The Hebridaneans

2 04 2013

The forthcoming Independence Referendum in 2014 won’t be the first time the Outer Hebrides has had to decide what country it pretends to belongs to.

In late 1955, a similar Referendum (now sadly long forgotten) was held to decide if the people of the Outer Hebrides wished to become a Protectorate of Denmark. This situation came about due to the neglect shown to the islands by Westminster over many years, and the post war economic downturn, but mainly from a chance encounter with the crew of a passing Faroese trawler.

There had always been strong cultural and economic connections between the Hebrides and Denmark, going back as far as Viking Times. The herring industry helped strengthen these connections in the late 19th and early 20th century, and up until the 1950’s, the weekly ‘mailboat’ to the Faroes used to call in at Stornoway to pick up the Gazette.

During a darts match in the Legion (the Stornoway and District Church Elders Annual Darts Competition), the Faroese crew happened to mention how good life was as part of Denmark. This caught the attention of those watching the darts and someone jokingly suggested that the Danes should come back and take charge of the islands.  Very soon this piece of gossip had travelled from pub to pub, and then from church to church, until it eventually reached the Council Chamber via Charlie Barleys. However, by the time the gossip reached the Chamber it was a fully fledged proposal and a motion was passed to make representations to Denmark.

A delegation from the Stornoway Town Council visited the Danish capital Copenhagen the next day. The delegates brought all sorts of presents – exotic foodstuffs like guga & marags, and indigenous crafts like Arnish Boots & church hats – to show the Danes what they could be getting their hands on. However, it was the promise of getting a go of the Callanish Stones that really swung the deal.

After intense bargaining, the Danes agreed to take on the Outer Hebrides, if the majority of inhabitants voted in favour of the proposal. After a short campaign the ‘Heng Aye’ side emerged victorious with 92% of the vote. The ‘Fleek Off’ campaign were suitably disappointed, but gracious in defeat.

Much of the success of the campaign was due to the strong cultural links which already existed between Denmark and Stornoway. As previously mentioned, the Viking influence had set the scene and various cultural exchanges over the years helped strengthen the bonds.
Hans Christian Anderson, the famous Danish writer, used to come on his holidays to Stornoway in the 1840’s. Back then, he was just known as Hans Anderson, but after prolonged exposure to Free Church services, he took Communion and became a fervent member of the faith. He was so staunch a church-goer that he campaigned widely to get not only the swings padlocked on Sundays, but the whole town. In Stornoway, due to this fervor, he was known as Hans ‘Curam’ Anderson. This translated into Hans ‘Christian’ Anderson when he moved back to Denmark.

Hans Christian Anderson was best known for his story The Little Maw Maid. This story has touched the hearts of millions and has been turned into film adaptations on many occasions.

A short synopsis is provided below.

The Little Maw Maid is the daughter of the King of the Maws.  She lives ‘beyond the cattle grid’ with her family in Ranish and dreams of becoming a townie. She loves to visit the hills over looking Stornoway and watching the townies, with their posh and refined accents. She ignores the concerns of her father King Tractor and spends all her time watching the town with her friend Sgudal the Seagull.

One day she notices a handsome townie Prince, called Prince Derek, on a bike going through Marybank. The bike bursts a tyre and the Prince is thrown to the ground & knocked unconscious. The Little Maw Maid runs to help and drags him to the cattle grid at the County Hospital. A passing nurse finds the Prince and takes him in to the hospital.

The Little Maw Maid watches the Prince as he recovers and falls in love with him. She visits a witch in Tolsta and asked how she could become a Townie. The witch gave her a magic potion that would transform her accent into a posh townie one, but there was a catch- her new accent would only work in Church.

The Little Maw Maid drank the potion and walked into town the next Sunday, being careful not to speak to anyone until she reached the Church.

There she met the handsome townie prince and fascinated him with the way she pronounced ‘j’ as ‘ch’ and ended every sentence with ‘fleekin’ right man’.

However, it turned out the handsome townie prince was only Church of Scotland & was just there for a christening, so the Little Maw Maid ran off with a Free Church Elder instead.

A famous musical about Anderson’s life was also made in the 1950’s staring Danny Cromwell-St-Quay. This film featured musical adaptations of many of his fairy tales including The Ugly Guga.

The Ugly Guga
There once was an ugly guga
With feathers all singed and a mess
And the other birds said in so many words
Haoidh! Get out of Ness!

The famous statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen Harbour is also a lasting symbol of.the links between Denmark and Stornoway, in particular the herring industry. Originally the sculptor was told to make a statue of a ‘herring girl’, but he thought that meant a girl who was half herring/half blone. By the time the mistake was noticed it was too late -the statue was in place and had become one of the cities most popular landmarks.

The Danish control of the Hebrides ended in 1959 when Copenhagen decided that the Stornoway Gazette wasn’t covering Danish events in enough detail, or indeed in any detail. A passing Faroese trawler dropped off the Title Deeds and so ended the era of the Hebridaneans.

(Thanks to Ange for her research into Hebridanea).