I was going to let this milestone pass without comment, but some observant readers have already written because they noticed the approach of the 400th edition. This Newsletter started as a Web page on the Rampant Scotland site in April 1997 and subscriptions to the e-mail version began in October the same year. Some of the original subscribers are still on the mailing list.
The Snippets have increased in size over the years as I tapped into more sources for stories - currently I read four newspapers every day and subscribe to a number of electronic news-feeds. The latter mean that I know a lot about Aberdeen, South Dakota and Inverness in Montana and Florida! Newspapers have to fill their pages, so news items I use have to be severely trimmed. Even so, I used to assume that most readers skip to the items in which they have an interest and don't read all 5/6,000 words written/typed each week, though some readers have told me otherwise.
I usually have a dram of my favourite whisky after the effort of writing the Newsletter (some folk who spot the odd slip-up may think I start sipping it before the Snippets are completed) and after the 400th edition, that may have to be a large one!
Large Rises in Local Taxes Forecast
The Scottish Executive announced what they described as a "tight" financial allocation to the 32 local authorities across Scotland. In 2005-06 they will receive £8.1 billion, an increase of 4.4% and increases in the two following years will be 3.3% and 2.4% respectively. While most of the finance for local services (such as education, police, social work, cleansing, roads and libraries) are paid from central funds, the balance has to be found from local property tax. The Finance Minister says he hopes that local authorities will keep their increase to 2.5%. Many councils, however, have already calculated that the increase will be at least 4.4% from next April and that similar increases will be required in the following years - this at a time when inflation is running at around 2% and even wage rates are not rising at 4.4%. The amount paid by an average home is now over £1100 and rates for larger properties are well over £2,000. Charges for water and sewage are an additional charge. In recent years, there have been noisy protests about significant increases in local authority tax increases which hit those on lower fixed incomes such as pensioners particularly hard.
Scottish Pupils Excel at School
The Scottish Executive will no doubt claim the credit, but the most recent results of an international comparison of 15-year-olds shows that Scottish pupils are near the top of the table of 30 countries in mathematics, science and reading. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey programme for International Student Assessment puts the Scots ahead of countries such as the US, Spain and Italy - though Australia, Canada and New Zealand performed better than Scotland. The top country in all three subjects was Finland (though Japan was first equal with that country for Science). The survey assesses the performance of more than 250,000 teenagers and their results are then compared. Scotland was ranked 6th for reading, 8th for science and 8th equal for mathematics. The US students of the same age came 14th for reading, 17th equal for science and 21st for mathematics.
Scottish Fishing Fleet Again Under Threat
The European Fisheries Commissioner has proposed the closure of 20% of the dangerously depleted cod grounds in the North Sea, Irish Sea and off the west of Scotland for part of 2005. The Commissioner claims that "tough measures" are needed to restore endangered stocks and keep the Scots fleet in business. In recent years, the EU has enforced the closure of cod grounds in the spawning season, but senior commission officials said fish mortality was now so acute that dramatic measures were needed. The main areas affected, to the north-east of Scotland, are those richest in cod and most frequently fished. But fishermen and their leaders say that the figures on which the proposals are made were out of date and that there is no case for closure. They say that measures already taken in the last few years have actually allowed stocks to increase. As they stand, the closures would be an economic disaster for the Scottish fishing fleet. Ross Finnie, the Scottish Executive Minister for Environment & Rural Development says that he is totally opposed to the European Fisheries Commission proposals. In the usual way of European Commission working, the draconian plans will be watered down during negotiation but nevertheless the outlook for the Scottish fishing industry is grim.
Bid to Improve Air Quality
Glasgow's air quality falls far short of Government targets. Research shows air quality in Glasgow is among the worst in the UK, with Union Street, Renfield Street, Hope Street, Gordon Street and George Square among the city's worst. Now the local city council is targeting the reduction of traffic emissions by keeping cars away from the city centre. Glasgow already has quite a number of streets which have been pedestrianised - but that has the effect of channeling vehicles along the other streets, raising pollution there. Even so, the council is planning to extend the traffic free zones and increasing the number of illuminated signs showing the number of spaces currently available in the multi-storey car parks to encourage drivers to go to car parks, instead of driving round looking for a space in the streets. Further bus lanes will be introduced - though it is perhaps debatable whether speeding up the smelly diesel buses and slowing the private cars by giving them fewer lanes will be beneficial.
Threat to Lossiemouth Air Base Recedes
The threat to close the Royal Air Force fighter base at Lossiemouth in Moray receded this week when the Ministry of Defence confirmed that it expects RAF aircraft to remain at Lossiemouth in Moray for the next 14 years. The base is currently home to three operational squadrons of Tornado GR4s. No similar assurances have been given about the future of RAF Kinloss, a few miles away from Lossiemouth, which is home to maritime reconnaissance and early warning aircraft.
Subsidy Needed for Forth Ferry
A study by transport consultants into the feasibility of a ferry service from Fife across the Firth of Forth to Leith, with bus connections into Edinburgh, says it could cut journey times significantly. Crossing the estuary could be as little as eight minutes. And reduce traffic congestion on the Forth road bridge, where commuters can face long delays, could be alleviated. But Stagecoach, the Perth-based transport company which has been developing the idea, says that it would need a £1.5 million subsidy over the first three years to get the service off the ground. The cheapest option would be a high-speed catamaran, with a capacity for 250 passengers, running between Burntisland in Fife and Leith. This would need around 600,000 passengers a year to break even and would charge £3.80 for a single journey. Discussions are continuing.
Stagecoach Cheers City
The giant Perth-based transport group Stagecoach cheered the stock market and its shareholders this week with the announcement of pre-tax profits up by £12.4 million to £57.2 million for the first six months of its financial year. Stagecoach runs 7,000 buses across Britain and 25% of the rail network. Over the years has invested abroad - with mixed results. There was a near disaster with the acquisition of Coach USA in 1999. After selling off some of those services, profit margins in the US have improved this year, though the lower value of the dollar meant that, translated into sterling terms, in sterling value terms profits were down from the US subsidiary.
IBM Deal Threatens Scottish Jobs
The sale of IBM's PC-making division to a Chinese company has cast doubt over the future of 600 people employed at the IBM factory at Spango Valley near Greenock. The deal will create the world's third largest PC maker (after Dell and Hewlett-Packard) and 10,000 staff world-wide will now work for the Chinese computer company Lenovo. Last year, IBM PC making at Greenock was sub-contracted by IBM to another US company, Sanmina, who took over the 643 workers and operate under a three-year contract with IBM worth £2.6 billion. Since then, many of the full-time staff have been replaced by temporary workers. IBM continues to employ 2,800 staff at the Scottish plant in service and support roles.
Too Many Bars in Edinburgh
The Lothian and Borders Deputy Chief Constable has claimed this week that the large number of bars in Edinburgh are a contributory factor to the growing number of arrests of people being drunk and incapable in the Capital over the last five years. He pointed out that Edinburgh has twice as many pubs per head of population than Glasgow (which will come as a surprise to many Glaswegians). He says that Edinburgh has become a popular destination for "stag" and "hen" nights or even weekends, as prospective grooms and brides celebrate their last nights of "freedom" before tying the knot. The drinking culture has certainly changed over the years and "binge" drinking is a major issue. The number of actual arrests for being "drunk and incapable" has increased from 57 in 1999 to 257 last year, though it is hard to work out whether this is due to more alcohol being consumed or the police cracking down on noisy revellers who are causing a nuisance and alarm to others.
Castles Under Siege
Estate agents who organise the leasing of castles and mansions are reporting a surge in festive tourism with revellers prepared to spend thousands of pounds to enjoy Christmas and/or New Year in a Scottish castle. The cost of a romantic celebration in a baronial home can be as cost effective as booking into a hotel, if sufficient numbers of guests split the cost of the rent. And where else would you get the ambience of a stunning ancient Scottish castle, set in magnificent scenery of mountains, moors and forests? For example, a family from Singapore has booked Dalcross Castle, Inverness, for £4,500 for Christmas week where they will be joined by friends from New York. But many of those besieging Scottish castles during the festive season are from England. Just like old times...
Not So Bonnie Banks
John Muir, who developed the idea of national parks for conservation in the USA, was born in Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland in 1838. But it was not until 2002 that Scotland first created its own national park. It covers 720 square miles and takes in Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine and the Trossachs area of scenic beauty. The park stretches from Crianlarich in the north to Dunoon in the south. The park authority is responsible for conservation and economic development. Many locals are now voicing concerns that it appears to be more concerned with promoting commercial developments than preserving the solitude of the area. Since it came into existence, it has approved new hotels, a golf course, time-share chalets, and other developments along what that famous song calls the "Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond". It has done nothing to resolve the problems it inherited of noisy high-powered craft on Loch Lomond - there are currently 686 jet-skis and 1896 speedboats registered on the loch. And now the Lake District national park, which introduced 10mph speed limits on the noisy jet-skis to cut down on noise and wash, is advising owners to go to Loch Lomond as an alternative if they want to travel faster - the limit on Loch Lomond is 50mph - and there is little effort expended enforcing even that restriction.
New Aberdeen to Oslo Air Route
A new air route from Aberdeen International Airport to Gardermoen Airport in Oslo was announced this week. The new City Star Airlines service will begin on the January 17, 2005 and is being aided by the Scottish Executive's Route Development Fund which provides assistance to new direct air services in their early years as they build up traffic. Aberdeen has strong links with Norway as a result of the North Sea oil industry and both countries will be hoping to see an increase in tourism traffic. The City Star Airlines service will operate twice a day, with a Dornier 328-110 turboprop aircraft. The Route Development Fund has so far triggered 17 new air links between Scotland and overseas destinations ranging from Prague to Pisa and Dubai.
Glasgow Airport Soaring
For some years, Edinburgh Airport has been growing at a faster rate than the air terminal at Glasgow. Although traffic at the capital's Turnhouse airport is still lower than that of Glasgow, it has been catching up fast. But for the last three months the number of passengers at Glasgow has been soaring ahead of Edinburgh. In November, Glasgow grew by an impressive 5.6% compared with last year while Edinburgh had a healthy rise of 4.5%. Overall, the seven UK airports operated by the British Airports Authority grew by 3% in November, so the Scottish operations have been highly successful. In the last twelve months Glasgow has handled 8.5 million passengers and Edinburgh 7.9 million. Traditionally, business at Glasgow has slowed down in the winter after the busy summer months of holiday traffic. New international services, including destinations such as Dubai and Canada and the expansion of Scotland's biggest home-grown airline, Flyglobespan, has kept up the momentum. It is being rumoured that US airline Continental is to increase the frequency of its flights to New York, though as it uses both Edinburgh and Glasgow, both may benefit from that.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Campaigners have fought since the opening of the Skye road bridge in 1995 to have the tolls on the crossing removed. The bridge has helped economic development and tourism and Skye is one of the handful of areas of the Highlands where the population is increasing. But the bridge was built under a private finance arrangement and this, combined with a relatively low level of traffic, has produced one of the highest bridge toll charges in Europe. One of the conditions imposed by the Liberal Democrats in agreeing to a coalition government in the Scottish Parliament was the removal of the toll on the Skye bridge by buying out the owners. The hope is that a deal will be concluded by the end of the year. Of course, the removal of tolls on the Skye bridge then turns the spotlight on other bridge tolls. Politicians in Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire, linked by the Erskine Bridge, have also fought for years to have charges removed there. This bridge over the lower Clyde estuary carries 8.2 million vehicles a year (22,500 a day) compared with the 665,000 (1,800 a day) using the Skye crossing. Although the charges on the Erskine Bridge are lower, the extra traffic means that the tolls generate a far higher income. Meantime, charges on the Forth road bridge (22 million vehicles a year) are likely to rise next year.
Orkney Builds First Community Wind Turbine
There is a new landmark on Orkney's skyline - an 850kW wind turbine standing on top of a 44 metre tower at Northfield, Burray. The wind generator has been fully funded by a consortium of Orkney residents who aim to re-invest the profit the machine generates into similar developments elsewhere in the country. The Scottish Executive supports these small scale projects but the development has been masterminded and financed by a group of independent people from the local community, investing their own resources and expertise, with no loans or grants from the public sector or banks. The group had hoped that Orkney Islands Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise would share equity in the £750,000 project. Both failed to do so in the end, mainly because it is expected to make a profit! The turbine (from Campbeltown-based Vestas-Celtic Wind Technology) can supply power to around 440 homes.
Hogmanay Celebrations Around Scotland
Bringing in the New Year will not be confined to the major celebrations in Edinburgh and Glasgow which get media attention and TV coverage. Aberdeen's Hogmanay Street Party boasts a star studded line up, including Deacon Blue, Hue and Cry and David Sneddon. . This year's party at Stirling Castle is headlined by Lulu who is supported by the Jimi McRae Band and the Royal Burgh of Stirling Pipe Band. The legendary Stonehaven Fireball Festival results in local people celebrating the arrival of the New Year by lighting wire casks filled with paraffin, and then swinging them around as they walk up and down the old town High Street. In the Scottish Borders "The Land, The Light, The Locals" runs from 28th December 2004 - 2nd January 2005 and sees over 100 musicians and performers from all over the Borders, in sessions, concerts and ceilidhs.
A New Day
Previously in this Newsletter I have written about a couple of CDs I have enjoyed by Christopher Dean (who has Scottish roots but lives in Southern California). Chris recently told me about a new a compilation album produced in honour of a friend, Tom Boyer. Tom (a guitarist and recording artist) was diagnosed with throat cancer in September. The net proceeds from the sale of the album are being donated to the San Diego Children's Hospital, Oncology. The CD contains tracks by Tom Boyer's friends, who, for the most part, are touring artists who live in the San Diego area. Some of his friends on the album are internationally recognized guitarists such as Brian Baynes (featuring Albert Lee), Doyle Dykes, Pat Kirtley and Edgar Cruz. A number of the tracks have a Celtic flavour, including Amazing Grace and the Skye Boat Song. Chris' sensitive, tranquil, solo acoustic guitar playing is also featured. "Cop Out" is the first track on the CD and is a particularly jaunty guitar piece by Tom Boyer himself - I had to smile all the way through - and "Just Be Glad" is another inspired track. I think I can see from these pieces why the artists all wanted to contribute. If you want to buy a copy of the CD "A New Day" and help the kids suffering from cancer in San Diego, go to www.cairneyhill.com/cds.htm But you'll need to be quick - 300 of the limited edition of 1,000 CDs have already been sold.
St Andrew's Day in Buenos Aires
Although the celebration of Scotland's patron saint on 30 November is being celebrated a bit more in Scotland these days, it is the Scottish communities around the world who gather in greater numbers to celebrate St Andrew's Day. This is certainly true of the Buenos Aires Scottish Club who joined with the Harrods Gath & Chaves Club to organise the biggest St. Andrew's Day celebration in Argentina, attended by 700 guests. They were entertained by 110 performers including pipers, Highland dancers, singers, recitations and toasts to both Scotland and Argentina. Massed bands playing "Flower of Scotland" brought a lump to many a throat. The centenary of the Scottish Antarctic Expedition of the "Scotia" led by Dr. William Bruce that gave origin to the observatory at "Laurie" island, was also remembered. Ballroom dancing continued until the wee small hours, when everybody joined hands to sing "Auld Lang Syne."
Grousing About the Grouse Season
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association has reported that most Highland estates have had a disastrous grouse season this year due to a combination of low numbers of birds and lengthy spells of wet weather. Many have had to cancel shoots, with a considerable loss of income. Wet weather during the breeding season meant that the number of chicks surviving was cut back as the mother grouse cannot cover all her offspring and so they suffer from hypothermia. However, one Braemar estate bagged an amazing 1,250 brace of birds, beating a record set in 1922. The put their success down to a combination of luck and by controlling predators.
Flushed With Success
The overall winner of the annual "Loo of the Year" awards, announced this week at a gala dinner in Birmingham, was Highland Council. For those of you not familiar with the term "loo" it is a word used to describe a toilet (or "rest room" in some parts of the world). The competition is open to any public loo and Highland Council also won the category for local authority "public conveniences". Also flushed with success was Henger's Circus, a JD Wetherspoon bar on Glasgow who won the award for best pub toilets in Scotland, while Ullapool High School won the secondary school category. The annual Loo of the Year Awards competition has helped focus the spotlight on 'away from home' toilets throughout the UK since 1987 to encourage the highest possible standards.
Comfort Zone for Harassed Men
It couldn't have come at a better time of year. It is well known that many men hate going shopping with their wives and girlfriends, especially as Christmas approaches. So it is surprising that the retail store Marks and Spencers (M&S) is only the first to offer a "crèche" in their Edinburgh Princes Street and Aberdeen stores in which their female shoppers can park their male companions while they get on with the serious business of spending money in the store. M&S are certainly living up to their "Marks and Sparkle" advertising slogan by providing the abandoned males with armchairs, a TV, books, remote controlled cars and a tiny track with electric racing cars whizzing round. Drinks and snacks can be bought - but there's no beer or alcohol. Providing the facilities will, of course, help to increase sales, as the ladies will no longer be distracted by the sighs and moans from their spouses and boyfriends. I hope the idea catches on...
Trumpeting a Scottish Sporting Triumph
By rights, this item should be in the "Sports" section of this Newsletter, but Scotland wins so few sporting World Cups that it seemed appropriate to include it here in case some readers missed it. With the football team now 77th in the world and the rugby team thrashed soundly by both Australia and South Africa, it was understandable that the press here should trumpet about the Scotland team winning the "Tiger Tops Challenge Trophy" - on St Andrews Day no less - in Nepal. For those unfamiliar with this World Championship, it is for - wait for it - elephant polo.... The tournament began 23 years ago and the Scottish team has been sponsored by Scotch whisky brand Chivas Regal since 1997. The Scottish team last won the trophy in 2001, so being champions at elephant polo is nothing new. It's not that there is a youth development programme for elephant polo players in Scotland and the team can't really practice much as there are no polo playing elephants in Scotland. So the elephants are "driven" (if that's the right word) by local mahouts (drivers) and the players just whack the ball when they get within range. Registered as an Olympic sport with the Nepal Olympic Committee, elephant polo was invented by Scotsman James Manclark and Briton Jim Edwards in 1983. Eight teams, including those from places such as Hong Kong, Thailand, India and the UK competed in the week-long tournament. Scotland broke the elephant's backs of the National Parks of Nepal team by thundering to a 12-6 win in the final game to win the trophy. Now, where is our international tiddly-winks team playing their next match?
Weather in Scotland This Week
In a mild winter (so far) such as this one, it is hard to realise that temperatures this week were around 9/11C (48/52C) and reached 12/13C (54/55F) in a couple of locations. Having spent two weeks many years ago in Inverness in summertime when the temperatures did not rise above 12C, I find having similar temperatures in December surprising. Of course, there was little sunshine around - Wednesday was the one dat this week when there was a wintry sun for any length of time. However, rainfall was mainly light, so it was just leaden skies we had to contend with. The outlook over the next few days is for the weather to continue in this vein.
This week's illustrations of current flora and fauna in Scotland shows first of all some Greylag Geese on Hogganfield Loch in Glasgow. There were 100/200 of these large birds passing through earlier this week, though there are usually some feeding on the loch long enough to learn that humans will often provide bread for them to eat!
The first illustration below is of the lovely markings of a female Mallard - one of the commonest of British wild duck. The smaller Gadwall is a much rarer dabbling duck. This one was on its own in Drumpellier Country Park and could easily be missed amongst all the Mallards.
Finally, just to show that the sun did actually appear this week, there is an illustration of the setting sun at Drumpellier - with some of the ducks sailing past