Bob Duncan: Round up the Deaf and send them to live on Orkney. Good or dangerous idea?

Posted on August 14, 2013

Is Orkney’s flag the new flag of Deaf people?

There’s a famous book called ‘Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language’. It’s about the island of Martha’s Vineyard in the USA. From the seventeenth century to the early years of the twentieth century, a high proportion of children born there had hereditary deafness. Hearing and Deaf islanders all grew up using sign language. Deaf people were included in all aspects of life, such as politics, jobs, church affairs, and social life.

What if Deaf people who use British Sign Language could live in a similar society? What if we all moved to Orkney, the small group of islands just north of Scotland?

The 2011 census was the first ever to ask how many people use BSL. The number who said Sign Language was their main language was around 22,000 (although many of us think it’s much higher). The 2011 Census figure for the population of the Orkney Islands was 20,160. Neat, eh?

So what if all of us who said Sign Language was our main language simply moved to Orkney? Would life be much easier, in our own linguistic community, where everybody knew how to sign? Or are we better staying where we are – scattered to the four corners of the UK, facing educational, employment and social barriers and discrimination? Is new technology, like mobile phones and video relay systems, starting to make things better?

Orkney is remote but would it be ideal for a Deaf nation?

This is one of the ideas being discussed at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. The debaters are Professor Graham Turner, Chair of Translation & Interpreting Studies at Heriot-Watt University, and Deaf entrepreneur Jeff McWhinney, former Chief Executive of the British Deaf Association. The compere will be Scottish comedian Susan Morrison.

It’s all happening at The Famous Spiegeltent in George Street on Tuesday 20th August at 3.30pm.

The people of Orkney have thrown themselves into this debate with terrific humour. The VisitScotland office in Orkney has sent 100 Orkney flags to be given free to everybody who attends the debate. And the Chief Executive of Orkney Islands Council, Alistair Buchan, will be sending a message to be read out. What will he say? Will he welcome 25,000 or more Deaf immigrants with open arms? Or what?!

If you’d like a ticket – just £5 – there are details on the Edinburgh Beltane website: Or you can contact:

Beltane Network Tel: 0131 650 4874/4875

By Bob Duncan. Bob Duncan produced nearly 200 BSL programmes for Channel 4 (Listening Eye, Sign On, A Language for Ben.) He now works with Signworld, one of the sponsors of The Limping Chicken.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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Posted in: bob duncan, Signworld