Riches on the fringe

21st November 1997 at 00:00
The oft-neglected communities on Europe's margins offer striking opportunities for study. Patrick Bailey reports on the Orkneys

Europe's best geographical laboratories are to be found around its margins. But when GCSE and A-level geographers study Europe, they spend most of their time studying the continent's heartland - the Europe of big cities and their problems, of massive infrastructure investments, of old and new industrial regions and the areas of high-powered, highly capitalised farming that serve them.

Pupils seldom have a chance to consider the situation of Europeans who live along the Atlantic margins, on islands such as Faroe, Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides or the Canaries. But it is in such marginal locations that the relationships, beloved of geographers, between people and their environments are often most sharply defined.

The Atlantic islands offer striking examples of the interplay between location, technological change and opportunity - of changing resource use in response to changing circumstances. Such interplays, varying through time, are the very essence of geography. Parallels can be drawn between such islands and mainland communities marginalised by the closure of coal mines, steelworks and other abandoned industries.

Island environments have not been local since the seas were navigated. Today, they can be uncomfortably international. The Atlantic islanders have to take account of activities in far-off places that impinge on their actions, whether it is catching fish, exporting beef, growing bananas or tomatoes or selling package holidays.

Perhaps case studies of selected Atlantic island groups should be included in geography courses that aim to present a balanced account of modern Europe. Orkney, rarely mentioned in British school geography courses, is a particularly good place to start.

The Orkney islands, built in sandstones, with a population of 19,000, are an enclave of fertility in an otherwise rocky and barren Scottish north. Since prehistoric times, the islands have been well-populated and have supplied grain and meat to the Highlands, which have frequently been famine-stricken.

The First Orcadians have left behind a spectacular array of monuments of international significance. In recent years they have formed the basis of a secure, specialist tourist industry.

Norse settlers started arriving in Orkney around 850AD. From then the islands became the Norwegians' principal power and trading base in the Scottish north. Only in 1468 did the islands become Scottish, and then not completely. Strictly speaking, they are still in pawn to the King of Denmark - although he is never expected to claim them back.

By the mid-19th century Orkney was in the hands of estate owners, some of whom were innovative and enterprising and introduced modern farming methods, crops and livestock. As a result, the islands achieved a fair level of prosperity, based on the export of live beef cattle to the marts of Aberdeen and Clydeside and the sale of eggs by the million to the southern markets. Customarily, egg sales were in the hands of tenant farmers' wives, who used the money to improve their homes.

Since then, Orkney's fortunes have been mainly decided by outside interventions. This has been usual for marginal communities in the 20th century - most of them have had little control over their own affairs. The notion, sometimes held by romantics in the affluent South, that people living on the margins can "get away from it all" and do what they like is a myth.

The first intervention for Orkney came in the First World War, when the Royal Navy chose Scapa Flow as its northern fleet base. The flow is the finest sheltered anchorage in northern Britain, commanding the sea routes between Scandinavian, German and Baltic ports and the open Atlantic.

The fleet and those who manned its air stations, gun batteries and other coastal installations provided a splendid market for Orkney's tenant farmers, who were able to build up small amounts of capital at a time that proved critical to their fortunes.

After the war came depression. Most estate owners sold their lands to the only possible purchasers - their sitting tenants - usually for 23 years' rent. The tenants had enough money for a down-payment on their properties, but most also had to borrow from banks. The loans were repaid, at first with difficulty, then with increased ease and confidence as the Second World War brought not only the Navy but a three-services garrison to Orkney. At times this numbered more than 18,000 men and women, almost doubling the islands' population.

The garrison bought enormous quantities of local foodstuffs and generated enough demand for the establishment of a dairy industry. After the war, Orkney's owner-farmers were financially more secure than ever. The dairies became the basis of Orkney's internationally-known cheese industry.

External conditions next determined that the islands' century-old egg business would collapse. Large battery producers in the South, often linked with super-market chains, began to achieve econ-omies of scale that Orkney's hundreds of small producers could not match. By the late 1960s, little was left of an egg business that at its peak only a decade earlier had shipped out 72 million eggs in one year. Meanwhile, beef exports to mainland Scotland flourished, even though all such sales were on the hoof, because Orkney had no meat-processing facilities. Processed meat is, of course, far more profitable to the producer than live cattle sales.

The next and most significant of all interventions came in the 1970s, when oil and gas were found under the North Sea. One of the biggest international oil companies, Occidental, decided to bring its oil ashore in Orkney's island of Flotta. Oil revenues revolutionised the economy of Orkney, as they did of Shetland. The revenue was skilfully managed by the Orkney Islands Council, and the opening of Flotta terminal in 1977 inaugurated a period of carefully-focused capital investment. This gave Orkney an abattoir to process its beef, drive-on ferry services to all the main islands, new schools and hospital extensions, an arts centre and many other enhanced facilities. Unfortunately, the recent BSE crisis has badly damaged critically-important beef exports. But progress has been made in developing potato exports and in widening the range of other food sales out of the islands. The tourist industry has been outstandingly well-managed and now makes a substantial contribution to the islands' economy.

The big question is, what will happen to North Sea oil? Flotta is now in the hands of Elf-Aquitaine, another international company with many interests besides oil. It may feel less enthusiastic than the Orcadians about keeping the Flotta terminal open as North Sea reserves diminish. And anyway, the future of Europe's oil supplies is being debated as the search for viable reserves gathers momentum.

Possibilities for development include the Greenland coast (and Greenland is desperate to find sources of income that will reduce its extreme dependence on the Danish taxpayer), the seas around Faroe and along the continental shelf west of Shetland and Orkney, which are deep and very stormy, central Italy, and even the Falkland Islands, which receive a subsidy from the United Kingdom of Pounds 70 million a year. One thing is certain - the decisions about where to drill the world's next generation of oil wells will not be made in Orkney, nor in any other of the marginal communities of Europe. They may not be made in Europe at all. The Orcadians can do little more than wait to see what happens.

Meanwhile, the British and European Union taxpayer continues to support Orkney's traditional industry - farming - as it strives to adapt to today's competitive conditions. The day of the small-scale beef producer is almost certainly over. Farm amalgamations have been taking place in Orkney for more than two decades and seem to likely to continue until most of the main islands are farmed in a few large units.

Outer island farms may have to be abandoned - some already have been. It remains to be seen how Orkney's adaptable people, cushioned for the time being by oil revenues, will cope with living on the margins of a Europe in which every activity is becoming large-scale, every service and facility centralised, every decision concentrated in the major centres of economic and political power.

Patrick Bailey is senior university teacher at the University of Loughborough department of education

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