Snow Causes the Usual Chaos
Some parts of the world seem to cope with heavy falls of snow amounting to several feet. But when snow of around six inches fell overnight in central Scotland on Monday night, it brought the usual spate of blocked roads, traffic accidents and disruption to rail services. Two lorries jack-knifed on the M74 motorway which links Scotland with England in the west, and there were also problems for motorists on the M8 motorway between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Certainly, Fife had up to ten inches of wet snow and high winds (gusts of up to 70mph in exposed places) that night caused drifting. Council staff in East Kilbride in South Lanarkshire, which is quite elevated, found that they had to return to roads already cleared as more snow kept falling there during Tuesday. Schools closed in the Western Isles and high winds and wintry conditions caused the cancellation of P&O ferries between Cairnryan and Larne in Northern Ireland. The snow did not lie for long in most areas, however, as it soon melted in rising temperatures and rain began to fall instead of snow.
Unemployment in Scotland Lowest for 30 Years
The number of people claiming unemployment benefit (now called jobseekers' allowance) dropped by 1100 in December to 87,900, its lowest level since June 1975 and a decrease of 10,000 over the last 12 months. On this measure, the unemployment rate is running at 3.3 per cent, down by 0.4 per cent over the year. Employment rose by 9000 to 2.446 million, the highest since records began in 1992 and 188,000 more than in 1997 (when Tony Blair and his government took charge). Average earnings in the UK rose by 4.5% last November, which means that they are hovering on the brink of pushing inflation above the government's 2% target.
Scottish Retail Sales Healthier Than UK
The official figures from the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) were published this week and, as predicted, although Scottish consumer spending slowed in December, it was far less drastic than in the rest of the UK, where retailers had their "worst Christmas for ten years". The SRC data show that in Scotland like-for-like sales growth - the traditional measure of retail performance - dipped from 3.6% in November to 1.5% in December. But that compares favourably with the UK-wide figures released by the British Retail Consortium earlier in the month. These showed year-on-year falls of 0.2 per cent in November and 0.4 per cent in December - the fastest annual rate of negative growth in more than two years. Total sales growth (which includes new or expanded stores) in Scotland dropped from 6.7% in November to "a healthy" 5.1% in December. UK-wide figures were 2.4% and 2.5% higher in November and December respectively.
What Teenage Edinburghers Really Want
Over 5,700 people aged 11 to 21 took part in a poll conducted by Mori Scotland and Edinburgh City Council’s Youth Services. It gave the youngsters the opportunity to express their views on issues ranging from crime and politics to health and diet. The main issues raised were cheaper bus travel, more leisure facilities such as skateparks, more work experience and a say in planning issues. 66% of those who took part supported a total ban on smoking in public places (which will be implemented next year) and 50% wanted the voting age lowered to 16. A panel of the teenagers will attend a full meeting of Edinburgh City Council to lobby the councillors on the items they want to see improved.
Brightening Gloomy Scottish Parliament
No. not the glum faces of Members of the Scottish Parliament (though a bit more humour and realism might not go amiss). It's that dull, dark entrance foyer to the £431 million building. Designed to look a bit like a castle vault, the architects have overdone it a bit and the gray concrete ceiling and lack of lighting makes it look more like the dungeons than an entrance hall. The foyer includes displays and information boards and creates a poor first impression in an otherwise light and airy building. It has been suggested that it's the dull Scottish winters that are to blame and that if the building was in Spain (it was designed by the Spanish architect, the late Enric Miralles) the lighting would have been adequate. 150,000 people have visited the new building since it opened to the public last September.
Scotland Looks to Dominions for Dominies
The Scottish Executive has launched a campaign to recruit teachers from New Zealand, Canada and Australia in an effort to meet a target of 53,000 staff needed by 2007 to permit schools to reach the reduced class sizes which are part of their policy for improving education. Between 2002 and 2003, numbers of primary, secondary and special-school teachers fell by 818 to 49,230. After adding in those in the pre-school sector, the total number of teachers in Scoland fell by 730 to 50,963. 11% of teachers (known as "dominies" in the old days) are over 55 and will be due to retire at 60 at the latest. The recruitment drive is aimed particularly at primary one, mathematics and English teachers.
University Student Numbers Soar
The number of students attending universities in Scotland has soared by nearly 5,000 in the last year, according to data released this week by the Higher Education Statistics Authority. Overall, the numbers in Scottish higher education grew by 4% to 205,155, with 85,700 students starting last year. 58.8% of the first-year students were women, as they continue to outnumber men, while the percentage of foreign students starting courses also rose.
Strike Shuts Underground Service
Glasgow's underground train service closed down on Thursday as members of the Transport and General Workers Union walked out at the refusal of Starthclyde Passenger Transport Executive to improve the pay offer on the table. Thousands of other City of Glasgow Council workers have accepted the deal which is worth 5.9% over two years. 186 subway drivers, ticket collectors and station staff have agreed to hold more stoppages in support of their claim.
Famine to Feast for Top Glasgow Hotel
One Devonshire Gardens is a luxury hotel frequented by celebrities such as Britney Spears and George Clooney as well as less-well-known businessmen. However, 30 months ago the holding company to which it belonged, Residence International, got into financial difficulties and had to call in the receivers. Nevertheless, the company had a first class reputation and continued to trade and the properties were taken over as going concerns. One Devonshire Gardens was bought by Citrus Hotels in August 2002 and the 35-bedroom establishment underwent a £2 million refurbishment. Revenues have now increased by 25% on the back of increased occupancy rates and the operation is now back in profit. Travel guide publisher Conde Nast Johansens naming One Devonshire as the most excellent hotel in Britain and Ireland has obviously helped.
2,400 Questions on Scotland
How well do you know Scotland and the Scots? The 1745 Trading Company recently launched the "Scottish Quest" board game which includes 2,400 questions on Scotland, split into 4 different topics: History, Nature, Modern and Culture. The board shows a map of Scotland and the aim of the game is to travel the length and breadth of Scotland, answering multiple-choice questions and collecting letters for bonus points. As in Monopoly, you have to pay for things as you travel round, such as flights between destinations, the chance to gain a letter or as a forfeit if you pick a forfeit chance card. So there's a bit of tactics involved as well as answering questions (and learning as you go along, of course). In some cases, the answers are embellished with additional information. For example, in reponse to the question "Which playing card is known as the curse of Scotland?" the legend that the massacre of Glencoe in 1692 was written on the nine of diamonds playing card is given in addition to the answer. Some of that could give rise to some arguments amongst the players though, as there is more than one theory on the origins of that name for the nine of diamonds! At £40, the game is not cheap but it does ooze quality. See www.scottishquest.com/ for more information.
Scotland Shaken, Not Stirred, by Earthquake
It always comes as a surprise to most people (including those living in Scotland) that the UK can be subject to earthquakes. Of course, tremors are not on the scale of many other parts of the world, but this week the biggest tremor in Perthshire since 1991 occured north-west of Killin. Some householders called the police when they heard a loud bang, but it was subsequently confirmed by the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh that there had been an earthquake measuring 2.7 on the Richter scale. No damage was caused. The strongest earthquake in the UK struck in the North Sea in June 1931, registering 6.1 on the Richter scale. The last earhquake in the UK which caused heavy structural damage took place in Derby in England on February 11 1957, hitting 5.3 on the scale.
Approval for Captive Otters at Loch Lomond
Despite opposition from animal rights activists, the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Autority has confirmed approval for the creation of of an otter enclosure on the balcony of Drumkinnon Tower at Loch Lomond Shores visitor centre. That is the first stage in the creation of an aquarium at the tower. Activists argue that the "mini zoo" is unnecessary and tacky. There is also the danger to the environment if non-native otters escape into the wild. Environmentalists argue that it would be better to instal CCTV cameras and hides to allow visitors to watch the varied wildlife in their natural surroundings. Drumkinnon Tower, which opened in 2002, often very busy (despite an entrance fee now being charged), it can be almost deserted outside of the main tourist season. As a result, it has not been a financial success and Scottish Enterprise Dunbartonshire are looking for a new operator to make the operation more viable.
Instant Success of Porridge
For centuries, porridge was a traditional staple of the Scottish diet, but by the 1970s it had fallen out of favour as working men and women looked for a faster way of starting the day. All those pots to clean didn't help either. In recent years, however, that winter warmer has enjoyed a new lease of life - thanks to the convenience of microwave varieties such as Oatso Simple. Despite its corny name (or should that be oatie name?) "instant porridge" has become a roaring success and according to statistics published by the "Grocer" magazine, porridge is now challenging the brand leader (Weetabix) for top spot amongst breakfast cereals. Ready to eat in just two minutes, it comes without the traditions and myths which used to surround porridge making and eating. Gone are wooden spurtles (stirring spoons), stirring only clockwise and, unless you are really in a hurry, there is no need to feel guilty about ignoring the tradition of eating it standing up. Of course, the single portion, instant varieties no longer continue the days of cold porridge in a drawer, available to be cut up and taken onto the hills - thank goodness... However, some enthusiasts for the original porridge point out that 100 grammes of leading brands of the instant variety are seven times more expensive than simple porridge oats and water.
Something Fishy Promoted in the Norwegian Army
In 1971, when the Norwegian King’s Guard performed at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, some of the soldiers were so impressed by the military bearing of the king penguins at Edinburgh Zoo that they decided to adopt one as their mascot. It was named Nils Olav - a combination of Nils Egelein, one of their lieutenants and the then-king of Norway, King Olav. Nils Olav was originally appointed as a Lance Corporal, but has been promoted every time the soldiers make a visit to Edinburgh. He is now an Honourable Regimental Sergeant Major and will receive another promotion from officers when they visit the Capital to perform at the Military Tattoo in August. Details of his latest honour are being kept a military secret until the ceremony. The event will form part of year-long celebrations in Edinburgh to mark the 100th anniversary of Norwegian independence. A Christmas tree from Norway is donated to the Capital every year as part of Edinburgh’s festive decorations and concerts, exhibitions, films, sporting events and traditional music will also mark Norway’s peaceful separation from Sweden in 1905. Scotland has had close links with Norway for centuries - in 1266, King Magnus of Norway surrendered the Western Isles to the Scottish Crown.
Curry Flavoured Haggis?
Supermarket chain Sainsbury's has revealed that this month it will be selling 200,000 of Scotland's traditional delicacy, the haggis. However, while many will be consumed at Burns Suppers across Scotland, nearly two-thirds of them will be sold in England. The supermarket says that people of all nationalities love the ceremony of piping in the haggis and a night of Burns before consuming a traditional meal. Sainsbury's credentials for supporting Scottish culture took a dip, however, when it admitted that one of its fastest-growing varieties is a curry-flavoured, hot and spicy version, catering for the British love of Indian food. Even the humble oatcake is getting a makeover these days. Walkers Shortbread of Aberdeen has unveiled a version with sun-dried tomato and herbs. This oat cuisine is pandering to a taste for Mediterranean flavours.
Concern at Early Spring
Despite the fall of snow this week, there have reports from various parts of Scotland that many plants are already well ahead of schedule and in some cases bursting into flower several weeks ahead of the norm. There are reports of primroses and honeysuckle in bloom and at the national collection of daffodils at Brodie Castle in Moray, blooms have made an early appearance. Hazel buds are bursting out in the west of Scotland and bats have left their usual hibernating places and returned early to summer roosts. One of the main reasons has been the relatively mild winter with night minimum temperatures in particular well above average, producing fewer nights of hard frost. But although some parts of nature are responding to the higher average temperature, sometimes their food sources such as insects are not necessarily following suit, causing problems for example to early nesting birds.
The illustration is of a rhododendron, flowering in Edinburgh Botanic Gardens earlier this week.
The BBC has undertaken a project to record - and make available on the Web - many of the varied accents and vocabulary which can be found in the different parts of the UK. There are examples of voices and language from nine different parts of Scotland, showing the wide diversity in such a relatively small area. And you can test your ability to recognise recognise accents and languages from across the British Isles in an interactive game or complete a survey about the use of different words in various parts of Scotland. And of course, if you just want to hear a Scottish voice and have got tired of Sean Connery (!) you can just sit back and listen. See (and hear) www.bbc.co.uk/voices/wil/.
Weather in Scotland This Week
The week began with relatively mild temperatures last weekend, reaching around 9/11C (48/52F) but soon fell again, producing the overnight snow on Monday night reported earlier in this newsletter. Maximum temperatures on Tuesday only reached 3/5C (37/41F) but rose again soon afterwards - only to fall back again by the end of the week. Cloudy skies and rain predominated for much of the week (Glasgow had rain and snow amounting to 1.7 inches over Monday to Thursday) but there was a fair amount of wintry sunshine on Friday and Saturday.
This week's graphics illustrating Scotland's current weather shows first of all the snowfall on Tuesday. Then the pictures below show a Daphne Bholua Gurkha and a Hammamelis Mollis flowering in Edinburgh Botanic Gardens earlier this week. The last picture shows a swan at sailing serenely on the loch at Drumpellier Country Park, lit by a low winter sun on Friday.