GULBERWICK, SCOTLAND – In the late winter dusk, hundreds of Vikings are marching down to the beach, bearing flaming torches. Their studded leather breastplates glint in the firelight as they roar and sing.
The scene would have struck terror into the hearts of Dark Age Britons — and also may be an unsettling one for modern politicians on both sides of Scotland’s independence debate.
The fearsome-looking participants in a Viking fire festival known as Up Helly Aa live in Scotland’s remote Shetland Islands, a wind-whipped northern archipelago where many claim descent from Scandinavian raiders. They are cool to the idea of Scotland leaving Britain to form an independent nation, and determined that their rugged islands — closer to Norway than to Edinburgh — will retain their autonomy, whatever the outcome of September’s referendum.
“Shetland is different. We have Viking blood in our veins,” said the procession’s magnificently bearded chief Viking, or jarl — by day a local authority housing officer named Keith Lobban.
There are only 23,000 Shetlanders, too few to make much difference to the outcome of the independence vote. But they have Viking-sized confidence, and a big bargaining chip: A chunk of Britain’s oil and gas reserves lies beneath Shetland waters.
Shetlanders are seeking new powers and official recognition of their special status — possibly along the lines of the Faeroe Islands, a self-governing dependency of Denmark. The islanders feel their moment may have come, as Scotland’s fluid constitutional status gives them opportunities to seek concessions from both sides of the independence battle.
Tavish Scott, Shetland’s representative in the Scottish Parliament, said an independent Scotland “doesn’t have an economy if oil and gas doesn’t happen. And that gives Shetland some leverage.”
A “yes” vote for independence on Sept. 18 will trigger complex negotiations between Edinburgh and London over Scotland’s share of Britain’s offshore oil and gas — and of its trillion-pound national debt. A “no” vote is likely to lead to talks about giving Scotland more control over its economy and resources — especially its energy reserves.
Authorities in Shetland, who currently have local-government powers such as collecting property taxes and running schools, see the referendum as a chance to drive a hard bargain — something at which they have considerable experience.
For centuries, Shetland was a poor place, ignored by governments far to the south and reliant on the unpredictable fishery industry and on making knitwear from sturdy local sheep. But the islands have prospered since large reserves of oil were discovered offshore in the 1960s. Construction of Sullom Voe, one of Europe’s largest oil and gas terminals, brought jobs and new migrants who reversed decades of population decline.
Amid the rush of discovery, Shetland negotiated a generous compensation agreement with eager oil companies — creating an oil fund that has helped give the island chain well-paved roads, plentiful swimming pools and well-equipped community centers.
These days, oil production is dwindling, but French energy company Total is building a new natural gas plant on the islands.
Shetlanders are keen to have control over their resources — oil, gas, fish and even wind — and are wary of government meddling, no matter where that government is based.
An online petition on the Scottish government website calls for residents of Shetland, neighboring Orkney and Scotland’s Western Isles to hold referendums on whether to join an independent Scotland, stick with Britain or declare independence — although any of those moves will require protracted negotiations, and the petition has only 525 signatories so far.
A more likely scenario sees Shetland and Orkney demanding a bigger share of oil and gas revenue as a condition for joining Scotland. Officials in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles have formed the “Our Islands, Our Future” campaign to seek more power after the referendum, whatever the result.
“We want to make sure that out of this big constitutional debate, we decide what we want for our future, because Edinburgh doesn’t tend to pay much attention to the islands,” Scott, the lawmaker, told the BBC.
He speaks with a confidence that is the product of centuries of difference from the rest of Scotland.
It is hard to find tartan or kilts in Shetland, where Norse pride replaces the Celtic influence that shaped mainland Scotland. Shetland was Viking-ruled until it was mortgaged to Scotland by the king of Norway in 1469 to raise a dowry for his daughter.
There are still many Norse words in the local dialect, and Shetland abounds in Scandinavian place names such as Vidlin and Tingwall. With its raging surf, treeless hills and black volcanic rock, parts of Shetland could double for Iceland.
“I always feel when I go to Scotland I’m learning about someone else’s heritage rather than my own,” said Edna Irvine, who runs a clothing shop in Lerwick, Shetland’s only town.
The most spectacular sign of Shetland’s cultural difference is Up Helly Aa, a series of festivals held in communities across the islands in wintertime whose name means roughly “the end of the holidays.”
The event’s focus is a fiery parade — powered by marching songs and brass bands — that ends when the well-drilled amateur Vikings hurl their torches onto a replica longship that has taken months to build. The orange fireball lights up the night sky. Once the vessel has sunk, smoldering, into the sea, the participants head to local halls for evenings of music and comic skits that are part barn dance, part Mardi Gras.
“Viking heritage means everything to Shetland folk,” said 24-year-old Paul Hutton, eyeglasses glinting under his Viking helmet at an Up Helly Aa procession in the village of Gulberwick. “Shetland heritage and Shetland culture is so strong that everybody would say we are definitely Shetland first. Shetland first, and then Scottish, then part of the United Kingdom.”
That distinct identity makes Shetlanders weigh up the pros and cons of independence differently to other Scots. For many on the Scottish mainland — home to most of the country’s 5.3 million people — the decision is a battle between heart and head, between Scots’ famous prudence and their long-standing adventurousness.
The pro-independence forces led by First Minister Alex Salmond say an independent Scotland will use its oil and gas wealth to create a prosperous and progressive nation of 5.3 million with generous welfare provisions — a bit like Scandinavia, in fact.
The anti-independence “Better Together” campaign argues that independence will bring huge economic uncertainties. Scots could face the loss of their currency, the British pound, and an end to European Union membership. Some say British companies headquartered in Scotland will pack up and move south of the border, while military shipbuilding will desert shipyards near Glasgow and Edinburgh for English ports. Battles over who owns the North Sea oil and gas could drag on for years.
Most polls show the “no” side ahead, but up to 1 million voters remain undecided.