A Feudal Time-warp in the Channel

It is not common knowledge that until recently, the UK had the world’s last fully functioning feudal state right on its doorstep. Not part of the UK but – like all other Channel Islands and the Isle of Man – a part of Great Britain outside the United Kingdom, the Island of Sark, population 500, is the Commonwealth’s smallest SIM. 

It makes its own laws and manages its own money. Administered by the Seigneur, a hereditary ruler who held the island for the British Crown, Sark was the last remaining feudal community in the Western world until 2008, when the islanders voted for democracy and the Seigneur’s powers were significantly curtailed. 

The Seigneur, however, still pays an inflation-free tax to the Queen of £1.79 a year – a more significant sum 500 years ago when it first came into force and constituted ‘one 20th part of a knight’s fee’.

Cars are banned from Sark and planes are not allowed to land there, or to fly over the island below 2,000 feet. The place is engulfed by a strange quiet, broken only by the wailing of wind.

The island still abides by medieval laws, one of which says that ‘unspayed bitches are not allowed to be kept on the Island, except by the Seigneur’. 

This law was adopted during the 17th century, when Chief Pleas (the island’s parliament) decided that too many dogs could cause problems with sheep farming. ‘Yes, our island is bitch-free,’ Michael Beaumont, the previous Seigneur and the father of the incumbent one (Christopher Beaumont), who inherited his estate from the Dame of Sark, says.

Another law states that 40 local family heads, including the Seigneur, are obliged to keep muskets to protect the island from invaders. A modest-looking brochure, the Constitution of Sark, reveals much about the island. 

One of its articles states that, under Norman custom, a person can obtain immediate cessation of any action he thinks is an infringement of his rights. At the scene, he must, in front of witnesses, recite the Lord’s Prayer in French and cry out in patois: ‘Haro, Haro, Haro! À mon aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort!’ At which point, all actions must cease until the matter is heard by the court.

The Haro cry didn’t help the islanders when Sark was occupied by a garrison of 300 Germans during the Second World War. Nevertheless, not a single shot was fired from either side and the locals still refer to that period as a ‘model occupation’. 

One remembered how the German commandant of Sark refused to take any action against local residents who defied the occupation authorities by keeping short-wave radios at their houses – an offence punishable by death anywhere else in occupied Europe.

In 1990, the island experienced another foreign invasion, albeit on a much smaller scale. It was taken over – single-handedly – by a drunken Frenchman, André Gardes, who landed on Sark with a semi-automatic weapon. 

In a ‘manifesto’, written in broken English and pinned on the village noticeboard, he announced that he was taking control of the island. Having stated his intentions, he retired for a refill to a village pub, where he was apprehended and disarmed by the part-time constable (head of Sark’s part-time police force) and frogmarched to the island’s miniature prison, which consisted of one small, windowless cell.

The constable soon came to regret his bravery, for another island law made him responsible for feeding prison inmates and the Frenchman proved to be voracious. Luckily, two days is the maximum jail term in Sark and in due course the gluttonous invader was deported to his homeland.

Exempt from the UK’s social security and health schemes, the island takes good care of itself. Special community funds help young people through school and university, pay medical bills for the sick and provide pensions for the old. 

Faroe Islands

In Tórshavn, the picturesque Faroese capital is the Speaker’s chair in the Løgting, the Faroese ancient parliament, the origins of which can be traced back more than 1,000 years, when a shipload of Vikings stumbled upon the umbrella-shaped Faroese archipelago on their way to Iceland. 

According to some sources, they were simply too seasick to continue their journey and chose to settle on the islands, driving out the wandering Irish monks who had lived there since the seventh century AD.

The Løgting, where, in line with the Home Rule Act of 1948, only Faroese internal matters are supposed to be debated by 32 local MPs (foreign policy and executive power are in the hands of the Danish crown), sits in a black log cabin with a turf roof in the center of Tórshavn. 

All procedures are conducted in the Faroese language – a derivative of Old Norse and West Norwegian, now recognized as the main language of the islands.

Until 1938, the Danes treated the Faroese language as a small regional dialect and it was forbidden to teach it in schools. For centuries, it remained a popularly spoken tongue only; there was no recognized Faroese literature until 1890.

This is no longer the case. One of the most amazing sides of modern Faroese culture is the number of books (about 150 titles a year) written and published in the native language. 

Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and even Homer’s hexameters have been translated into Faroese by local enthusiasts. The mini-state also publishes several daily newspapers in Faroese.

The biggest problem the Faroese faced when trying to recreate their old tongue and turn it into a written language was the absence of words for such modern notions as ‘television’, ‘video’, ‘computer’, ‘compact disc’ and so on.

 Instead of using foreign borrowings, they decided to come up with some genuine Faroese neologisms. Thus a computer became telda – from tal (number); a computer screen became skiggi – the word for a sheep’s stomach stretched across the smoke-holes of houses in the time before glass windows; and a compact disc became flöga – from the round wooden blocks put under haystacks.

That passion for the preservation of local languages and culture is perhaps the most distinguishing trait of all existing SIMs. Unperturbed by the ‘global village’ and ‘unified Europe’ rhetoric, most of them stay clear of pacts, leagues, and alliances, simply because they are quite happy to be on their own in our conflict-ridden and chaotic world that strives for integration, and yet is increasingly divided.

Akrotiri and Dhekelia

The British Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia (population 15,500) comprise those parts of Cyprus that stayed under British jurisdiction and remained British sovereign territory when the 1960 Treaty of Establishment created the independent Republic of Cyprus. 

They constitute a semi-independent British Overseas Territory, under the governance of an administrator, who at the same time is the commander of the British Forces Cyprus.

The bases remain formally a part of the UK, but can only be used for military and not commercial or any other purposes. It is the only part of the UK where the euro, and not the pound, is in circulation.

The bases have their own legal system, distinct from both the UK and Cyprus, but keep, as close as possible, to the laws of the latter. The Court of the Sovereign Base Area is concerned with non-military offenses committed by any person within Akrotiri and Dhekelia.

Law and order are maintained by the Sovereign Base Areas Police, while military law is upheld by the Cyprus Joint Police Unit. The Greek Cypriots living within either SBA actually have the right to both a Cypriot and a British Passport.

Åland Islands

The autonomous (semi-independent) Swedish-speaking Finnish province of Åland is located in the Baltic Sea, at the southern end of the Gulf of Bothnia between mainland Finland and Sweden. 

The Åland archipelago consists of more than 6,500 islands – most are rocky islets, but more than 60 are inhabited. There are around 30,000 residents, who make their living primarily from tourism, maritime occupations, and banking. 

Åland’s autonomous status means that it has its own government, language, and cultural policy. Since 1922, the country has had its own parliament, as well as a representative in the Finnish national parliament. 

Finnish legislation applies to foreign policy, civil and criminal law, customs, and monetary policy. Finnish sovereignty is now perceived as benevolent and even beneficial by most of the islanders.