Great News for Edinburgh Shoppers
St James Centre (seen here) is Edinburgh's only large city-centre shopping mall but, ever since it was built in the 1960s, it has been regarded as an ugly carbuncle and is probably the most unloved structure in the Capital. It regularly wins polls as one of the ten worst architectural eyesores in Britain - and nobody leaps to its defence. Various plans to redevelop the site have come and gone, but at last it seems that the current owners are producing plans that the city council officials are keen to see implemented. The proposals would create a centre more than double the present size, with two extra floors on top of the existing mall, and an extension covering the existing open space heading towards Princes Street. The present St James House office block (once occupied by the Scottish Office as "New St Andrew House") is to be demolished to create space for a second large retail development and more badly needed parking spaces. The present car park is a nightmare of tight bends and dead-ends. The developers - who own some of Britain's leading shopping centres, including Glasgow's Buchanan Galleries - hope work could start on the transformation next year and be completed before the end of 2008.
Motorists were well warned in advance that roadworks on a 1.2 mile stretch of the busy M8 motorway between Paisley to Glasgow would cause problems. It is the busiest section of motorway in Scotland and is used by 130,000 vehicles a day. Essential roadworks meant that it was reduced to two lanes in each direction, with complex chicanes to slow vehicles down further. The installation of an average speed radar system, to ensure nobody was going through at over the 40mph speed limit, was somewhat superfluous as motorists crawled through, taking an average of 40 minutes to negotiate the bottleneck. Regular drivers on the route were just getting used to the hold-ups (which will last for eight weeks) by the end of the week, when a truck negotiating the roadworks early on Friday morning caught fire, closing the westbound section of the carriageway. Fortunately, it was before the rush hour and the vehicle was towed away, allowing traffic to flow again before the 8am rush hour.
Scottish House Prices Rise Fastest
According to the latest Halifax House Price Index, house prices in Scotland have soared in the last three months by 5.7%, which is more than double the UK average of just 2.6%. Of course, house prices in Scotland are still lower than the UK average, for the same type of house, but the gap has been narrowing in recent years and the latest data confirms that the trend is continuing. The Scottish housing market is still buoyant, although there was a recent slow-down in the more expensive areas such as Edinburgh. A strong economy, combined with high employment and low interest rates, should ensure housing demand continues strongly during the second half of 2006. That will please existing home owners, whether they are moving or not, but makes life increasingly difficult for first-time buyers.
Flower of Scotland Wins Poll
More than 10,000 people at home and abroad responded to the online poll to gauge support for a selection of songs to be Scotland's national anthem, organised by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The result was a rafter raising victory for "Flower of Scotland" which took 41% of the votes cast. "Scotland the Brave" came second with 29%, while Highland Cathedral, (First Minister Jack McConnell's favourite), won just 16% of the vote. "A Man's a Man for a' That" and "Scots' Wha Hae!" straggled in at the foot of the scale. The winner was announced at the Last Night of the RSNO Proms at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall last weekend. The recent debate had been prompted by different sports playing different songs at events in which Scotland has been participating. "Flower of Scotland" is regularly sung at football and rugby grounds, while athletes traditionally celebrate medals (at the Commonwealth Games, for example) with "Scotland the Brave". Despite the result of the poll, it is quite likely that the sports bodies involved will continue to make their own independent (and varying) decisions!
£15 Million Cancer Care Hospice Approved
Marie Curie Cancer Care has obtained planning permission to create a custom-built cancer hospice at Stobhill hospital in Glasgow. An existing hospice, nearby, cares for more than 1200 patients and their families each year. But it is more than 25 years old and lacks the expected modern conveniences. The replacement centre (see artist's impression) will have 30 rooms, with en-suite facilities and picturesque views, which will all help to improve life for critically ill patients. The unit will also provide support through day care facilities.
Edinburgh Has Cheapest Bus Fares in UK
Lothian Buses, a publicly-owned body with 91% of its shares held by Edinburgh City Council, boasts that it has the lowest bus fares in the UK. That is as a result of subsidies (paid for by local tax-payers) and by the relatively large number of passengers using the buses in the area. Of course, as there are no suburban train services (as are there are in some other large cities such as Glasgow and London or Manchester), there is no alternative public transport service. A day ticket in Edinburgh costs £2.30 while FirstBus in Glasgow charges £2.75, but similar tickets cost as much as £4 in Bath and £4.40 in Bristol (both in England).
Special Botanic Tour for Charles and Camilla
Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, requested a special tour of an exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh this week. "Soqotra: Land of the Dragon's Blood Tree" focuses on the nature and culture of the isolated archipelago off the coast of Yemen in the Indian Ocean. Soqotra's links with Edinburgh go back to 1880, when botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour, who later became the Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, became the first visitor to study the plant-life on the island. Prince Charles, who has entrenched views on plants and organic farming, also accompanied the Queen when she officially opened the memorial garden within the botanic garden itself which is dedicated to the memory of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
Scots Remain Positive About European Union
Regular readers of this newsletter will have seen on a number of occasions the sometimes onerous or bizarre regulations voted through by the European Parliament or Commissioners and imposed on member countries. Scotland had to fight the bureaucrats to allow kilts to be described as "men's wear" and the ferry service to the Western Isles is having to be put out to tender, as a result of European regulations. European fishery policies also come in for a lot of criticism. Over the years, however, opinion polls have suggested that the Scotland is the most positive part of the United Kingdom about European Union membership. A recent poll reinforces that situation, showing that 80% of Scots agree that being part of the EU increases business opportunities. And of all the areas in the UK surveyed, Scotland is the most positive about the EU's effect on improving working conditions.
A Sense of Belonging
The second edition of "Scotland Now" the online magazine produced by "Friends of Scotland" is now available (see link below). Articles on subjects as diverse as Scottish accents, the National Theatre for Scotland and golf are included. There is also the background to the book "A Sense of Belonging" in which a wide range of wll-known Scottish personalities name their favourite places in Scotland and provides a descriptive piece about why it is special to them. The author then takes a photograph of it in the most atmospheric of conditions - and brings them all together in a well illustrated book. For the current edition of "Scotland Now" see Scotland Now.
Edinburgh Publisher Wins Rights to Sean Connery's Book
Although he has pulled out of a project aimed at producing his autobiography, Sir Sean Connery has now signed up to produce a book which will combine his memoirs of growing up in the Capital with his celebration of "Scotland's past and present". He has already started work on "Connery's Scotland" which will cover his early years growing up in Fountainbridge where he worked as a milk delivery boy from the age of 9 to 13. He left school at age 13 and became a brick layer, a bouncer and a French polisher before he joined the Merchant Navy. During his spell as a seaman he obtained his tattoos "Scotland Forever" on one arm and "Mum and Dad" on the other. Sir Sean will be collaborating with acclaimed writer and film-maker Murray Grigor, who is helping to co-write the book. It is due to be released next September - apparently to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England - the logic of that may become clearer later. A statement from Connery says "Our goal is to produce a very readable, visually stimulating and hopefully intriguing history of Scotland, with personal discoveries." It remains to be seen whether he has a licence to kill some of Scotland's icons...
Power Cut at ScottishPower HQ
Hundreds of staff at the headquarters of ScottishPower in Glasgow were left without power, along with a number of nearby homes, at 8am on Friday. Embarrassed company executives had to call out their own engineers, who then drove through rush-hour traffic from their base in another part of the city. Some parts of the HQ were able to use power from standby generators but they were not powerful enough to keep the whole of the HQ working.
You'll Have Had Your Chips...
Chips (French Fries in some parts of the world) are to be banned from school meals in Glasgow, except on a Friday - when the kids can only have them if they also have fish to go with them. It is all part of the effort to improve the diet (and the fitness) of the 70,000 pupils in Glasgow schools. Across Scotland, a third of 12-year-olds are classed as overweight. Glasgow has the worst life expectancy in the UK, with 20% of men in the city officially rated obese. When the youngsters return to school at the end of August, they will no longer be able to buy fizzy drinks over the counter in the school canteens - though cans will still be available from vending machines in some secondary schools. When the new regime was tried out in some schools during the last academic year, attendance figures for school lunches dropped initially, but are reported to have recovered. Even so, there does seem to have been an increase in trade in fast food outlets near schools - and in some cases vans sit outside offering the sort of food that the education officials want to see banned.
Ocean Liners for Fort William?
A consortium has lodged an outline planning application to restructure the waterfront at Fort William on the west coast of Scotland. The proposals are to create a marina and a loch-front promenade, retail outlets, high-quality housing, restaurants, cafes and bars, at least one hotel, and new culture and leisure facilities. Once completed, cruise liners may also dock at the deepwater facilities at the 92-acre site on Loch Linhe. Cruise ship operators are said to be already expressing strong interest - Fort William nestles beneath Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain.
Perth's 5-Star Hotel Approved - With Reservations
Plans for an "iconic" 300-bedroom luxury hotel development (see artist's impression) at Kinfauns, three miles east of Perth, have been approved by Perth and Kinross Council - despite their officials recommending rejection, as it is in Perth's greenbelt area. But the economic and employment potential was too much for the elected councillors to ignore and they sensationally approved the plan unanimously. Scottish Natural Heritage, the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and Perth Civic Trust had all opposed the plan, arguing that its proximity to Kinfauns Castle in a green belt area made it inappropriate. The site is near the A90 Perth to Dundee trunk road and the railway line. But due to the objection by Scottish Natural Heritage the proposal will now have to be referred to the Scottish Executive for their approval. It may be that this will lead to a public inquiry.
Veteran Climber and Broadcaster Tom Weir Dies
The climber, writer and broadcaster Tom Weir has died at the age of 91 in a nursing home at Balloch, near his beloved hills around Loch Lomond. He was a champion of Scotland's wild places and presented a long-running TV series "Weir's Way" which began in black and white in the 1970s. The series has gained a cult status in recent years as it was repeated in the early hours of the morning. Tom's knitted hat, plus-fours and knap-sack became compulsive viewing, even amongst the younger generation still awake at that time (or having the fore-thought to set the video recorder). Tom was born in Springburn in Glasgow and was the brother of actress Molly Weir (who passed away, aged 94, in 2004). After war service, he became a professional climber, writer and photographer and was a member of the first post-war Himalayan expedition in 1950. He campaigned tirelessly for the protection of the Scottish environment and received a John Muir Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 for his work.
Graphic via Scottish Television.
Funeral Service for Discarded Bibles
The Ness Charity Shop on the Isle of Lewis was becoming overwhelmed with the large number of bibles which had been donated. Most were in Gaelic and but were tattered and well worn and were unsuitable for resale, but the islanders had handed them in, rather than throw them away. So the staff decided to respectfully dispose of them in a religious ceremony, similar to an ancient Jewish tradition of burying sacred scrolls. More that 40 villagers turned up for the burial service in Swainbost cemetery, which was conducted in English and Gaelic by the local Free Church of Scotland minister.
No Smoking Brings a Tiny Problem...
Bars in the Highlands used to be a wonderful refuge, not just for relaxing after a long hike on the hills, but also to escape from that bane of summer in some parts of the country - the midge. The little biting insect swarms in warm, damp conditions, but all that cigarette smoke in bars used to drive them away - the strong aroma confuses them. Queen Victoria is famously reported to have taken up smoking when at Balmoral in the summer. But now that there is a ban on smoking in all public buildings in the country, the little blighters are swarming into bars and restaurants. A number of bar owners have already invested in "anti-midge" machines that fake the carbon dioxide breathed out by animals (including humans) to lure them (in their thousands) into a trap.
Summary of June's Weather Data
The Scottish Meteorological Office has published the aggregate data for Scotland last month and it shows that the mean average temperature (which covers night as well as day) for June was 12.7 °C, which is 1.5 °C above the 1961-1990 average - in the "well above average" category. The provisional rainfall total for the month was 72.6 mm, which is 84% of the 1961-1990 average, which is in the close to average category, but the driest since 1996. The provisional total sunshine for the June was 189.3 hours, which is 118% of the 1961-1990 average, which is in the above average category.
Weather in Scotland This Week
This was a week of contrasts as far as the weather was concerned. On Sunday, torrential rain in Edinburgh and the east of Scotland produced flash floods, power cuts and put an end to a number of outdoor events, including a performance of Romeo and Juliet in the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. The downpour produced a series of rock falls on Arthur's Seat, closing Queen's Drive in Holyrood Park for over 24 hours. A number of shops in Edinburgh and surrounding area had to close after they were flooded as the same amount of rain fell on Sunday as in all the days in July of last year put together.
In the west, thunder was the loudest I have heard for a very long time. A lightning bolt struck a TV aerial on house not far from where I stay and removed part of the roof and fried electrical sockets. The lightning must have reached the telephone lines and that knocked out a number of home computers - including my own (which was then down for three days). There were downpours in Aberdeen and the north-east also and the visitors to the annual Game Conservancy Scottish Fair at Scone in Perthshire had to dash into marquees to avoid a storm.
Later in the week, there was a fair amount of sunshine and temperatures reached 27C/80F in Glasgow on Wednesday and 26C/79F in Edinburgh on Thursday. But there was also torrential rain in the Scottish Borders on Wednesday evening which caused flash flooding problems - the swimming pool in Galashiels was flooded and closed for the rest of the week.
The illustration here is of a Common Spotted Orchid growing wild in the Colzium Lennox Estate in North Lanarkshire.
This Week's Colour Supplement
This week's online photographs taken in Scotland to show the current season and its flora and fauna include Begonia and Primula Vialii flowers, seven Mallard Ducklings huddled together, Water Lily, Centaurea Macrocephela and Kalmia Latifolia "Bull's Eye" flowers. See This Week's Colour Supplement.