Meet 'Captain Calamity,' the Man Who Wants to Free Shetland from the UK's 'Imperial Ruling Class'

Stuart Hill—a.k.a. Captain Calamity, a.k.a. ruler of the Sovereign State of Forvik—is fighting a legal battle that has its roots in the 15th century.

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Apr 28 2015, 4:20pm

The ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland. Photos by Harry Young-Jamieson

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

MV Hrossey was already groaning by the time I reached Aberdeen's ferry terminal. The big old ship was gearing up for a 12-hour voyage to the Shetland Islands—an archipelago between Scotland and Norway—where a man known as Captain Calamity would tell me about his grand plan to secede from the UK.

Calamity, known to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) as 73-year-old Stuart Hill, rules the Sovereign State of Forvik, a disputed territory in the Shetland Islands. In 2008, Hill declared Forvik to be a British Crown dependency, and therefore not part of the UK or EU, like the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

He also spearheaded the Shetland Islands' declaration of redemption of sovereignty in 2010, creating the yet-to-be officially recognized Sovereign Nation of Shetland (SNS), a group promoting independence for the islands. The SNS and Forvik UK Election Manifesto, recently released by Hill, urges people "not to waste their vote" and instead scrawl "SNS" across each ballot paper as a sign of support.

"We have something to offer that none of the political parties does," the manifesto reads. "None of them can offer an extra £76 million [$116 million] per year into the Shetland economy, half price petrol and diesel, 20 percent cheaper goods and services, interest free loans, and a quantum leap in access to the democratic process. The government, whether it be Scotland or the UK, has always seen Shetland as a cash cow. It's time it stopped."

The island of Forvik

Hill is the only inhabitant of Forvik, a 2.5-acre slab of rock sandwiched between the mainland and the island of Papa Stour. Nicknamed Captain Calamity because of his failed mission to single-handedly circumnavigate the British Isles in 2001 (resulting in nine lifeboat launches and two helicopter rescues), Hill is determined to uncover the Shetland Islands' "inconvenient truth." He fervently believes that Shetlanders are victims of "a gigantic fraud that has been hatched and perpetrated at the highest level for centuries," as his book Stolen Isles: Shetland's True Statusputs it. The "fraud" is that the Shetlands are not really part of the UK.

The basis of Hill's argument is this: In 1469, the bank balance of Christian I—King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden—was a little low, so he pawned his lands in Shetland (roughly 10 percent of the islands) for 8,000 florins to James III of Scotland. Hill argues that all James got was Christian's land in trust, "not given, not owned, and certainly not all the islands," until the Danish king came up with the money to redeem them. Hill contends there was never an official change of ownership or sovereignty through the ages, meaning Shetland technically never became part of Scotland or the UK.

After arriving in Shetland's capital, Lerwick, I had a day to visit Papa Stour. Only 13 people live there—down from nearly 400 in the 19th century—and I was interested to hear what they thought about Hill's escapades. I'd been warned that it wasn't the friendliest of islands before I jumped on the ferry; that Papa Stour is its own miniature war zone, rife with in-fighting and border disputes between angry neighbors.

"I lost interest in Hill after he started to commercialize the project," a Norwegian crew member told me on the ferry ride over. "He started driving around the mainland with Forvik number plates and it became a bit of a joke."

Hill was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for driving a "consular vehicle" with no insurance and fake number plates around Shetland in 2011. His van was decorated with "The Sovereign State of Forvik; consular vehicle No 2" and the island's state flag.

Papa Stour's postman, Andy Holt, was waiting at the quay to collect the island's letters. He's lived on the barren northerly outpost for almost half a century. His three-legged dog had strayed onto neighboring land and felt the wrath of a farmer's shotgun.

"Forvik is a door to publicity for Hill's bigger cause," he told me. "There is certainly a serious and interesting case to answer for, with regards to the independence of the islands, but it also provides a bit of amusement. Apparently he has turned up to court in some comical outfits, including a cloak and a wig."

After declaring Forvik an autonomous state, Hill wrote to "everyone from the Queen down" demanding the powers that be prove the UK's authority in Shetland. He heard nothing back, so decided to challenge the courts. But there was a snag: due to Hill rejecting the government's jurisdiction in Shetland, he wasn't technically able to confront the court. So to get his case in front of a judge, he had to get arrested.

"This proved to be remarkably difficult," he wrote.

Stuart Hill

Hill stopped paying valued-added tax (VAT), built a house without planning permission, and notified the Crown Estates that he was carrying out work on the seabed—but no charges were brought. Eventually he was apprehended for the fake number plates fracas, so took the opportunity to officially dispute the UK's dominion in Shetland. A separate hearing was then called to examine the case, but it didn't take long for Hill's quest to hit a stone wall.

He claims he was "barracked, bullied, and ridiculed" by the courts, which allegedly "used the most devious methods to avoid the issue." Four Law Lords supported an article written by local historian Brian Smith—entitled "When Did Orkney and Shetland Become Part of Scotland?" published in the New Orkney Antiquarian Journal—arguing that Scotland did in fact have authority over the islands. Hill's case was dismissed, but he vowed to keep fighting and managed to get his case to the Supreme Court—but to no avail.

"They know I'm right, but the implications of admitting it are too scary for them to contemplate," he said. "I have taken it as far as I can in the British courts, but have scant chances of winning when the judges do not play by the rules. What they'll do now is anybody's guess. I'm just a lone pensioner and they are the all-powerful highest court in the land. But I'm right and they're wrong."

The ferry's skipper told me there was no certainty of a return journey later on thanks to an ominous forecast, so I had to catch the same ride back only 20 minutes later. It was a long way to come for a quick chat. On the return leg, the captain agreed to sail as close to Forvik as the seabed, rocks, and "devices" supposedly installed by Hill (which can apparently "hole the hull of any boat," according to a letter he wrote to the Shetland Times) would allow.

We skirted close to the lonely crag. The swell licked the rock's banks and a plywood hut sat on top of the peat, battered by the wind. As radical grabs for independence go, it looked a pretty bleak one. Remarkably, there was no sign of Hill's anti-naval defense system.

A longboat burning at the Up Helly Aa festival in Scalloway

That night, I checked out the Up Helly Aa fire festival in Scalloway, the largest settlement on the mainland. Each year the townsfolk dress up in Viking garb before setting a longboat on fire in the harbor. Watching it engulfed by flames as hordes of half-cut Vikings paraded the streets under the Shetland moon, Hill's belief that a division of the Shetland Islands still belongs to Denmark made a little more sense.

Sadly, a turbulent winter ocean and swift currents rendered Forvik off limits, but I was luckily able to meet "Acting First Minister" Hill the following morning at a sparsely-populated community center café in Lerwick.

Hill's sailing jacket, jeans, and tidy gray hair were disappointingly normal. I was expecting something more screwball. He explained that he had no interest in politics before arriving in Shetland, but, after discovering information about the history of the region, now puts all his efforts into proving Shetland does not belong to the UK.

"What I am doing is saying that whatever I do on Forvik, anyone can do here on Shetland. Forvik is a symbol—it is Shetland in microcosm and a demonstration of what Shetland could do if it simply asserted the rights that it already has," he told me. "There is a lot of support for me up here, but people will never raise their heads above the parapet. Everybody has their place in the community and everybody has some toes they can't tread on. So for a Shetlander to do what I'm doing would be impossible. I don't know whose toes I'm treading on. I really don't care."

A map showing Forvik

Despite a lukewarm response in the immediate area, the international community has taken notice. Forvik currently has 218 citizens—each of whom pays an annual membership fee of £20 ($30)—from as far afield as Russia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

"The Crown produced local historian Brian Smith's article claiming Shetland is part of Scotland as its defense in court. It's ludicrous. My research is based on legal issues and fact, as opposed to how a historian might interpret things. I have looked at historical events and documents, and questioned the validity and legality of Shetland belonging to Scotland. The Crown's defense is simply a historian's interpretation—it's a completely different approach. When you ask for real proof, there isn't any.

"If the government can't prove its authority up here then it opens up the possibility for those people who want to opt out into a different society with fair rules—with fair justice—and set up a completely different society. When people start to see the benefits of that it will snowball and become the de facto authority here."

Hill remains "absolutely certain" he will win his battle in time, which is apparently on his side. He expects to live to the grand old age of 117.

"I arrived in Shetland when I was 58 and a half years old, and had no responsibilities or ties. I thought: 'What shall I do with the next 58 and a half years of my life with the experience I've had in the first 58 and a half years?' I've never been happier."

After a windswept photo shoot on the Sandness Peninsula overlooking Forvik, I shook hands with Hill and wished him all the best.

The fact he has chosen to single-handedly dispute the UK government's jurisdiction is probably why many people simply pass him off as an insurrectionist nutter. The tepid response to his battle from Shetlanders, on account of the "ingrained island-born resolution to avoid confrontation," is certainly not helping his progress, either.

However, since meeting Hill, I sympathize with his plight; he's doing far more than simply challenging authority—Hill is championing the message that the Shetland Islands are symptomatic of a broader political problem "confronting us all." He is rising up against what he refers to as "the imperial ambitions of the ruling class, who think they have a right to impose their rule over the rest for their own advantage."

And that conviction, whether he's right or not, is worth some admiration.

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