Could the Orkney Islands really return to Norway? That’s what the council of the Scottish islands are debating this week. Here’s what you need to know about the proposals.
Orkney, an archipelago off the north coast of Scotland, is considering the possibility of changing its relationship with the United Kingdom amidst concerns of economic struggles and inequitable funding.
The proposal to explore “alternative forms of governance” has been brought forth by the Orkney Islands Council Leader, James Stockan. One of those forms of governance on the table is whether Orkney could become a self-governing territory of Norway.
Of course, there would be a very long road with many questions to be answered until such a proposal could ever become a reality. Not least, would Norway even be interested?
A strong Norwegian history
The decision to explore this possibility arises from a historical and cultural affinity that the islanders have with Norway. Until 1472, the Orkney Islands were under Norwegian rule.
Four years prior, a dynastic marriage was arranged between James III of Scotland and Princess Margaret of Denmark. The marriage was part of a wider peace treaty between Denmark-Norway and Scotland, with Orkney serving as a dowry.
At that time, Denmark-Norway was experiencing financial difficulties and was unable to pay the full dowry in cash. As a result, King Christian I of Denmark and Norway, Margaret's father, pledged the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the Scottish crown as a guarantee for the payment of the dowry.
When he defaulted on the dowry payment in 1472, Orkney and Shetland officially became a part of Scotland. The islands have remained under Scottish control ever since.
Norwegian legacy in Orkney
The Norse legacy is celebrated by locals, who often suggest a return to Norway. “There is a huge affinity and a huge, deep cultural relationship there,” Stockan told BBC News, “This is exactly the moment to explore what is possible.”
Those wanting to understand the Norse legacy and historical ties between Norway and Orkney (and Shetland) can listen to episode 45 of the Life in Norway Show.
Donna Heddle from the Institute for Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland explained that the links go beyond the history books:
“There have always been economic links, especially with fishing. There's also a reciprocal program for schoolchildren to travel to and from Norway. We celebrate Norwegian constitution day, and have a north Atlantic sailing race. Of course, we also welcome many Norwegian visitors every year,” she said.
Orkney’s flag is even based on the Nordic cross and at first glance, looks very similar to the Norwegian flag.
Dissatisfaction with UK situation
Stockan expressed his dissatisfaction with the existing governance, saying Orkney has been “failed dreadfully” by governments in Edinburgh and London. He claimed that funding per capita for the Orkney islands is lower than that received by Shetland and the Western Isles.
Speaking to NRK, Stockan highlighted the shared vibrant and sustainable maritime economy with Norway: “Norway does this very well, and we have significant opportunities in our shared sea areas.”
According to the council leader, the economic struggles of Orkney have been significant, including the need for ferry fleet replacement, and a lack of fairness in the funding arrangement with the current position in the UK.
Many options on the table
While becoming a Norwegian territory is one of the options on the table, the islands are also considering changing their legal status within Britain to increase their autonomy. Looking into governance structures of crown dependencies like Guernsey, Jersey, and the Isle of Man is also a possibility.
The report due to go before the council also references the Faroe Islands, a self-governing territory of Denmark in the North Sea, which could serve as a model for Orkney’s future status.
Any constitutional changes would require a combination of petitions, referendums, and legislation at Holyrood and Westminster, the officials' report suggests. The motion is to be discussed by the council on Tuesday.
The local feeling
As for the local population, opinions are divided. There are concerns about the impact such changes would have on local resources, especially in a time when services are under real pressure.
However, local sentiment shows that there's an interest in the matter. People on Shetland, with a similar historical connection to Norway, told NRK that they are keenly following the debate to be held in the council of the neighboring Orkney Islands.
Despite the uncertainties, Stockan sees value in considering a closer relationship with the Nordic countries and believes now is the time to explore these options. Okney Council plans to debate the proposal this week.