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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 07:56 GMT 08:56 UK
Two hours by boat to get to vote
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

There is a row over postal voting, but for those in far-flung parts of the UK casting your ballot in person is no mean feat.

Orkney and Shetland is the most northerly constituency in the UK and organising the election there is costly, difficult and hugely dependent on the weather.

All the votes are counted in Orkney, but Shetland is many miles away and a plane is needed to transfer them to the count.

The Viking festival of Up Helly Aa is celebrated in Shetland
Shetland is nearer to Norway than to Westminster
For the last election, there was only one plane available and it had to be shared with the air ambulance service.

Unfortunately, 22-year-old expectant mother Kelly Tulloch chose the exact moment when the voting papers were being delivered to Kirkwall in Orkney to go into labour.

She had to be flown to hospital in Aberdeen and the count was delayed by more than six hours. This time Orkney's deputy returning officer Malcolm Burr says he has been able to secure sole use of a plane.

"There are particular difficulties of transport both between Orkney and Shetland and within each.

"We use a combination of means of transport to bring the ballot boxes back to Orkney following the close of poll - boats, ferries, specially-commissioned boats and then the plane back to Orkney.

"But we still hope to declare between 3am and 3.30am."

It isn't a pleasant journey and to vote, we would have to leave the island on a Wednesday and come back on the Friday
Isobel Holbourn
An election without postal voting does not compute for Mr Burr.

"It would certainly massively increase the cost of the election. It would delay declaring were every island to have a polling station. Postal votes have been used for many, many years, long before it came to be on demand."

One of those who would be less than thrilled at the prospect of having to cast her ballot in person is Isobel Holbourn, who has lived on the island of Foula, 20 miles off the Shetland mainland, for the last 45 years.

"We get postal votes automatically because we are so far away. It's two hours by the small boat and then another 25-30 miles to Lerwick.


"If the wind is a cross-wind or if our boat can't get out of the harbour, then you've got a problem.

"It isn't a pleasant journey and to vote, we would have to leave the island on a Wednesday and come back on the Friday. We would have to spend two nights out of the island.

"We would be disenfranchised completely. There is no way the whole island could leave the island en masse. It would be very difficult and costly.

The lighthouse on Fair Isle in Shetland
Islanders need their MPs and MSPs to fight on their behalf

"There is a small aircraft which does island-hopping, but it's 50 for an adult return and you would still have to get a taxi to the polling station."

The crofter is scathing about those urban electors who choose not to exercise their vote despite living minutes from a polling station.

"They can't complain about what happens afterwards. It is usually those who don't vote who grumble.

"We need our MPs quite often to help with difficulties over transport links, the school, provision of a district nurse."

Andy McGill lives on Gairsay, in Orkney. Its 690 acres are home only to two other voters, Mr McGill's parents. And the McGill family are sure that turnout would drop to zero on their island if they didn't have their postal vote.

Police guard

"We get a postal vote. We're one of the smaller islands. We just have our own small boat for transport to the mainland.

"It would do for me. I would have to make a journey to the polling station of round about an hour's trip."

At the other end of the UK, there is a more laidback approach in the Scilly Isles, 29 miles away from Land's End.

The main island St Mary's, and the four inhabited "off islands" - Tresco, St Agnes, Bryher and St Martin's - all have polling stations.

The islands fall within the St Ives constituency, usually one of the last to declare in the UK, at around 1130 the morning after the election.

Penwith Council election manager Richard Dunn explained that the ballots were taken by boat to St Mary's, guarded in the police station overnight and then flown on the first helicopter of the morning.

"A few years ago, the Navy used to do a training flight and pick them up on the night, but that was in the days when the Navy did things for free.

"If you can't be first, you might as well be last. We would rather take our time and make sure it's done properly.

"The other thing we have to depend on is the weather. If there are storms, the boats can't operate. If the fog comes down on Friday morning we will have to delay the count."