Pulling Ragwort in Bonny Birsay

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Nobody’s favourite job in high summer is pulling ragwort. But it’s weel kent that this vibrant plant, if it finds it’s way intae silage or hay, can be deadly poisonous tae sheep, kye, or horses. So we have spent the last two days clearing it fae a field that is soon tae be mown for silage.

It’s satisfying tae load the pickup up wae the wilting stalks and tae luk back owre the clear, clean acres ahint ye. Stealthy clegs, and the repetitive stretching movement as ye try tae get each plant up by the roots, mean that this can be a tedious job. But the views o bonny Birsay and the distant Atlantic tae the west more than mak up for hid.

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The Man, you know?

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Image of Jo Grimond, Rackwick July 2020.

On a crumbling sea wall in one of the outlying isles, or on the gable of a redundant farm building somewhere in a Mainland parish, you can still make out the faded lettering, daubed in white paint by a zealous supporter during, say, the 1966 general election campaign: VOTE FOR JO!

So popular and weel-kent was Jo Grimond, that only his familiar, friendly first name was required. ‘Vote for Jo, the man you know’, went the slogan. It is now exactly seventy years since Grimond was first elected as the Westminster representative for the Northern Isles. Remarkably, he held the Orkney and Shetland seat for thirty-three years between 1950 and 1983. The exhortation to vote for him was already then, as it is now, redundant, pointless, and unnecessary. Because for much of the twentieth century, Orkney and Shetland was the safest Liberal seat in Scotland.

Why should this be? And why – in the face of seismic shifts in Scottish political thinking and voting behaviour – does it remain the case? Orkney and Shetland is a curious anomaly on the Scottish political map, and Grimond goes as far as to acknowledge this in his 1979 Memoirs: ‘I have heard it said that Orkney and Shetland is a freak constituency segregated from the main highways of British political thought’. Of course, he refutes this. But the question nevertheless remains at the heart of the argument about whether people should continue to vote Lib Dem today. Is to do so not to segregate yourself and your fellow constituents from those ‘main highways’, and in so doing perpetuate the election of a tiny group who will only ever be, at best, voices in the political wilderness at Westminster?

The reasons I hear from people voting Lib Dem in twenty first century elections range from an uncritical assertion from an Orkney Islands Councillor that ‘if Liberal was good enough for Daddy, then it’s good enough for me’, to the friend who told me recently ‘well I don’t really know anything about politics so I always just vote Lib Dem’. I suspect that these sorts of family honour or safe repetitive predictability voting patterns are pretty common in modern Orkney and Shetland. And I absolutely don’t want to denigrate Lib Dem supporters. I know that a great many of my family and friends must vote Lib Dem (and I have done so myself from time to time in the past). I like to think that people here continue to vote this way because they can’t see themselves as idealist Socialists at this late point in history, but neither can they abide the hard-hearted, money-grabbing mentality of those on the right of the Tory party. With a tradition of hardworking owner occupancy in a reasonably classless society where people work every hour available (mostly on their own small-ish farms or in their own small businesses), it’s understandable that the industrial urban roots of socialism and radicalism have never really taken hold in Orkney. Likewise, the excesses of right wing Conservatism are deeply unpalatable to people who live, for better or for worse, in a real community, and understand that there is, of course, such a thing as Society after all; this is one important fact that you can’t afford to ignore when you are an islander.

I wonder how many of the younger Lib Dem voters in the Northern Isles know very much about the history of their party of choice, or indeed about the underlying philosophy of Liberalism. Grimond’s memoir is as revealing on the history as it is fascinating on the philosophy.

We shouldn’t imagine, for instance, that the Liberal party is any less an integral component of the British Establishment or that it is any way further removed from those implacable structures of power, privilege and patronage than the Tory party is. Grimond’s recollections of his early life are a veritable Who’s Who of the rich and powerful families at the very top of the UK caste system during the thirties and forties. He describes his enrolment at Eton, and then Oxford to study the famous PPE course required of future Conservative and New Labour cabinet ministers, with weekends spent shooting on estates where dinners in the lavish country houses of British aristocrats began with sherry and ended with port. When Grimond notes that ‘in 1945 my brother in law Billy became the Chief Scout’ and ‘after retiring as Chief Scout Billy was made governor of Tasmania in 1959’, it is as if this kind of appointment coming to a member of one’s immediate circle is nothing unusual. The power, interconnectedness and exclusivity of this disproportionately tiny British coterie is nothing short of astonishing. But, to his credit, Grimond doesn’t lack self-awareness, and he yearns for a future politics that is – dare I say it? – a bit more like that which we see at Holyrood today, ‘free from the patronising airs of the old Eton and Oxford hierarchy’.

Liberalism, Grimond reminds us throughout, combines the radical instinct with an insistence on individual liberty, and does not see the two as contradictory. Sadly, it’s difficult to see any immediate future for the doctrine in our increasingly fractured and fragmenting United Kingdom. Grimond’s seventy-year-old plea for proportional representation at Westminster has fallen on deaf ears for, well, seventy years. And neither has his argument for the advancement of Liberal ideals through parliamentary coalition stood the test of time, having been shot down in the flames of the end of free university education in England. And now, most inimical of all, narrow right-wing British Nationalism has turned its back on Europe forever.

While it might take a bit of a stretch of the imagination to think that Jo Grimond would have joined the SNP by 2020, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that he might by now be mobilising something like ‘Scottish Liberal Democrats for Independence’. His close involvement with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the work of which informs so many contemporary SNP policies, or his concern for the plight of the Guardian at a time when it was in much less trouble than it is today, reminds us of the social compassion underpinning his values.

And Grimond was a lifelong campaigner for what was originally known as Home Rule and later became Devolution. He was arguing for full federalism and tax raising powers for Scotland when Gordon Brown was still in short breeks. Grimond would have been frustrated beyond belief with Groundhog Day Labour ‘vows’ to deliver federalism or reform the upper chamber. With the combination of his antinuclear conviction and his internationalist outlook, we might imagine he would also be content with the pragmatic middle ground balance of SNP opposition to Trident renewal alongside commitment to NATO membership.

No, Grimond is by no means hostile to the SNP – some of whose socially progressive policies, it might be argued, have stolen a march on his political descendants in Scotland. If we remove the British/Unionist factor from this equation, the only true revival of the fortunes of the Liberal party that it is now possible to imagine in Scotland would come after the event of Scottish independence (at which point the SNP’s raison d’etre becomes redundant). The urgent question Lib Dems need to answer in Orkney and in Scotland today is How do you think you are ever going to achieve anything resembling Liberalism within the archaic and undemocratic structures of the United Kingdom?

This is an enthralling and an endearing memoir, not least because of its love for and affinity with the old Orkney people and ways of life. The warmth of Jo Grimond’s character continues to shine through forty years on. When he writes ‘I take the family as the green of the grass or the warmth of the fire’, we feel we are in the company of a gentleman whose heart is in absolutely the right place. But those Orkney and Shetland folk who persist in voting for Jo today run the risk of insisting that the political world is flat.

Last wolf/first wolf

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Wolf country, Valemont B.C.

I flew home from Vancouver to Glasgow on Sunday. During my three weeks in Canada, wolves were on my mind.

I heard about them from a forward-thinking young engineer who was working on a geothermal energy project in Valemont, British Columbia. He told me that he had seen a wolf once, with its paw in the river at Banff. I watched the news in the evenings, which fondly reported the movements of a pack near Kamloops. In the Okanagan, I discussed aspects of Scotland’s future with my expatriate uncle, Kenny Mair, from Aberdeen. We touched on the concept of rewilding, and the possible reintroduction of wolves.

Kenny wonders about range and scope. He’s mildly sceptical about how wolves and people might be able to coexist in our more densely populated country. British Columbia is twice the size of some of the larger European nations, and much less populous. Vancouver island alone is about the size of the Highlands north of the Great Glen. Taking off from Vancouver airport, I feel a kind of agoraphobic awe watching the sun set over the Pacific, as the immense mountain ranges stretch all the way north to the Arctic. But, as MacDiarmid remonstrated, Scotland small? Our infinite, our multiform Scotland small? I discovered today that Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland, Norway, Sweden, and even tiny Portugal all have their own beloved populations of indigenous wolves.

Who wouldn’t want them here? Well, there’s what psychologists call ‘dread’. The overwhelming but illogical terror of something that is, in reality, statistically very unlikely to happen: the idea that wolves might actually harm people. I think we can talk people out of their dread, and persuade them of the thrills and the potential ecotourism and the enviro-economic benefits. Seeing a wolf track in Assynt. Hearing a wolf howl in the Cairngorms. Catching a glimpse of a distant wolf disappearing into a stand of aspen on Rannoch Moor.

Keepers and farmers will be the people who will take the most persuading. I stalked for ten years in Moray with a keeper who was a family friend. Like all true countrymen, he loved his environment. The last time I was on the hill with him, Douglas was enthusing about the benefits of sensitive reforestation in the Highlands, and in particular the initiative to reforest with native species – as opposed to the mono-cultural and ecologically sterile conifer belts that strap our hillsides. Mixed, indigenous forest of birch, rowan, alder and aspen, he maintained, presented the most exciting landscape, and the best stalking opportunities. How much more exciting would these opportunities be for any stalker who has the added chance of spotting a wild wolf as part of a day on the hill?

And wolves, as they’ve seen in Yellowstone in the USA, benefit the entire ecosystem. For the wolf eats the deer that would otherwise graze down the holly sprig or the willow sapling. These growing trees then slow erosion, improve rivers, and make vital marginal reductions to flooding. So insect, bird, aquatic, plant and human life benefits. The apex predator ensures diversity across the entire system, by redressing the artificial imbalance in deer numbers.

Sheep and deer, for which the lairds cleared the glens of people in the nineteenth century, gnaw and nibble at what would otherwise be a rich and flourishing mixed forest environment. Ironically, sheep might be the biggest impediment to the reintroduction of wolves. As a part-time farmer myself, I know how difficult and frustrating it is to lose a lamb or a yowe. But I’d be prepared to sign up to an intelligent compensation scheme for the sake of our wider environment, and I believe many other environmentally conscious farmers would think the same way.

Legend has it that the last wolf in Scotland was killed on the banks of the river Findhorn in the late Eighteenth Century. Now Pine Martens and Red Squirrels are extending their range across the Highlands for the first time in many, many years. Beavers are making a comeback, and improving our rivers at the same time. The news this week says that the Lynx will be next, slinking quietly and unobtrusively back into southern Scotland. The return of the wolf can happen too, if we want it badly enough.

 

The Ram on the Rock

Like a Nordic port of old, the Faroese capital of Torshavn smells evocatively of salt and tar. As we disembark the ferry, the harbour waters lap beneath the modest parliament building with its turf roof and oxblood weatherboarding. Skiffs and speedboats rock together alongside the many piers. Fresh cod gasp in plastic fishboxes on the quayside. There are supermarkets, restaurants, and a football stadium where Scotland have enjoyed some limited success. The town is clean, civil and unostentatiously Christian.

We enjoy the warmest of welcomes from the kindest of people in this town. Marner, who lives next door to the tidy wooden house we have rented, has just enough English to explain to me that business at his garage is good. We talk over the fence. His wife is a carer for a spinal injury patient who was flown to hospital in Copenhagen for initial treatment, but is now living back in the Faroes. People working in their own businesses or getting on with modern professional life on a North Atlantic island: this could be Orkney, Shetland, Lewis.

Next day, with our engine labouring in low gear, we set off in a north-by-northwest direction to drive over the mountains behind Torshavn. We leave the town far below, seeking out the volcanic and glacial scenery for which these islands are famed. Soon, we are cruising high above the fjord on the arid surface of what could be another planet, moving into the pagan hinterland of rocky desert, salt water and ice.

Deep in my pocket as I drive nestles a crumpled, blue-gray, fifty kroner banknote: my change from the tourist shop on the ferry. The note depicts a wild-eyed island ram, rugged and lean in the Iron Age style, with a haughty, feral expression; a curly-horned spirit of the Faroe Islands. The ram is not unlike a North Ronaldsay sheep. Up here on the mountain highway, a ram like this stands proud on every other corner, his ewes scrambling off through scrub and over screes.

Eventually we reach the foot of the western downslope of the mountain. We switch the headlights on and – not without some trepidation – enter a five kilometer long subsea tunnel…

… only to emerge into another, inconceivably strange landscape of eccentric mountains and sculpted half-mountains, sea-plummeting corries, and wave-eaten, emerald islets that soar skywards to pinnacle summits before plunging, black and fragmented, to the pallid north Atlantic hundreds of feet below.

These islanders think nothing of tunneling to immense depths or bridging at great heights across the narrow tidal sounds to improve their infrastructure and economy. Indeed, they describe their archipelago, with its 50,000 inhabitants, as a ‘dispersed city’, and there is no doubt that it is astonishingly easy to get around. Local industry thrives outside Torshavn, without additional transport barriers. I think of similar land and seascapes in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and the retarded impoverishment of infrastructure there: the lack of tunnels or bridges, the restricted grid connections, the punishing metro-centric electrical distribution charges.

Isolation or distances simply aren’t a problem in Faroe. The landscape is easy to negotiate, and yet it is breathtakingly beautiful. Here, there are vast, truncated parabola shapes, and jagged dental forms in basalt, weird in their wildness. These rocks are indeed like the teeth of the sea serpent in the Orkney folk tale. Never have we experienced such a sense of our own insignificance, of being on the periphery, of breathtaking, Spartan beauty. And yet, among the volcanic grandeur, there are many, many towns and villages; there are fifty thousand people here. How can all of these people scratch a living in this oceanic wilderness?

Look again closely and you will see that there are phenocrysts in the seemingly monotonous basalt. And there’s a true, resilient independence of spirit, a self confidence in the eyes of the Faroese ram. The note in my pocket is indigenous Faroese: a version of the Danish Krone; it is not the Euro. These isles are Danish, yet they are also un-Danish. They are European, and at the same time they are virtually independent. The ram is sure of a mouthful of mountain pasture, a feed of lichen, the perpetuation of his genes. And the wide sea that makes foreign visitors feel small and insignificant inspires these islands with confidence.

Ninety per cent of the GDP here is fish, and the GDP is enviable, ranking alongside Japan, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates. As the sagas say, the man without a boat is a prisoner. The hardworking twenty first century Faroese with a share in a pelagic trawler or a crabber is indeed both wealthy and free. In the summer, for instance, a lavish fleet of privately-owned cabin cruisers are towed by four-by-fours onto the ro-ro deck of the islands’ international ferry Norrona, and shipped to Bergen for recreational cruising on the Norwegian west coast. There is no shortage of money for those who are prepared to work for it. And, significantly, these ‘isolated’ islands have become wealthy without a drop of oil – as yet.

Oil exploration activity is gathering momentum in the surrounding seas. It is rumoured that Statoil have already invested vast sums in exploration on the Faroese seabed. With new fields currently opening up in the Atlantic far to the west of Shetland, a lucrative strike on the Faroese side of the international line now seems inevitable. And – critically – it is the Faroese seabed. Fortuitously, the Faroese government succeeded in negotiating the rights to the islands’ own seabed from the Danish government in 1992. How different the situation is at home in Orkney, where seabed leases for salmon farms have paid rent to the Crown Estate for generations, and where renewables developers have begun to hand over astronomical sums for the future installation of wave and tidal arrays. Only a tiny fraction of this money returns to Orkney, in the form of petty grants for leisure slipways or suchlike. Chicken feed from the Crown Estate. We should watch what happens to the Faroes as the renewable revolution develops, for there is no failure of ambition in these isles.

Potential oil development coupled with burgeoning renewable capability is the magic combination for the Faroes. The potential for clean renewable wind, wave and tidal energy in the islands is, quite literally, endless. Solid oil wealth of their own for the foreseeable future, coupled with the opportunity to develop a secure long-term, home-grown renewable power base – what more could North Atlantic islanders possibly wish for?

The Faroes now share only foreign and defence policy with their benevolent ‘sister nation’, so they have Scandinavian ‘devolution max’ from a larger neighbour that is comparable in so many ways to Scotland, or to what Scotland could be. Denmark doesn’t do nuclear weapons, and it isn’t neurotic about having ‘clout’ or military ‘reach’ in the world. Like much of the rest of Scandinavia, it is respected internationally for diplomatic expertise, for conflict resolution, and for decidedly low-key military involvement. It enjoys a strategic defence alliance with the other western nations. I don’t want to gloss over the fact that Denmark has some of the highest taxes in Europe. But the taxed Krone ensures what is – officially – the highest reported level of happiness in Europe. The tax goes back into Danish society: into education, care homes, hospitals. I’m not overly keen on vikingry – the kind of helmet-wearing, flag-waving, Norse-ancestry mythology and celebration that goes on in some parts of Scotland – but I do think we ought to take a serious, hard-headed look at what our independent future might look like as part of the Nordic family of nations.

By our evening return to Torshavn the temperature has warmed to a balmy five degrees outdoors. Families gather under turf roofs. A dwarf alder by the picket fence bears modest fruit. Marner from next door is curious about the Saltire on my E.U. number plate. I explain laboriously that my island is part of Scotland, and also part of the UK, and also part of Europe. He chides me gently: When are you having your independence? When indeed, and why not? I’m inclined to wonder.

July, 2008

 

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