Tavish Scott: Festivals show we are more than one nation
Up-Helly-Aa is by any standards a spectacular show. Shetland’s capital reeks with a sense of identity and no little paraffin. A thousand flaming torches parade through the town in the early evening at the end of January.
They complete the Guizer Jarl’s journey to Valhalla in a longship set alight in extraordinary fashion in front of thousands of local people and visitors.
As the galley burned, a couple of pals from Anderson High School days turned to me and observed that this event is what our community is all about. I had conversations this week with Norwegians and Americans. They wanted to witness the most spectacular fire festival in the world and ask about Shetland’s future.
Up-Helly-Aa is first and foremost a community festival. Few are not involved and it is entirely self-financing. Local businesses contribute, as does every guizer.
The festival’s origins are hazy but today, through Up-Helly-Aa, Shetland recognises the historical ties to Scandinavia including the extraordinary tale of the Second World War “Shetland Bus” when islanders and Norwegians ferried people, commandos and arms across the North Sea in small fishing boats. These supplied the Norwegian resistance. Enduring friendships and ties were made and never will be broken. So with many parts of Scotland.
Festivals matter. They can be based on connections that today’s generation cannot understand as being in any way modern. So it is with Shetland’s links with Norway. In the calm years when the constitutional future of the nation was rarely contemplated, such a link was simply part and parcel of island life. But now that the SNP has declared that Scotland will determine the future, this festival has become a moment of genuine reflection on what we the people want.
I accept that for a Scotsman reader in Edinburgh this may all sound odd. But Scotland is more than one nation. It is so much better than that. It is a country made of vibrant, thoughtful and different components. Just as Labour never understood why a slogan based on “One Scotland” did not resonate, so the Nationalists fall into the same trap. This extraordinary country is stronger because of her constituent parts.
Edinburgh’s month-long and multi-faceted festival is, above all, an outpouring of creative, artistic endeavour. Book festivals from the Borders to Wigtown have become notable events and economically significant. Whether it is food or folk music – such as Celtic Connections, currently running in Glasgow – so much good comes from these events.
They do not need a question on the constitution to be successful. National identity is not behind the growth of ticket sales, acts and musical variety to be heard in so many venues in Glasgow. But what festivals do is create a stronger sense of a place. That place is not Scotland, but Lerwick or Melrose or Glasgow.
l Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland