As I stepped off the ferry, Orkney seemed quiet. Too quiet, considering the swirl of political drama that enveloped the remote archipelago. With two weeks to go before the Scottish independence referendum, a so-called “micro-nationalist” movement had grown in the islands, demanding sovereignty for Shetland and Orkney as well. Earlier in the summer, a petition had been filed with the Scottish Parliament for another referendum—originally slated to be held on September 25—on the islands’ future: specifically, whether they should leave Scotland and the UK both. Even the local councils were jumping into the fight, forming a cross-island organization to lobby London and Edinburgh, regardless of the referendum outcome. To an incoming journalist, ready to find throngs of agitated activists marching through the cobbled streets, the silence was deafening.
My first stop was the tiny island of Wyre, a plot barely larger than one square mile, lying north of the mainland. It was here, in the mid-1980s, that the Declaration of Wyre was penned by John Goodlad and Margaret Flaws, a document that can help to illuminate today’s complex web of overlapping cries for independence.
Despite its humble island origins, the Declaration was grandiose and unforgiving in its language and purpose: a plea to the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway to “safeguard our laws, rights and traditions until such a time as our constitutional status is resolved.” The entire undertaking—from the mist-shrouded isle to the bold and imploring tone—had all the trappings of a high political drama, as if the letter were written under severe duress. It called on a former ruler to once again protect the islands—Norwegian Earls were lords of the isles for six hundred years. It gained signatures from across the islands’ patchwork of towns. The authors even flew to Denmark to personally deliver the letter, like lesser lords bending a knee to the crown. So when I reached John Goodlad by phone (he was away captaining a 110 year-old wooden sailboat when I got to the islands, fittingly) I wasn’t expecting the chuckle that emanated from the other end of the line: “Aw, to be honest, that really was just a bit of fun.”
He said it with the same tone you might use to describe a night out singing drunken karaoke, or a casual prank. For some reason, I had pictured it being written by candlelight. On a cracked, yellow scroll. Maybe with a quill, dipped in dwindling ink.
But despite its jocular origins, the Declaration became a rallying point for Goodlad’s small band of activists, who began to make serious progress in the arduous task of wresting power away from the UK government and giving it to the islands.
Shetland is home to the largest oil terminal in Europe
“We gained steam in the 1980s,” Goodlad told me. Eventually, activism coalesced into a political force known as the Orkney and Shetland Movement, which fought for devolved powers. When the Movement entered the 1987 general election, Goodlad ran as its candidate. “A lot of people said we’d lose our deposit. But we kind of established ourselves.”
Gaining 14.7% of the vote in the islands, the Movement performed better than any non-mainstream party in British history to that date. The push was only beginning: “We then, in the 1990s, became very involved in the campaign for a Scottish Assembly.” Goodlad was a delegate at the 1989 Scottish Constitutional Convention, which paved the way for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament a decade later—a singular achievement on the road to ultimate self-governance, at least for the nation as a whole.
As the campaign for Scottish independence grew to a fever pitch in 2012, islanders began to run a parallel fight for local autonomy, piggybacking on the same arguments: local resources should be locally controlled, the national government is too centralized and natural resource profits have been co-opted by London. (Shetland is home to Sullom Voe, the largest oil terminal in Europe.)