On Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed the worst-kept "secret" in British politics - that May 5th (or 05.05.05 expressed digitally!) is to be the date of the next general election for the UK parliament. This time, there will be 59 Members of Parliament elected in Scotland, the numbers having been reduced to more closely match the number of eligible voters. In June 2001 there were 72 seats being contested. In that election, Labour won 56 out of these and the Liberal Democrats again won 10 seats with the Scottish Nationalists winning 5 and the Conservatives winning one. While political commentators and the media are wallowing in the election campaigns, many of the voters are already hunkering down behind the sofa as election material and phone calls rain down on them - you will no doubt know the feeling wherever in the world you live. It will be important, however, for the turnout on election day to be a better than last time, when apathy was the biggest winner. Maybe if there was a box on the ballot paper which read "None of the above" there would be larger numbers voting?
UK Petrol Prices Hit Record High
When UK petrol prices hit 85.3p a litre in 2000, truck drivers organised blockades at oil terminals in protest at government plans to raise taxes on fuel - already the highest in Europe. This week prices soared again and reached a record high of 85.6p a litre and are likely to reach 90p a litre in the near future as world oil prices go even higher by the summer. If my arithmetic is correct 90p a litre is equivalent to US$6.56 per US gallon. Of course, the present exchange rate exaggerates the figures a bit... On the other hand, due to transport costs and lower turnover, prices in parts of the north of Scotland have already reached 90p a litre. Around 75% of the cost of petrol in the UK is government tax.
Norwegian Treaty Opens North Sea Opportunities
A treaty between Norway and the UK signed this week will open the door to oil and gas opportunities valued at over £1 billion and helps to secure Britain's supply of gas for years to come. Oil companies in both the UK and Norway will be able to develop cross-border oil and gas deals much more quickly than in the past. The bulk of the boundary between the UK and Norway runs between Scotland and Scandinavia and will be of importance to the oil industry based in Aberdeen and Shetland.
Traffic Disruption on Forth Road Bridge
Another major programme of roadworks on the bridge across the river Forth between Edinburgh and Fife this year will see a contraflow system in operation over several weekends and the bridge closed completely on five separate nights mid-week. The £10 million project involves painting the south tower, cable monitoring and the installation of new electronic payment barriers. However, no work will be carried out during the busy tourist season from the end of June to the end of August.
Holyrood Opening Ceremony Online
Some Newsletter readers may be interested in seeing the video recording of the opening ceremony of the new Scottish Parliament building last October. It is now online at the Scottish Parliament Web site at www.holyrood.tv. It is divided up into a number of sections, so you can view those elements which are of interest to you. The procession down the Royal Mile to Holyrood, the speeches, performances from Eddi Reader and young violinist Nicola Benedetti, as well as Liz Lochhead's reading of Edwin Morgan's poem are all freely available for viewing.
"King Robert the Bruce" rode up the High Street in Arbroath to the town's abbey on 6 April as the town celebrated with a pageant the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath 685 years ago. The document is regarded as the founding document of the Scottish nation. Perhaps understandably, the Scottish media paid more attention to the somewhat larger celebration of Tartan Day in New York last Saturday, with the pipes and drums marching down 6th Avenue. But it was the appearance of William Wallace's sword in Grand Central Station which seems to have caught the attention of the US media. After all, it's not every day that a weapon that predates the founding of the United States by many hundreds of years gets displayed in America's busiest train station - accompanied by the sound of bagpipes. Newsletter reader Graeme J.W.Smith was kindly sent an article and photos of his impressions of Tartan Day in New York and that can be seen at New York Tartan Day 2005.
Isle of Bute Snub to Royals
The 18 members of Bute Community Council have resolved unanimously not to invite Camilla Parker Bowles to the island after her marriage to the Prince of Wales (who is also the Duke of Rothesay). She becomes Duchess of Rothesay after her marriage - though many on the council are unhappy with that. However, the newly-weds could still get an invitation to visit the island - the Bute Agricultural Society will invite Prince Charles to open next year's summer show as part of the society's 200th anniversary celebrations.
Memorial to Queen Mother
On a recent visit to Glasgow, the Prince of Wales (or "Duke of Rothesay" in Scotland) unveiled a memorial to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who passed away in 2002 at the age of 101. Knowing her love of flowers, the city decided to place the memorial inside the newly refurbished west wing of the greenhouses at the Botanic Gardens at Kelvingrove. In addition to a plaque unveiled by the Prince, there are ten white blocks, each inscribed with a couplet of a poem written by a local artist. Prince Charles remarked that his late grandmother had helped to stir his interest in plants and flowers.
Edinburgh Defends Tram Cars
For many years, Edinburgh City Council has been promoting the idea of bringing back tram cars to the streets of the capital. These would be modern vehicles although powered by electricity supplied via fixed overhead wires like those which proved to be inflexible and were abandoned 50 years ago. Other cities in the UK have implemented similar schemes and this week the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a scathing report on these. The report pointed to escalating costs (phase 3 of the Manchester Metrolink project has rocketed from an estimate of £282 million in 2000 to £900 million in 2004) and passenger numbers have been well short of forecasts. However, the Scottish Executive have allocated £375 million to the Edinburgh scheme but the city council still has to find another £98 million to finance the estimated costs of implementing the new lines in the city centre and out to Edinburgh airport. A spur to the east of the city has had to be scrapped as it was to have been subsidised by the congestion charging scheme - which Edinburgh citizens recently voted against. The council argue that their project will be fully integrated with the existing bus network and will link up with the major train stations at Waverley and Haymarket.
Reddish Square Unveiled
There was an outcry in 1998 when the City of Glasgow Council resurfaced George Square, the city's central open space, with a red tarmac, in a revolution that removed the previous areas of grass and flowers. The £200,000 move was designed to allow events to be staged in the area and indeed the city has earned increased income from hiring out the space to a variety of entertainments and exhibitions. Now, after another facelift (£450,000 this time), the new surface has been unveiled and it's - red. Maybe not the bright red of before, but still red. And, unlike the first paint job, the Council was supposed to have "consulted widely" this time. Tax payers are still wondering who voted for a continuation of that red... At least the new surface has 1,000 tonnes of a specialised material over its 8,500 square metre area which is supposed to be resistant to chewing gum (now there's a challenge for all the gum chewers). And there are sewage and electrical points hidden under covers so noisy diesel generators and "Portaloos" (portable toilets) will no longer be required by event organisers. There is even an area of grass and flowers - albeit pushed to one end - and the lighting has been upgraded (so that it can be made brighter when the bars empty at closing time, amongst other benefits). There are also plans to build a new continental-style cafe in one corner of the civic square.
First ScotRail Cut Delays
For the first time since it took over the franchise to operate the train routes in most of Scotland six months ago, First Scotrail have been able to boast that they have cut delays in train arrival times. Punctuality figures slumped initially, but in March this year they managed to improve on the same month a year ago. True, 13.5% of the trains were still late, but that was an improvement on last year. 93.4% of the trains on the flagship Edinburgh to Glasgow line were within ten minutes of schedule in March. The company expects to improve punctuality in June - by introducing a new timetable which will lengthen journey times on some routes. If they overdo it, the trains will be arriving too early....
40,000 Commuters Hit as Subway Closes
Staff operating the underground train service in Glasgow walked out on a 24-hour strike after a last-minute pay offer failed to satisfy them. That left 40,000 commuters having to find alternative means of transport The staff clearly expected the talks to fail as they distributed leaflets explaining their position to disgruntled travellers who turned up at the subway stations across the city. The deal being offered was a 7.9% pay rise with an extra 1.5% once new holiday rotas are introduced - it is this latter element to which staff are objecting. The staff's trade union has threatened further strikes in coming weeks, including closing the subway for up to four days at a time, if an improved offer is not forthcoming.
Weather Torpedoes Warship Launch
BAE Systems had to postpone the launch of its latest warship from the Govan yard on the river Clyde on Friday. HMS "Cardigan Bay" - a 176-metre long landing ship dock, capable of carrying 500 troops and 32 Challenger tanks - is designed to move troops and supplies in support of amphibious landings. But the launch had to be postponed as strong northerly winds meant that the tide was not high enough for the launch. An estimated 8,000 people had travelled to the shipyard for the event. The naming ceremony went ahead, although the ship remained on the slipway and did not reach the water until the following day.
Sultan Rejects Clyde-Built Ships
Three offshore support vessels for the Sultan of Brunei, worth £600 million and built by BAE at Scotstoun, have been lying moored at the yard for some years. The first ship was launched in 2001, but the sultan has refused to accept the vessels, alleging that they fall short of his specifications. It has been suggested that the ships are too sophisticated for the Bruneians who lack the necessary training to operate them properly. They are armed with Exocet and Sea Wolf missiles and were to be used for offshore policing as well as surface and anti-submarine warfare. The case has now been referred to the Court of International Arbitration in Paris but it could be months before a decision is made.
US Weather Blamed for Loss of Income
Energy company Scottish power blamed lower than expected rain and snow in the US last year reducing their PacifiCorp subsidiary's hydro-electric output in the next six months. The division serves around 1.6 million customers, covering an area of about 136,000 square miles in areas including Oregon, Utah, Washington and California. PacifiCorp has been part of Scottish Power since 1999 and the subsidiary is responsible for generating around half of its earnings. However, higher contributions from UK power stations should mean that the company's overall performance this year is unchanged.
"Research Hotel" for Dundee
A planning application has been lodged by Dundee University and Tayside National Health Service for the construction of a new clinical research centre at Ninewells Hospital in the city. Dundee already has a world-class reputation in biomedical research, including advances in keyhole surgery and gene and protein based therapies for the treatment of cancers and these are the areas in which the new unit will concentrate. It is expected that it will attract international clinical academics researching disease prevention, diagnosis and early treatment. The new facility has been described as a "research hotel" where researchers in experimental medicine can book beds or other facilities to conduct their patient-based projects.
Twitchers Flock to Rare Bird
It is always amazing how so many bird enthusiasts can drop everything and race across the country to see a rare bird. The latest attraction was an American Belted Kingfisher which ended up on the river Dee at Peterculter. It had probably been driven off-course by strong winds. Thousands of twitchers have descended on the area with spotting telescopes and digital cameras at the ready, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive bird. On Wednesday it was in full view, flitting up and down a stretch of the river, enjoying the spring sunshine and oblivious to the stir it was causing. Further south, a Hoopoe was seen near Greenock at Loch Thom, feeding on the eastern embankment. This exotic looking bird is the size of a mistle thrush and looks more spectacular than a Belted Kingfisher. But it is not nearly so rare - about 100 of them are spotted each year in the UK, mainly in the south of England, having overshot Europe on their journey from Africa. For a picture of a Hoopoe, see RSPB Hoopoe.
Game Over for VIS
VIS Entertainment, Scotland's biggest computer games company, went into administration this week, resulting in 54 staff losing their jobs. Set up in 1996 to develop games for Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube consoles, its biggest hit was "State of Emergency". Over the last year the company has been concentrating on a second version of this, but had been unable to secure sufficient funding to complete the work. The administrators say that they are in discussion with a number of parties interested in buying the VIS business.
Bird Reserve Opens Floodgates
Bowing to the inevitable of rising sea levels due to global warming, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has decided to deliberately breach the flood defences at their Skinflats reserve on the south bank of the river Forth, west of Edinburgh and Grangemouth. A large part of the 32-acre reserve will then become a salt marsh habitat for birds such as curlew that prefer that sort of environment. A similar project at Nigg Bay on the Cromarty Firth has resulted in a greater variety of bird life returning to the area., along with more specialised mudflat flora. Experts at the conservation group, which is one of the biggest landowners in Scotland, are now looking at other reserves that can move further inland to allow for the loss of the original habitat.
Tourists Can't See the Views for the Trees
Campaigners have called for the felling of trees obscuring the dramatic views from trains travelling beside Loch Lomond and on the Fort William to Mallaig line. They argue that views of the "Arrochar Alps" and around Lochailort, where there were once views to the Inner Hebrides, are all being cut off by vegetation. A survey of passengers on the Fort William line showed that 70% were using the train "because of the scenery". Regular clearance of trees beside the railway lines have been scaled back since the end of regular steam trains 40 years ago while in some areas commercial forestry plantations have sprung up. It is argued that clearing "windows" at key sites is the answer. The illustration shows the single track railway line which stops near Kilchurn Castle in Argyll.
Ospreys Return to Loch of Lowes
The pair of ospreys based at the Loch of Lowes Nature Reserve in Perthshire have delighted tourists and bird watchers by returning once again to lay eggs in their nest. It will take six weeks for the eggs to hatch and during that time an army of volunteers will help staff at the reserve to keep a 24-hour watch on the nest to protect the nest from predators - both human and wild animal. Ospreys have been nesting at Loch of Lowes since 1969 and 58 chicks have been successfully reared since then.
Who Ya Gonna Call? - Noise Busters!
In order to tackle the problem of noisy neighbours, Edinburgh City Council has introduced a team of "Noise Wardens" from the environment health department. These can issue £100 fixed penalty notices if the noise does not stop after a warning notice has been issued. In the first four days of operation, which included a weekend, they were called out to over 100 complaints - most of them between 11pm and 4am. In all cases the noise was turned down, so no fines were issued. The director of environmental and consumer services at Edinburgh City Council, hailed the noise team's first weekend as "very successful".
Weather in Scotland This Week
Edinburgh reached 16C (61F) last Sunday but the milder weather did not last and by Friday maximum daytime temperatures had plunged to 3C (37F) in Aberdeen as a strong northerly wind from the Arctic blew across the country. On Thursday, gales and blizzards caused havoc in the north of Scotland with several roads blocked by drifts and high-sided vehicles were blown over, blocking roads. Scaffolding in Aberdeen was also blown down. Further south, although the wind-chill factor caused it to feel bitterly cold, there were only a few flurries of snow which did not lie. Indeed, although the temperatures fell during the week, there was a fair amount of sunshine - Edinburgh recorded over nine hours on Tuesday and on Friday there was a lot of sunshine as we all shivered in the northerly blast.
This week's illustrations of the current season in Scotland shows first of all blackthorn blossom which will later become sloe berries. Below are first of all the unfortunately named Dog Violet which is much prettier than its name. Then comes Lesser Celandine, a relative of the Buttercup. Finally, there is a Rhododendron growing in the newly refurbished George Square - which a bee has already found is attractive.