Who Runs Scotland? Part 2
In last week's Newsletter, there was a story about the embarrassing climb-down by the Scottish First Minister over the increase in toll charges on the Forth Road Bridge. Jack McConnell was forced to backtrack when the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Tony Blair's cabinet killed off the bridge authority's proposal to increase tolls from £1 to £4 at peak times of the day. This week, both the Chancellor and the UK Secretary of State for Transport both backed a second bridge across the river Forth. Of course, both politicians were in Scotland campaigning on behalf of the Labour candidate in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election. Many voters in that constituency commute across the bridge to get to work in Edinburgh and surrounding area. Despite the heavyweight pressure, the Scottish First Minister would not be swayed and this time insisted that no decision should be made until he had the full analysis he have commissioned by the end of January. It will be used "to inform our decision which we hope to make very quickly thereafter." Later in the week, however, the Forth Estuary Transport Authority ( FETA ) said that the report would only confirm that there was corrosion - and not what to do about it. That would need a lot more work and a report from that would not be available until May - next year. The main issue is whether the existing bridge can be recabled with traffic running on it. FETA commented that they were unsure whether the health and safety regime in Britain would allow that. It would take 10/11 years before any new crossing could be opened. A ban on lorries on the bridge could be required in 2014. Bearing in mind the environmental lobby, which is bound to obstruct any plans for a second bridge, a speedy project seems most unlikely.
Government Employs Almost One in Three
A survey of Scotland's labour market suggests that 707,000 people are now employed by the government - that's almost one in three jobs in Scotland. This is higher than data published by the Scottish Executive earlier this month which quoted a figure of 577,000. But the higher figure includes people such as doctors or staff employed by quasi non-governmental organisations who are technically independent, but work only for the state. The number of government-paid staff has risen by 24,000 since August 2004 - at a time when businesses have shed 17,000 jobs. So the favourable overall employment/unemployment figures in the last few years in Scotland have been more to do with employing public sector staff than growing the economy. This year, government spending in Scotland equates to 52.6% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) - a larger ratio than any country in the world except for Sweden, France and Denmark. Of course, in recent years the amount of the expanding UK budget allocated to Scotland has grown. The rules of devolution mean that the Executive has to spend it - though there is flexibility to decrease (or increase) personal taxation by 3% in Scotland. So far, the Scottish Executive has refused to go down that route. If they did so because they had "too much money" the voters in the rest of the UK might have something to say about that....
Scottish Economy Outpaces UK
Despite a decline once more in Scotland's manufacturing output (particularly the electronics sector), the country's economic growth outstripped the rest of the UK in the third quarter last year. It was the services sector, particularly banking and insurance, that rescued the Scottish output figures. The Scottish Executive figures, published this week, showed that the economy north of the border grew by 0.5% in the three months ending on September 30. That beat the UK growth figure of 0.4% and it was the second successive quarter that Scotland had outpaced the UK.
700 Jobs Lost as Manufacturing Plant Closes
Computer printer firm Lexmark announced this week that it is to close its manufacturing plant in Fife, with the loss of 700 jobs, as part of world-wide cut-back involving 1,400 jobs in total. It appears that there is a global decline in demand for print cartridges. Lexmark has operated in Rosyth for the last ten years.
JP Morgan Expanding in Glasgow
Glasgow has been trying to get its financial district off the ground for some years but it has a long way to go if it is to ever match the financial muscle of Edinburgh. So there was a fanfare of trumpets this week as the international financial services company JP Morgan announced that it was to recruit another 100 skilled software engineers at its European Technology Centre in Glasgow. The centre already employs 600 staff designing and developing technology systems to support JP Morgan operations around the world. The expansion is being supported by £1.5m of Scottish Executive funds.
First the Good News - Then the Bad News
Motorists in Glasgow cheered up this week as months of roadworks around the Kingston Bridge, the main crossing over the river Clyde, finally came to an end. But those who then travel further along the M8 motorway to Glasgow Airport (and there are 80,000 vehicles each day on that stretch) have been warned to expect major delays as contraflows and diversions are set up as work starts on strengthening parapets and improving lighting. The roadworks, lasting for 12 weeks, will cause delays for travellers going to Glasgow airport and to the Braehead shopping centre. And anyone exceeding the speed limit to catch a plane is likely to get caught by radar speed cameras if they exceed 40mph. At busy times, they'll be hard pushed to get anywhere near that speed though.
Saving Aberdeen's Beachfront
Aberdeen City Council has agreed to proceed with proposals to plant rocks along a section of the seafront at Aberdeen to prevent further erosion to the famous long, sandy beach. Earlier in the week, experts had warned that between 1.4 inches and 3 inches were being lost every year. Within 100 years, the beach along a 2 to 3 mile stretch of coastline would be lost. But councillors are unhappy that the city will have to pay for the £10 million cost of the project - they plan to approach the Scottish Executive again to see if they can assist further with the finance. The government in Edinburgh, however, favours a much cheaper proposal which would involve extension to the existing sea wall - which experts say would gradually swallow up the beach.
Award Application for Carnoustie Beach
Mindful of the Open golf championship coming to Carnoustie in 2007, Angus Council has been working hard to clean up the beach area in the town. The golf course runs along the shore and the golfing fraternity around the world will be focused on it that year. The councillors are so confident that they have done a good job that they have applied for the first time to Keep Scotland Beautiful for a rural seaside award. Water quality is a major factor but other cosmetic aspects are being dealt with as well. On a visit to Carnoustie last year, I was certainly impressed by the improved look of the area. However, as it was a chilly October day, there was no way that I was going to check on the water quality in the North Sea....
Fight Over Gaelic Only School
Usually when there is a dispute over Gaelic, it is because Gaelic speakers are trying to get more resources for their children to learn the language. But in Sleat Primary School on Skye, it is the English speakers who are having to fight a proposal to have all classes in the language of the angels. Currently, there is only one school in Scotland where all classes are taught in Gaelic - and that's in Glasgow, where parents who choose to do so, can send their youngsters to Ashley Street School. But in Sleat, parents who do not want their kids to have to learn Gaelic in primary school, would have to send them to Broadford Primary - 15 miles away. It's not that these parents object to Gaelic - some are Gaelic speakers themselves and support Gaelic sharing schools with those speaking English. But for various reasons, including those who have come into the island with no Gaelic background, forcing pupils to use only the one language is a step too far. Highland Council education committee seem to be moving forward with the plan, despite the opposition.
Tartan Bites for New York and Washington
Some of the details of the Tartan Week celebrations in New York in April are beginning to be published. The main event, apart from the 8th annual Tartan Day parade down 6th Avenue, will be "Tartan Bites" - which will involve many of the big names in Scottish literature. Alexander McCall Smith, Neal Ascherson and AL Kennedy, will participate in a mini-book festival to be held in the New York Public Library. It is planned to be the biggest Tartan Week ever, and will be marking the 50th anniversary of the American Scottish Foundation, the 150th anniversary of the Caledonian Club of New York and the 250th anniversary of the St Andrew's Society of New York State. The new director general of the National Galleries of Scotland, John Leighton, will host a joint exhibition with Christie's New York. More than twenty 18th-century Scottish works, including The Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, are being flown to New York for the exhibition. And in Washington, author Alexander McCall Smith will read to more than 1,500 people at the Lisner Auditorium. He will be discussing his latest No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency book, Blue Shoes and Happiness, which is being published in April. One of the highlights of the week in New York will be the fashion show, Dressed to Kilt - it is hoped that the Scottish First Minister, Jack McConnell, will not make a spectacle of himself as he did two years ago!
Badgers Sett Up a Road Block
Just as Transport Scotland thought that they could get ahead with the construction of the new £30 million Dalkeith bypass in Midlothian, south-east of Edinburgh, Scottish Natural Heritage officials stopped the tree-felling in Dalkeith Country Park because locals had reported that there was a badger's sett in the area. Environmental campaigners, who objected to the bypass going through a corner of the park, had already delayed the project for some time by taking up residence in the trees. They had only just been removed in an expensive operation and the tree felling was designed to make further protests impossible. However, it appears that the badger's sett is unoccupied and could be a sort of "holiday home" for the animals. Even so, tree felling has been stopped within a 60-feet radius, until the necessary permissions have been obtained.
Windfarm Plan for Country Park
There were disapproving noises from the management of Clyde Muirsheil Regional Park this week when a £150 million plan to create a windfarm there with up to 124 tall turbines was announced. It was quickly pointed out that the park had been given special status because it is a wildlife area, and any proposal would have to have special reasons to be accepted by the Scottish Executive. It is claimed that the Ladymoor Renewable Energy Project would be capable of producing three times as much electricity as Scotland's largest existing windfarm, at Black Law, South Lanarkshire. It would be the first in the UK to use large-scale hydrogen fuel storage plant, so that surplus electricity could be kept until it was needed. The company's proposal promises "an extensive land management and wildlife habitat enhancement plan". Threatened species with habitats on the proposed site include the hen harrier and the black grouse - not forgetting the humans who enjoy the wild landscape there.
Australian of the Year
Last week's Newsletter included the words of Australia's national anthem - for the good reasons that they were written by a Scot who had emigrated to Oz in the 19th century - and it was Australia Day on 26 January. The links between Scotland and Australia were further highlighted this week when Professor Ian Frazer was declared "2006 Australian of the Year" for his work in immunology and cancer research, including the link between papilloma viruses and cancer. His team has developed a vaccine to prevent these viruses in order to reduce the incidence of cancer. Ian was trained as a renal physician and clinical immunologist in Edinburgh, before emigrating in 1980 to Melbourne. In 1985 he moved to Brisbane to take up a teaching post with the University of Queensland. He is now head of the Centre for Immunology and Cancer Research, a research institute of the University at the Princess Alexandra Hospital. See also Australian of the Year Web site.
New Glasgow Tourism Guide
VisitScotland has launched a new 80-page tourist guide called "Essential Guide to Greater Glasgow and Clyde Valley 2006", providing visitor information on what to see and do in the city. This year, the guide has doubled its coverage of Charles Rennie Mackintosh attractions and highlights the Mackintosh Festival 2006 in September. It also features the reopening of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in the summer and celebrates the importance of the city's other influential figure, Alexander 'Greek' Thomson. The 80-page guide also covers where to shop, eat and drink, transport, entertainment, sport and leisure as well as things to do in the area. Copies of this printed guide can be ordered via Visit Scotland - Explore Glasgow.
Musical Tribute to Tam the Gun
A new pipe tune "Tam the Gun" was played just before the One o'Clock Gun on the battlements of Edinburgh Castle was fired on Wednesday. Friends and family had gathered to celebrate the memory of Staff Sergeant Thomas McKay MBE who had performed that duty - and turned it into a major tourist attraction - for 27 years. Tam died last November after a short illness. During the ceremony, his widow laid a rose on a memorial bench which had been donated by colleagues of Tam's at the Castle, both soldiers and staff of Historic Scotland. The inscription on it records "ne obliviscaris", Latin for "forget not". Afterwards, Mrs McKay commented "Tam never sought celebrity status, it just came to him. But he was very keen to make sure the people of Edinburgh knew the story of the One o'Clock Gun and he thought it a great honour to be an ambassador at Edinburgh Castle."
Big Garden Birdwatch
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is organising another count of birds in gardens and parks across the UK this weekend. The growing number of birdwatchers are being encouraged to watch for an hour and count the maximum number of each species of bird spotted during that time. The RSPB provide forms (showing pictures of the more common types of birds) and the results are then submitted via their Web site. Counts in previous years were sent in by nearly 400,000 people across the UK - 92% of them also said that they put out food for birds. The reports have illustrated, for example, the growing numbers of chaffinches and the decline in starlings. See Big Garden Birdwatch.
Fancy a Holiday Behind the Potting Shed?
Drummond Castle at Crieff (illustrated here) and Blair Castle at Blair Atholl are running four holiday breaks in the spring and autumn which will include exclusive behind-the-scenes tours conducted by their head gardeners. Guests will find out about the history, design, planting and maintenance of Drummond Castle Gardens and the Hercules Garden at Blair Castle, while enjoying good food and fine wine in the company of like-minded gardening enthusiasts. The gardens at Drummond Castle were laid out in about 1830 as a St Andrew's Cross and in recent years the formal flower beds have been filled with roses, statues, clipped conifers and herbaceous plants. The Hercules Garden at Blair Castle is a large walled enclosure, created by the 2nd Duke of Atholl in the mid-18th century. Named after the life-size statue of Hercules that overlooks it, the garden incorporates landscaped ponds and plantings, a Chinese bridge as well as productive fruit trees, vegetable beds and herbaceous borders.
Scattering Ashes Threatening Ecology
A code of practice was issued this week by the Mountaineering Council of Scotland urging grieving families of climbers and hillwalkers to stop scattering the ashes of their loved ones on Scotland's mountains. The growing tradition is said to be threatening the fragile ecology of the soil as it acts like a fertiliser. The Council is also discouraging the proliferation of memorials on the routes to the mountain tops. Ben Nevis is reported to have been turned into the country's loftiest rubbish tip because of this. Increasing numbers of climbers are requesting that their ashes should be scattered on the summit of their favourite mountain. The Mountaineering Council suggests that burying the ashes, rather than scattering them, reduces the chemical effect.
Government Health Warning About Haggis
The Scottish Executive chose the week in which more haggis is consumed than in any other, to include Scotland's national dish in a list of restricted foods for young children, alongside chicken nuggets, burgers and hot dogs. The advice was met by howls of protest from the champions of the "great chieftain o' the puddin-race". However, the healthy eating guide recommended that haggis - warm reekin rich or not - should be eaten "only once a week". Frankly, if the majority of Scottish nursery-age children get haggis once a year, they should consider themselves lucky! Producers of haggis concede that it is high in salt and fat but point to the natural ingredients - oatmeal, protein and iron - in haggis. When eaten with "neeps and tatties" (turnips and potato), it is a good healthy meal. However, producers rejected a government to reduce the salt content, suggesting that the Scottish Executive should be involved in educating consumers and not dictating to manufacturers what should be in their haggis.
Airline Snookers Scottish Champion
Top snooker champion John Higgins from Wishaw was feeling on top of the world when he won a spellbinding UK Masters tournament last Sunday.
He came from behind to snatch the title from World #1 Ronnie O'Sullivan. The Wishaw Wizard had to clear the table and won when he potted the final black ball. It was the second time he had won the UK Masters title. But when he flew back to Glasgow the following day he found that the budget airline had lost not only the trophy but his snooker cue as well. The airline promised to deliver the prized possessions on a later flight.
Weather in Scotland This Week
Another week notable for the lack of sunshine. On Sunday and Monday the only main weather station recording sunshine was Edinburgh - and that was for all of five minutes. Again, on Friday, only Aberdeen could report five minutes of sun with the rest of the country covered in cloud. Even so, there was very little rain this week. Maximum daytime temperatures at the start of the week were around 7/8C (45/46F) but fell as the week progressed to around 4/5C (39/41F).
The picture shown here is of an early snowdrop, just coming into bloom, in Finlaystone Country Estate in Renfrewshire.
This week's online photographs taken in Scotland to show the current season include a statue of Queen Victoria on top of the Doulton Fountain, ships on the river Clyde, Snowdrops, Hammamelis (Witch Hazel), Poinsettia and Heather. See this week's Colour Supplement.