Above: The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

In a return to the ‘Heading for the Exit’ series, we look at the Orkney islands. Situated just north of Scotland, it has been reported yesterday that Orkney Council will investigate the possibility of greater autonomy and self-determination following the Brexit vote and in the event of a second Scottish independence referendum. But what would a ‘Republic of Orkney’ look like, and what is the history behind the calls for home rule?


Orkney, along with nearby Shetland, were used as a base by the Vikings for pirate expeditions against Norway and mainland Scotland. In response, Norway took control of the ‘Northern Isles’ in 875. Orkney remained under Norwegian rule for almost six centuries until being given to Scotland as a security against a dowry payment for a marriage between Margaret of Denmark and James III of Scotland in 1468. The money was never paid, and therefore Orkney became part of Scotland.

In more recent times, Orkney was the base of a Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow, playing a vital role in World War 1 and World War 2. During WWII, German-occupied Norway asked Nazi authorities to occupy the island as Norway sought to expand. The base closed in 1957.


Orkney, because of its Norwegian past, is said to be culturally different to the rest of the United Kingdom and during the Scottish referendum questions were asked over autonomy. Concerns over failed investment into Orkney and Shetland made residents fear being discriminated against by Edinburgh, rather than being ignored by London. Just over 67% of Orkney residents voted No in the 2014 referendum.

However, the EU referendum has reignited the debate over greater autonomy, as Orkney voted 63% to remain.


Orkney would be the second smallest country in Europe by population behind Vatican City and would be roughly the same size as the African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. Although Orkney is home to only 21,000 people, it is comparable to other regions seeking independence, including the nearby Faroe Islands (belonging to Denmark) and the Aland Islands (belonging to Sweden). Along with the island’s farming, fishing and forestry industries, 67% of Scotland’s oil and gas reserves are estimated to lie off the coast of Orkney and it’s neighbour Shetland, which would be of vital importance to the fledgeling nation’s economy, alongside its thriving renewable energy sector.

However, the island nation would no doubt face problems both domestically and internationally, from being unable to support public services, to being initially excluded from organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and the European Union.

Should Orkney decide to break away, it may decide to return to its original home of Norway, which would make the island part of a country with the highest human development and some of the best living standards in the world. That said, rejoining Norway would require teaching the locals Norwegian, the introduction of Norwegian currency and a change from driving on the left to driving on the right.


Based on a 2013 poll, only 8% of islanders support breaking away in the event of Scottish independence, so becoming the world’s newest country is highly unlikely. However, should demands for greater autonomy go unheaded, it’s possible this figure could rise in the decades to come.