Maybe we can all learn from smaller islands?

Brian Nicholson runs the islands' mandolin, ukulele and guitar shop. Photo: Thembi Mutch.
Brian Nicholson runs the islands' mandolin, ukulele and guitar shop. Photo: Thembi Mutch.
Europe's periphories are meant to be in a state of collapse - but not so the Shetland Isles, where Thembi Mutch found a land of open skies, howling storms, historic traditions, and an active, growing community of notable individuals ...
You grow up with no trees, with these incredible horizons, a sense of possibility, this ridiculous sense of freedom, a huge imagination.

Put down your iphone, blackberry, or ipad. Turn off the speakers. Look at a real person. Make eye contact.

Stop for a moment to imagine what preoccupies them. Even better, throw away superficial diversions. Talk to them. Listen more.

Or, in Shetland dialect, "Da giean haand is aye gittin. Der owre cosh ta be lang freends." Translation: "The giving hand is a receiving hand, long friendships have room to breathe."

Ever since Plato, we've questioned what makes good communities. What makes us get on with each other? William Golding and George Orwell were not the first to wrestle with the conundrum of isolated communities (think Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm) and how self-rule works in practice.

Like ITV's Mary Portas, they shone a populist light on the thorny issue - can we rule ourselves? Can we be trusted to our own devices?

Are some of us, perhaps, missing the point?

Thinking that the answers lie in increasing our number of twitter contributions, facebook and whassup contracts, or 'viral networks' we're missing the real money shot by miles, because being sociable involves real time, and real connection with actual bodies.

The Scottish Referendum goes to the heart of this debate. Are we 'big enough' to not only include, but to learn from people who have mastered living together in imaginative, creative ways, for a very long time?

Sadly, the English press is disconcertingly obsessed with the financial implications of devolution, what will happen to RBS? To BP?

Worse, we - I write from Jewish, Scottish and Irish ancestry, living in England - brandish threats about being banned from the pound, or the BBC. Being hamstrung by commercialism, nationalism, technology, consumerism, and economics, we are missing the point.

Big skies, open horizons

Ruth Brownlea is an artist living in Shetland, whose paintings of moody seascapes and evocations of Shetland's unique light, sell internationally. She relocated there from Edinburgh, and recognises that Shetland is rather special:

"It does feel like the edge of the world, we're closer to all of it: the earth, the sea, the elements ... but then there's also smaller class sizes for our children, over 30 functioning family centres, and a very strong sense of each other. No-one is unknown."

Ironically she's dependent on Facebook for combatting the harsh winter months, and for her commercial profile. Nevertheless, she says "It takes a lot to live here, perhaps because we know we're in it together, we're family, we stick together more".

These are islanders who've been buffeted by weather. Who've had to survive with, and via, the sea. Roseanne Watt is a 20 year-old poet who thinks being a child in Shetland is unparalleled:

You grow up with no trees, with these incredible horizons, a sense of possibility, this ridiculous sense of freedom, a huge imagination.

"The thing is you grow up with no trees, with these incredible horizons, a sense of possibility, this ridiculous sense of freedom, a huge imagination. Crime rates are incredibly low, the main dangers are environmental: go for a walk in a storm is a bad idea."

Net immigration - and it's seen as a benefit

Shetland's list of 'successes' is indeed impressive: lowest unemployment rates in Europe, highest standard of living, and Arts funding and state provision in Shetland is the highest per capita.

Mental health and suicide rates are very low, and the few hard drug users on the island are known by name. A whole generation of university educated Shetlanders are returning from UK and Scotland back to Shetland.

Net immigration into Shetland continues, and the University of Highlands and Islands, with its Viking Studies, Nordic Studies and Island Studies graduate courses continue to attract people from literally all over the world.

The Viking heritage

Shetland will get renewed attention this month because of the largest international exhibition ever of Viking Culture opens at the British Museum.

Silke Reeploeg - who co-ordinates a Viking module for the University - says there's much to be learnt about being international, global minded in the modern management of societies, from these capricious sea-farers:

"The Viking activity was to supplement the Norse household, as farms were getting smaller and smaller through the tenure laws down the generations, some people ended up with low inheritances and tiny farms, so they built a boat and went 'aViking' at least once a year. Some settled, and some came back ...

"There's a big controversy about whether they settle peacefully with the indigenous communities in a friendly or less friendly way. The point remains however they were flexible, resilient, and took the 'best bits' of a society - like crafts and art - and were never actually defeated."

No-one is suggesting that raids or appropriation of land is the way forward with the Scottish referendum. But despite the violent beginnings, paradoxically this history has been the foundation for a modern society that is very good at inclusive peaceful co-existence.

A living community

The numerous imaginative, inter-disciplinary and wacky Shetland community projects are testimony to this: there's a £4 million modernist (and eco-friendly) guest house cum research station that was built employing astronomers, from recycled boat timbers and old wine bottles.

It houses a telescope, bee monitoring data, and is home to the international scientific community, (who watch butterflies and moths too) as well as holiday makers.

There's the £14 million arts centre (Mareel) that is a bold architectural statement, and combines a state of the art concert hall with speakers on the port recounting oral histories of fishermen, and rooms for a single mother's meeting group, and local filmmakers.

There are small scale ecology projects like the trout ladder to help the fish get upstream in flooded rivers, or the memorial forest - no gravestones, just trees.

And the UK's largest national environmental day 'Da Voarr Redd Up' (The big clean up) takes place in Sheltand. Everyone, even nursery school kids, collect rubbish from the beaches (last year over a ton and a half was collected in a day).

The RSPB runs specific projects for the under 12's, and the Scalloway Primary school kids audited their canteen and waste practices. As the Shetland saying goes, "Dunnae chuck bruck", or "Don't throw away rubbish."

Guerilla knitting

The habitants' commitment to Shetland may rest on its small size (there are only 23,000 of them,) and its reliance on ecology, archaeology and wildlife for tourist revenues. But perhaps though, the greatest achievements, can't be numerically quantified, the 'soft indicators'.

Like the scaffolding in the main street of Lerwick that has mysteriously been 'knit-bombed' (covered in Shetland design knitting). Or the pocket-sized Shetland ponies that have had winter blankets thoughtfully knitted for them.

Or Cathy Coull's courses in textiles, which now attract people from all over the world who want to learn about sustainable weaving, carding, embroidery and dying. Who are fascinated by the supply chains between sheep (on a windy peat-bog hillside) and consumer - in a Parisian boutique.

Before I get carried away with this Polyanna tale of blissful consensus, a caveat note of reality: there are still massive disagreements on Shetland. And ballooning egos, local council meetings can be dominated by the same people who wear too many hats, and are big fishes in small tanks.

A democracy of true individuals

Right at this moment the Shetland Islanders are wrangling hard over wind farms. But perhaps the very fact that the community can contain such robust differences, is its strength?

Democracy and good decision making are underpinned by social relationships, the resilience to handle differences of opinion, and the ability to think creatively - how we relate to our own friends, communities ... how we listen, how we observe, and what we do with that information.

Shetland islanders are very good at listening. The lively and populous activities of the story telling and oral history groups, and the healthy music scene are all testimony to this skill. The profusion of poets and painters who live on the island (more per capita than any UK region) is because it's a very inspiring, democratic place.

Language rooted in soil, rock and sea

The Shetland dialect is an amalgam of Norse, Danish, Lowland Scots and English, each element reflecting a period in the islands' history dominated by those respective nations.

One of the most obvious reminders of the Norse / Danish influences are place-names that describe in detail key features of the land. Some tell of where to find different food - from seals and seabirds to wild berries, fish and shellfish.

Others explain how the landscape was used for herding, grazing and crops - for example the many 'punds', or enclosures, and 'bools', or sheltered spots. Or identify different kinds of terrain, from 'heogs' (rocky hilltops) to 'houbs' (sheltered, shallow bays).

So, since the days when few islanders could read and only the very rich had maps (and those very inaccurate), everyone had to carry several thousand place-names in his or her head, a mental gazetteer that enabled them to take part in a subsistence economy.

Songs for all seasons

The Music too, actively plays a role in edifying the political democratic culture. Brian Nicholson is a session musician, music teacher, and owns the islands vibrant wonderful mandolin, ukulele and guitar shop.

He thinks the music and economy are completely interlinked: when people come in numbers to the Shetlands, the demand for musicans goes up, whether it's soldiers in the second world war, the whalers, or the herring industry workers. He says:

"I grew up on Yell island, which is North of here. We didn't get electricity till 1968, we didn't have TV or anything. So we sang. With paraffin lamps. Oil lamps, gas lamps, some people had generators, but there was a lot of sitting around with the fiddle and the guitar, or listening to the radio. I grew up with music.

"After we got the power, slowly this diminished, TV came in and there was less time to play music. For years after it came, in a power cut, we would revert back to doing what we did before, playing music."

Maybe we in England can learn from this? Being part of Scotland is not just an economic issue, it's about valuing culture, creativity, and social relationships.



Exhibition: British Museum Viking Exhibition The Vikings are coming, Vikings: life and legend 6 March - 22 June 2014 Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery

Thembi Mutch is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster, and is about to submit her doctoral thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She is yearning to build her own eco-house and garden.

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