Roy Grønneberg (1947 – 1997)

Roy Grønneberg is perhaps best known for his contributions to the design of the Shetland flag. This weblog post commemorates the 25th anniversary of his death. His body was found in Lerwick Harbour, in the Shetland Islands of Scotland, on Thursday morning, 1997-06-12. It was assumed that he slipped and fell into the sea at Albert Wharf, some time late on Wednesday evening, 1997-06-11.

Roy Grønneberg was born in Drammen, Norway, in 1947. He was the son of Annie Davina Elizabeth (née Spence) and Nils Clausen Grønneberg who had married in Lerwick in 1945. Grønneberg was born with cerebral palsy. In 1951, the family, consisting of the parents and four sons, moved back to Lerwick to give Roy the health care that he needed. After seven years treatment in Strathcathro Hospital, Aberdeen, he attended school in Edinburgh and Lerwick then took a job in the County Treasurer’s office in Lerwick. In the late 1960s he went to Aberdeen Commercial College, then worked in Aberdeen before returning to Shetland in 1973. From the late 1970s Grønneberg owned the Hjaltland Bookshop in Lerwick. He was a director and treasurer of the Shetland Publishing Company. After the bookshop failed, Grønneberg devoted his time to supporting charities such as Oxfam and to causes such as the peace movement. In 1989 he took a job at the Shetland Archives.

Grønneberg was a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party and had a passionate interest in politics as well as in Scottish and Scandinavian affairs. During the 1970s he began to be noted as a writer and activist contributing articles to various Shetland publications. His writing were such that he was appointment to the editorial committee of the Bulletin of Scottish Politics.

Grønneberg had an active interest in Shetland’s political future and in 1968 he successfully moved a resolution on Shetland autonomy at the Scottish National Party (SNP) conference. He was particularly interested in Shetland dialect and how it compared to Scandinavian languages and his papers include several drafts of dialect dictionaries. He authored several pamphlets and articles about Shetland history and politics. Grønneberg was a member of the Shetland Council for Social Service.

The Shetland flag, designed by Roy Grønneberg and Bill Adams in 1969.

Roy Grønneberg and Bill Adams, at the time both students in Aberdeen, decided that it would be a good idea for Shetland to have its own regional flag – not to displace the Union Jack but merely as a community flag to symbolise the islands’ unique history. They decided on the Scottish national colours, blue and white, and the cross that is common to all Scandinavian countries. The resulting white cross against a blue background symbolises Shetland’s links with both Scotland and Denmark.

In 1975, after Zetland County Council (ZCC) and Lerwick Town Council merged into Shetland Islands Council (SIC), Grønneberg wrote to the director of administration pointing out that the ZCC flag was no longer valid. He enclosed the design he and Bill Adams had designed in 1969. SIC responded by forming a five member flag committee chaired by Patrick Regan. After two meetings several designs had emerged, but nothing more happened .

In 1985, Shetland’s tourist officer, Maurice Mullay, visited Sweden as part of a promotional campaign. Asked if Shetland had a regional flag, he remembered the Grønneberg/Adams design. Its Scandinavian association appealed to his Swedish hosts. Two Swedish yachts visited Lerwick in summer 1975, using the Shetland flag as a courtesy flag from their mast-heads. Later that year the flag flew, with those of other islands, to mark Shetland’s participation in the inter-island games held on the Isle of Man.

Shetland’s fishers added urgency to the flag question. They saw a need for a regional flag. This was influenced by mainland fishers, who used the Scottish Saltire as their own regional flag flown from mastheads and painted on shelterdecks.

In 1985-12, SIC decided to hold a postal referendum to choose a design. This took time to organise, and involved relatively high costs to send ballots to 15 900 voters. However, the decision on a flag did not rest with the voting public, or the SIC, but with the Court of Lord Lyon. Many at the time were enthusiastic to get an approved flag, including Scottish Tourist Board chairman, Alan Devereux, who regarded the flag as a great marketing idea.

After almost forty years of unofficial use, the flag was formally granted status by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, the heraldic authority of Scotland, on 2005-02-01. The flag commemorates the 500th anniversary of the transfer of the islands from Norway, at the time in the Kalmar Union, to Scotland and the 500 years before that, as part of Norway.

Grønneberg’s writings included: Island Governments: The Experience of Autonomous Island Groups in Northern Europe in Relation to Shetland’s Political Future (1976), a 30 page book, published by Thulepint, and edited by Grønneberg that included contributions by Magnus Magnusson, T.M.Y. Manson, Tom Nairn, Danus Skene, Allan Massie, Jo Grimond , Grace Halcrow, Michael Spens, John Godfrey, James Irvine, Morag McGill and Neal Ascherson; Island Futures: Scottish Devolution and Shetland’s Constitutional Alternatives (1978), a 79 page book, published by Thuleprint, that explored constitutional options for Shetland in the context of Scotland’s first devolution debate and The Shetland Report prepared for Shetland Islands Council by the Nevis Institute. Contributors include Tom Nairn, Neal Ascherson, T. M. Y. Manson, Morag McGill, Allan Massie, Michael Spens, Shetland Islands Council and Jo Grimond MP. A call is made for a Commission to look into the islands’ special circumstances and consideration is given to a special status similar to the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands or the Faroes; Hjaltland: Map of Shetland in the Old Norse Language of the Sagas, a map of Shetland’s Norwegian place-names (1991); Jakobsen and Shetland (1981), a biography of the eminent nineteenth-century Faroease philologist Jakob Jakobsen, the first person to apply linguistic principles to research the Scandinavian origins of the Shetland Dialect. Jakobsen compiled a dictionary of the Norn language in Shetland. Gronneberg was instrumental in arranging for a reprint of Jakobsen’s dictionary, credited with helping to rescue the islands’ distinctive dialect from oblivion.

At the time of Grønneberg’s death, Shetland author John Graham, one of Grønneberg’s former teachers, said: ”I’m shattered and saddened by this news. Roy was an extremely likeable character, utterly dedicated to anything he undertook. What everybody admired about him was his courage.”

Grønneberg was unmarried and had lived alone in an apartment in Lerwick since the death of his mother, Annie, a few years before his own. Friends said he had recently been in poor health but remained doggedly independent, struggling up a steep lane every day for lunch at the Norwegian Fishermen’s Mission in Lerwick.

The dialect database that Grønneberg had compiled at the Shetland Archives is of immense value to scholars.

Note: I had wanted to use a photograph of Roy Grønneberg with this post, possibly with the other designer of the flag, Bill Adams. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find one. If anyone has a digital version of such a photo, I would appreciate a copy to append to this document.