Wards Worth Watching: Orkney Islands

Wards Worth Watching takes a look at what could be some of the most interesting contests across Scotland this May, based on past election results. No claim is made that these are the only possible changes that will occur, nor that other wards aren’t interesting. Some possible outcomes will be impacted by party decisions as to number of candidates and whether incumbent councillors choose to re-stand or not.


The more southernly of the two Northern Isles archipelagos, Orkney are just a stones throw from the Scottish mainland. Scots used to the Central Belt and borders focus of much of our history may be surprised by just how important these islands have often been, home as they are to some truly spectacular remnants of a 5,000 year old culture. The capital at Kirkwall is also home to the no less imposing St Magnus Cathedral, which wouldn’t feel out of place in a major city. Combined with Stromness, roughly half of Orkney’s population lives in the biggest towns, with most of the rest spread across the rolling main island, and smaller portions across other isles.

Politically speaking, Orkney is part of a dual Westminster constituency with Shetland, and that has been Lib Dem (or Liberal before that) for many decades. So solid is that support for the party here that myself and many other election observers in Scotland would consider their losing it a sign of the end times. Holyrood has a separate constituency for each island group, and there Orkney has been similarly solidly Lib Dem.

At the local level, Orkney follows the clear tradition of islands Independents, though in 1982 and 1986 there was a single Orkney Movement councillor. That is the sum and total of non-Independent representation for almost the entire recent history of the council.

Previous STV Elections


All 21 seats were won by Independents. The Conservatives contested one ward, where they came 8th out of 9 candidates.


All 21 seats were won by Independents. The SNP contested 4 wards, coming 5th of 8, 6th of 11, 6th of 7, and again 6th of 7. UKIP contested one ward, where they came 7th out of 7.


Only 18 seats were won by Independents! A newly formalised local party, the Orkney Manifesto Group, stood 2 candidates (who’d previously been elected as Independents), and both were successful. The Greens also stood in 2 wards, and won a councillor in one of them, giving them a very rare seat outside the big cities. No other parties contested this election.

Wards Worth Watching

General Comments

As with Shetland previewing Orkney is, I’m afraid, something of a cop-out. It’s not possible for one nerd doing this project in addition to a full-time job to learn the details about local independent candidates. That said, it may be interesting to see what, if anything, happens to the homebrew Orkney Manifesto Group party. From what I can make out, they don’t appear to have updated their website since 2017, nor do they have any social media presence. References in the local media, at least those that pop up in a Google News search, seem sparse.

From a nerd point of view, it’d be a real shame if the OMG didn’t go anywhere further. Highly localised parties are a pretty common feature of local government in many European countries. The OMG themselves put forward a useful critique of the opacity of majority-Independent councils, but with the reminder you don’t need an influx of national party councillors to counter that.

Speaking of national parties, I’m expecting we might see more from them. I’ll talk more about the Greens below, but they’ve announced plans to stand in at least 5 of the 6 wards in Orkney. I’m also expecting the SNP to have another go at it, and Labour stood in a 2020 by-election and recorded a creditable result, so could well pop up again.

Update following close of nominations: It turns out the Greens are literally the only party present in Orkney this time, in those 5 wards (all bar North Isles). That makes Orkney the SNP’s only absence, one of only two for the Conservatives and Labour, and of four for the Lib Dems and Alba. Notably, the Orkney Manifesto Group experiment appears to have fizzled out – more’s the pity. One of their councillors is standing as an Independent. More details here.

Kirkwall East (4)

2017 Councillors: Heddle, Shearer, Scott, D Dawson (all Independent).

Orkney has the slightest boundary changes this election of the three Islands councils – this ward has nibbled a bit off the next one, but with very minimal impact on number of voters. In true Orkney style, this was an entirely Independent contest in 2017. However one of those Independents, John Ross Scott, has since joined the Greens.

Unlike the other parties, the Greens do not allow for outright defections to them in the course of a term. You can join the party, be a member, and fully participate in internal activity, but cannot formally sit as a Green councillor until and unless elected explicitly on that basis. Given that even party candidates draw hugely upon personal votes in an island context, that gives the Greens the possibility of a “gain” here without any seats changing hands, so long as Scott performs as well as in 2017.

Update following close of nominations: Only five candidates in the running for this four-seater – the incumbents plus a new Independent. That may boost Scott’s prospects of being re-elected, this time as a Green councillor.

East Mainland, South Ronaldsay and Burray (3)

2017 Councillors: Drever (Independent), Green, Craigie (Independent).

If the Greens do “keep”/”gain” the seat in the above ward, it’ll balance out a probable loss here. Green councillor Steve Sankey has announced he won’t be standing again, so whether the party can hold that seat would depend very much on being able to put forward a candidate with a similar degree of local support and recognition. It’s by no means impossible, it just isn’t sensible to assume the Green vote here will remain with a new candidate.

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