The leaders of the councils of Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides have announced they are to meet next Monday to discuss their demands for home rule – for autonomy from both Westminster and Holyrood.

Here are some facts to kick us off:

  • Between them, Orkney and Shetland and the Outer Hebrides have around 20,000 more people than their near neighbour, the autonomous Faroe Islands (who are now discussing a move to full independence).
  • 37 countries or territories have fewer people than Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides combined – they come in just ahead of Bermuda, and a long way ahead of Tuvalu.
  • The Outer Hebrides (along with the Isle of Man) became a part of Britain Scotland at the Treaty of Perth in 1266.
  • Orkney was pledged by the Norwegian King in 1468 as a security against a dowry. Because the dowry was never paid, it has in effect belonged to Scotland ever since.
  • Shetland only became a part of Scotland in 1472 – 63 years before Wales joined England (around 1535) and 135 years after Cornwall did.
  • In international law, peoples have a right to self determination.


As far as I am concerned, the people who live on these islands should have the right to decide their constitutional destiny. The idea that they could be a politically autonomous unit is no more ludicrous than the idea that the Faroe Islands, or Man, or Jersey, or Tuvalu, or, indeed, China can be. They are, in fact, bigger than the Åland Islands, who gained their autonomy from Finland after it secured independence.

There is no intrinsic size for a country or an autonomous area. It is not up to anyone but those who live there to decide if they are ‘a people’ – or a collection of peoples. Anything else is imperialism.

What I fear, is this: there seem to be almost as many in the campaign for a yes vote in the Scottish referendum next year who are genuine Scottish nationalists as there are in the no campaign who are British nationalists. And this worries me for a simple reason: Scottish independence cannot, must not, be allowed to be the end point. For me, the point is to bring power closer to people.

I grew up in a unit of local government called Perth and Kinross. It is 5286 square kilometres in size. That is not a community, it is a vast region – there are two EU member states – Luxembourg and Malta – which are smaller. If my parents, who live at one end, want to drive to see someone who lives at the other end, it would take 2 hours, and be as far as Kings Cross Station to Swindon. They don’t live in the same community.

In his famous rectorial address on alienation, Jimmy Reid said this:

“Local government is to be restructured. What an opportunity, one would think, for de-centralising as much power as possible back to the local communities. Instead, the proposals are for centralising local government. It’s once again a blue-print for bureaucracy, not democracy. “

That was in 1973. Since then, the process of centralisation of power within Scotland has continued apace. Andy Wightman gives the example of Fife, in a table below I’ve copied from him.


Years Councils Total No. Councils
to 1894 26 Town Councils 26
1894 – 1930 1 County, 56 Parishes & 25 Town Councils 82
1930 – 1975 1 County, 7 Landward Districts & 25 Town Councils 33
1975 – 1996 1 Regional Council & 3 District Councils 4
1996 to today 1 Unitary Authority 1
Future 0 ?


If we are to take alienation seriously – and I believe it is at the root of most social problems – then we must consider that people are not only alienated in their work places. They are also alienated from distant, abstract state bureaucracies. And where it is possible to return powers to communities more local still than Holyrood, supporters of Scottish independence should welcome this.

Outside the Northern and Western Isles, in areas where there are no real moves for specific autonomies – we should learn from them. We should demand much more significant powers for local authorities, and to a lower level still – village councils, town councils – to the actual communities in which we live.

I don’t know what the outcomes of the discussions between the leaders of the three archipelagos in question will be. In a sense, it is surprising to me that all three would plan on joining up – Barra, the Southern-most of the Outer Hebrides – is closer to Glasgow than it is to Stornoway. But I am sure that if the peoples of these islands seek greater autonomy from Holyrood – at whatever level, then those of us who support Scottish independence should see them not as enemies of our imagined Scottish State, but as allies in our movement to bring government closer to people.

Update – 25 July 2013, John Swinney, Scottish Finance Secretary, has announced, along with the leaders of the three island councils, a ‘Lerwick Declaration‘ launching a ministerial task force to look into new powers for the Isles