Ten years in Orkney – now what?

Ten years ago Kathie and I moved to Orkney. By coincidence we arrived on 16 April which is St Magnus Day – he is the patron saint of Orkney.

And so each year we go to St Magnus Kirk in Birsay, not far from where we live, for the annual St Magnus service which also serves for us as a marker in our personal journey. But not this year.

Nothing much changed in our first ten years in Orkney and then, last month – everything changed for everyone in Orkney and beyond. Well, yes and no.

If I spend a little time reflecting I realise we have experienced more change since April 2010 than I imagined at first. Most of the change has been gradual, making it harder to notice, with an occasional sudden, often bad, impact.

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View from our house on St Magnus Day 2020 (image: Graham Brown)

We enjoy a wonderful view from the front of our house across the landscape of Orkney’s West Mainland – and now there are a few extra buildings in the view; our “field” (it’s an enclosure, really) next to the house now has a stone wall all the way around it; inside our home we have decorated and improved some rooms; and we have Roscoe, our rescue Border Collie, who joined us in 2012.

Some change has been less welcome – Kathie’s musical inspiration and friend Keith Emerson died suddenly in 2016, and before his funeral was held my father also passed away unexpectedly. Last year we lost my Uncle David and here in Orkney we have mourned people we knew in our community.

On the positive side, Kathie had a major operation in 2018 which massively improved her mobility and fitness, then in late 2019 released her first album of music in ten years, Facing The Falling Sky.

We both became RSPB volunteers soon after moving to Orkney, and I have ended up as a (very) part-time member of staff. I was privileged to help mark the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire, which sank in 1916 off Orkney. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council. And Kathie and I are both managers, ie committee members, at Quoyloo Old School which is our village hall.

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Kathie and me during the Sound Of Music coach tour in Austria (image: Graham Brown)

In between we have enjoyed several visits to Scotland’s Central Belt, getting to know Edinburgh and Glasgow, as well as visits to Orkney’s beautiful islands, to the in-laws in California and then, after they moved, to Northern Arizona. And Kathie and I spent marvellous holidays in Italy (Bologna) and Austria (Vienna and Salzburg).

All this now seems like another world, before coronavirus, or BC. Already I find myself at home saying something like “do you remember before coronavirus when …?”

Kathie has underlying health issues which mean we mostly avoid the shops. We are lucky that we can get deliveries from our excellent village shop, Isbister Brothers.

We are fortunate in a wider sense because we have my regular pension income. Kathie has managed to carry on teaching her piano students using Skype.

In some ways, for Kathie and me, and I am not making light of this crisis, life does not seem very different. We typically spend time at the house, Kathie working upstairs in her studio and me in my downstairs office. We live in the countryside so we can take Roscoe for his morning walk without meeting anyone.

But then the awfulness of this pandemic – the deaths, the sick, the brave and tired NHS and frontline workers, the closed businesses – will suddenly dawn on me, or Kathie. The radio, TV and online news, rightly, is full of Covid-19. It is important to be well-informed but we avoid watching the TV news just before bedtime to aid a better night’s sleep.

Her Majesty The Queen made a skilfully worded address to the people of the UK on Sunday 5 April, it was moving and reassuring. Later that evening we heard that the Prime Minister had been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms, then the next day he was moved to intensive care. It was shocking news whether you voted for him or not.

The virus is in Orkney, of course, and at the time of writing it has led to two deaths. We think of the families and friends who are grieving, and unable to hold the funeral they would wish, whatever the cause of their loved one’s passing.

There is a request show on BBC Radio Orkney each Friday evening, something of a local institution, each week for 50 minutes at 6.10pm. Since the lockdown the programme has expanded to fit in the greater number of requests being submitted, starting at 6.00pm and going on beyond 7.00pm.

And now, sadly, folk have started sending dedications to remember their relatives who have passed away – something I do not remember hearing on the programme before. In the absence of a public funeral it is a way to mark their loved one’s passing.

In comparison to the above it hardly seems to matter but like everyone our travel plans are on hold, particularly disappointing for Kathie who wants to visit her elderly parents.

Big events which many of us were looking forward to watching on TV, such as the Eurovision Song Contest, the Olympics and football’s Euro 2020, will not be there.

On a local scale, our monthly village quiz finished early before its summer break. We are not alone, of course, here in Orkney, like the rest of Scotland, the UK and much of the world, everything is off.

In fact, all the markers of a typical Orkney year are gradually being cancelled, such as Orkney Folk Festival, Orkney Nature Festival (along with all RSPB events), the St Magnus International Festival and Stromness Shopping Week. Who knows whether the Orkney County Show and our other agricultural shows, such as the West Mainland Show near us, will go ahead?

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One of my favourite pictures: Roscoe and me on the Brough of Birsay (image: Kathie Touin)

When we finally come out of this, whenever that will be, what will be different?

How many Orkney businesses, reliant on tourism, will survive this? There were more than 150 cruise ship visits to Orkney in 2019 – will we ever see so many visiting again? Do we want to?

The environment will have enjoyed some relief from humans, will we build on that to create a greener future? Or will we turbocharge oil, aircraft and cars as we rush to rebuild economies?

What about the NHS? Will it receive greater funding? Or will people – and I’m afraid this is particularly true of some English people – go back to their old ways of wanting great public services along with low taxes. Spoiler alert: you can’t have both.

Will we look again at our UK immigration policies? Seeing the tragic losses of NHS staff it is noticeable how many have backgrounds outside the UK.

Where will Scotland and the UK be politically after this? Will Brexit still seem like a good idea, assuming anyone gets time to organise it? What about Scottish independence? What other unexpected political movements might flow from this?

It is as if the ground is shifting under us, like some giant slow-motion earthquake. The aftershocks will go on for years to come and none of us know what they will throw up and where we will all be at the end of this.

Ten years in Orkney – much has changed. For all of us.

Thank you to everyone working for us at this time, whether in the NHS, the care sector, shops, the postal service, local councils, emergency services, wherever – thank you.

Stay safe if you can.

And let’s keep an eye on the future: let’s see if we can make it better than it might have been.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Covid-19 advice from the Scottish government – https://www.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19/

More information from Orkney Islands Council – https://www.orkney.gov.uk/

Please don’t come now but you would be very welcome if you wish to visit Orkney in the future – https://www.orkney.com/

Update (17 April 2020)

A few hours after I published this blog entry it was announced that all six of Orkney’s agricultural shows have been cancelled for 2020. Here is a report from The Orcadian – https://www.orcadian.co.uk/orkneys-six-agricultural-shows-cancelled-for-2020/

A blockhead in three countries

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Buddha at night in Portmeirion village (image: Graham Brown)

We’ve been on holiday in three countries – England, Scotland and Wales. You think perhaps that they are one country? I think they are becoming increasingly separate. More of that later, both in this blog and in the news over coming months and years.

My holiday reading was Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, a fascinating insight into Winston Churchill’s work as a writer of historical books, newspaper articles and one not very successful novel. Writing was for the majority of his life his main income, not politics as you might imagine.

I was struck by a quote which underlines how lucrative writing was for him. Though he fashioned many famous phrases, this one was not Churchill’s but Samuel Johnson’s. But Churchill was fond of using it: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

So, here I am, a blockhead writing my holiday reflections for nothing (though I have in the past written for money). Incidentally, may I reassure you, this will not be a blow-by-blow account of the holiday.

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The first iron bridge in the world at Ironbridge, Shropshire (image: Graham Brown)

In brief, Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I travelled from our home in Orkney, down through Scotland, with an overnight stop at Cumbernauld near Glasgow, then on to Ironbridge, Shropshire for three nights. We then spent three nights in Ludlow, Shropshire – coinciding with our friends’ wedding weekend – before spending a week in North Wales, one night in Portmeirion village (a special treat) and the rest in the delightful coastal town of Criccieth.

Friends in England may not realise how England and Scotland are drifting apart (see Andrew Marr’s excellent BBC Two documentary Scotland And The Battle For Britain for more about this).

The EU referendum result is an obvious example of this process, Scotland overwhelmingly voting to stay in the EU and England voting to leave (though not London). Party politics is another example. To briefly explain to overseas readers, the right-wing Conservative party is the majority party in the UK parliament at Westminster, taking most English seats in the process, and forms the UK government. Meanwhile, the left-of-centre Scottish National Party took all but three Westminster seats in Scotland and forms the Scottish administration through being the largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

But it is not just these crude party political indicators that show Scotland and England drifting apart. England seems to be leaning towards a more American-style society while Scotland looks more to Europe and the EU. The two countries are starting to feel different in a way that goes well beyond tourism cliches of kilts and bagpipes versus village greens and Morris dancing.

And Wales? Truth be told, a week’s stay is not long enough to form opinions on how politics or society work there and, no doubt, it will differ in different parts of Wales.

But I was really struck in North Wales to see the progress of the Welsh language compared to our previous visit some ten years ago. When we were last there we saw bi-lingual road and other signs and we heard people speaking in Welsh.

But in 2016 it seems that Welsh has become the dominant language, the one that people routinely speak to each other in shops and at work. Virtually all signs are bi-lingual and some are only in Welsh. The English speakers seemed to be nearly all English people. Fascinating.

So why did Wales vote to leave the EU? As I said, I am not qualified to comment on Welsh politics and I would be interested to know more about that.

Here’s a quick run-through of some of the days out we enjoyed on our trip…

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Fancy a fireplace like this? One of the beautiful exhibits at the Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge (image: Graham Brown)

The Ironbridge Gorge Museums celebrating the industrial revolution are wonderful and, as there are 10 of them, more than it is possible to see on a brief visit. But we got to Blists Hill Victorian Town, the wonderful Jackfield Tile Museum – I never realised tiles could be so beautiful and fascinating – and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

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Great Western locomotive Erlestoke Manor on the Severn Valley Railway (image: Graham Brown)

Railways were a bit of a theme for our trip, I am sure my late father would have approved. In Shropshire we travelled for a day on the Severn Valley Railway, which has a long, scenic line, two museums, beautiful stations and a large number of working steam locomotives.

Across the border in Wales we spent two days on the narrow gauge Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways which now meet at Porthmadog station. Seeing the traffic stopped for steam locomotives crossing the road into the station is quite a sight.

One day we travelled on the Ffestiniog Railway to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The line was originally built to bring slate down from the quarries to ships at Porthmadog. It has been carrying passengers since 1865.

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No.143, built in Manchester in 1958, worked in South Africa, now on the Welsh Highland Railway, here crossing the road into Porthmadog station (image: Graham Brown)

On another day we took the Welsh Highland Railway in the opposite direction from Porthmadog, passing Snowdon (the highest mountain in Wales) and arriving in Caernarfon close to the Castle.

I suspect the highlight of the trip for Kathie was our two visits to Portmeirion village, an architectural wonder created by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis on the estuary of the River Dwyryd. You may know it as the setting for the 1960s TV series The Prisoner – “I am not a number!”

We also spent a night in the village, staying in the Bridge House and enjoying afternoon tea, a fabulous dinner and a great breakfast at the Portmeirion Hotel. Kathie especially enjoyed the chance to look around the village when it was closed to the public, even though the staff were clearing up after a particularly muddy Festival No.6 in the grounds which had finished the day before our overnight stay.

For the rest of our North Wales stay we were at a more modest but friendly bed-and-breakfast in Criccieth, a pleasant seaside town which is the gateway to the scenic Llyn peninsula as well as an easy drive to the likes of Snowdon and Caernarfon.

When we were last in the area we were considering it as a possible move from London. In the end we opted for Orkney and we are delighted we did so, we made the right decision. But North Wales would have been a lovely place to live and it was great fun to go back for a holiday.

Graham Brown

Life

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A sunny February morning view from our Orkney home (image: Graham Brown)

Life is sad, depressing, hopeless.

Life is happy, joyous, full of hope.

Which of these statements is correct? Or is it something in between?

I think it is all three, depending on life experiences, the day’s events, illness, state of mind, luck, money (sometimes), expectations, and so on.

The first weeks of 2016 for me have felt a bit like a roller coaster at times.

We lost David Bowie from the world stage, surely one of the most talented people thrown up by modern music, and from the British and Irish stage we lost much-loved radio and TV presenter Terry Wogan.

Both were big personalities who seemed as if they had always been with us, and always would be, and their passing leaves a gap.

Another of my personal favourites, though less well known, also died suddenly – the DJ Ed Stewart, whose programmes were such a big part of my life. Next Christmas Day morning will not be the same without his BBC Radio 2 programme.

And, here in Orkney, a flu outbreak over Christmas and New Year took lives, including two folk local to us who will be sadly missed from our village events.

Meanwhile events in Syria, and Iraq, have become so depressing that it seems easier now to watch the TV news at all. What can the people trapped in the fighting imagine for their future?

But living where I do here in Orkney allows me to raise my head, look out the window, or take our Roscoe for a walk, and see a wonderful landscape. The days are noticeably lengthening, the birds are singing again, the oyster catchers and lapwings have reappeared in the surrounding fields. It is inspiring.

I was also inspired by a wonderful, and deserved, event in the life of friend and former RSPB work colleague Amy Liptrot. In January her book, The Outrun, was published to great acclaim and was also serialised as the BBC Radio 4 Book Of The Week.

Amy is attending many launches and readings for her book. I was at the Orkney launch, in the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, and was so thrilled for her. She has faced many difficulties in her life, as the book describes, and to feel the warmth and support for Amy in the crowded room was special.

I would recommend The Outrun to anyone. And if you have an interest in addiction, London, Orkney, or life-affirming stories, it is a must-read.

My wife Kathie Touin also had some good news in January – and so, by extension, did I. We have not said or written much about it but Kathie was not well for most of last year, making work and leisure difficult for both of us. One day Kathie will perhaps write about her experiences but suffice to say, for now, we have had a breakthrough and she is getting treatment which is transforming her life, giving her back the energy she craved.

Of course, not all medical and health news is good. A neighbour had a nasty fall in January and has spent a month in hospital already – though she seems to keep cheerful.

And a close relative of mine has had “disappointing” news from the doctors which means I will be away from Orkney from early March for a month acting as a driver, cook and bottle-washer.

While I am away I will physically miss committee meetings for the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project (see our blog) and for the RSPB Local Group.

Emotionally, I will miss Kathie, our dog Roscoe and Orkney itself which is a wonderful place to live, on a human scale with human people.

But I’m sure my time away will, in some way, be good for me. I don’t know how much computer access I will have but I will make notes in my journal which, at some point, in some form, will probably appear here.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Orkney.com

Canongate: Amy Liptrot

It’s 2016: relax and spread love

So here we are in 2016 and with it comes many questions. For example, how far can we go into the year and still say “Happy New Year” to each other? Let’s keep going for a little longer yet, and spread positive feelings.

When I was young 2016 would have seemed part of some impossible far-off future with flying cars and jet back-packs but it has arrived and, though much has changed, much has not. And I’m still waiting for my flying car.

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Our Roscoe enjoys a New Year’s Day dig at Newark Bay, Orkney (images: Graham Brown)

Kathie Touin (Mrs Brown) and I enjoyed a quiet Christmas and New Year seeing friends; eating a traditional Christmas meal of turkey and the trimmings (more than once); we attended a service of carols at St Magnus Kirk, Birsay with readings by school children; and we were at a Hogmanay get-together with fellow villagers in Quoyloo’s Old School – complete with a slightly drunken rendition of Auld Lang Syne at midnight.

There are big, and worrying questions in the world at large which I will not go into here. You will all have your own thoughts. But remember when the Berlin Wall was opened in November 1989? It seemed like the end of history, and we would all be living in a safe and happy world. Well, it didn’t work out like that.

I read a New Year blog by Mary Strong-Spaid which struck a chord. Mary wrote: “We must not let the ‘mainstream media’ (with all the negative news) give us the impression that there is no good left anywhere. In countries around the world, there are bloggers uniting in impassioned requests for peace…”

Mary is right – and it not just bloggers. Most people in the world want peace, good health and a decent quality of life for their family. Let’s try to spread love and understanding this year.

For myself, I am not making any big New Year resolutions and creating impossible targets and broken promises. Kathie and I have begun 2016 by clearing some of the junk from our home to give ourselves, figuratively and literally, more room to breathe and so focus on what is important.

I hope to be more relaxed, less stressed, less worried about unimportant trivia – and I hope most of the rest will take care of itself.

Of course, my simple ideas will not work if you find yourself spending the New Year in a refugee camp or with a flooded home. Our thoughts are with you.

In my last blog of 2015 I said I would, before the end of the year, write about our trip to Arizona. I failed to do this. But, in my first blog of 2016, here goes.

Arizona 2: The Return of the Visitors

Regular readers of this blog may have read about our 2014 trip to Arizona – Arizona Dreamin’ – and my impressions then still hold good.

For new readers, we visit Northern Arizona because Kathie’s family moved there to get away from the expense and overcrowding of Southern California. Her parents live in Cottonwood, and her sister’s family is about 30 minutes away in Rim Rock. As DJ Steve Conway remarked on Twitter about Rim Rock: “that place name sounds like a very specialist genre of music!” Indeed.

Our journey from Orkney – off the north-east coast of Scotland – involved three flights, Kirkwall to Edinburgh, then on to Heathrow, and then a direct British Airways flight to Phoenix (Sky Harbor International Airport – what a great name).

Arizona still retains some of the rebellious atmosphere of the Wild West and a do-what-you want attitude. For example, you are allowed to carry guns openly and motorcyclists do not have to wear a crash helmet. It is clearly a very religious place, with numerous churches and church schools dotted across Cottonwood.

Anyway, here are a few memories of our 2015 visit in late October and early November.

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Sunset viewed from our room’s balcony at the Ghost City Inn, Jerome (image: Graham Brown)

We spent a night in the Ghost City Inn in Jerome, a settlement publicised as a ghost town. This is because the town fell on hard times, and most people left, after the copper mining finished. From being a ghost town, ie empty, it has somehow changed to being a ghost town with supposedly haunted buildings. Oh well, it helps bring in the tourists.

Jerome is perched on the side of Mingus Mountain, overlooking – among other places – Cottonwood where we were based for most of our trip. In fact it is only a 15-minute drive from Cottonwood but at 5,000 feet it is nearly 2,000 feet higher and we felt like we were away from it all.

From our room’s balcony at the front of the hotel we could see the red rocks of Sedona, miles away in the distance. We watched a glorious reflected sunset on the rocks – the sunset was actually behind the hotel – and in the morning we were up early in our pyjamas to see a beautiful sunrise.

The town reminded us, in some ways, of our Orkney home. The light has a special quality, rather like Orkney on a fine day, and we came across many talented artists creating beautiful work who have made their home there. There are many historic buildings being preserved which, in a busier place, would have been swept away long ago. So, in some ways, just like home.

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Liberty Theatre, Jerome (image: Graham Brown)

I particularly enjoyed the Liberty Theatre – a 1911 cinema, the balcony of which is being restored as a film theatre (downstairs is a clothes and souvenir shop). The old film posters and projection equipment give it a great atmosphere.

Opposite our hotel we found a strange leftover from the past – a Standard car, very like the one my parents owned when I was small in the early Sixties. It is a make of car you do not hear much about these days when the word standard is almost a negative. It was a right-hand drive vehicle which makes me think it may have been brought over from the UK in later life. Sadly, it did not look like a runner but perhaps one day…

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A right-hand drive Standard car waiting for better days (image: Graham Brown)

Just outside Jerome is the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town, a quirky tourist attraction. Based around an old gold mine, the owner has collected old buildings, cars and trucks which are spread across a large site. Some of the vehicles rust gently in the sunshine, others are beautifully restored. You can also see a 1914 sawmill and a 1928 Studebaker Indy race car (with a school bus engine). It is a fascinating place to spend half a day.

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A few of the many vehicles at Gold King Mine Ghost Town, near Jerome (images: Graham Brown)

The weather for our visit was pleasantly warm – at least it seemed so for us, coming from Orkney – so we mostly wore short-sleeves. There were a couple of cooler, rainy days and one spectacular thunderstorm with lightning flashes and a tremendous fall of hail. Kathie has some sound recordings of this for future use in her own music.

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Scenes from our visit to Yavapai Broadcasting Corporation. Bottom right, General Manager David J Kessel (images: Graham Brown)

We had a fascinating visit to the radio station in Cottonwood, arranged via our brother-in-law who seems to know, or speak to, everyone. To give the station its correct name, it is Yavapai Broadcasting Corporation (Yavapai is the county name). The General Manager, David J Kessel, was generous with his time in showing us around the various stations operated out of their facility – including KVRD Country 105.7FM, Q102.9 (hot hits) and 100.One, Arizona’s Adult Alternative. We also saw historic exhibits, such as old microphones and a transmitter, their OB vehicles and their community recording facility. It was a great visit and we were sent on our way with T-shirts and souvenirs – thank you to David and everyone we met, you are a great crowd.

Other highlights of our trip included Larry’s Antiques Centre in Cottonwood, an enormous collection of antiques, collectibles and second-hand material stored both inside and outside. One of the stalls had a sale and I was able to get a pair of nearly new black cowboy boots for $30, or £20. Bargain!

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Young bears sleeping in a tree at Bearizona (image: Graham Brown)

We spent a happy day at Bearizona, a wildlife park where the animals are given plenty of room to roam. Many of them have been rescued. You drive through the land with the bears and other large animals, then walk through an area where you get close to smaller creatures and the younger bears – some of whom were sleeping in the trees while we were there.

Bearizona is further north from where we were staying, between Flagstaff and Williams on the historic Route 66, so we were at an altitude of about 7,000 feet and there was snow on the ground.

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Amazing what you can buy – Star Wars stormtroopers on sale at Walmart, Cottonwood (image: Graham Brown)

The main store in our base of Cottonwood is Walmart and we made several visits there to buy inexpensive (to us from the UK), jeans, shirts, socks and underwear. In the end we had to leave some stuff behind to make the weight limit for our bags on the return flight but for our next visit we have clothes waiting for us in Arizona.

We had a big tail wind for our return flight from Phoenix to Heathrow so that, at one point over the Atlantic, the information on our entertainment screen was showing that our Boeing 747 – or Jumbo, as you may know them – had a ground speed (not air speed) of 730mph.

Incidentally, there are fewer Boeing 747s to be seen these days, I guess it will not be many more new years before they have disappeared from Heathrow.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Mary Strong-Spaid’s New Year blog – http://storieswithnobooks.com/2016/01/01/wordpress-worldwide-family/

My previous Arizona blog – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/arizona/

Wikipedia on Cottonwood – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cottonwood,_Arizona

Wikipedia on Flagstaff – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flagstaff,_Arizona

Wikipedia on Jerome – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerome,_Arizona

Wikipedia on Williams – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williams,_Arizona

Bearizona – http://bearizona.com/

Gold King Mine Ghost Town – http://goldkingmineghosttown.com/

A Californian and an Englishman taking part in momentous Scottish events

Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew's Cross, or the Saltire
Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew’s Cross, or the Saltire

So, after weeks and months of campaigning – years and decades for some – we are coming towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The vote on 18 September is three weeks away and the pace of debate and argument is more frantic. Many of us watched this week a heated, that is code for shouty and ill-tempered, debate between First Minister Alex Salmond, speaking for Yes Scotland, and Better Together’s Alistair Darling.

When my Californian wife Kathie Touin and I, an Englishman, moved to Orkney four years ago we never imagined we would be participating in the biggest vote in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom, for more than 300 years. It could lead to the biggest change in the United Kingdom since Ireland became independent, perhaps ever.

It is a privilege to live here at this time, and it is wonderful that – some social media abuse from a minority aside – the campaign has been conducted peacefully, politely and democratically. And, if friends in England are not sure, yes, as British citizens resident in Scotland Kathie and I do get to vote in the referendum.

There have been many public meetings to debate the issues – we went to one such event in our small village of Quoyloo. And Kathie went to a women’s conference in Kirkwall. How many years since political campaigns have inspired public meetings? I can vaguely remember as a child going to one such meeting, in Huntingdon, I think, to see Huntingdonshire MP David Renton speak at an election meeting – that must have been about 50 years ago.

Of course, the vote on 18 September will not settle everything, whether Scotland decides to go independent or to stay in the United Kingdom. Either way the future for Scotland, and the UK, is uncertain, but exciting as well. I get the feeling that folk in England are only just starting to realise and consider the possibilities. Those living in Wales and Northern Ireland, I suspect, may have given it more thought.

On the day I will be voting for… against… come now, you would not expect an old-fashioned ex-BBC employee brought up on impartiality to give that away would you?

But I will tell you this. I am concerned about the Scottish Government’s proposals for broadcasting in an independent Scotland.

Broadcasting was not mentioned as a topic in either Salmond v Darling TV debate and has only briefly, for a day or two, been in the media coverage of the debate. But, for me, it is important.

In summary, the Scottish Government, ie the Scottish National Party, proposes a Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), funded by the existing TV Licence fee, at the existing rate of £145.50-a-year. The SBS will provide TV, radio and online services, working in a joint venture with the BBC – not something the BBC and Licence payers in England will necessarily want.

We are told that we can expect to retain BBC Alba (Gaelic TV channel) but also to receive a new TV channel (details unspecified).

On radio, we will continue to receive the existing BBC stations Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidhael (Gaelic), and a new radio station (details, again, unspecified).

The SBS will also provide online services, to include a news website and a catch-up player.

In addition, SBS will have the right to opt-out of BBC One and BBC Two, as BBC Scotland does now. This proposal also has issues, will the BBC want to cede editorial control for chunks of its BBC-branded channels?

We are assured, under these proposals, that popular programmes like EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing will still be available. Leaving aside the question of why EastEnders is popular – every trail I see for it seems to be unmitigated gloom – I think this is correct. Even if BBC channels were not available in Scotland, programmes like these can easily be bought in by a Scottish broadcaster.

But how do these proposals add up when we think of the full range of BBC services? Somehow, without increasing the Licence Fee, and without taking advertising (as RTE does in Ireland), viewers and listeners in Scotland will get everything they do now plus a new TV channel and a new radio channel.

To me, it doesn’t add up. Something would have to give. For example, a BBC that no longer has to cater for Scottish licence payers could decide to turn off, or stop maintaining, transmitters north of the border. Can we guarantee getting the full range of BBC programmes? BBC Radio 4? Or BBC Radio 3? What about BBC Four? Or the BBC News channel?

We are told that people in many other countries receive BBC channels quite happily. But, in truth, they do not get the full range of services, and they are likely to be paying extra to get BBC channels. My friend in Belgium, for example, gets BBC One and BBC Two as part of his cable subscription. If he wanted to get more channels, he would have to pay more. And only some BBC Radio services are available.

I also have a concern about our local service here, BBC Radio Orkney. We get a properly staffed, professional news service, giving us a 30-minute news programme each morning, and a lunchtime bulletin, as well as a weekly request show and, during the winter months, nightly documentary, music and community programmes.

Given that the Scottish Government proposals seem to be trying to get a quart out of a pint pot – or whatever the metric equivalent might be – some cuts in existing output might be needed. Someone (in Glasgow or Edinburgh) might decide to reduce Radio Orkney to a morning-only service, or perhaps a joint service with BBC Radio Shetland, with a dedicated reporter or two in each place? Hopefully not.

Now, you might think my concern about broadcasting is mis-placed and that the Scottish Government proposals make sense. Or, you might think that voting for independence will give Scotland a chance to get its own TV and radio services and losing some BBC channels would be a price worth paying. One person on Twitter – @AAAForScotland – contacted me after I raised this issue to say: “BBC! lived without it for years out of choice I would never miss it, personal boycott in protest anti Scots.”

At the beginning of the referendum campaign I predicted that the result would be close. I stand by my prediction. Here in Orkney I would be amazed if there is a majority for independence. But across Scotland? It might just happen.

The night of Thursday 18 September could be very interesting. And not just for those of us living in Scotland.

To find out more

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland –http://scotreferendum.com/reports/scotlands-future-your-guide-to-an-independent-scotland/

Better Together –
http://bettertogether.net/

BBC Annual Report 2013/14 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2014/home/

Lord Birt says Scotland would lose many BBC services after yes vote –http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/19/lord-birt-scotland-bbc-independent

Scottish independence: ‘Yes’ vote would ‘devastate’ broadcasting –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-28863806

Post-independence break up of BBC would be ‘devastating’ says Curran –http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/news/288964-post-independence-break-up-of-bbc-would-be-devastating-says-curran/

Scottish independence: BBC services might not be free, says ex-Trust member –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-27116556

My previous blog on this subject, Across the Border: Broadcasting In An independent Scotland (2013 article) –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/broadcasting-in-scotland/

How would the BBC be divided if Scotland became independent? (2012 article) – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/feb/29/how-would-the-bbc-be-divided-if-scotland-became-independent

Misconceptions about Orkney

The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney (photo: Kathie Touin)
The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney (photo: Kathie Touin)

Many of our friends had – and probably still have – some strange ideas about what it is like here. Well, why wouldn’t you if you have never visited?

So in this blog I would like to dispel a few of the misconceptions that some folk have about Orkney.

First, Orkney is in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Wrong.

It is said, I think with some truth, that until the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands many people imagined they were somewhere off Scotland. If you are still not clear, they are in the South Atlantic. But this illustrates how our grasp of geography can be hazy. Given a blank map of the world, how many of us could correctly place a large number of countries in the correct place? Or even a few?

A friend who volunteers for the RSPB here in Orkney did meet cruise liner passengers who thought they were in the Hebrides. And I think some of my former London work colleagues thought this was where I was heading.

In fact, Orkney is a group of 70 plus islands, about 10 of them inhabited, which are off the north-east coast of Scotland. To give you an idea, you can come on a passenger ferry day trip from John O’Groats.

And were are not Shetland. That is even further north, the last bit of the UK before the Arctic Circle or, on many maps, in a box.

Second, Orkney is an extremely cold place, with frequent snow. Wrong again.

Orkney is not always cold and it certainly is not a frozen wasteland. In fact, due to the Gulf Stream the winter climate here is relatively mild and warmer than, say, the Highlands of Scotland. Keep an eye on the temperatures on the TV weather forecast – you often find it as warm here as down south in England. And frequently we are warmer than, say, Aberdeen or Inverness.

This winter we have had perhaps one day of snow and a couple of days of light snow – in all cases gone the next day.

However, it is frequently windy in Orkney and sometimes the ferries are delayed or cancelled because of the winds and tides. Luckily, Kathie and I find the wild and woolly weather exciting.

The summer is usually pleasantly warm. But, if you are looking for hot weather, and no storms, Orkney is not for you.

Here I am next to our house in heavy snow in 2010 - but it's unusual (photo: Kathie Touin)
Here I am next to our house in heavy snow in 2010 – but it’s unusual (photo: Kathie Touin)

Third, Orkney is Gaelic speaking. Also wrong.

I had a polite argument on Twitter once with a keen Gaelic speaker who claimed the language was spoken throughout Scotland. Sorry, but it isn’t spoken in Orkney. In nearly four years I have only knowingly met one Gaelic speaker, who came from the Western Isles. The Gaelic Twitterer did not take kindly to my suggestion that schoolchildren in Orkney would do as well to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Bi-lingual Gaelic and English road signs are now common in Scotland and I understand, though I may be wrong on this, that there was a proposal to introduce them to Orkney. Given that Gaelic has never been spoken here this was not a popular suggestion.

Orkney proudly shows signs of its Viking past in its place names and its people. Only last week a study of Norse DNA in men in Britain and Ireland was published. Topping the list for direct descendants of the Vikings was Shetland (29.2 per cent), followed by Orkney (25.2 per cent). Incidentally, this study was part of the launch of series two of US TV show Viking, so keep an eye out for it if you are Stateside.

Remember Orkney was part of Norway, not Scotland, until 1468.

Misconception number four, Orkney is an old-fashioned religious community. Wrong.

You’ll be thinking of the Western Isles there. I am not an expert on the Western Isles so I don’t want to characterise them all in this way but I know some of the communities have many church-goers who do not like to see shops open or work taking place on Sunday.

There are folk in Orkney who go to church but I would say not the majority by any means. And plenty else goes on in Orkney on a Sunday.

So, how about number five, Orkney is all kilts and bagpipes, like the rest of Scotland? Wrong.

But then I don’t think the rest of Scotland is like that either. I can think of one shop in Kirkwall that sells what you might call the kilts-and-bagpipes souvenirs.

There are three pipe bands in Orkney – one in Stromness, one in Kirkwall and one in Rendall – and they always make a stirring sight and sound when I come across them at a local event.

And kilts? It is not unusual for the groom, best man and other men in a wedding party to wear kilts. Otherwise, apart from in the pipe bands, I’ve hardly seen them at all.

Because of Orkney’s Viking past – see misconception three above – we celebrate a mix of Scottish and Scandinavian culture. Burns Night suppers are popular here, a good excuse for a good dinner and some whisky, but we also celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day each year with a parade and service at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.

I should also say that the good folk of Norway send a Christmas tree each year which stands outside the cathedral – in the same way that Norway sends a Christmas tree to Trafalgar Square in London. Admittedly, Orkney’s is a little smaller.

A sixth misconception – two in one here. Does Orkney have any shops? Or, at the other end of the scale, one of my friends assumed we have all the big chains here.

The truth on this one is somewhere in the middle. We have a good range of local shops, from our village shop Isbister’s in Quoyloo, where we live, to newsagents, to gift shops, jewellers, to William Shearer (fancy foods, agricultural seeds, firearms, and more). In fact, to write about the full range of local shops, and the sometimes strange combinations of goods for sale, would be a blog in itself.

In terms of chains we have, next to each other on the outskirts of Kirkwall, a large Tesco, a Lidl and a Co-op. The Co-op has three further Orkney stores, in Kirkwall centre, Stromness and Dounby. And other chains are represented in Kirkwall, such as Boots, Dealz, Edinburgh Woollen Mills and M&Co.

There is no Starbucks! Or Costa Coffee! What do we do? Well, we have splendid individual, locally-owned cafes and tea shops.

Me on the beach at Birsay, Orkney. Who needs Starbucks? (photo: Kathie Touin)
Me on the beach at Birsay, Orkney. Who needs Starbucks? (photo: Kathie Touin)

Final misconception – when I told colleagues at work I was moving here one asked me, “Will you have electricity?”

Yes, we do. I wouldn’t say absolutely everyone does, I know of one man who does not have mains electricity at his house. But I would say he is pretty unusual.

Anyway, find out more about Orkney for yourself – please keep reading the blog, explore online, or why not come to visit. I’ll buy you a coffee and a cake in our of our cafes if you do!

To find out more

Wikipedia on Orkney – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orkney

Discover Orkney – http://www.discover-orkney.co.uk/

Kathie Touin – http://www.kathietouin.com/

Looking from a different perspective

A good perspective: view from our house on 5 November 2013
A good perspective: view from our house on 5 November 2013

I grew up in England. It probably doesn’t matter too much exactly where but it was on the borders of East Anglia and the East Midlands, near Peterborough. I grew up English, with an English view of the world.

In 1986 I moved to London and, a few years later, got divorced. These two events definitely widened my world view. My ideas were further challenged when I married Kathie Touin, a United States citizen in 2003.

But in 2010 my whole perspective started to really change when Kathie and I moved to Orkney. For those who do not know, the Orkney islands are a group of about 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland.

When I announced to my work colleagues in London that we were moving to Orkney I got some interesting reactions.

Many people were honest enough to ask where Orkney was, often mistakenly believing it to be part of the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. It reminded me of the crisis that led to the 1982 Falklands War when many English people discovered the Falklands were not vaguely somewhere in Scotland but, in fact, in the South Atlantic.

Some work chums clearly imagined – wrongly – that Orkney was made up of small crofts, with a population of regular church-goers speaking Gaelic.

My favourite two reactions were, “Will you have electricity?” and “Wow, New Zealand!” To be fair to the person who said the latter, they probably mis-heard “Auckland” for “Orkney”.

Now Kathie and I have been in Orkney for three-and-a-half years I realise that my perspective has changed significantly.

The south, to me, once meant the south of England, an area along the south coast and coming a little way inland. Now the south can be anywhere in the UK, except Shetland. For those not familiar with Shetland, that is the last group of islands heading north before you leave the UK – the ones that often appear in a box on a map, or not at all.

The North-East used to mean Newcastle, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough (home of Guy Bailey, former US Ambassador of the People’s Republic of Teesside – you can look him up on Twitter). Now when I refer to the North-East I usually mean Aberdeen.

The East Coast was once to me the coastline around East Anglia, or I might have thought of an area further north, perhaps the coast of East Yorkshire. But now if someone says the East Coast I am likely to think of somewhere in Scotland such as St Andrews or Dundee, or possibly just across the border in Berwick.

The words national and nationwide now potentially lead to confusion for me. If I heard either on a radio news bulletin when I was living in England I would think of the UK as a whole. Now I have to stop myself – what station am I listening to? Is it BBC Radio Scotland? In which case national or nationwide will mean Scotland. Is it a UK-wide channel? In which case, we are talking about all of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

And there’s another confusing word, though it sounds straightforward enough – mainland. Here in Orkney there are two distinct uses of the word. We might be referring to the mainland of Scotland, ie the part of Scotland that is joined on to England, from where we fly or take the ferry to reach Orkney.

But that is not the word’s most common use here. Mainland is the name of the largest island in Orkney and if someone in Orkney says Mainland that is probably what they are referring to.

Kathie and I live in Mainland Orkney, to be precise in what is known as West Mainland.

There is potential confusion as well between the collective noun for Shetland and Orkney and that for the more northerly of the Orkney islands. But with care this can be avoided.

Shetland and Orkney are the Northern Isles – they will frequently be referred to as such in UK-wide BBC Weather forecasts, and elsewhere.

And North Isles is the correct term for Orkney’s more northerly islands such as North Ronaldsay and Westray.

There’s a Paul McCartney song called Flaming Pie, the title track of an excellent album, which includes the lyric:

I took my brains out and stretched ’em on the rack

“Now I’m not so sure I’m gonna get ’em back.”

It’s a bit like that for me. My brains have been stretched, I have a different perspective on the world and the old perspective won’t be coming back.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia: Orkney

Visit Orkney

Guy Bailey on Twitter

Across the Border: Broadcasting in an independent Scotland

 

BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow. (photo: Stewart Priest)
BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow (photo: Stewart Priest)

The devil is in the detail. What a great expression. And like many old sayings it carries great truth.

Here in Scotland we are moving towards our vote on whether to become an independent country. The referendum will be held on Thursday 18 September, 2014. I think the vote will be against independence but we shall see – much can and will happen over the next 15 months.

Many want Scotland to be independent come what may and they will not change their view before the referendum. Others believe Scotland should remain an integral part of the UK and, again, will not change their view.

But in between are the “don’t know” or “undecided” folk who will vote largely, I think, on economic issues. They will make a calculation about how independence will affect them and their families as the debate unfolds and as those devilish details are teased out.

The uncertainty of going into an independent future may make many undecided voters stick with the UK. What about public services, will there be sufficient money for them? How strong will Scotland’s economy be in the big wide world? What about the SNP proposal to keep sterling – how will that work? Will Scotland be accepted into the EU, with or without the Euro?

People will probably be less concerned about services such as health and education which have been run by Scottish governments since devolution re-established the Scottish Parliament in 1999 – provided, that is, they calculate that there will be enough money to fund them.

But there is a tricky area of services which currently operate across the border between England and Scotland. Railways is one example – how would that work? Would English-operated trains be expected to stop at the border. How far would ScotRail trains be allowed to operate into England?

And what about the military? Would a Scottish army, navy and air force be anything more than a token defence?

Personally I’m particularly concerned about broadcasting. For all its faults, we in the UK currently benefit from the BBC, an operation that is surely unequalled anywhere in the world.

For £145.50 a year (per household) we get a wonderful range of TV and radio stations – and online content – that provides something, in fact, lots of things, for everyone.

But what kind of public service broadcasting might we see in an independent Scotland? 

In August 2012 Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond outlined his ideas. The Guardian reported that he wants a new public service broadcaster, built on the assets and staff of BBC Scotland and funded mainly by licence fee payers. But he refused to rule out the prospect of the network carrying advertising alongside its public funding.

For me one of the joys of living in the UK is publicly-funded broadcasting which I am able to enjoy without advertising interrupting the flow of dramas, documentaries and sporting events. Do we really want to throw that away?

In mid-2011 there were 2.37 million households in Scotland (source: General Register Office for Scotland). Let’s be generous and assume every one of those households has a colour TV Licence. That will give a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation an income – without advertising – of less than £345m a year.

So, what can you get for £345m a year? I expect the BBC to publish its 2012/13 annual report and accounts later this month but the 2011/12 figures will give us a pretty good idea.

And it doesn’t make good reading for those who favour a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation.

To run BBC Two cost £416.6m in content – £537.1m by the time you have added in distribution and infrastructure/support – so there’s the budget gone straight away before you’ve got one TV channel, albeit a very good one, on the air. For the record, to run BBC One costs £1,041.1m in content which is approximately three times the projected income. Anyone fancy a three times increase in the Licence Fee?

The good news is that radio is cheaper. BBC Radio Scotland and the Gaelic service BBC Radio nan Gaidheal cost, including add-ons, £38.1m a year.

But the combined costs of BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Live comes to £348.8m a year – roughly equivalent to our projected income for a Scottish public service broadcaster.

Many people in Scotland, most even, will not want to sacrifice all these services in return for a single under-funded new TV channel to run alongside BBC Radio Scotland.

And don’t expect the majority of TV Licence Fee payers in England to happily pay for existing BBC services to be broadcast for free in an independent Scotland.

Yes, the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation could buy in some of the popular programmes such as EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing and David Attenborough documentaries – but this will quickly eat into the small budget.

And will we manage without BBC Radio 4 altogether? Or Radio 2?

Alex Salmond is right when he identifies the fact that “we do not have an English-language public service broadcasting channel of our own” in Scotland. But I don’t think his latest ideas are the right way to go about getting one.

To find out more

Guardian: Alex Salmond outlines plans to replace BBC Scotland –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/aug/24/alex-salmond-replace-bbc-scotland

Guardian: Scottish referendum: BBC Scotland to invest £5m in extra programming –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/may/21/scottish-referendum-bbc-scotland

BBC Annual Report 2012 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2012/

TV Licensing –
http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/

Dump the EU? Be rid of nuclear weapons? Be the next Greece? Developing thoughts on Scottish independence

The Forth Rail Bridge: an iconic view of, and route into, Scotland
The Forth Rail Bridge: an iconic view of, and route into, Scotland (image: Kathie Touin)

Here is a quick re-cap for new readers of this blog. I am an Englishman who moved to Orkney, off the north-east coast of mainland Scotland, in April 2010.

At present Scotland has its own parliament with many powers over domestic policy but it is still part of the UK and the Westminster parliament retains control over many matters, notably financial, defence and foreign affairs. The Scottish National Party, or SNP, currently form the Scottish government under First Minister Alex Salmond and they want full independence.

In a previous blog entry in February 2012, “We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?”, I wrote about the forthcoming referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country. This is a referendum in which I, as a resident of Scotland, will get a vote.

Since I wrote that blog a deal between the UK and Scottish governments means that the referendum will probably take place in 2014, with anyone resident in Scotland over the age of 16 able to vote, and with a single yes or no question – though exactly how the question will be phrased is not yet decided.

As this debate will continue for two years it will make a US Presidential election seem like a quick business. But already some themes are emerging.

Firstly, nuclear weapons. The SNP have changed their policy ahead of the referendum. Now they want Scotland to remain part of NATO. But they have kept their opposition to nuclear weapons.

This matters because the Faslane Naval base, home to the Royal Navy’s Trident nuclear-armed submarines, is in Scotland. If we vote for an independent Scotland the UK Government will have to find a new home for this most expensive of defence systems – at least that is how the media portray the issue.

But this slightly puzzles me. Let’s for a moment say that the good people of Scotland do vote for independence. What happens next? Surely one of the first events in this newly-independent country will be an election to its newly-independent parliament. And who is to say which party, or parties, will emerge victorious?

The implication of much of the media reporting is that if we vote for independence we sail off into a Saltire sunset with the SNP at the helm. But it might not be like that.

Remember the UK General Election at the end of the Second World War. Did a grateful nation overwhelmingly vote war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill back into power? No, the voters decided the Labour Party was best placed for the peace ahead.

So, while I am not comparing Alex Salmond to Churchill, it is possible Salmond will see his dream of an independent Scotland but find others are elected to run it.

Secondly, the European Union. For some time we, the voters, were under the impression that Alex Salmond and the SNP were in possession of legal advice that an independent Scotland could remain part of the EU. Following a campaign under Freedom of Information legislation to get the government to make this advice public it now transpires this advice did not exist at all and that the SNP is only just seeking legal advice.

So where does this leave us? Might an independent Scotland automatically be part of the EU? Or perhaps not? And if an independent Scotland, as a new country, does not get a nod into the EU where does that leave the rump of the UK? Might that be considered a new country that has to apply all over again?

Those who have complained for years about the EU might get a chance to oppose Scotland, and the UK rump, from applying for membership.

Thirdly, currency. Alex Salmond and the SNP want to retain the pound in an independent Scotland. But where would this leave Scotland? Key decisions about the pound, the economy and interest rates would remain with the UK Government – currently with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, not a popular man in Scotland – and with the Bank of England.

The unhappy experience of Greece suggests that if you do not control all the financial levers yourself, and have your own currency, you are at risk of being told what to do by other governments. That doesn’t feel very independent to me.

In the end, as I said before, I think the referendum vote will run quite close but it will be a decision to remain in the UK. People will probably vote for the option they think is less risky economically, and they may well decide that means being in the UK. But much can happen in two years. Still, we’re all strapped in and enjoying the ride. Put your hands in the air and shout yeah!

To find out more

My previous blog: We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?

BBC News: Scotland politics

SNP website

 

 

We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?

Me in April 2010, crossing the border into Scotland
Me in April 2010, crossing the border into Scotland

The Chinese philosopher Confucius said “may you live in interesting times”. And we certainly do in Scotland. Suddenly nothing is certain, everything is up for discussion.

Actually, let’s start with Confucius. Extensive research suggests – well, I did a Google search – that the phrase is in fact a relatively modern and Western invention. So even the validity of this reliable old saying is being questioned in these uncertain times.

To recap for new readers of my blog, I am English by birth and now resident in Orkney. Not familiar with Orkney? It is a group of islands off the north-east coast of Scotland which is part of Scotland, and part of the United Kingdom.

And, in case you have missed it, Scotland will vote in a referendum in the next couple of years on whether to become an independent country, separate to the UK. Because I’m resident in Scotland I will get a vote in this referendum.

These are exciting times. How often do you get to vote on whether the place you live should become a new independent country? Well, strictly, not new, as Scotland was independent before 1707.

It raises all sorts of questions. What about the head of state? Well, that’s quite an easy one. The proposal, if Scotland became independent, is to keep Her Majesty The Queen as head of state, assuming she will have us.

But what about the currency? What about the army? What about my taxes? What about the economy? And there’s more, as we shall see.

First, some background for those who do not live in the UK, such as my in-laws in California. Scotland already has a parliament. It was established in 1999 and it has powers over much domestic policy including health, education and justice.

In the most recent parliamentary election, in 2011, the SNP – or Scottish National Party – gained an overall majority of seats. This was unexpected because the Scottish Parliament was deliberately set up in such a way that no one party was likely to gain overall control.

And, as you will guess from its name, the SNP’s main wish is for an independent Scotland. Hence the referendum on independence, expected in 2014.

Now you might think they are likely to get their wish – clearly lots of people in Scotland voted for the SNP in 2011, surely those folk want the country to be set free from the UK. Well, not exactly.

The SNP did well in the 2011 election because they had performed competently as a minority government in the four years from 2007. For various reasons the other big parties in Scotland – Labour, Liberal Democrats, Conservative – did not perform well at the 2011 election.

Opinion polls consistently show the majority of voters in Scotland want to remain within the UK but the leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, who is also Scotland’s First Minister, hopes he can convince them otherwise.

So what will happen? Well at this point I get out my crystal ball. Would you like the winning numbers for this weekend’s Lottery as well? Yes? Of course, I don’t know.

My guess is that we will have an exciting, lively, at times heated, campaign at the end of which there will be a fairly narrow vote to stay within the UK. But nothing in life is certain – except death and taxes, of course.

What if Scotland overall voted in favour of independence but Orkney said no? In the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution Orkney did vote in favour of a Scottish parliament but by the smallest margin of all areas – just 57.3 per cent.

Orkney was part of Norway until 1468 when it came to Scotland through a marriage dowry and it retains a healthy independent spirit. There is also suspicion in Orkney about being ruled from Edinburgh and whether it is any better than being ruled from London or some other remote place.

Remember, while tv documentaries about Orkney love to wax lyrical about its remoteness, at the edge of the UK, it is in fact other places that are remote from us. We believe we are at the centre.

In December at the Kirkwall Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, held in St Magnus Cathedral, Tom Christer Nilsen, Mayor of Hordaland – a region of Norway twinned with Orkney – made reference to the King of Norway in 1468 giving away what wasn’t his to give.

So I had been musing for some weeks on the possibility of a revolt within Orkney, a refusal to go into an independent Scotland, when about ten days ago the Earl of Caithness actually proposed that Orkney and Shetland should have the right to remain part of the UK if Scotland becomes independent.

Other changes could flow from the momentous change to an independent Scotland. What will happen to the rest of the UK? Will it still be called that? What might the people of Wales want to do?

What about the people of Berwick-upon-Tweed? This is a town just inside England, south of the Scottish border, which has changed hands many times over history between Scotland and England. Might they decide they would prefer to join Scotland? Would that be possible?

More worryingly, Lord Empey has warned that independence for Scotland risks reigniting conflict in Northern Ireland. I can imagine an independent Scotland being seen as the starting flag for the break-up of the UK, which could lead to pressure for Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland.

I have no strong opinion on whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or Ireland – let the good people who live there decide – but please let’s not return to the days of terrorism.

And what about England itself? In some ways the Conservative Party is taking an honourable position in this debate. Err, yes, you heard that correctly. I know it is always fashionable to knock the Tories.

But the party is fighting to retain the United Kingdom while simultaneously realising it would have much to gain from a Westminster parliament that has had all the Scottish Labour MPs removed, thereby giving the Conservatives an almost guaranteed majority.

I think also the birth of an independent Scotland would see the nature of England itself change. People would no longer have a split personality of being English and British – they would be English. The politics and society of England might develop in unexpected ways that we can’t imagine.

So, even if Confucius did not originally say it, we are living in interesting times in the UK, and certainly here in Scotland and Orkney. It’s a privilege to be here.

Let’s get strapped in and hold on for an exciting ride into the future.

To find out more

An explanation of what Confucius did not say:
http://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/A807374

My Who Am I? blog entry:
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/who-am-i-2/

Some unresolved questions about Scottish independence explored:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-16636325

What the Earl of Caithness had to say:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-16698626

What Lord Empey had to say:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-16749576

Blogs worth reading, from Brian Taylor, Political Editor, BBC Scotland:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/correspondents/briantaylor/