May 17th is Norwegian Constitution Day. Orkney’s links with Norway have remained strong to this day. If the county was not in lockdown Orkney would be celebrating with its Norwegian friends its national day of independence.
John Mowat Chairman of the Orkney Norway Friendship Association explains the reasons for Norway’s Constitution Day and Orkney’s celebration of it.
A number of leading authors, artists, musicians, business leaders from Norway met in Eidsvoll, east of Oslo in 1814.
Norway had been governed by Denmark from the 1300s until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1814. The leading countries of Europe signed a peace treaty in 1814 and 1815, following the conflict.
Norway was taken from defeated Denmark, and given to Sweden, on the allied and winning side. Norway had its future determined without any consultation. This situation hit a raw nerve, in Norway, whose people were eager to rejoin mainstream Europe again, after hundreds of years. Thereafter, Norway experienced a rapid flowering of its musical, artistic, cultural, political, educational and social life. Students started to hold open protests at this complete lack of consultation.
The Norwegians , who met, in Eidsvoll, drew up a highly democratic, and for its time, a highly advanced Constitution, still used today and regularly updated. The Swedes conceded considerable devolution of Government, to Norway, which proceeded to build the government institutions, from scratch. From the mid 1800s, male school pupils took part in processions or Togs, on 17th May, to celebrate Constitution Day. Girls joined the Parades from 1894, as political awareness grew.
The Norwegian union with Sweden, was dissolved, in 1905, with overwhelming popular support, making Norway, an Independent Country, on the world stage, again. A Danish Prince was appointed as head of State, with symbolic rather than political power. He took the name King Haakon the 7th.
17th May became a National holiday as the Parades grew in size.
Norway was occupied by Germany from April 1940, until V E day, in Europe, in early May 1945.
The parades of 1945 took on added significance.
Orkney Norway Friendship Association was set up in November 1978, following a successful musical exchange visit involving pupils from Kirkwall Grammar School, Stromness Academy and Sotra Vest School Band, in Western Norway. ONFA members began to celebrate 17th May, the following year. Visiting sailors, from the Stavanger area, helped ONFA to hold the first Tog or Parade in the early 1980s.
A number of yacht crews, from Rogaland regularly visited Orkney for 17th May celebrations, for over 30 years.
Each Year, ONFA organised a full day of activities to celebrate 17th May, starting with a remembrance Ceremony beside the Norwegian World War 2 graves at St Olaf’s Cemetery.
The Tog would set off from Kirkwall Pierhead at 12.00, headed by Kirkwall City Pipe Band, followed by flag bearers carrying large Norwegian, UK, Scottish and Orkney flags. Flags of the neighbouring Nordic counties of Shetland and Caithness have been added.
ONFA Members, Friends, visiting Norwegians, primary and secondary school pupils all carry small Norwegian flags in a highly colourful annual Parade.
Outside the Cathedral, Orkney Island Council Convener would welcome visiting Norwegians and a Norwegian special guest replies.
The Twinning of Hordaland and Orkney Islands Councils is a friendship , cultural and social link between the people of Hordaland and Orkney. The links have gone from strength to strength, since 1983, celebrating over 1000 years of history and shared interests.
A lunchtime concert would then take place, in St Magnus Cathedral. In 2019 pupils from Stromness Academy provided an excellent programme of music .
A lunchtime reception organised by Orkney Islands Council welcomes Norwegian visitors along with ONFA Members and Friends.
A buffet dinner and dance is held, in the evening, in 2019 this was at the Commodore, in Holm.
17 th May Norwegian Constitution Day Celebrations, in Orkney, are done differently from those in Norway.
The event has become a highly colourful one day mini festival. Large numbers of visitors and local people would line Bridge, Albert and Broad Streets, to see the Annual Tog.
Colourful 17th May Constitution Day Parades also would take place in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, where there are many Norwegian students.