Sunday, November 3, 2013

Island Paradise: Reflections on Orcadian Ethnography

Ethnographically speaking, Orcadians are an interesting lot. Most people associate Orcadians with Scotland, and they've undoubtedly been subject to multiple centuries of integration with Scottish culture. However, Orcadians are only politically "Scottish" by a sort of accident of feudal history. Orkney was ruled by Norway from 875 AD to 1472 AD, and was only re-annexed by Scotland because the dowry for James III's bride went unpaid (with Orkney being the collateral).

Not only can you still detect the Norse influence - particularly in bits and pronunciation of the local dialect - to this day. Orcadians are fond of pointing out that, geographically speaking, Orkney is (allegedly) closer to Oslo than it is to London. In many ways, Orcadians seem to feel every bit as much affinity to their Scandinavian forebears as they do with their British countrymen.

It's also been interesting to see what impact that unique background has had on Orkney's role in the Scottish secession debate. Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles have already petitioned Holyrood for greater say in the use of their own resources - essentially, an indicator of low confidence in the Scottish government's stewardship of the Western and Northern Isles' resources, and an indicator of disapproval at the Scottish Government's treatment of the Isles in general. Folk who are critical of the Yes(!) campaign are fond of pointing out that the SNP's designs on becoming a petrostate don't stack up, because "Scotland's oil" is actually, drumroll please... Shetland's oil! And, since the SNP has made such a big deal of self-determination in its secession campaign, they would lack credibility should they tell Shetland in particular, and the Northern and Western Isles generally, that they can't determine their own destiny. This is all background to preface the observation that I have yet to meet a single Orcadian who supports the secession referendum, and they even talk about remaining part of the United Kingdom should Scottish voters vote to secede. I suppose there's a certain irony that the descendants of Norsemen living in the Northern Isles put more stock in the idea of remaining politically connected with their extremely distant Norman cousins, than with being independent with their Picto-Irish neighbors.

Beyond politics, it's interesting to see what survives of the old Nordic culture. Orcadians still give their children names like Magnus and Sigurd. Orkney's flag is intentionally similar to the Norwegian flag. Instead of being named for figures from Scottish history, the Highland Park distillery names some of its finest creations - in the "Valhalla Collection" - after Norse gods Thor and Loki. It's things like these that make Orcadian culture so distinct from the Scottish culture I enjoyed during my year in Aberdeen, and it's a real treat to be able to experience it for more than just a few days at a time.

Last Sunday, the United Kingdom came off of daylight savings time. With the early darkness, the locals' dialect and accent, St. Magnus Cathedral dominating the Kirkwall landscape and skyline, and my favorite table at my favorite pub overlooking what the old Norse inhabitants referred to as "Kirkjuvagr" ("Church Bay"), the idea that I'm wandering the streets of an ancient Viking outpost isn't so inconceivable.

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