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.
It’s a scene that would have struck terror into the hearts of Dark Age Britons — and also perhaps 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 lie beneath Shetland waters.
Shetlanders are seeking new powers and official recognition of their special status — possibly along the lines of the Faroe 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 would 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.