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Scotland Vs. the Shetland and Orkney Islands

Submitted by on February 9, 2012 – 2:46 am 8 Comments |  
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has gained enough power to have arranged for a vote on Scottish independence in 2014. But although the party has made major gains in recent years in many parts of Scotland, it has done poorly in others. Voters in the northern islands have generally rejected the SNP. A local political leader, the Earl of Caithness, recently called for a “clause [to be] added to Westminster legislation to allow Shetland and Orkney to remain part of the UK if voters [there] reject Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.”

As the electoral map posted here shows, support for the SNP is strong in the oil-rich northeast and in the Scottish-Gaelic-speaking Outer Hebrides in the northwest. Support reaches notably high level in and around the city of Fraserburgh in the northeast, Europe’s largest shellfish port.

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  • There have been running disputes between Shetland and Orkney on the one hand and the Scottish and British Governments on the other about local law (“udal law”) versus national law (“feudal law”).  The islanders claim that since their islands were only pawned by the kings of Norway to Scotland in 1468, and neither conquered, settled, nor ceded, Scotland (and therefore Great Britain) has no right to change the original legal system.  The most prominent point in dispute is that in British law, the foreshore (the area between high and low tide) is Crown property and anyone may use it, whereas in udal law it is private property.

    Significantly, in Shetland and Orkney the term “Scotland” refers primarily to the part of that country on Great Britain.  (Interestingly, “the Mainland” refers to the largest island in each group, and neither Great Britain nor Europe.)  They are for the most part Shetlanders and Orcadians first, Scottish second, and British third.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks for the additional information — quite interesting. Historical maps show Norway as controlling the Hebrides and even the Isle of Man well into the 1200s, a legacy of the “Earldom of Orkney, and, before that, of the Viking raids.  

      • And of course they’ve had their own offshoot of Old Norse, known as Norn, on Orkney and Shetlands. A group of enthusiasts are trying to revive it as Nynorn.

  • I find it curious that the support for SNP on the Isle of Skye is not that high, if the connection between SNP support and Scottish Gaelic is indeed what’s driving the figures up on the Outer Hebrides. Skye has a fairly high level of Scottish Gaelic (see this map:, and it serves a center of Scottish Gaelic revival with the Scottish Gaelic medium college Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye near Armadale, Scottish Gaelic festivals etc.

    • Brandon

      Skye itself may well have a strong level of support for the SNP given
      that something like a third of the roughly 9,000 inhabitants speak
      Gaelic … but on the map I can see no border between Skye and the
      adjacent mainland. Indeed, it appears that the map aggregates votes on Skye as part of the figures for the “Ross, Skye and Lochaber” constituency of the UK House of Commons. This constituency is represented by Charles Kennedy, former head of the Liberal Democrats
      and a leading light of the Keep Scotland in Britain campaign. In any
      case the map seems to show the vote for the SNP rather than the support
      for nationalism and Kennedy won 52.6% of votes for the Liberal Democrats. Skye itself simply has far too few people to make more than a small difference to party support across the whole constituency and I suspect that the constituency is the lowest level of information easily available to the people who made this map.

      • Thank you for your insightful comment, Brandon! I didn’t realize that figures from Skye were aggregated with the “mainland” part of the constituency. Do you have any sense of why there’s a higher level of Scottish Gaelic in the narrow strip running east from Kyle of Lochalsh, higher than in Wester Ross?

        • Brandon

          Detailed maps of the prevalence of the Scottish Gaelic language seem to be based on census returns for civil parishes in Scotland. The Lochalsh civil parish is a narrow strip running east from Kyle of Lochalsh and in 2001 it had a population of 1787, 1302 of whom had no knowledge of Gaelic. Thus about 27.2% of Lochalsh parish residents have some knowledge of Gaelic placing it in the “25 < 30%" band on standard maps of Gaelic knowledge, unlike the neighboring parishes that are in the "20 < 25%" band. In 2001 Kyle of Lochalsh had a population of 739, with 544 people with no knowledge of Gaelic. The other two "major" settlements in Lochalsh parish are, like Kyle of Lochalsh, on the western tip of that tongue of land … but I can't find population figures for them. Kyle of Lochalsh is connected to Skye by the Skye Bridge and before this had a regular ferry service to Skye for more than 400 years. It seems likely that the slightly higher level if Gaelic in the tongue of land striking east from Kyle of Lochalsh is a mapping artifact as the vast majority of people in this strip are almost certainly living on the coast facing Skye. In any case, the difference is a matter of a few percent working from very small sample sizes. For example, the Lochcarron parish in Wester Ross, just to the north of the Lochalsh parish, has a population of 923, of whom 707 know no Gaelic. This is a 23.4% rate of Gaelic. That is a 3.8% difference between Lochalsh and Lochcarron, but it places the two parishes in different bins on the standard maps. I'd say that the answer is that there is unlikely to be any significant difference between the rate of Gaelic understanding in that tongue of land and the areas around it apart from the coastal zone at the western tip of the tongue … the bit that is very well connected with Skye.

          Thank you for your very polite and inquiring response to my first comment here. I've been an avid reader of both this blog and yours for several years and it is nice to be able to share a small amount of information after the vast amount that I have learned from these.

          • Thank you for reading our blogs, Brandon! It’s a pleasure to know that our work is of interest!
            And of course I should have thought about the Skye Bridge, as I’ve been there on a couple of occasions (including the honeymoon!). If you are curious, here are our pictures from Skye:
            But I know this area mostly for its natural beauty and not so much for the peculiarities of population distribution or administrative boundaries. So your information is extremely helpful and I’ve learned a lot!

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