Life On The Edge: The Birds Of Shetland

pete_office
The view from the RSPB office in Shetland (image: Pete Ellis)

Greetings. I am conscious that my target of one blog a month – to be increased to two if possible – has been missed. Badly. By a long way. Nowhere near. Anyway, I will not weary you with excuses.

This month I plan to write about my latest Arizona experiences but, first, an article I wrote for Orkney’s excellent local newspaper, The Orcadian. The article was published on Thursday 10 December under the headline “An evening focused on the birdlife on Shetland”.

For those not lucky enough to live in Orkney, or who somehow missed the article, I reproduce it here. It is about the annual general meeting of the RSPB Orkney Local Group. I should declare an interest – I am a committee member, and the Treasurer.

After the business part of the meeting we had a fascinating talk about Shetland, hence the headline on this blog.

RSPB Orkney Local Group annual general meeting

Volunteers’ efforts to support the RSPB were highlighted at the Orkney Local Group’s annual general meeting in the King Street Halls, Kirkwall.

Chairman Dick Matson, in his report, spoke of the volunteers’ work which includes fund-raising, meeting holidaymakers on the Hamnavoe ferry, recruiting new members, maintaining bird hides, reserves work parties, seabird monitoring, beached bird surveys and talking to visitors about Hoy’s nesting sea eagles.

Mr Matson said of the volunteers, who include RSPB staff helping in their own time: “Your contribution is highly valued. The work of the RSPB is more successful because of volunteers.”

The year’s fund-raising included a bag-packing day in Kirkwall’s Tesco, which made more than £650, and the sale of RSPB pin badges.

Among the events organised by the Local Group were boat trips to Deerness Gloup, and to view puffins around Copinsay, which had proved particularly popular.

The existing Local Group committee was nominated and re-elected at the meeting. They are: Dick Matson, Chairman; Pauline Wilson, Secretary; Graham Brown, Treasurer; Grace Currie; Kathie Brown; and Shirley Tolley.

The meeting, on Thursday 19 November, heard a report about the RSPB’s work in Orkney in the past year, read on behalf of Manager Sarah Sankey, who was unable to attend.

This included, through the Enjoy Wild Orkney project, the completion of new viewing structures at Cottascarth, Loons and Birsay Moors – “if you haven’t been, please do go” – as well as new brown signs to direct people to reserves, waymarkers, trail guides, new panels and internal interpretation.

There was also a new leaflet guide to RSPB Orkney reserves published, films made, new webcams – the red throated diver cam was really popular – and reserves projects including new pools at the Loons and work at Loch of Banks to give better control of water levels.

One of the key events during the year was the white-tailed eagle pair breeding on Hoy. The RSPB manned an eagle watch, with huge contributions from volunteers, and engaged with more than 1,000 people, many of them local. Although these were young birds that failed, it is hoped they will be successful next year.

After the AGM members heard a talk entitled Life On The Edge: The Birds Of Shetland by Pete Ellis, RSPB Northern Isles Manager, who is based at Sumburgh Head.

He said he had lived almost 32 years in Shetland, which has a mix of habitats but very little of it green. All land mammals have been introduced to Shetland by people. There are more than 430 bird species, of which about 70 breed in Shetland, and seven RSPB reserves – most of these managed but not owned by the RSPB.

A number of the Shetland bird species described in the talk have seen declining numbers in recent years, including great skua (bonxie), Arctic skua, Arctic tern, razorbill, kittiwake, redshank and lapwing, perhaps the fastest declining wader in Shetland.

Mr Ellis said the bird we should be most concerned about in population terms was the curlew and the RSPB was trying to create a project in Orkney and Shetland to help them before it is too late.

At Shetland’s Loch of Spiggie highlights include long-tailed duck roosting on the loch and massive wintering flocks of Scandinavian herring gull.

Shetland has had up to five pallid harriers during the autumn. During the 1960s and early 1970s there were breeding snowy owls until the adult male died. Otters are relatively easy to see in Shetland. But there are no voles – and no resident short-eared owls or hen harriers.

The islands have more than 90 per cent of the UK population of whimbrel, though they started to decline in numbers 10 years ago, and about one-third of the UK population of red-throated divers.

Mr Ellis said he was astonished the red-necked phalarope did not nest in Orkney, unlike Shetland. The RSPB works to help this extraordinary bird. The female is bigger and brighter, and does the courting, the males incubate the eggs and rear the chicks. It was assumed the Shetland population flew to the Arabian Sea in the autumn but research with small data logging devices attached to the birds has discovered they go to the Pacific Ocean.

The RSPB base in Shetland is at Sumburgh Head, where there is also a visitor centre. Mr Ellis said he had “the best office in the RSPB” with a “fantastic view” of the sea, rocks, birds and, sometimes, passing whales.

Most tourists want to see puffins and they are more accessible than in Orkney, although becoming more unpredictable. Puffins are difficult to monitor but Fair Isle has seen a 50% decline in the last 30 years.

Other birds to be seen in Shetland include the Shetland wren – there is also a Fair Isle wren – and the most common migrant on some days in the autumn can be the yellow-browed warbler which comes from East Siberia. From mid-September to mid-October Shetland can have 300 birders at a time looking for migrants.

To find out more

RSPB – http://www.rspb.org.uk/

RSPB Orkney Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/RSPBShetland

RSPB Shetland Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/RspbOrkney/

 

Flashes of memory – and the latest from Orkney

Binscarth Woods, Orkney (image: Graham Brown)
Binscarth Woods, Orkney (image: Graham Brown)

Back in August 2012 I wrote a blog about memories, called “Sorry, I seem to have forgotten”, and I would like to return to the subject with some more recollections.

I wrote about how memories can, sometimes, be just a snippet – it is as if we have a few seconds of film, sometimes grainy, sometimes vivid, with everything before and after missing.

So I remember as a small child going to the Huntingdon Agricultural Show and one of the entertainments in the main ring was Red Indians (as we in England described Native Americans then) riding around on horses. One of them caught me with water from a water pistol. I think the event was quite scary for a small child – I was standing by the ring and men on horses were really big – which is why the flash of that moment has stuck in my mind. Incidentally, today such an event would not be held because the Red Indians must surely have been British folk masquerading – and wearing coloured make-up.

I also remember each summer staying with my grandparents for a holiday and how grandad would go out with a bucket and a spade, after the Co-operative milk float had gone by, to collect the horse droppings for his garden. Yes, I am that old, the Co-op milk float was pulled by a horse in Peterborough in those days.

And when I was a little older, I think, I remember my uncle on one of his visits home from South Africa, arguing with my father in a good-natured way about road directions as we drove through rural England, Northamptonshire or Leicestershire perhaps. It resulted in us going through a village we could have avoided and my father saying to my uncle: “Well, that was a piece of England you would have missed if we hadn’t done that.” The rest of that day is lost to my memory.

Just this morning, No Particular Place To Go by Chuck Berry popped up on Caroline Flashback – an excellent new service from Radio Caroline – and it took me back to the mid-Seventies when I started driving. I remember driving my father’s new Ford Cortina Ghia over what was then the only bridge in Peterborough across the River Nene as that song came on the radio. It’s as clear as yesterday, the song started just as we turned the corner onto the bridge. However, unlike the song, I was driving with my parents and not a glamorous young woman. By the way, a Ford Cortina Ghia was quite the car to own in those days.

But the memory also plays tricks. I am reading a book called Speed Six by Bruce Carter – bought second-hand because I loved it as a youngster. Set in the Fifties, it tells the story of three romantics who take a 25-year-old Bentley back to Le Mans to enter the 24-hour race.

One of the things I remembered about the book was how, at the beginning, a bread delivery van races away from traffic lights and it turns out to be driven by some sort of mechanical genius. Except, when I came to read Speed Six, that section wasn’t there. Further research reveals this passage is in another of Bruce Carter’s books, Four Wheel Drift, which I must also have read as a child. Since then my memory conflated the two books.

Well, what memories have we been making in Orkney in the merry month of May? First, may I say, the weather has been windier, cooler and wetter than it should have been which has slowed down our gardening – and presented real problems for the farmers.

Our new flower order (image: Graham Brown)
Our new flower border (image: Graham Brown)

But we have created a new flower border in front of our house with reclaimed stone. I was even able to follow in my grandad’s footsteps and collect droppings for the border after some horses walked down the track past our house.

We planted ten alder trees between our house and next-door, then had to put tree guards on to keep the rabbits from eating them, then had to add extra stakes in very rocky soil to try to keep the guards upright in the unseasonable winds.

We’ve also had fun with our bird-feeders. We stopped using expensive metal ones because the gulls would steal them. But the plastic ones were chewed through, in a systematic way, as if someone had clipped pieces out with strong scissors. Opinion varies as to whether it was the gulls, or one of our neighbourhood rats, or both. We have, however, seen the rat easily scale the narrow metal pole from which the bird-feeders hang. So now we only put out small amounts of food at a time, and the feeders are firmly tied in place.

We had a lovely early morning walk, six o’clock start – on a beautiful day, for once – in Binscarth Woods as part of Orkney Nature Festival, listening both to birdsong and to the expert explanations of Professor Peter Slater. As it said in the festival programme: “Professor Slater, former Professor of Natural History at St Andrews and current President of the Orkney Field Club, quite literally wrote the book on bird song!”

Orkney Folk Festival, from left: Kathie Touin, Frank Keenan, Hilary Allen, compere David Delday & Steve Miller (image: Graham Brown)
Orkney Folk Festival, from left: Kathie Touin, Frank Keenan, Hilary Allen, compere David Delday & Steve Miller (image: Graham Brown)

Orkney is famous for its festivals and so we go from nature to folk – Kathie Touin (my wife, if you are new to my blog) played at Orkney Folk Festival in Frank Keenan’s band at the Deerness, East Mainland, concert. Kathie was playing keyboards and singing harmonies. Frank plays guitar and sings his self-penned songs, also in the band were Hilary Allen on percussion and Steve Miller on clarinet and whistle. It was the first appearance for that particular line-up and they made an excellent showcase for Frank’s thoughtful songs.

Speaking of thoughtful songs, well, perhaps not, Kathie and I watched the Eurovision Song Contest – always an enjoyable, silly and camp evening. I thought the UK entry, by Electro Velvet, deserved to do better, they certainly gave a good performance. We have friends who are promising a Eurovision party next year so I might have to dress up myself.

We used the name Electo Velvet for our team at the Quoyloo village quiz evening in the Old School and were rather more successful – we won. There were six of us and I cannot take much credit though from somewhere at the back of my mind I came up with three important answers: lollipop, Adolf Hitler and attempted assassination of Queen Victoria. I’ll leave you to imagine what the questions might have been.

Of course, the biggest news on our island this month has been our Orkney & Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, former Scottish Secretary in the Coalition Government. He was re-elected as an MP at the General Election on 7 May with a vastly reduced majority, only for his part in leaking a document damaging to Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the Scottish National Party to be made public, leading to calls for him to stand down or to face a by-election.

It would take another blog to go into the details of this, and the various arguments for and against, and I am not going to do so here. Suffice to say, it has been the topic of much conversation and sometimes heated debate, and will be for some time yet.

Bee-eater in Quoyloo, Orkney (fuzzy image by Graham Brown)
Bee-eater in Quoyloo, Orkney (fuzzy image: Graham Brown)

Finally, just yesterday afternoon, we were driving along the track back to our house when Kathie spotted a bee-eater sitting on the fence. What an amazingly coloured, beautiful bird. They are only very occasionally seen in Orkney when they overshoot on their migration, so we were very lucky. We watched the bee-eater for a few minutes, before it flew off into the distance. And, that, metaphorically, is what I am going to do now.

Graham Brown

To find out more

My previous memories blog – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/sorry-i-seem-to-have-forgotten/

Radio Caroline, recommended listening – http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

Orkney Nature Festival – http://orkneynaturefestival.org/

Orkney Folk Festival – http://www.orkneyfolkfestival.com/

Wikipedia on the European bee-eater – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_bee-eater

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

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/