Page last updated at 08:43 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

MP with... the longest commute

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Alistair Carmichael
Mr Carmichael has no time for knitting - unlike his constituents

As he peers out of a plane window or leans gingerly over the side of a fishing boat, Alistair Carmichael could be forgiven for harking back to an earlier age.

The MP for Orkney and Shetland has quite a weekly commute to contend with.

He has to travel from the islands to Westminster and back, a round trip of 1,400 miles, not to mention making his way around his widely scattered constituency - the UK's most northerly.

Mr Carmichael told the BBC: "Go back 150 years ago and the MP came up for a summer tour and met some of the locals to get soundings.

"They went back to Westminster and that was usually it for the year."

Planes, tubes and trains

Times have changed.

These days MPs are meant to return to their constituencies at weekends for surgeries and other events.

On most Monday mornings Mr Carmichael, an MP since 2001, flies from Kirkwall, in Orkney, to Aberdeen, then Aberdeen to Heathrow.

After that, he takes the Heathrow Express to Paddington and arrives at his desk in Westminster via the Bakerloo and Jubilee lines of the London Underground.

On Thursdays, he makes the same journey in reverse, returning to his wife and two young children.

The one thing you learn being MP for Orkney and Shetland is that you need to be flexible in your arrangements
Alistair Carmichael

Normally the 713 mile trip takes about four hours each way. It would take nearly 14 hours by car.

Mr Carmichael said: "When it all goes well it is OK. But the weather or other factors can cause delays. I have to keep changing modes of transport and if one thing goes wrong it can throw everything out of kilter."

When he is at home, the Liberal Democrat MP has 34 islands to visit for surgeries.

He gets to the larger ones at least two or three times a year. Those with a population of fewer than 50 can expect a visit every two years or so.

Fishing boat

Mr Carmichael said: "It can be a delight, weather permitting, to go the smaller islands. I try to explain to some people just what it can involve and they find it hard to understand.

"Last year I want to Stronsay. I flew there on the Islander, an eight-seat plane from Kirkwall.

"I was due to leave at 4pm, but the fog just came down straight away and there was no way the plane was coming back.

The islands have a proud seafaring tradition

"But there were a number of teachers visiting the island at the same time. We fixed up a fishing boat that took us to Kirkwall. That was different.

"The one thing you learn being MP for Orkney and Shetland is that you need to be flexible in your arrangements."

Mr Carmichael fits in as much time as possible with his family but has had to put a stop to his hobbies of amateur dramatics and choral singing.

He said: "I can't commit to anything like that that requires regular attendances for rehearsal."

Orkney and Shetland - which stretches north to south the same distance as York to London - is the UK's second smallest constituency, in population terms, with just 34,000 voters.

Mr Carmichael grew up in the Western Isles, which is, coincidentally, the seat with the fewest electors.


He said: "My background helps me understand the way in which island life works.

"As the MP you have to be careful about who you would talk to about somebody else, because there could be some family connection or some friendship or some enmity.

"You sometimes praise somebody who has done something you thing is pretty good and admirable and you get no reaction - just a quietness or silence. Then you realise you have praised a person's lifelong enemy."

0810 - flight from Lerwick to Aberdeen
0940 - flight from Abredeen to Heathrow
Then Heathrow Express, Bakerloo and Jubilee lines - arrive at desk 1230 (transport systems permitting)

Mr Carmichael regained Orkney and Shetland in 2005 with a 37.4% majority, considered to be sizeable.

He said: "It's a much more democratic place than that makes it sound.

"We are a small community and society, where the newspapers are read by a substantial proportion of the population, so they know what is going on and you can't take it easy.

"But, as the MP, I have a level of recognition in my own community, even after just a few years, that most of my colleagues would kill for. That makes it a pretty wonderful job."

The bookshelves of Mr Carmichael's Westminster office bear reminders of home.

'Trust and helpfulness'

Beside the collected works of poet Robert Burns, there are two biographies Joe Grimond, the Liberal Party leader from 1956 to 1967, who also represented Orkney and Shetland.

Mr Carmichael said: "The difference between Westminster and the northern Isles couldn't be more pronounced. We have got a very strong community spirit, where there's a culture of trust and helpfulness, even when it involves relative strangers.

"When people in Orkney talk about Mainland, they mean Orkney's Mainland. If you want to talk about Scotland, you call it Scotland.

"People quite naturally say 'I have to stop off on the way to Westminster', or that I'm going 'sooth'.

"Orkney and Shetland are very much part of the UK and it's easy to overstate the separateness but it's an interesting mix of feeling part of the UK and part of Scotland, but still being different from the rest of it."

Should Mr Carmichael ever feel tempted to catch the ferry, then the train to London, he says a 6.30am start would see him in London by 9.45pm.

Knitted hats

Once in Westminster, biographies of his predecessors are not all that remind him of home.

The sofa in Mr Carmichael's office is covered in multicoloured hats, knitted by members of the Orkney Women's Rural Institute for Save the Children's appeal to prevent deaths due to hypothermia in the developing world.

Babies as far afield as Mongolia and Afghanistan will benefit.

Mr Carmichael, who used to knit occasionally in less busy times, said: "That's what people in London don't understand about the community. There's a heightened awareness of the rest of the world.

"If you want to be inward-looking then London would suit you better. You can find everything you need there within a mile of your front door."

He added: "We have our historic seafaring and naval traditions. I met an old boy in Shetland in my first election campaign who looked like he had never been further than his own road, but he talked to me about his experiences in south Georgia, of all places.

"Yet he still felt he belonged where he was."

Mr Carmichael's journeys might not be as long or adventurous, but he has the satisfaction of saying he travels further north - and "sooth" - than any other MP.

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