An Island to Oneself - one man's search for independence in the North Sea
“Hi there, how are you?”
The self styled ‘head of state’ of one of the world’s newest micro-nations offers a handshake and shoots me a nervous grin.
I’ve arrived at West Burrafirth Head, a remote anchorage on the Shetland Island mainland, to meet Stuart Hill, who in 2008 declared independence from the UK for a barren, rocky islet around half a mile off the coast from where we’re standing.
Glancing across the choppy waters of Papa Sound, the treacherous looking stretch of ocean separating the UK from the island of Forvik, the waves crash relentlessly over the rocks, obscuring the semicircular roof-line of the island’s only dwelling, an improvised shelter built by Hill, from time to time. As cries for independence go, even he’d have to admit this was a fairly lonely one.
Hill, 73, is not exactly what you might expect from reading his publicity material, which at times borders on bombastic. In fact, it’s difficult to believe at first glance that the mildly spoken pensioner standing before me on a windswept quay has spent the past couple of years ‘trying to get myself arrested’ in an attempt to provoke the UK government into a legal test case to dispute the sovereignty of the Shetland Islands.
What he is, after a lifetime of attempting and frequently succeeding in doing things people in authority told him he couldn’t do, is an experienced optimist.
“I see a basic injustice that has continued for hundreds of years and has resulted in Shetland being cheated out of the oil money because the UK has appropriated the seabed without any prior right or title,” he said. “It seems to me just a fraud and it’s time it stopped.”
The local constabulary, wise to his antics, ignored him for as long as they could but eventually lost patience in 2011 after they discovered Hill driving around Shetland in an un-taxed white van which he claimed was a ‘consular vehicle’. In the subsequent court case he was ordered to complete 100 hours community service and banned from driving for six months, but he feels he made his point.
His case hinges on what he believes is an historical whitewash which has lead to Shetland being governed by parliaments in Holyrood and Westminster, as he claims the Shetland Islands have never officially become a part of the UK.
“No court has been shown any proof that Shetland is part of Scotland. They claimed that Shetland is part of Scotland on the basis of a magazine article by our local archivist, it was the best they could do.”
A statement on the official Forvik website explains: “The only powers granted to King James III of Scotland in 1469, when he accepted these islands as security in the matter of payment of a marriage dowry, were those of trustee. His Majesty was holding them in trust until they were redeemed by King Christian of Denmark and Norway or his successors. The Plenipotentiaries of Europe confirmed in the 1667 Peace and Treaty of Breda that these arrangements remained in full force at that time and nothing has happened since then to give the monarch any further rights or powers.”
It would be easy to write off Hill as an oddball eccentric, but in person he comes across as well researched and level headed. He knows what he’s talking about, and he can argue his point. So how did an apparently sane middle-aged man end up declaring independence from the UK for a hopelessly barren, rocky crag on the outer reaches of civilisation in the North Sea? It’s part of what Hill calls the ‘great project’ of the second half of his life, and the circumstances of his arrival are at least as fascinating as his current battle.
Rewind to 2001 when, at the age of 58, Hill left his home in Manningtree, Essex, to embark on an attempted solo circumnavigation of the UK in a boat he built himself as part of a publicity stunt for his internet firm. The journey, called “Maximum Exposure” lived up to its name.
During his attempted circumnavigation, the coastguard attended to him ten times, a statistic that caught the attention of the national newspapers, christening him with the unwanted moniker of ‘Captain Calamity’. I ask him how he feels about it, does he think it undermines his attempt to make a serious political point?
“Yes,” he says with a sigh, and the slightly faraway look of a man who’s grown a little weary of discussing the topic with journalists writing biographical pieces, “ I suppose it does follow me around a bit.”
Tell you what though; don’t believe a word of what you’ve read in the papers,” he says after a brief pause for thought, and with a soft chuckle.
“I got an awful lot of bad press but mostly it was terribly unfair.”
“Basically, people would spot me from the coast and, because I was using a light sail from a windsurfer, they would assume I was a windsurfer who’d got into trouble. The coastguard is legally obliged to come out at that point, so what would happen is they’d pull up along side, they’d go ‘Hi Stuart, everything OK?’, I’d reply ‘Yes thanks’, and off they’d go, end of story. What could I do?”
“The papers picked it up and ran with it, I suppose it’s a good story for them.”
Hill persevered, but his adventure nearly cost him more than his pride when, after approaching the Shetland Islands in a Force 9 gale, his boat capsized in a stormy North Sea and he was left with no choice but to call the Coastguard out himself and abandon the attempt. He was winched off after an hour sat on the hull of his boat, but calling the emergency services was a decision he says he later regretted despite the coastguard telling him afterwards that he was ‘lucky to be alive’.
“I wanted to show the world a little guy working on his own could build a world-beating boat. I tried to right it, but couldn’t. I was facing a night I might not have survived, so I called the rescue services.
“I wasn’t particularly scared. It’s funny, sat on a capsized boat in a raging storm in the dark, the only thing that went through my mind was that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I can’t explain it any better than that.
“I didn’t achieve my goal and I got ridiculed for it but actually, I’m really proud of what I did. I sailed single handedly in a hand built boat all the way to the Shetland Isles, and that’s a hell of a thing, really.”
Worse was to follow for Hill when, while recovering in hospital, he received a phone call from his wife Vi who’d decided at that point that she had had enough.
“She told me she was selling up and moving to France and she didn’t particularly want me to come with her, so that was that. I had nothing, no house, no job and the last 30p I had to my name went down with that boat.”
“I was at rock bottom but I didn’t feel sad, or upset. I felt free, liberated in a way. I was 58 and I had a total blank slate, an open road ahead but with all that life experience still with me. How many people can say that?”
Skip forward again to 2016, and having settled in the Shetland Islands following a spell of convalescence in the Fisherman’s Mission in Lerwick, Hill seems destined to avoid living the quiet life, even in a place as remote as this, after declaring his independence from the UK.
The obvious question at this point is why is a seventy-something Englishman who only settled on Shetland fifteen years ago so concerned with an independence question which seems a bit irrelevant, even to born islanders. Is it a bid for financial gain, personal glory, or even a bit of infamy? According to Hill, none of the above.
He says his goal is to establish an alternative administration in Shetland, and what he calls a ‘fairer society’ than the one he hopes to leave behind in the UK. He says he’s become disillusioned, as many have, with the obfuscation of 21st century democracy by ‘politicians, lawyers, pointless middlemen, basically’. There has to be a better way, he says.
Since declaring independence for Forvik in 2008, Hill has sold more than 200 ‘citizenships’ on his island, with full members entitled to participate in the island’s ‘direct democracy’ system, a sort-of internet polling system to decide consensus on key issues. What key issues an island with a land mass totalling around 2.5 acres, and with only one occasional resident, faces is unclear. But it’s the principle which Hill is trying to establish.
“Forvik is a microcosm, basically, operating under a direct democracy system that gives power to the people, not politicians. It’s my hope that Forvik will provide an example for Shetland to follow and that Shetland in turn will provide an example for other countries and regions, the people of which would prefer a system where politicians represent, rather than rule them.”
“If the electorate is empowered to instruct officials directly, do we have any need for politicians and all that goes with them? No politicians, no MP’s expenses, no illegal wars, no lobbying, no control by big business and bankers.”
Given the political climate, and the current backdrop of a poisonous EU Referendum campaign on all sides, few could argue democracy is ripe for a shake up. But like all revolutions, it needs some popular critical mass to take hold. As a relative newcomer to Shetland, it’s fair to say Hill divides opinion locally, with some islanders openly critical of him. Is there really any local support for his cause?
“I think there is. I’ve had people come up to me in the street and shake my hand, and tell me ‘Keep going Stuart, we support you’, but a lot of people won’t say it openly. It’s a very different place to the UK, and people have different attitudes here, it’s just a cultural thing as much as anything else. They won’t stick their head above the parapet, even if they agree with me, they don’t want to be seen as breaking ranks. The first conversation anyone has when meeting for the first time here is ‘Who’s your family? Who do you know?’ so they can sort of place you in the general scheme of things. It’s not a conversation you’d necessarily have in the rest of the UK. “
“I’m happy being an outlier, always have been. It may be that all I do is pave the way for someone else to get this done, and if that’s the case I’m fine with that, I’m not bothered about personal glory or anything like that.”
The seas are, somewhat thankfully from my point of view, too rough to contemplate rowing out to set foot on Forvik soil, so I grab a few snaps with my long lens and with that we’re all done. The sun emerges and the quay at West Burrafirth is illuminated in the lovely, crisp Shetland light which, due to the lack of ozone above us, makes the colours of the boats moored in the harbour channel look exceptionally vivid. Before we go, is there anything you want to add, I ask?
Hill thinks carefully for a minute, seemingly anxious not to let the opportunity pass him by.
“Yes, I suppose one thing I’ll say is this: I never went to university, so I never felt the need to be defined by a degree or anything like that. I never had that so I was free to explore a bit. I didn’t learn the ‘proper’ way to do anything, so I never felt I was bound by that kind of thinking. That’s not to say I had nothing to learn of course, but there’s a real power to that; you can look at things in a way that no-one else can when you haven’t been taught the rules.”
And with that, the Steward of Forvik jumps in his Renault Twingo and drives off to continue his struggle for independence. His boat may have gone down in that Force 9 gale back in 2001, but for Stuart Hill, his enduring sense of dogged optimism in the face of heavily stacked odds has seemingly never been more buoyant. It’s hard to say what will happen next in his ‘grand project’, but whatever it is, it seems likely that it won’t be dull.