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Scotland's Vikings go own way in independence vote

GULBERWICK, Scotland (AP) - In the late winter dusk, hundreds of Vikings are marching down to the beach, bearing flaming torches. Their studded leather breastplates glint in the firelight as they roar and sing.

It's a scene that would have struck terror into the hearts of Dark Age Britons - and also perhaps an unsettling one for modern politicians on both sides of Scotland's independence debate.

The fearsome-looking participants in a Viking fire festival known as Up Helly Aa live in Scotland's remote Shetland Islands, a wind-whipped northern archipelago where many claim descent from Scandinavian raiders. They are cool to the idea of Scotland leaving Britain to form an independent nation, and determined that their rugged islands - closer to Norway than to Edinburgh - will retain their autonomy, whatever the outcome of September's referendum.

"Shetland is different. We have Viking blood in our veins," said the procession's magnificently bearded chief Viking, or Jarl - by day a local authority housing officer named Keith Lobban.

There are only 23,000 Shetlanders, too few to make much difference to the outcome of the independence vote. But they have Viking-sized confidence, and a big bargaining chip: a chunk of Britain's oil and gas reserves lie beneath Shetland waters.

Shetlanders are seeking new powers and official recognition of their special status - possibly along the lines of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing dependency of Denmark. The islanders feel their moment may have come, as Scotland's fluid constitutional status gives them opportunities to seek concessions from both sides.

Tavish Scott, Shetland's representative in the Scottish Parliament, said an independent Scotland "doesn't have an economy if oil and gas doesn't happen. And that gives Shetland some leverage."

A "yes" vote for independence on Sept. 18 would trigger complex negotiations between Edinburgh and London over Scotland's share of Britain's offshore oil and gas - and of its trillion-pound national debt. A "no" vote is likely to lead to talks about giving Scotland more power of its economy and resources - especially its energy reserves.

Authorities in Shetland, which enjoys many local-government powers such as raising taxes and running schools, see the referendum as a chance to drive a hard bargain - something at which they have considerable experience.

For centuries, Shetland was a poor place, ignored by governments far to the south and reliant on the unpredictable fishery industry and on making knitwear from sturdy local sheep. But the islands have prospered since large reserves of oil were discovered offshore in the 1960s. Construction of Sullom Voe, one of Europe's largest oil and gas terminals, brought jobs and new migrants who reversed decades of population decline.

Amid the rush of discovery, Shetland negotiated a generous compensation agreement with eager oil companies - creating an oil fund that has helped give the island chain well-paved roads, plentiful swimming pools and well-equipped community centers.

These days, oil production is dwindling, but French energy company Total is building a new natural gas plant on the islands.

Shetlanders are keen to have control over their resources - oil, gas, fish and even wind - and are wary of government meddling, no matter where that government is based.

"Whether decisions are made in Edinburgh or in London, they are still distant from Shetland," said Adam Civico, editor of the Shetland Times newspaper.

Local lawmakers have suggested that Shetland and the neighboring Orkney islands might demand a bigger share of oil and gas revenue as a condition for joining Scotland. An online petition on the Scottish government website calls for residents of Shetland, Orkney and Scotland's Western Isles to hold separate referenda on whether to join an independent Scotland, stick with Britain or declare independence - although any of those moves would require protracted negotiations, and the petition has only 525 signatories so far.

Officials in the island groups have formed the "Our Islands, Our Future" campaign to seek more power after the referendum, whatever the result.

"We want to make sure that out of this big constitutional debate, we decide what we want for our future, because Edinburgh doesn't tend to pay much attention to the islands," Scott, the lawmaker, told the BBC.

Scott speaks with a confidence that's the product of centuries of difference from the rest of Scotland.

It's hard to find tartan or kilts in Shetland, where Norse pride replaces the Celtic influence that shaped mainland Scotland. Shetland was Viking-ruled until it was mortgaged to Scotland by the king of Norway in 1469 to raise a dowry for his daughter.

There are still many Norse words in the local dialect, and Shetland abounds in Scandinavian place names such as Vidlin and Tingwall. With its raging surf, treeless hills and black volcanic rock, parts of Shetland could double for Iceland.

"I always feel when I go to Scotland I'm learning about someone else's heritage rather than my own," said Edna Irvine, who runs a clothing shop in Lerwick, Shetland's only town.

The most spectacular sign of Shetland's cultural difference is Up Helly Aa, a series of festivals held in communities across the islands in wintertime whose name means roughly "the end of the holidays."

The event's focus is a fiery parade - powered by marching songs and brass bands - that ends when the well-drilled amateur Vikings hurl their torches onto a replica longship that has taken months to build. The orange fireball lights up the night sky. Once the vessel has sunk, smoldering, into the sea, the participants head to local halls for evenings of music and comic skits that are part barn dance, part Mardi Gras.

"Viking heritage means everything to Shetland folk," said 24-year-old Paul Hutton, eyeglasses glinting under his Viking helmet at an Up Helly Aa procession in the village of Gulberwick. "Shetland heritage and Shetland culture is so strong that everybody would say we are definitely Shetland first. Shetland first, and then Scottish, then part of the United Kingdom."

That distinct identity makes Shetlanders weigh up the pros and cons of independence differently to other Scots. For many on the Scottish mainland - home to most of the country's 5.3 million people - the decision is a battle between heart and head, between Scots' famous prudence and their longstanding adventurousness.

The pro-independence forces led by First Minister Alex Salmond say an independent Scotland will use its oil and gas wealth to create a prosperous and progressive nation of 5.3 million with generous welfare provisions - a bit like Scandinavia, in fact.

The anti-independence "Better Together" campaign argues that independence would bring huge economic uncertainties. Scots could face the loss of their currency, the British pound, and an end to European Union membership. Some say British companies headquartered in Scotland will pack up and move south of the border, while military shipbuilding will desert shipyards near Glasgow and Edinburgh for English ports. Battles over who owns the North Sea oil and gas could drag on for years.

Most polls show the "No" side ahead, but up to 1 million voters remain undecided.

In Shetland, a strong sense of independence is balanced by a pragmatic streak that has led many to conclude their best bet is to remain part of Britain.

"I don't think isolation works anymore," said David Suckley, who runs an engineering firm in Lerwick. "We all depend on one other to such an extent nowadays.

"You can be too independent, and you're very lonely then."

Join the discussion

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oujoou March 23 2014 at 5:27 PM

You know. Vikings DO change. Probably a Pizza Hut that 'Vikings' get fat on in Shetland . . . just like every place else these days. But I see what you mean. :) KILL the men! TAKE the women captive! :(

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Judy Bishop March 23 2014 at 9:04 PM

No More AOL ... Thanks but you proved a point ... you completely edited my entire post ...

GOD Forbid anyone talks about all the debt the "International Fed" is racking up on every single country.

And then to suggest THEY be audited ... and other steps be taken.

Ohh no. There is no real freedom of speech .... your government filters sanitize anything that questions the status quo world banking cabal

And especially if it suggests any real reforms.

So ... sanitize this \iIi/

Flag Reply +2 rate up
seavet March 23 2014 at 9:31 PM

In 1974 I back packed in the Shetlands for a month and a half, wonderful people, beautiful secenery, terrible weather. Made very good friends in North Yell and Bara voe. But Shetland could never stand on its own, they are much better off with the Scots

Flag Reply +3 rate up
Camp Bulldog March 23 2014 at 12:55 PM

SOOOOO that's where my stew pot went to...????

Flag Reply +3 rate up
ctblewcollar March 23 2014 at 12:47 PM

Btw - USA here ...

Flag Reply +4 rate up
alblonie116 March 23 2014 at 8:26 PM

I dont know what to think. theres no vikings in sweden or norway,they let anyone from the third world move in there,put them on welfare,(support them),and let them do what ever they want,like 'Viking'...far out...

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Hitmanblues March 23 2014 at 1:44 PM

My last name is Scott and I do have Scottish bloodline in my ancestry and it is not Norse so someone tell Tavish to shut up.

Flag Reply +7 rate up
1 reply
MIKEY'S SCREEN Hitmanblues March 23 2014 at 2:43 PM

As a Scotsman with direct bloodline to the "Kings and Queens of Europe and Asia" (Arbuthnot line) I can tell ya that over 75% of Scots have both Norse and unfortunetly English blood in them. Half are small amounts BUT it is there.

This is because of the English period that it was cutomery to "breed the Scottish line into a non-existant perfilia" back in the 13th and 14th century.

As for the Irish....a lot of Scottish and Irish blood has crossed, but so has a lot of Welsh and British as well.

P.S. Just bcause your last name is "Scott" doesn't mean you are "Scottish" by any means. You need to do research into ALL your families past names (I stopped counting at 560) and you might be suprised at your genealogy.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
Debbie March 23 2014 at 7:43 PM

May Scotland have their Independence....they have waited long enough for it and God bless them

Flag Reply +1 rate up
ferrellfarmer March 23 2014 at 7:38 PM

The only thing I hope is they do not elect a village IDIOT like WE did

Flag Reply +3 rate up
2 replies
TB01 ferrellfarmer March 23 2014 at 8:27 PM

I know. Send that guy back to Kenya.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
1 reply
j donley TB01 March 23 2014 at 10:27 PM


Take charge of this deportation. The rest of are behind you in vocal but not monetary support.

Flag 0 rate up
j donley ferrellfarmer March 23 2014 at 10:20 PM


Lol. I still have a tee-shirt (somewhere) boasting an image of Dubya Bush above the caption,
'Somwhere In Texas a Village is Missing an Idiot.'

The same bumper stickers abound with 'Kenya,' instead of 'Texas.'

Flag Reply 0 rate up
esthfol March 23 2014 at 12:14 PM

United we stand, divided we fall."

Flag Reply +2 rate up
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