An introduction to ‘A visit to the Island of Sanday’

This is Stuart Christie’s introduction to Rev. Alexander Goodfellow’s ‘A visit to the Island of Sanday’, part of which was published by Cienfuegos Press. It is a commentary on nationalism and Scottish independence, putting forward an alternative system of direct democracy and self-managed federalism.

Submitted by Steven. on January 17, 2011

The Reverend Alexander Goodfellow's Church History of Sanday is, of course, a partial one in both senses of the word; but a small island like Sanday cannot pick and chose its historians and any future chronicler must draw on this valuable and pioneering account from which we shall be republishing the most relevant chapters.
Dr. Goodfellow's prejudices tend naturally towards Church and State; he is first and foremost a Presbyterian minister and an historian second. One must sift out from his accounts that which is truth and that which is opinion, such as his belief that " .. devout men engaged in the conversion of the Orcadian heathens, to show their utter abhorrence of the ancient superstition, may have erected their chapels on the very ruins of the temples of Odin". Here, as with everywhere else, it was not abhorrence or contempt but emulation that induced •one religion to appropriate the holy places and customs of the religion it superseded. Where it could not eradicate, it adapted; where it suited, it turned the old gods into devils or monsters; or it reduced them in the scale of goodness to mere saints. Later, when Popery was overtaken by the Reformation, much the same process took place again with the new borrowing heavily from the old.
It is pertinent and provocative to note the continuous element both in the cohesive form of established religion and the way it has been reconciled with the interests of successive invaders. The Presbyterian religion has always been a forerunner of the modern democratic State in which the Government is an elected tyranny giving the choice of people as rulers, but guaranteeing the permanent stability of rule from above.
The history of Orkney up to the present time makes an irrelevance of most modem political systems, all of which worship the State to one degree or another, or attempt to deify it in the form of nationalism. It is immaterial to the needs of the people of Orkney if they are governed from Edinburgh, London, Strasbourg or Brussels. The geographical distance at which the hub of government operates is not relevant to the present day. It would remain as distant from our realities and needs if it were situated in Wick or Thurso. The Orcadian is, by tradition, not a nationalist but essentially an internationalist and one finds them all over the world; as a seafarer, farmer, etc., - the world's his and her oyster. However, with the subject of devolution dominating the political stage in the coming months the question of political alliances and national "allegiances" is going to be put to Orcadians and Shetlanders. It is a question to which considerable thought should be given. However, nationalism in Scotland and Wales is not necessarily totalitarian - any more than State socialism is necessarily so - it merely creates the atmosphere for totalitarianism if the State needs it by fostering a national identification which overrides class interests and feelings of liberty.
The alternative to nationalism is not imperialism. Because one "nation" rules another, one does not have to chose one or the other. There are as many Scots and Orcadians south of the imaginary line that runs from Berwick on Tweed to the Solway Firth as north of it and no God-given-right has conferred that section of it above to Winnie Ewing, or to Jim Callaghan to pass it over. The alternative is federalism. A useful word which can be lifted (and has been by the liberals, as has the clear expression "Self-management") to adapt to something which it doesn't mean. But what I mean by federalism is the unification of communities independent of the State, as opposed to the unification of the peoples within it. As mentioned earlier, it matters little where we are ruled from and, in fact, we might as well allow the Danes to redeem their pledge and give us back as on a lapsed pawnbroker's ticket. People, places and whole communities were swapped around as wedding gifts and gambling debts by rulers, taken or forgotten and only the acceptance of rule and oppression has determined the tradition of keeping them where they are.
In the federal idea every community that naturally formed an independent community would be self-governing; each community would be like the free cities of the Middle Ages, they would be no bigger than was necessary for each of them to be able to enable all in them to participate in their running. Their co-ordination would not depend on ancient treaties or national affinities or the nearest powerful neighbour. They would unite, internationally, not nation by nation, but directly to whatever international combination appealed to them. There is no reason why a majority of votes obtained on a dubious commitment should bind people who detest the policies involved. The coercion of the minority by a majority, solely obtained through parliamentary chicanery, is seen at its worst and most insoluble in Ireland where nobody can devise a system - but federalism - where there won't be a disaffected minority somewhere - it is only a question of which.
The breaking up of Europe into regional communities, loosely federated, may seem utopian in view of the power of the States involved. But this is to worship power. In fact, if such regions arise they can sap away at the pillars of power much as the national idea is doing, but with far greater potency. What is the basis of a region as opposed to a nation? Self-interest; self-sufficiency; the clear possibility of self-management; the sense of community; the possibility of circumventing rule from above. There is no real need to bring race or colour or nation into it. One can preserve the folk traditions and progress - one can only preserve folk traditions and progress when one is not subordinated to a national centre. If, however, the Scottish National Party has its way, the fostering of reactionary and backward looking attitudes will soon prove to be a more effective curse of Scotland (and Orkney and Shetland) than any playing card ever was.
In one of the more outlandish pieces of wartime propaganda, Alice Dutt Miller's poem "The White Cliffs of Dover" made quite a sensation for its glowing praise of England, written as if corning from a critical American. The comic piece de resistance - though it wasn’t thought so then - was the part where she saw people queuing in the drizzling rain to pay their taxes, which she thought was the sublimest manifestation of patriotism.
In reality, however, nationalism doesn't take such forms. No Englishman enthuses over his wonderful civil service and how, under constitutional government, the trains run on time. No Scotsman regrets that he cannot be compelled to spend his prison sentence in Barlinnie rather than an effete open prison further south. No Welshman feels he should fill up his tax form
in Cymric, but one can't be sarcastic, some intellectuals have gone so far as to do that, but one wonders if they intend to declare all their earnings if they can get away with it – even in Welsh.
Nationalism is a smoke screen put out by the State. Nobody can worship the State because it is an impersonal thing, a means of exploitation, a form of repression which may be greater or lesser, but it is always there; it is concentrated disciplinary force, no more to be loved than the public hangman. The public traditionally hated the latter so they were always provided with some form of emotional appeal to which they could respond. The British have flogged the monarchy to death to do it whereas the Americans are content with a few yards of bunting and tickertape as a tribal juju; but these things are only figureheads and the emotional charisma of the modern State - one the divine right, by conquest, was dead and damned - has been the national idea. The belief in the State as a country, even as a person, is what has given Statist an emotion which is expressed as nationalism. People will give their lives to the nation when they are notoriously reluctant to pay a few shillings in customs duties to the State, which is precisely the same thing. The aristocracy were always willing to risk their lives for "the country", but engaged in tax swindles in case death duties cost their descendents too much.
After 1914, the imperial notion of patriotism was as stale as last week's beer. It had been pushed too far. After the rising challenge of socialism, the fascists revived the idea of glorification of nationalism - in Germany, a mystic idea bound up with race. This racialism of Germany's has come in for plenty of hammering, but since Stalinism and social democracy have made the very notion of socialism stink, the nationalist idea has revived. It was an alternative to class struggle. Whatever its form, it is reactionary not so much because of what it is as because it is a parasite around the State, a poison ivy that makes the prison walls of the barrack State look attractive.
In England, the disillusion with the Labour Party has given birth to one form of racialism which has made great strides in the National Front; in Scotland the Scottish Nationalist Party exploits the same feeling. It is noticeable that the National Front does not make much headway in Wales and Scotland where there are creditable nationalist alternatives to such crude racialism as is peddled by the National Front, but it comes to much the same thing.
The editor is no doubt as prejudiced in urging a system of direct democracy and self-managed federalism as persistently as the author of the following history persuades submission to the prevailing authority, but the State has assumed proportions beyond the imagination of over seventy years ago. With the almost inevitable prospect of uranium mining in these islands it is now no mere academic question as to whether the politicians and civil servants who order the affairs of state are kilted or bowler hatted. Those who depopulated The Highlands and Islands for the Cheviot sheep, the stag, and grouse moors earned the hatred of history, but they have been superseded by those who would depopulate the world.