scotland, there is a robust debate going on about the referendum for Scotland, Scottish independence yes or no. That's very important, very healthy, and is the kind of discussion I'm very pleased to see happening.

But this idea of independence for the islands, it seems to me more like it's a distraction, or else people flying a test kite of an idea, as has been done several times before in the past. It doesn't seem like something solid and serious just yet.

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