CLAIM: “Orkney councillors back plan to explore alternative forms of governance” – Guardian headline July 4 2023.


Orkney folk, like their Shetland neighbours, are right to prize their island culture. An independent Scotland would respect their legal right to autonomy, just as Denmark does with the Faroe Islands.


At a meeting on Tuesday July 4, Orkney councillors voted by 15 votes to six to support a motion from the council leader, James Stockan, which requested council officers to compile a report on the constitutional future of the islands. Stockan claimed the islands have been "held down" and accused both the Scottish and UK governments of discrimination in the allocation of finances.

Orkney Council has passed similar motions in the past as a way of leveraging influence with Holyrood and Westminster. The difference in this latest motion is that it specifically mandates officials to explore reviving previous “Nordic connections”. Shetland was under Norwegian and Danish control until 1472, when they were transfered to Scotland as part of Margaret of Denmark’s wedding dowry to King James III.

The new motion also requires officials to report on the options for Shetland becoming a so-called Crown Dependencies like the Isle of Man and Jersey and Guernsey.

Orkney is not alone in expressing demands for more autonomy. Back in 2020, Shetland Council voted 18-2 to support a motion to explore options for achieving “financial and political self-determination” for the islands.

READ MORE: Orkney council to look at proposals to leave UK and become Norwegian territory


Like most island communities, Orkney – population 22,540 – has its own unique politics.  The mainstream political parties hold little sway here. Of the 21 councillors, 19 are nominally independents and 2 are Greens. Orkney returned the highest No vote of any council area in the 2014 independence referendum, with 67% voting to stay in the UK.

Orkney has of course played a key role in the North Sea oil industry. But as oil production has diminished so the weaknesses in the Orkney economy have been exposed – not to mention the negative impact of Covid on the local tourism industry. The public sector provides Orcadians with 31% of their employment, compared with a Scottish figure of 25%. There is not much manufacturing beyond food and drink processing. Only 10 private firms employ more than 50 people: None more than 250. Which explains the Orcadian’s beef over state funding.

According to Stockan, Orkney is “really struggling at the moment”. He told the BBC: “We are denied the things that other areas get like RET (Road Equivalent Tariff) for ferry fares. And the funding we get from the Scottish Government is significantly less per head than Shetland and the Western Isles to run the same services – we can't go on as we are.” 

The National: Holyrood and Calton Hill

This latter point is crucial given the high per capital cost of running social services in a small island community. Factor in the recent surge in the cost of living, and Orkney faces a perfect financial storm. 

To this has to be added the recent political controversy over Scotland’s ageing island “lifeline” ferry fleet and the cost debacle over the building of new vessels. In presenting his motion, Stockan argued that an ageing ferry fleet is among the major issues being faced by islanders. He said the situation is "critical" because the ferries, which are older than the Western Isles fleet, are beginning to fail. 

Where Orkney has been successful is in the media headlines gathered around the globe by the council’s decision to reopen the island autonomy debate. The council’s debate has been reported across Europe and as far away as China.


Is Orkney Council serious about seeking greater autonomy or is this simply a method of leveraging attention and more cash? 

As a result of the council vote in 2017, Orkney officials produced a 19-page report examining "whether the people of Orkney could exercise self-determination if faced with further national or international constitutional changes" and whether "more autonomy might be beneficial for the wellbeing of Orkney". 

This report was requested by Councillor Graham Sinclair, who said he was "not in favour at all of separatist independence" but instead wanted to explore "greater autonomy and self-determination for Orkney". The final report went no further than laying out the various options for island autonomy enjoyed in other jurisdictions. It made no recommendations. The matter seemed to lapse.

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However, continuing unrest in the island communities produced a response from the SNP government. In July 2013, the then First Minister Alex Salmond (above) issued the Lerwick Declaration, which announced the decision of the SNP government to decentralise power to the three island council areas of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. The declaration was made in response to the Our Islands – Our Future campaign launched in June 2013, in which Scotland's island councils called for greater autonomy.

The Lerwick Declaration led directly to the Islands Act of 2018. The main focus of the act was to ensure that Holyrood ministers consulted the island authorities as a legal right and respected island communities in framing legislation. But the act did not lead to any significant shift in resources to the islands.

The act made provision in theory to transfer more autonomous powers to the island councils but since 2018 little has transpired in this direction. Indeed, the recently abandoned Highly Protected Marine Areas legislation was seen by many in the islands as another example of Holyrood centralisation. The relatively inconclusive results of the 2018 act may explain the fresh calls for more island autonomy.

The latest Orcadian moves have provoked a response for the first time from Westminster. A spokesperson insisted that the UK Government "recognises the unique contribution that the Scottish islands make to the United Kingdom and is firmly of the belief that their potential can be fully realised as part of a prosperous, thriving UK economy and society". Which is to say, thanks but no thanks.

READ MORE: Norway? No way, says No 10, as Orkney considers its constitutional future


One model is the self-governing Faroe Islands, which are part of Denmark. The Faroes (population: 50,000) have control over energy, environment, taxation, trade and education, as well as the management of fisheries and natural resources. 

The Faroe Islands have their own elected assembly, and send two representatives to the Danish parliament, which is responsible for the islands’ defence and foreign affairs.  Angus MacNeil (below), SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan Iar, is an advocate of a Faroes option.

The National: Angus Brendan MacNeil criticised the Government’s approach to trade deals (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA)

The other road involves becoming a Crown Dependency. These have fiscal and legislative autonomy. In international law, they are "territories for which the United Kingdom is responsible", rather than sovereign states. But recent calls by some Tories to use the Crown Dependencies as dumping grounds for refugees (if the Rwanda project fails) suggests that being under Westminster Tory supervision might have its own difficulties.

FACT CHECK RATING: It unlikely that Orcadians will be learning Norwegian again any time soon. But the issue of island autonomy is not going away.

The National: