Prime Minister Campaigning in Scotland
Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown were in Scotland this week campaigning on behalf of the Labour Party in the first full week of the "real" General Election campaign (as distinct from the "phoney war" which has been on the go for months). The Prime Minister's message was the usual well rehearsed one that Labour are delivering improvements for Scotland. But Alex Salmond, the Scottish national Party leader said he "welcomed" Tony Blair as he sees him as a liability for Labour. Cheekily, he offered Mr Blair cash to continue campaigning in Scotland! The Liberal Democrats postponed the launch of their manifesto after their leader, Charles Kennedy (the Member of Parliament for Ross, Skye & Inverness West) became a father this week for the first time. The Scottish Conservative Party attacked Labour's future taxation plans but got into difficulties with their own proposals. Most analysts are forecasting that taxation will have to rise to match the government's spending plans.
800 Government Staff Jobs to Go
When politicians announce efficiency drives and cost savings within government there are usually nods of approval, particularly from taxpayers. In the run-up to the General Election, however, while saving money may win votes, it is a double-edged sword when the means of achieving the cost reductions is the removal of 800 civil servant jobs. The scale of the cuts forced the Scottish Executive onto the defensive this week, arguing that the money saved would be "used to employ more teachers and police officers." The savings are being made across a range of departments from administration to Scottish Natural Heritage. Reorganisation of the National Health Service could result in significant staff reductions but it was claimed that there would be no compulsory redundancies, with jobs being lost via redeployment and early retirement.
Annual School Pupil Census
The Scottish Executive has published statistics on the number of schools and students, calculated at the start of the current scholastic year last September. The data for primary schools (age 5-11) shows that there were 398,100 pupils, a 2% reduction from 2003. Despite the drop in numbers, the average class size was 23.9, up from 23.7 in the previous year - a statistic seized upon by opposition parties striving to find chinks in the government's performance with a General Election looming. There were 386 secondary schools (age 12-18), the same as in 2003, with 318,065 pupils - a 0.1% decrease from 2003. About 76% of pupils in the third year of secondary education stayed on until fifth year.
Scottish Tourism Leading UK
Last year the number of visitors to Scotland rose by 20% according to figures from the International Passenger Survey. The figures were announced by the Tourism Minister at an Expo trade fair this week in Aberdeen. The numbers in the rest of the UK rose by only 12%, putting the Scottish performance well ahead. It is suggested that the new air and ferry routes were contributing to the enhanced performance. Holidaymakers coming to Scotland from EU and non-EU countries in 2004 were up 13% on the previous year. Many were on short-break visits but the figures show that these are often high spending tourists. Visitor numbers from North America and from other countries to Scotland are also higher. However, it is not all good news for the tourism industry. The flights which bring in visitors from abroad are also taking UK residents to the continent and beyond and as a result the domestic tourism market fell in 2003 by 12%. Figures for 2004 for residents touring in the UK are not yet available.
Scotland's Bard at Next Year's US Tartan Week
The Scottish Executive is reported to be working on plans to transport valuable manuscripts and artefacts to New York and/or Washington for Tartan Week in April 2006. This year, the 700 year-old sword of Sir William Wallace created a stir when it was displayed in Grand Central Station as part of Tartan Week earlier this month. The Burns Society in New York have been asked to support the fund raising efforts for the revamp of the Burns National Heritage Park at the poet's birthplace in Alloway, Ayrshire. The Executive is hoping to make the Heritage Park a centrepiece for its 2009 "Year of the Homecoming" initiative aimed at encouraging those of Scots descent living abroad to make a "pilgrimage" to the land of their ancestors.
Day Trips to St Kilda
The remote, rocky outcrop of St Kilda is 50 miles from the Western Isles, out in the Atlantic Ocean. The spectacular scenery (cliffs rising 600 feet straight up from the sea) and huge seabird colonies of this World Heritage Site have until now only been seen only by a limited number of intrepid travellers. The sea journey by the normal fishing vessel takes 16 hours so an overnight stay in rudimentary accommodation is essential. But now a fisherman from Tarbert on Harris has bought a fast motor launch which will do the journey in two hours and 15 minutes, making "weather permitting" day trips available to those in search of adventure and a unique experience. The launch can carry 12 passengers at a time at a cost of £80. The new service is likely to be popular with bird watchers as the archipelago is home to 6,000 pairs of gannets - the world's largest colony - and 65,000 pairs of fulmars and the eastern Atlantic's largest concentration of nesting Leach's petrels. St Kilda is now administered by the National Trust for Scotland and has no permanent population. See www.kildacruises.co.uk/ for more information.
Photo of St Kilda by kind permission of Colin Palmer at Photonet.
Scottish House Prices Rising Fastest
Although Scotland lagged behind as house prices soared in England over the last few years, they are now rising faster here than anywhere else in the UK. Statistics are sometimes conflicting but a report published this week says that over the past year, prices have gone up by almost 23%. In the three months between January and March this year, they increased by 6%. Average Scottish house prices are now over £100,000 for the first time. Of course, since that covers properties ranging from single room apartments to castles, "average" is not particularly meaningful. Prices vary depending on location and quality but a three-bedroomed detached house in an average area (the kind that many families aspire to) is now likely to sell for over £200,000. Estate agents are forecasting a slow down in house price inflation in the rest of 2005.
Architecture+Design Scotland Begins Work
A new 'champion' for good architecture and design in Scotland was formally launched by the Scottish Executive this week. Architecture+Design Scotland (A+DS) commenced work earlier this month when it took over the independent design review role of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland (RFACS). It has a wide, proactive role in advocating the benefits of good design and architecture to a range of organisations. It aims to inspire excellence in the built environment, encourage high quality public buildings and public places and stimulate and support a demand for better design by clients and the public. Raymond Young, Chair of Architecture +Design Scotland, says that the new organisation wants to encourage and support communities in thinking creatively about the environment where they live, how it is designed and how better quality can be achieved. His first target was Glasgow's famous Sauchiehall Street and he called on developers to make it more attractive. He said it should match the quality of shopping precincts such as Buchanan Street. Historically, both streets competed with one another with high quality shops but only Buchanan Street has maintained its up-market image.
Scottish Hotels Better by Design
A world-wide survey of the best examples of modern international hotel architecture has included two of Scotland's newest hotels. There are only five UK establishments in "21st Century Hotels" which includes the Claska Hotel in Tokyo, the Clift Hotel in San Francisco and the Miró Hotel in Bilbao, Spain. The Radisson SAS Hotel in Glasgow and the Apex in Edinburgh rub shoulders with these prestigious buildings in the survey. The Radisson was named the top European hotel in 2003 and was designed by Glasgow-based architects Gordon Murray + Alan Dunlop. The Apex hotel sits in the shadow of Edinburgh castle on Grassmarket and was created from a former Bank of Scotland administration building. It was designed by Ian Springford Architects, an Edinburgh-based practice specialising in the hotel, leisure and commercial sectors.
Rail Ticket Prices to London Slashed
First ScotRail, which operates most of the train services within Scotland, also runs an overnight rail service to London from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William. But these are often "ghost trains" with very few passengers prepared to make the journey when there are cheap flights to the south in the early morning or in the evening. So First Scotrail is planning to slash ticket prices on the overnight services to £5 and will also offer a better standard on its sleeper services with improved catering. The company claims that once taxi or train costs to and from airports at both ends of the journey are taken into account, air and rail travel costs are sometimes comparable. However, "gremlins" in the entire British railway online booking system has meant that some cut-price fares have had to be dropped. Meanwhile, competition from the low-cost airlines is hotting up with the announcement that Scottish-based airline Flyglobespan is to start a Glasgow to London Stansted service in June, with fares starting at £20.
Dubai Air Service Attracts 150,000 Passengers
Emirates Airline announced this week that their direct air service between Glasgow and Dubai had been an overwhelming success in its first year. The route carried nearly 150,000 passengers and currently caters for 15,000 passengers a month. Both businessmen and holidaymakers have benefitted from the link.
Tour of Britain Cycle Race Starting in Glasgow
The Tour of Britain Cycle Race will start in Scotland for the first time when the top names in the sport will set off from George Square in Glasgow on August 30. The event will commence in Glasgow again in 2006 and it will be the finishing point for the event in 2007. The gruelling six-day event will work its way down the length of Britain this year, finishing in London on September 4. 96 of the world's top professional cyclists in around 16 teams will be competing. The event will be watched by thousands of spectators along the route and will be seen by millions on national and international TV.
Feels Like Christmas at Edinburgh's Botanic Garden
An award of £1.7 million to Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden by the Scottish Executive to improve facilities and promote the work of the garden prompted the head of the organisation to comment that it "feels like Christmas" this week. The Botanic Garden is the top free visitor attraction in Edinburgh and is already undergoing a major makeover. The revamped palm house (the tallest building of its kind in the UK) was recently reopened and a £10 million project to create a new Gateway visitor centre which will incorporate a national biodiversity interpretation centre.
Calton Hill Goes Up in a Puff of Smoke
Edinburgh's landmark Calton Hill - visible from Princes Street and surmounted by the never-completed National Monument - is to disappear in clouds of smoke on Saturday. The carefully controlled explosions, entitled "Landskip 2005" will detonate brightly coloured smoke grenades in five locations. The performance artwork is by Simon Patterson, one of the UK's leading contemporary artists and a nominee for the Turner art prize. Landskip takes its name from the 18th century rendering of the word "landscape". Patterson is currently exhibiting some of his more sedate art at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh.
Bridge Tolls Under Review
The scrapping of tolls on the bridge between the mainland and the Isle of Skye at the beginning of this year is being followed up with a consultation on the management and charging on all toll bridges in Scotland - they are still in place on bridges over the rivers Forth, Tay and Clyde. While removing the tolls on the already overloaded Forth bridge seems unlikely, there are hopes that charging may be removed on the Erskine bridge over the river Clyde (seen here) as a result of the exercise. The construction cost has been paid many times over and it is argued that tolls are a barrier to economic development in the area. Removing the tolls might reduce the pressure of traffic jams on the Clyde Tunnel and the Kingston Bridge, nearer the heart of Glasgow. But the government is no hurry to come to a conclusion on this subject and eight million motorists a year will continue to pay 60p each time they cross the bridge - generating £5 million in revenue for the Scottish Executive.
Good News and Bad News for Red Squirrels
75% of the UK's remaining population of red squirrels live in Scotland but even here they have been under pressure from the more aggressive grey variety which has spread across the UK. Numbers of the indigenous species have been declining for many years but recently there has been an upturn in the Scottish Borders. The rise, the first recorded for five years, is being attributed to a woodland management policy on the vast Buccleuch Estates in the Borders and to a policy of culling grey squirrels. The cull is not just for the benefit of the red squirrels - the grey variety cause damage and death to many trees, ruining the next generation of young trees in particular. However, it was not all good news for the red squirrels in this week's newspapers. It appears that a deadly virus carried by grey squirrels is spreading north and has already decimated red squirrels in the Lake District in the north of England. The virus does not affect the greys but they act as carriers. The virus was first identified in the south-east of England in the 1980s and has been slowly spreading across the country ever since.
Shetland To Host NatWest Island Games
The NatWest Island Games, a biennial international multi-sport event, larger in scale than the Winter Olympics, will be held in Scotland this summer. From 9 to 15 July 2005 2,500 athletes, team managers and officials, from 24 islands throughout the world, together with many spectators, will descend upon Shetland, the northern-most islands of the UK, to compete in 15 sports in a unique week long festival. EventScotland and Sportscotland are backing the event with funding in excess of £100,000. It will showcase not just the Games but also Shetland's excellent sporting infrastructure, modern facilities and passionate sporting community. The event will also highlight Shetland's spectacular location and the vast range of tourism opportunities open to its growing annual visitor numbers. Thanks to revenue from the North Sea oil industry, sports facilities on the islands are first class. But with only 1,000 hotel beds available, accommodation provision will be stretched to breaking point for the games. Scotland will be represented at this year's NatWest Island Games with participation by the Western Isles. For more information, see www.shetland2005.info/
Salmon Leap Up Menu
Market analysts report that the soaring consumption of salmon will soon take sales past chicken on the nation's food basket. Salmon farming, particularly in Scotland and Norway, has brought the price of salmon down from the luxury to the every-day range. And reports by nutritionists about the health benefits of oily fish such as salmon and sardines, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, are encouraging the consumption of at least two portions a week. Despite the rising sales in the home market, however, about half the salmon farmed in Scotland is exported, the largest markets being the US and France.
Smokie Scales the Height of Fashion
The fashion world is about to be taken by storm - or maybe that should be smoke - by a new tartan that has been launched in Arbroath. The town has recently won European Union protective geographical status for its most important export - the Arbroath smokie, the famous oak smoked haddock. As a result, products can only be called "Arbroath Smokie" if they are produced within five miles of the Angus town. Now a local fish merchant has produced an Arbroath Smokie tartan which has been registered with the Scottish Tartans Authority. The design reflects the red sandstone of the town's celebrated abbey, while blue and white mirrors the sea which provides the "raw material" for the smokie. There is scarlet in the design referring to the glow of the heat from the smokie barrel and finally the golden yellow of the delicacy itself. For more information, see www.arbroath-smokie.co.uk/.
Dentists Wince as Famous Toffee Brand Saved
There had probably been delight amongst the dental profession when the old-established company of McCowans, manufacturers of Highland Toffee, called in the receivers last month. Generations of Scots children had cut their teeth on the tough, chewy sweet, but the company had faced difficult trading conditions and rising prices of raw materials. The factory in Stenhousemuir, which employs 84 staff, faced closure. However, a new company has been formed to run the business and has agreed a deal with the receivers which will mean that Highland Toffee and McCowans will continue.
Weather in Scotland This Week
anyone looking at the temperatures being recorded in Scotland might be tempted to think that they were above average for the time of year. But a stiff north wind has been blowing on many days, particularly towards the end of the week, making it feel much chillier. Aberdeen did record 17C (63F) on Monday but the maximum daytime temperatures slid back from that and by Friday Edinburgh and Aberdeen were experiencing 7C (45F) with that wind-chill factor making the "real" temperature even lower. Aberdeen and the north-east again got the best of the sunshine this week with between 10 and 12 hours recorded on Monday and Tuesday. By the end of the week, all areas were becoming cloudy with the odd shower thrown in for good measure. The outlook for the next few days is continuing unsettled with cloud and showers.
The illustrations of current flowers taken this week were all captured inside the glasshouses at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, even though daffodils (seen above) have been in full bloom outside for many weeks. The cineraria seen in the first photo below is a more more delicate plant but again the tulips are coming into bloom in some gardens. Finally, the Goldfinches welcomed the eating facilities provided by the RSPB Reserve at Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire.