One of the more poignant exhibits in the old Marischal College museum in Aberdeen was a rather battered canoe. It was cast up on the shores of North East Scotland in, I think, the 18th century, complete with an occupant dressed in furs who was very much the worse for wear.
The stranger and the locals had no language in common and, presumably because of an arduous voyage, the occupant of the tiny craft died within a few days. Who he was and where he came from remained a mystery until many years later when it was established that the vessel was a type of kayak found in Greenland. How and why the presumed native Greenlander occupying it had paddled or drifted across the Atlantic to Scotland remains unknown.
I was reminded of the mutual incomprehension that must have confronted Greenlander and Scot on a North East beach all those years ago when I read the account in The Scotsman by journalist Lesley Riddoch of the Arctic Circle assembly last weekend in Reykjavik – ‘Countries of the Arctic are our natural allies.’ I wrote about this event on 7 October when Nicola Sturgeon was scheduled to give the keynote address on the assembly’s opening day. I was, you won’t be surprised to know, sceptical of the purpose and value of what I described as ‘more SNP grandstanding.’
Ms Riddoch’s account does nothing to assuage my previous concerns but adds several layers of bemusement, both hers and mine, to what I knew before.
Many Scottish nationalists have had a long-standing if somewhat intermittent fascination with the Nordic countries (as in Scandinavia), not least Alex Salmond and his ‘Arc of Northern Prosperity.’ They seem to represent everything that the SNP think Scotland isn’t but they aspire to – high income, high welfare, progressive, at peace with themselves, and above all not British. Lesley herself dabbles in matters Nordic: I had a civilised exchange with her on Twitter (in pre ‘Ochone’ days) about her PhD on the Norwegian hut movement which ended with me – genuinely – wishing her well with her research.
What follows is, alas, not a PhD but my piecemeal dissection of some of the things Lesley writes about the Arctic Circle assembly. Her words are in italics.
Nicola Sturgeon made a keynote speech to [the assembly … It] certainly had symbolic clout and set smartphone cameras clicking and female politicians from every part of the Arctic queuing up to meet her.
I’m not clear what ‘symbolic clout’ the speech might have had, perhaps as much as the symbolic clout of the subsequent breakout session on ‘Singapore and the Arctic: Partnership Between Academia and Business Through Research & Innovation.’ Neither Scotland nor Singapore are in or of the Arctic, although a case could be made for us having more in common with Singapore than, say, the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District of Russia, which also hosted a breakout session at the assembly.
As for the clicking smartphone cameras and queuing female politicians (most of whom I am sure will know little of the politics of Scotland) yep, that’s what people do. In relation to Scotland and the Arctic, so what?
… the First Minister signed an agreement for VisitScotland and the Icelandic Tourist Board to share information – and no wonder.
I love the ‘no wonder’ because frankly I do wonder. I wonder what either side has to gain from such an agreement. Riddoch’s subsequent ramble about a northern haven of creative people, active volcanoes, jailed bankers and improbably talented football players (she means Iceland, not Scotland) doesn’t explain. Was information sharing with Iceland ever part of VisitScotland’s strategic vision or business plan? Or was it an expedient cobbled together at short notice to meet a political imperative for action, no matter how inconsequential?
With the knowledge that A session on mental health in Greenland revealed 11 per cent of suicides are by teenagers – ten times higher than the Canadian average we move further into ‘So what?’ territory.
From teenage suicides in Greenland Riddoch advances seamlessly via Greenlanders caught between their own indigenous values … and western values which encourage the domination of nature, the division of soul and body and education by professionals and a developing Arctic consensus … that learning is best achieved via elders in a family context to a claim that these insights mirror the latest thinking about disempowerment in Scotland’s deprived urban communities.
For some reason, this stream of consciousness conjured up a picture in my mind of teachers in Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency being sacked and replaced by grandparents handing down traditional indigenous wisdom in all those cosy Govanhill closes. Or am I missing something?
A proposed North Atlantic Power System would turn the Arctic and sub-Arctic into Europe’s “green battery” – but Scotland won’t be able to feed in energy without backing [from?] the UK Government which appears reluctant … Quite obviously this should be a massive opportunity for Scotland but if we aren’t actively involved now, Scotland will be reduced to an energy stepping stone not a green energy contributor – with all the extra jobs, investment and carbon-saving that would mean.
I quote this paragraph almost in full because it seems so batty to me. I can only guess it refers to joining a number of countries (Iceland-Norway-Scotland/UK?) by undersea electricity cables to … to do what? As a species we can’t even master local tidal energy let alone pump electricity seamlessly a thousand miles under the ocean. At best I suspect some utopian or ‘blue sky’ thinking has become transformed in Ms Riddoch’s mind into ‘proposed … would … should … [and] massive opportunity’ with of course a reluctant UK government lurking in the background to thwart Scotland’s ambition.
And so to I counted only two Scots including Angus MacNeil MP, amongst a mountain of speakers …
Ah, Angus, he of the £5,300-at-taxpayers’-expense Icelandic lessons (see link to my 7 October post above). I couldn’t find him on the programme as a speaker but maybe he did a breakout session in Icelandic in downtown Reykjavik. (Can you sense my increasingly jaded mood?)
We then have Riddoch’s judgement on matters geopolitical – small Arctic nations like Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Norway are focused and muscular enough to handle super state interest.
Put aside the bracketing of Canada (population 36 million) as a small Arctic nation with Greenland (less than 60,000 people) and Iceland (320,000). Does she really think Iceland and Greenland are focused and muscular enough to see off the USA and Russia should they decide to take action detrimental to those tiny countries? Canada and Norway have a better chance in relation to Russia, but only because they are members of NATO, the club whose nuclear weapons the SNP rejected in 2014 while simultaneously wanting to join. This is, at best, fantasy international relations although blunter words are available.
And that’s just about it in terms of, I’m being kind, substance, apart from a brief foray into the publication of a new online photo magazine about ‘North Atlantic communities’ (presumably Riddoch’s been asked to contribute an article) and a geographically and politically inept judgement by a Norwegian employee of ‘Nordic Atlantic Cooperation’ called Morten (not Martin, Lesley) Stemre that ‘Scotland is as Nordic or Arctic as it wants to be.’ Oh, and her hope that Nicola Sturgeon’s first journey to the High North will not be her last.
Which is where I came in – the inability of those Scots centuries ago to understand what confronted them on that North East beach. Progress? You decide.