Parliament Plays Musical Buildings
Following the dramatic collapse of a heavy oak beam in the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament on 2 March, Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) have had to conduct their plenary sessions in The Hub, a former church which these days. These days it is the home of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and the venue for a wide range of Festival-related community and education events. But a prior booking means that the MSPs will have to find another place to meet after next week. A number of alternatives are being pursued - including the former Royal High School at Calton Hill. At an early stage, this was mooted as the site for the new Parliament building but was rejected by the then First Minister, Donald Dewar. Yet another option is to bring forward by two weeks the Easter recess.
It has emerged that one of the bolts which should be supporting the beam was completely missing and another bolt had fractured. There are 60 of these specially laminated and steel-reinforced oak beams, each weighing around half a tonne, held in place by steel nodes. Engineers will have to check that all the other bolts and connections are safe. The Scottish Parliament building opened in 2004 and cost £431 million, which was well over budget and several years late.
Crisis Talks as Ceiling Collapses in Xscape Complex
It's not just the Scottish parliament that has been having problems with ceilings. A cinema in the £70 million Xscape Leisure Complex at Braehead in Renfrewshire has also collapsed, only weeks before the official opening on 6 April. The ceiling is in a 500-seat auditorium in a 12-screen complex and it totally fell in - fortunately, nobody was injured. The complex has a huge indoor ski slope, 22 ten-pin bowling alleys and a free-standing climbing wall as well as restaurants and shops. A launch party involving 10,000 guests is now in doubt after the incident. Work on the rest of the building has come to a standstill.
Fast Track to Scotland for Migrant Workers
With Scotland's population forecast to drop below five million by 2036, the Scottish Executive has implemented a number of actions to attract more immigrants to the country. A new points system for those coming from outside the European Union has been adopted by the UK government. However, skilled migrant workers will be able to apply for residency in Scotland after just two years - half the qualifying period planned for England. Highly skilled workers such as engineers and computer experts will get the most points and will be the only group able to come without a job offer. Skilled workers like nurses and plumbers will be able to come to fill individual job vacancies. But low-skilled workers will only be allowed to work here for limited periods in specific sectors - and must guarantee to leave at the end of that.
University Lecturers Strike Over Pay
Thousands of lecturers in Scotland's universities and colleges went on the first of a series of one-day strike on Monday over pay. They are also threatening not to mark assessments or exam papers of students, which could mean that students are unable to graduate this summer, unless the dispute is resolved. The Association of University Teachers claims the pay of academic staff in universities has fallen by 40% over 20 years, with their current average pay now at £35,773. Top rank lecturers earn £37,000, but the union claims that some years ago they were level with Members of Parliament - who now pay themselves £57,000 a year. The dispute also involves universities and further education colleges in England and Wales too.
Census Question on National Identity
The next national census in England and Wales in 2011 will have a box in which people can indicate which part of the UK they identify with. More than 800,000 people born in Scotland now live in England and Wales and many Welsh-born people live in England too. Many (most?) will still identify themselves as being from the country of their birth. The questions in the Scottish census have yet to be decided - but it would be of interest, no doubt, to see how many people born in England and now living in Scotland still identify with England - or have "gone native" and regard themselves now as Scots.
"Human Rights" Challenge to Smoking Ban
The chairman of the Swallow Hotels and Inns Group has launched a legal challenge to the Scottish Executive's legislation which will ban smoking in all public buildings and enclosed spaces which will come into force in the morning of March 26. The Swallow Group operates 150 hotels and 700 pubs in Scotland and England (where a similar ban is to come into force later). The group's chairman claims that the legislation has ben promoted by organisations such as Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), who are funded by the pharmaceutical industry who make nicotine patches. He has asked for a judicial review of the legislation.
Worst Emergency Waiting Times at Edinburgh Royal
The average waiting times at the Accident and Emergency department at the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (ERI) have deteriorated since the move to the new building at Little France - and are now the worst in Scotland. The average waiting times for patients to be seen at the ERI is now two and a half hours - 30 minutes longer than when it was housed in the 19th century building in the centre of the capital. In December 2004, a study showed that 25% of patients attending the ERI's casualty department spent more than four hours waiting for treatment - the worst Accident and Emergency unit in the UK. It is claimed that these figures have been reduced in recent months.
Executive Spent Nearly £500,000 on US Tartan Week
The Scottish Executive spent £480,000 last year on the Tartan Week celebrations, most of it in New York. That's quite an increase on the £30,000 spent in 2003 and the £200,000 in 2004. Last year, a "Scottish village" was set up in Grand Central Station and a number of other events were sponsored in New York for the first time to promote tourism and business in Scotland. There are no figures for 2006 - but it is unlikely to be less than last year.
Private Remembrance of 10th Anniversary of Dunblane Massacre
Schools in Dunblane will not formally mark the 10th anniversary of the massacre of 16 children and their teacher by Thomas Hamilton who went on the rampage with guns in a primary school in the town on 13 March 1996. Dunblane High School, where most of the survivors are now pupils, joined with the four local primary schools, to write to parents saying that they understood that the majority of the community wanted to mark the anniversary privately and they would endeavour to have as normal a school day as possible. The anniversary has prompted renewed calls for the implementation of a National Firearms Register, which was promised in the aftermath of the shootings and is still not in place. Astonishingly, it will be another year before the computerised system can be operating.
650,000 Apply for Free Travel
The Scottish Executive-funded scheme, which allows pensioners to travel anywhere in Scotland by bus, has had 650,000 applications so far. The new system, which replaces individual concessionary travel schemes operated by local authorities, comes into force on 1 April and Transport Minister Tavish Scott has encouraged all those eligible to apply.
70% Increase in Cost of Bridge
The cost of the second Kincardine Bridge across the river Forth has rocketed from an estimate three years ago of £71 million, to recent quotations from construction firms of around £120 million. A contractors' consortium has been selected to create the bridge and four miles of link roads. It is due to open in the summer of 2008 and will relieve congestion on the existing bridge, which is now 70 years old. The present bridge is used by up to 26,000 vehicles each day, which is beyond its design capacity. The two bridges will be capable of handling 55,000 vehicles a day - though whether the approach roads and roundabouts will be able to handle increasing volumes of traffic remains to be seen.
Higher Urdu Exam Available in Scotland
The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has confirmed that it will offer Urdu as a Higher subject from next year. Urdu is the official literary language of Pakistan and is also widely used in India (mostly by Moslems). It is written in Arabic script and campaigners have been lobbying for pupils to be given the opportunity to study it at Higher level in Scotland. It is currently available at Standard grade and about 180 pupils study it in Scottish schools at present. It is the first time a non-European language has been recognised at Higher level.
Revival of King of Fish
Ever since much of the drift-net fisheries off the north-east coast of England were bought out three years ago, the salmon fishing in the river Tweed in the Scottish Borders has been on a recovery path. Catches last year were the third highest since records began, more than 50 years ago. Salmon rod catches have averaged over 14,000 a year over the last three years compared to an average of 9,445 in the previous ten years. Last season's catch would have been even greater, if water levels had not been so low in the early part of the fishing season. In north-east Scotland, catches on the river Dee are also at their best for 15 years, aided by a "catch and release" policy.
Scots in Forefront of UK's Online Development
Scots now spend more time surfing the Web than watching TV for personal use and their use of the Net is second only to those in London. Government figures suggest that adults watch TV or an average of 148 minutes a day, but Scots now spend 181 minutes surfing the Web, which is well above the UK average of 164 minutes a day. Scots also spend more time shopping online than the UK norm and they spend more money online too.
Call to End "Platform Aerobics"
The chief executive of FirstGroup, the parent company of First Scotrail, has accused signalling staff at Waverley station in Edinburgh of needlessly switching trains between platforms at the capital's main rail terminus. He says there is no reason for it to happen. Frequent last-minute changes infuriate passengers, who have to rush from one platform to another - a practice which has been dubbed "passenger aerobics". On occasions, passengers would race to the other side of the station following an announcement of a change - only to have to sprint back as the decision was reversed. His solution is to transfer the signalling staff to First Scotrail, in order to streamline the operation.
Nasty Pong Predicted for Plush Suburbs
Plans by East Dunbartonshire Council to replace a weekly uplift of household rubbish with one every fortnight in the up-market suburban Glasgow areas of Bearsden, Milngavie and Lenzie, have been branded a health hazard by local residents. They fear that if the plan is implemented by the ruling Liberal Democrat party, it will create a nasty pong. It is argued that families with children will be hardest hit as their large plastic bins are already overflowing after a week. Websites and petitions have been organised and (the most potent weapon) many LibDem supporters are threatening not to vote for the party at the next council elections. The council argue that a two-weekly collection will encourage residents to recycle more.
Bats on the Fairway Delay Loch Lomond Golf Course
The opening of the new Carrick at Loch Lomond golf course is being delayed by a year, until the spring of 2007 as a result of a number of planning issues - including the protection of a colony of expectant bats. The course has been designed by Canadian Doug Carrick and work was held up until the bats migrated to nearby woodland boxes to allow an old farmhouse to be moved and rebuilt to house the bats when they return. Quite apart from the legal protection afforded to bats, their presence will be an advantage - with a voracious appetite for swarms of biting midges in August, they will help to reduce attacks on the players by the insects. During construction, iron age remains were also uncovered and had to be excavated by archaeologists from Glasgow University. The area is now ready for seeding and, with a bit of effort, the course will still host a Bunkered Matchplay Challenge in October this year. But it will then close down to allow the grass to rest before opening for general play in spring 2007. The geological Highland boundary fault line runs through the course. So it has the distinction of having the front nine holes in the Lowlands and the back nine in the Highlands.
Paleontologist Claims Nessie's An Elephant
The curator of paleontology at Glasgow University's Hunterian Museum has spent the last two years investigating the legend (some would call it a myth, but don't mention that word to the local tourist board) of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. He has concluded that the idea for Nessie was a marketing ploy dreamt up by Bertram Mills Circus. The first modern sighting was in 1933 - the same year that the circus offered £20,000 to anyone who could capture the creature for his London-based show. There was a spate of sightings and fuzzy photos, many explainable as floating logs - or proved to be hoaxes. But a number of sightings related to a grey creature with a long neck and humped back. The curator's research suggests that in the 1930s circuses stopped by the banks of the loch and that elephants swam in the loch - producing the "monster" sightings. A nice theory - but what about the sightings in recent years? Four were reported in 2005 alone and no elephants swim in Loch Ness these days.
Oor Wullie 70 Years Old
The "Oor Wullie" cartoon strip first appeared in the "Sunday Post" on March 8, 1936 - which makes the young lad with his bucket over 70 years old. "Help ma Boab!" as Wullie would say. Or maybe that should be "Jings! Crivvens! Michty me!" The mischievous lad has never missed a single edition of the Sunday paper, which has a circulation these days of around 500,000 (down from a peak of 1.5 million in the 1970s). In the 1950s, when the paper was confined largely to Scotland, sales of the Sunday Post in the country were so high that it was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the newspaper with the highest per capita readership penetration of anywhere in the world. Wullie (and "The Broons" on another page of the paper) have become Scottish icons - even though they were initially created by an Englishman, Dudley D Watkins. Watkins also drew that other Scottish comic book stalwart, Desperate Dan, who now enjoys fame as a statue in Dundee, the city of his birth. Early editions of the Oor Wullie annual (started in 1940) now change hands for thousands of pounds.
Stranded Rescue Helicopter Rescued
An RAF Sea King helicopter, which was forced to land high in the Cairngorm mountains on 27 February, when it iced up during a rescue mission, was finally thawed out and flown back from Coire an Sneachda near Aviemore to its base at Lossiemouth on 6 March. The area bore the worst of the blizzard condition which affected north-east Scotland last week and into the early part of this week. 140 schools were still closed in Aberdeenshire and in the Highlands on Monday.
Weather in Scotland This Week
Although the north-east of the country remained chilly with snow showers in the early part of the week, temperatures slowly recovered in all parts of the country. By Wednesday and Thursday, daily maximum temperatures were in the region of 7/9C (45/48F) and the Western Isles even reached 10C (50F). But there was also a lot of cloud and rain about, especially in the west on Wednesday and Friday. By the end of the week temperatures were on the slide again - Aberdeen only reached 3C (37F) on Friday. Heavy snow is forecast for Saturday night as moist, westerly winds meet cold air over the country. High ground in the west of Scotland is likely to see most of the snow.
The "lucky white heather" illustrated here was photographed in my own garden, earlier this week.
This Week's Colour Supplement
This week's online photographs, taken in Scotland to show the current season and its flora and fauna, include a purple crocus with raindrops (seen here), a Pink-footed goose, a Redshank, Eider Ducks and a sunset over the Gare Loch.
See this week's Colour Supplement.