Petrol Panic Passes
In 2000, public protests at oil refineries about the spiralling price of petrol and diesel (much of it due to government taxation - fuel duty accounts for around 65% of the cost) disrupted deliveries to filling stations, prompting motorists to rush to fill up at the pumps. The inevitable shortages nearly brought the country to a standstill. So when tabloid newspapers produced lurid headlines about the threat of more protests this week, long queues again developed. Filling stations across the country reported daily sales doubling, despite industry spokesmen making reassuring noises about the situation being entirely different from five years ago. The panic buying, lasted only one or two days however - as TV crews at refineries found it hard to find any protestors at all. At Scotland's largest refinery at Grangemouth, a solitary man with a placard turned up. As these pictures appeared in the media, the panic buying ceased. And with so many cars with full tanks, business at the pumps dried up. Just to add insult to injury, a price war has broken out and if motorists had only waited a few days, they could have saved several pounds on filling their petrol tanks.
Rising Petrol Prices Fuel Inflation
The UK consumer price index rose to 2.4% in August, the highest level since the current series began eight years ago. The increase in inflation was due mainly to higher prices for fuel and some seasonal food items. However, the underlying Retail Price Index (RPI) fell from 2.4% in July to 2.3% in August and if volatile products such as energy, food, alcohol and tobacco are removed from the calculations to get a "core" number, inflation actually slipped slightly to 1.7%. Economists are predicting that UK base interest rates could still fall by another 0.25% (from the current level of 4.5%) before the end of the year.
Slowdown in Retail Sales
The Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) has reported that like-for-like sales grew by only 0.4% in August, down from 3.4 percent in July. Clothing and footwear suffered most, with the weakest growth for several years and a slow uptake of new autumn lines. If new store openings are taken into account, however, total sales grew by 3.6% in August. While Scotland's figures showed a slowdown in activity in the High Street, there was even weaker growth in England and Wales as unavoidable costs such as council tax rises, petrol and utility charges all have an impact on disposable income.
Scottish Gas Prices Jump 14%
Customers of Scottish Gas will be paying 14.2% more for their supplies from next week after the company announced that "spiralling oil prices are having an unprecedented impact on the cost of gas." Last year, Scottish Gas prices rose by 12.4%. Pensioners receive, at best, cost of living increases on their income of around 2.5% these days, so they will be hard hit. Customers who signed up to Scottish Gas' price protection plan, which caps energy prices until April 2007 will be smiling, however, at least until that date.
Parts of Scotland First to Lose Analogue TV
UK government plans to phase out the analogue TV and utilise only digital transmission, moved a step forward this week with the announcement that analogue transmitters in the Scottish Borders a Dumfries and Galloway would be one of the first parts of the country to switch off - in 2008. The rest of Scotland will follow a year later. The rest of the UK will see a gradual phasing out of analogue signals, with a final switch-over in 2012. Already, 63% of people in the UK now have access to digital TV transmissions in some shape or form, but that figure falls to 57% in Scotland where digital reception in some areas is poor. Receivers in hilly and mountainous areas such as in Scotland can have problems in getting a signal. In addition to cable and Sky, the "Freeview" set top box has become a popular means of receiving a digital service as it provides a number of extra TV channels for a one-off cost of buying a "black box". It is argued that, in addition to improved sound quality, digital TV and radio take up much less broadcasting bandwidth, allowing the other frequencies to be sold off for other uses such as wireless computing.
Scottish Unemployment Numbers Down
In the three months to the end of July, the number of people unemployed and seeking work in Scotland fell by 13,000 to 142,000 (5.5%), using the International Labour Organisation (ILO) method of calculation. The claimant count, which measures those on Jobseeker's Allowance (previously known as unemployment benefit) rose by 100 to 85,000 between July and August, which was 5,000 lower than in August 2004. At 3.2%, the claimant count is the lowest recorded for over 30 years. However, opposition political parties pointed out that Scotland has an unemployment rate which is higher than any other country in the UK.
Sky High Airports in August
Once again passenger numbers at Scotland's airports reached record levels last month, with 1,966,074 passengers using Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports during August, a rise of 4.3% on the same period last year. Numbers would have been even higher but industrial action at London's Heathrow meant the cancellation of all BA flights for a few days during the month. Glasgow was the busiest airport in Scotland with 883,745 passengers but Edinburgh was close behind with 823,793. In the twelve months to the end of August, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen airports handled more than 19.8 million passengers, a 5.6% increase on the previous year.
VisitScotland Focus on Mackintosh
Architect, artist and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who created such masterpieces as the Glasgow School of Art and the Scotland Street School at the end of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century, has long been used by his home city in their tourism campaigns. Now VisitScotland, the Scotland-wide tourist agency, has made him the main focus of its European Cities Campaign in France, Sweden, Germany and Holland - all locations served by low-cost airline services to Scotland. The campaign was launched this week at the House for an Art Lover (pictured here) in Bellahouston Park (which was designed by Mackintosh but was not built until near the end of the 20th century). Glasgow was recently voted as the best UK city after London to visit by the readers of the travel "bible" Conde Nast Traveller.
"Lazarus" Returns to Contest By-Election
The former Lord Provost of Glasgow, Pat Lally, earned the nickname of "Lazarus" for the number of times he raised his political career from the dead and bounced back to the top. Now aged 79, he finally retired form local government politics in 1999, but now he is standing as an independent candidate in the Scottish Parliament by-election for the Cathcart constituency. He will be up against eight other candidates - in alphabetical order, they are Conservative, Green Party, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Socialist, Scottish National and UK Independence - plus another independent candidate. Voting will take place on Thursday, 29th September.
Bus Companies Agree to Co-operate
In the past, there has been bitter rivalry between two of the major bus companies operating in Scotland. Now, in a bid to increase competition with rail travel. Stagecoach, the Perth-based company founded by former bus driver Brian Souter, has taken a 35% stake in Citylink which is owned by a Singapore based parent company. In exchange, certain rights in Stagecoach's Motorvator and megabus.com operations will be transferred to Citylink. As a result, there will be more frequent services between Edinburgh and Glasgow, with buses leaving every 15 minutes instead of 20. Journey times between Edinburgh and Inverness are also being reduced - so that they will take a few minutes less than by train. Last year, the two companies accused each other of "predatory pricing" and Citylink ended an informal agreement whereby Stagecoach ran buses for it on three routes, including the one from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Citylink were also annoyed when Stagecoach launched its megabus service from Aberdeen and Inverness to central Scotland and on to London, competing directly with Citylink. Now it appears that the companies have buried the hatchet, not in each other, but by co-operating rather than competing.
Cheques No Longer Accepted
Giant oil company Shell has decided that it will no longer accept cheques at its filling stations after the volume of this payment method fell to under 1% of its total sales. The company says that the resources used to process these paper items instead of plastic cards is disproportionate to the number received. The move could be followed by other retailers, sounding the death-knell of such paper payments. The volume of cheques processed in the UK has fallen 50% in the last 15 years, and is expected to halve again in the next decade. However, many small businesses prefer to pay suppliers by cheque and consumers still use them to send money to friends and relatives.
"Glas-vegas" Plan Revived
Plans to create a number of super-casinos in Glasgow were brought to a grinding halt when the government pulled back on the number of regional venues, reducing them from eight to two. It is thought that London and the English seaside resort of Blackpool will be the preferred locations. But that has not stopped Glasgow City Council pushing for the legislation to be amended and there is now hope that this might happen. Alternatively, the city wants to be ready if a "phase 2" is given the go-ahead later. It is estimated that a super-casino could generate £200 million a year for the west of Scotland economy and provide 4,000 jobs in total. Glasgow already has 5 of Scotland's 12 normal-size casinos and planning permission has been granted for three more. Currently there are three proposals in Glasgow for super casinos (with as many as 1,250 slot machines as well as all the usual card and roulette games). These are Las Vegas Sands, attached to the Rangers Football Club grounds at Ibrox (see artist's impression); the Kerzner International at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre; and MGM Mirage at Glasgow Harbour.
Geopark for Scotland
An area stretching for 2,000 square kilometres, incorporating all of North West Sutherland and part of Wester Ross, has become Scotland's first Geopark in recognition of its globally important geological features. It includes sites which once helped in the understanding of rock formations, including the Lewis Gneiss, which is 3,000 million years old and is Europe's oldest rock. It contains some of the most important and diverse geological features in Britain. The Geopark was officially opened this week at Scottish Natural Heritage's Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve in Sutherland.
Scotland's Most Expensive Bridge Tolls to End?
The cost of crossing both ways over the river Clyde via the Erskine Bridge incurs a higher charge than the tolls on either the Forth or Tay bridges - and the charge on the bridge from the mainland to the island of Skye was removed on 1 January this year. But the Members of the Scottish Parliament on both sides of the river and the local authorities have been pushing for the removal of charges on the Erskine bridge for some time. They claim that there are positive signs from the Scottish Executive and that the tolls may be ditched by the end of this year. It is argued that removing the toll would help to reduce congestion at the crossings further up the river in Glasgow, particularly the Clyde Tunnel. It has always been a puzzle why the Kingston Bridge and the tunnel incur no charge, while the Erskine Bridge costs £1.60 pence to travel back and forward across it. While the charge on the Forth bridge is £1, that is only levied in one direction. The tolls from the Erskine Bridge provide the government with an additional income of £5.5 million each year.
Aberdeen is Pick of the Bunch
Aberdeen retained its title of "Best City" in the annual Beautiful City in Bloom awards, which were announced this week. But the top prize, the Rosebowl Trophy, went to the Fair City of Perth, which also won the large town award (since it is not a city, despite its aspirations in that regard). The illustration here is of a hanging basket outside the Fergusson Gallery in Perth. The competition is judged on a number of criteria, including the quality of floral displays, environmental initiatives, cleanliness of streets and input from members of the public. Falkland in Fife won the trophy for best large village (not for the first time) and Duffus in Moray won the title of best small village, while the best coastal resort award was won by North Berwick.
Secret Reintroduction of Pearl Mussels
Over the last two months, freshwater pearl mussels have been located in secret locations in streams and rivers in the Cairngorms National Park in a bid to revive the species in the area. Poachers have plundered pearl beds in a number of other rivers and Scottish-grown pearls almost became extinct. The mussels not only provide beautiful pearls, but they play an important part in maintaining healthy rivers - adult mussels filter about 50 litres of water a day, removing impurities. Freshwater pearl mussels were given legal protection in 1998 and there are estimated to be around 60 sites across the country where they can still be found.
Maid Back on the Loch
The Maid of the Loch paddle steamer, which used to take tourists for a sail up beautiful Loch Lomond, was taken out of service in 1981. The ship was the last traditional paddle steamer to have been built in the UK and although there are still boat trips available on the loch (sailing from Balloch), there are many who yearn for a nostalgic trip on the "Maid". A band of enthusiasts has been keeping the ship afloat (literally, in the early stages, after it had been allowed to deteriorate) and working hard at restoration. It now looks a though their long hard battle will be crowned with success, as they have managed to raise £620,000 from a variety of sources, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, Scottish Enterprise and West Dunbartonshire Council.
Skye High Charges
The trading standards department in Highland Council is to investigate the exorbitant delivery charges imposed on residents of the island of Skye because it is still classed by many companies as a "remote island" - despite being linked to the mainland by a bridge which, since the first of January this year, had no toll charges. In some cases it is though that the problem is due to ignorance - delivery to Kyle on one side of the bridge can be classed as "mainland" while delivery to Kyleakin on the other side incurs a whopping extra charge. In one case, a company in England selling a children's slide costing £95 wanted to charge an additional £230 to deliver it to Portree on Skye when they had a £10 charge for anywhere else on "mainland" UK. In the end, the slide was delivered to Kyle for £10 and then taken the remaining 30 miles to Portree by a local carrier for another £10. Some companies claim that the problem arises because Skye shares the same postcode as remote islands and staff in southern England do not know the local geography.
A Strain on Christian Shoulders
The latest edition of the Church of Scotland hymnary contains 825 items, 130 more than the 3rd edition, and is the first for over thirty years. It also incorporates the sheet music and as a result it is much larger than the previous volumes. Complaints about the larger format (it tips the scales at nearly a kilogram - 2.2lbs) have dominated the letters pages of the church's magazine "Life and Work". Pensioners and those with arthritis or rheumatism say that they have not been given any consideration. Some ministers are now beaming the words onto screens from overhead projectors using Powerpoint presentations. This not only saves their congregation from having to hold the heavy hymnary, but saves the church from having to purchase lots of individual copies.
Scotland Retain Elephant Polo Trophy
It's not often that we can trumpet that a Scottish team has won a world title, but that's what happened last weekend when the elephant polo team clinched the "Tiger Tops Challenge Trophy" by beating the Thailand team on their home territory in extra time. Sponsored by Chivas Regal, the Scots don't get much practical training for these matches, as there are no elephant in this country geared to the sport. 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. Elephant polo was invented by Scotsman James Manclark and Briton Jim Edwards in 1983. The charity matches are played to raise money for Thailand's National Elephant Institute in Lampang, northern Thailand.
Weather in Scotland This Week
The weather this week started off well, with temperatures largely 19/22C (66/72F) with lots of sunshine - Edinburgh recorded 7.7 hours of sun on Monday. But the weather got decidedly cooler and cloudier later in the week. On Tuesday, heavy rain and strong winds swept across much of the country, the west coast and the Hebridean islands being particularly badly affected. Stornoway recorded over an inch of rain on Tuesday and some parts of Wester Ross and Skye were affected by flooding and landslips and subsidence closed a number of roads. The thermometer also headed downwards, with Aberdeen's maximum temperature on Thursday and Friday no higher than 12C (54F) and central Scotland only a few degrees higher than that. The sun did shine strongly on Friday, with both Edinburgh and Glasgow registering over eight hours of clear skies. But after overnight rain, leaden skies returned on Saturday.
The picture shown here to illustrate the current season in Scotland is of Foxgloves growing in my own garden. For further illustrations, see the "Colour Supplement" below.
Newsletter "Colour Supplement"
Regular readers of this Newsletter will be used to seeing more photographs illustrating the current flora and fauna in Scotland. This week, there were again so many photos to choose from a Colour Supplement has been created so as not to overload the main Newsletter. Click on the link and you will open up a new page with a half-dozen more illustrations - including heather, a Little Egret, a Mallard regaining its colourful plumage after moulting and a Moorhen chick - growing up fast.