Getting on the map

The people of Orkney don't speak Gaelic (and never have), do have electricity and their eyebrows don't join in the middle. But could a mainlander tell you that?

FOR THE past week the islands have been smothered in thick North Sea fog. Visibility's been so low that seeing the far side of the road is a problem, never mind seeing Scotland on the far side of the Pentland Firth. Most of the planes in and out of Grimsetter airport at Kirkwall have been fogbound, reducing mail to a trickle and businessmen to smouldering heaps of frustration as yet another departure time slips by, yet another deal is wrapped up without them. Eventually the men in the suits, and the tourists in their dayglo fleeces and boots, and even the local folk in plaster casts and wheelchairs heading off to hospital, have to choose: either eight hours overnight on the St Sunniva to Aberdeen, or else two hours on the St Ola across the Firth, then all day by train to Edinburgh or Glasgow.

From my window overlooking the western exit from Scapa Flow, I catch a glimpse through the fog banks of a big blue slab-sided ferry heeling round out of Stromness and heading south, its decks empty. Usually in the summer they are crammed with locals and visitors getting their final fill of the green and pleasant hills of Orkney, but lately there have only been walls of wet white mist to look at. So it's straight to the Pentland Grill for those who like to be warmed by fried egg rolls, and to the Skerries Lounge for those who prefer dark rum. Within minutes of leaving the quayside the ferries are lost in the fog, and we're alone again.

Alone because for most of the rest of Scotland, the Orkney Islands might as well not exist. Tales abound of Edinburgh travel agents reminding would-be island-hoppers to take their passports; of friends in Glasgow saying, "Orkney? That's next to Skye, isn't it?"; of visitors from Dumfries or Dunfermline asking barmen and shopkeepers whether they accept British currency. Every time I'm south I'm asked the same questions so frequently that it's tempting to get a supply of cards printed up with my stock answers: NO we don't speak Gaelic and never have done, YES we have electricity, NO our eyebrows don't meet in the middle and our toes aren't webbed.

A couple of points regarding this widespread ignorance. One is that it's not only Orkney that suffers from it, but also Shetland, the Western Isles, and much of the Highlands. Another is that it's not only people in London or other parts of the deep south who know little and care less about the far north (that's only to be expected); it's our supposed compatriots just a couple of hundred miles away. Population densities are much more skewed in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, with the vast bulk of the people crowded into the Glasgow/Edinburgh axis of central belt conurbations, leaving the large areas to the north relatively empty. Whereas most northerners travel to the cities to study, to shop, for business, pleasure or medical treatment, very few southerners ever make it up here. For them, Orkney might as well be permanently what it has been for the past week: completely hidden from view under a large white blot of fog.

There are various reasons for this attitude. One is simply geography: faced with the large distances, the stormy seas, the turbulent skies (and the exorbitant air fares) that separate the rest of the world from Orkney.

Another is historical: until relatively recently, Orkney was a foreign country, or at least part of one. (And Orcadians still talk about "going away to Scotland" for the weekend.) It was only in 1468 that the inhabitants of the Earldom of Orkney ceased to be subjects of the King of Norway, their spiritual needs met by the Archbishop of Trondheim. Five hundred and thirty years may seem a distant memory to folk living in leafy suburbs or concrete Legolands, but surrounded as we are by copious ruins of the houses, farms, tombs and castles of people of the Norse Era, the Bronze Age, and the Neolithic - including the oldest standing house in Europe, the 5,000 year old Knap of Howar on Papa Westray - the late 15th century seems like the day before yesterday.

Finally there are the political reasons behind the ignorant attitudes. For over 100 years the constituency of Orkney and Shetland has voted Liberal. Many would say this is a habit of gratitude going back to the introduction of Gladstone's 1886 Crofters' Act, which effectively turned islanders from landowners' serfs into owner-occupiers of their own small farms. That we have had a string of eminently sensible and decent MPs, culminating in the present incumbent, Jim Wallace, no doubt also helps. Whatever the reason, it has meant that Orkney's voice has never been heard in government, with easily imaginable results. For instance, despite stout efforts by Wallace and his predecessor Jo Grimond to tackle the issue, Orkney still suffers sorely from the lack of an integrated transport policy. (Which would, of course, include an Instrument Landing System to keep our lifeline air services flying even through summer pea-soupers...)

In local government terms, Orkney Islands Council is the last in the UK to consist entirely of independent councillors. No parties are represented in the chamber, resulting in an admirable lack of centrally dictated dogma, but an unfortunate amount of dithering, parish-pump oratory and (above all) the lack of a powerful unitary voice to shout for the islands' causes.

In last year's referendum, Orkney only just scraped a Yes to giving Scotland its own parliament. And it was one of only two areas to come out against giving the Edinburgh assembly tax-raising powers. These votes reflect the islanders' suspicion of central belt ignorance and arrogance. The local attitude has long been better the devil you know: "Sure, the Londoners understand even less about us than the Glaswegians, but at least they're further away, it's harder for them to interfere."

Recent years, though, have seen a genuine growth of interest in ways in which greater self-determination for the isles might be achieved, and a grudging appreciation that a shifting of power northwards from London is, if nothing more, a move in the right direction. The Orkney Movement, a campaigning group dormant since the Seventies, has started meeting again, is attracting new members, and has released cogently argued papers on why and how this community of 20,000 might reasonably and profitably govern itself.

In the current issue of the Edinburgh Review, the country's pre-eminent cultural journal, the editors write: "In post-devolutionary Scotland, the differences which exist between conditions and cultures in areas of the country must be recognised, by further devolution of power if desired. An Edinburgh government prepared to ask the people of a place what help they require to continue to survive, and hopefully to thrive, rather than doling out subsistence from central office or encouraging evacuation, is one which recognises that these 'northern lands' are not empty at all, but full of creative potential."

Certainly, Orcadians' sense of cultural identity has rarely been stronger, despite the death in 1996 of our greatest writer of recent times, George Mackay Brown. Orkney continues to examine and celebrate itself in poetry (Alistair Peebles), music (The Smoking Stone Band, Peter Maxwell Davis), photography (Gunnie Moberg), fiction (John Aberdein) and above all art (Sylvia Wishart, Colin Johnstone, Arlene Isbister). If the Edinburgh parliament wants Orkney to remain (some would argue become) a part of the New Scotland, then it will have to listen to these diverse Orcadian voices; it will also have to take seriously the arguments of the advocates of "further devolution".

Orkney's motto is Doreas Somus, Mare Amicus - "The North Our Home, The Sea Our Friend." The view from the north is pretty foggy at the moment. But once the fog clears, we hope to see the bodies of power in Edinburgh and Glasgow taking a lot more notice of us than London ever did. If they don't, then the sea may well be our best friend for one more reason: not just because it provides food, fuel and jobs, but because it keeps a healthy distance between us and Scotland. !