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Alistair Carmichael interview: Representing the islands of Orkney and Shetland

Alistair Carmichael represents 36 inhabited islands in Orkney and the Shetlands

11 min read

Representing 32 islands, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael has a truly unique constituency; as he tells Gabriella Bennett, logistical challenges are only half the battle.

Nobody could accuse Alistair Carmichael of giving up easily. If more than 20 years of representing the wind-battered constituency of Orkney and Shetland has taught him anything, it is figuring out a plan B when a curveball is thrown.

“I have done it every possible way,” says the Liberal Democrat MP of his journeys between the 36 inhabited islands within the Northern Isles.

“I have gone by ferry, taken commercial planes, smaller islander planes such as the 90 second flight between [the islands of] Westray and Papa Westray, hitched lifts on the mail plane and fishing boats and arranged speed boats or private charters.

“I think that is the thing that would surprise people most about this job. If I am going to Foula, right on the edge of Shetland, then that is going to take a whole day of travel. I land on the airstrip, find someone who will give me a lift to the top of the island, and then walk back down the island going from house to house.”

Carmichael was elected to represent the Northern Islands at the 2001 general election

If it sounds like an extraordinary way to go about being a Member of Parliament, then that is because life in the United Kingdom’s most remote archipelagos is anything but ordinary. Here, sandwiched between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and at the mercy of wild weather, transport hiccups are standard in Carmichael’s working week.

Our interview in Orkney’s capital of Kirkwall coincides with an Arctic cold snap that grounds flights between Aberdeen and Kirkwall airport, stranding islanders – and me – in the granite city for days. On Shetland, 120 miles north, a power outage triggered by a snow storm leaves more than 5,000 homes without light or heat for a week.

“[Journalists] were interviewing Shetlanders asking ‘aren’t you really angry?’ says Carmichael, 57. “And they replied, ‘well, you know, these things happen. You can’t be angry about the fact that it snows. We live on Shetland. We’re more concerned about making sure there are warm spaces for people who need them and that people who are vulnerable are taken care of.’ That is the default approach here.”

It would be fair to say that islands are in Carmichael’s genes. Having grown up as the son of sheep farmers on Islay in the Inner Hebrides, 350 miles south, he understands on a cellular level the hurdles his 34,000 constituents face.

“Yes, it can be frustrating when planes don’t fly and boats don’t sail but you just suck it up and get on with it,” he says. “You adapt. To be an islander is to have a greater degree of self-reliance. You’re not waiting for people to come and do things for you.

“I couldn’t do this job anywhere else. One of the consequences of having a high profile in a small community and a smaller number of constituents is that you can give a bit more attention to the people who really need it. You are able to do things more for people here in a way I don’t necessarily think you would be able to if you were in politics somewhere else in the country. I do more of my own case work than most MPs do, and that is a consequence of the community where we are; it’s an island thing. It is nice, and a part of what makes us different, but there is no nine to five in this job.”

island northern lights
Life in the United Kingdom’s most remote archipelagos is anything but ordinary

Carmichael knows he is not a perfect person. He describes himself as “Marmite” and admits to frequently losing his temper. Former colleagues told him they knew all was well when he shouted because that was his coping strategy. They only worried when he went quiet.

Like many politicians he can take insults. Unlike many politicians it makes him uncomfortable to receive praise. Does ego drive him at all? “You have to have an ego in politics,” he says. “I often tell people that the first casualty of any political career is self-awareness. It is a balancing act: you have to have a big ego to risk that very public rejection and humiliation. But if it becomes all about the ego then you are not doing your job properly. If it is all about yourself then it is not about the community or the politics you believe in. If I was still in legal practice I would earn more and go home to my own bed every night. There is a bigger purpose to this job. Sometimes it is about taking very difficult decisions.”

An easier decision came decades ago at the age of 16. For all his kinship with islands now, in his teens leaving Islay was the only thing on his mind. “I was done with islands. I thought I knew it all and I knew that I didn’t want anything to do with islands ever again,” he says.

Off he went to study in Glasgow, where he loved the student politics scene but dropped out of a languages degree – “too much Kafka and Baudelaire”. Leaving the course early and entering hospitality is something he now credits as essential to honing his people skills. After working as a hotel manager for a few years he trained in law and settled in Aberdeenshire with his wife, who is a vet. But in his mid-30s, when thoughts turned to how he wanted to raise his young family, he found himself unable to resist the siren call of the island.

This time he washed up on Orkney, after being elected to represent the Northern Islands at the 2001 general election. “Being able to bring up my children in a similar way as I was brought up on Islay mattered to 36-year-old Alistair in a way that it didn’t to 16-year-old Alistair,” he says. “The fact that my wife has her business here and my kids have been brought up here means a lot.”

island boats
Transport is one of the most difficult issues Carmichael has to deal with as an MP

That said, it has not been easy to spend as much time with them as he would have liked. Traversing the Northern Isles as part of his job is the single biggest challenge for Carmichael. On a map his constituency measures the same distance as London to York.

“It is not only the travel between Shetland, Orkney and London, which when it works is quite good and easy, but the issues of travel within Orkney and Shetland themselves,” he says. “That throws up a whole range of challenges. I missed out on a lot when the kids were growing up. It is impossible not to look back on some of that and regret it.

“You have three competing interests and part of the job is trying to balance them. You’ve got your constituency, your party and your family. Sometimes you get the balance wrong but you can only do your best. I’ve got two boys, my younger son is in his final year of a veterinary medicine degree at Bristol and my eldest is doing a PhD in data science. After all the years of being an unpaid taxi driver you suddenly realise you have got two well-adjusted young adults you love spending time with.”

"On a map his constituency measures the same distance as London to York."

In a typical week he travels some 500 miles, leaving his Orkney home on Monday for London, where he stays until Thursday afternoon. Friday and Saturday he spends on Orkney or Shetland, hopping between islands via flight or ferry depending on what the weather is doing. Many of his fellow MPs simply do not understand how geographically broad his beat is. Lerwick, the main town on Shetland, is closer to Norway than it is to Edinburgh.

Much of his casework involves smoothing tensions between old ways and new, such as meeting with members of Shetland’s fishing community concerned that chunks of their fishing waters have been sold off to make way for renewables development. “The sea bed is an increasingly crowded space and when electricity and telecoms cables, oil and gas pipelines and now renewable energy developments are all present, their protections can exclude fishermen from grounds they have worked for generations,” Carmichael says. Last October, damage caused to an underwater comms cable by a fishing boat caused chaos on Shetland, making it impossible for islanders to pay bills online, buy fuel or use ATMs for three days. “The initial loss of connection was catastrophic,” the MP adds. “It affected mobiles and landlines alike.” The future of island farming is also a hot topic. “Some of the young farmers come to me and ask: “is this really an industry that has a future?” he says.

When Carmichael moves from place to place he tries not to bring urgent paperwork “just in case people see me and want to talk about something”. He does, however, indulge in John Grisham novels and he also loves property TV shows – the “crapper” the better. He has binged all of Homes under the Hammer, Grand Designs, Location, Location, Location and anything with George Clarke.

A self-confessed workaholic, he has been close to burnout a number of times. To counter this he’s spent years searching unsuccessfully for a hobby. “I have tried different things – fishing, for instance. But it is cold and wet and I don’t have the patience for it,” he confesses. “I learned the fiddle, which was fine until the Coalition [government] came along and then there was no time. The House of Commons has a service where you can learn another language and I have always been interested in the Middle East so I thought it would be good to learn Arabic. But it was two hours in the middle of the week and I just couldn’t commit to it. I admit to my faults but the person who always comes at the end of the [priorities] queue is myself.”

To illustrate this point, he explains: “I once got an email from the chief executive of [the island airline] Loganair who’d been talking to the crew on a flight I’d taken to Shetland one morning. The crew had told the chief executive that I looked exhausted. He said: “you need to take better care of yourself”.” I can’t imagine those networks existing in British Airways.”

shetland pony
The islands are home to the famous Shetland pony

Support from the island also came during a career misstep. In 2015 an election petition case was taken against Carmichael after he authorised the leaking of a discussion between Nicola Sturgeon and the French ambassador, something he describes as “a very difficult, very torrid time”.

“But after the first few days the dynamic of it started to change,” he says. “I’d go out in the streets and people would come up to me and say: “you just have to stick on in there”. I absolutely knew I had the community here behind me. And it was not just difficult for me but for [my wife] and the boys as well.

“There was a lot of hysteria in the early days but people on Orkney judge you in context. They said OK, this is not your proudest moment, you have made a bit of a cock-up here, but we will look at the other [good] things you have done in the preceding 14 years.”

"To be an islander is to have a greater degree of self-reliance."

For every difficult episode in his work life, and for all the convoluted travel, returning home to Orkney is what grounds him. The Northern Isles punch above their weight on a global scale across art and culture: something Carmichael never loses sight of.

“That is one of the things you get on Orkney that you don’t get anywhere else,” he says. “You have the St Magnus festival which brings orchestras and performers from around the world. Years ago in the festival chorus I sang as part of the concert version of Dido and Aeneas. We sang with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the next year it was the BBC Orchestra.

“Where else in the country would someone with meagre talent like mine get to do something like that?”

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