Thursday, 3 December 2009

Parcel O' Rogues

Today, it has become clear that Westminster Labour are looking to introduce legislation to guarantee a referendum in 2011 if they are re-elected. It is refreshing, and re-assuring, is it not, that London Labour have finally seen the sense of the argument that a referendum in 2011 is needed to give people a chance to have their say on a fundamental issue and have abandoned the line of argument that says the country doesn't need to waste money on referenda in a time of economic stringency.
So, at last, we can look forward to London Labour instructing their Scottish bretheren to withdraw their opposition to the Scottish Government's proposals to let the people of Scotland have their say - right? Er, well, no. Actually, this new commitment is for a referendum on first past the post voting for Westminster. There isn't the slightest intention to change the laborious Labour view on a referendum in Scotland. Yet again, Brown proves to be the leader of the Parcel O' Rogues in his own Nation, with this, the most flagrant of double standards.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Scotland on the up

An intriguing piece on 'Reporting Scotland' on the Beeb the other night revealed that Scotland would apparently be less likely to suffer the effects of rising sea levels due to global warming than England. The piece claimed that Scotland's land mass was gradually rising, whilst England's was slowly falling.
So now we have it - the secret's out at last.... there's no need to campaign for an independent Scotland. Patience, everyone ... we just hang on until England sinks.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Alonso Hawk

Those of a certain age, whose children grew up with Herbie, that annoying little self-drive Volkswagen, might remember the lustful and greedy developer who wanted to demolish the fire station that was holding up his latest money-making development scheme - and tried all sorts of dirty tricks to get his way. Ring any bells, perhaps? Is there more than a passing similarity with Donald Trump, the lugubrious American developer behind moves to build two golf courses, 500 rich people's houses, 950 holiday homes and a hotel on the sand dunes of the Menie Estate, north of Aberdeen. Mr Trump got his way - and the chair of Aberdeenshire Planning Committee's head - in being granted planning permission in the first place, then found that there were bits of land he wanted to add to his empire that folk were not willing to sell - at any price. Trump made all sorts of cheap derogatory remarks about these people who valued what they have owned for many years and didn't want to let go. The next card he played was to submit a planning application to add four houses and two plots of land that he didn't own to his overall plan - something anyone is at liberty to do, though in the knowledge that gaining the permission will normally add more to the cost of subsequently purchasing same. Trump says he has made 'generous offers' to the owners, but by all reports, the figures seem ordinary to say the least. And now he is playing his trump card - asking Aberdeenshire Council to use compulsory purchase powers 'as a last resort' to secure the land on his behalf.
This is due to be debated later this week - but it would be to the eternal shame of any council should it vote to use compulsory purchase powers in order to benefit the commercial interests of any private business - whether American or not. If the council has any honour at all left in this sorry tale, it will resoundingly reject such a proposition. If Trump wants to buy these properties, nothing less than an offer they can't refuse will be acceptable. Alonso Hawk needs to remain a work of fiction. Trump must grow up and stop treating people who have lived on Menie all their lives as brainless serfs with no rights.

Monday, 21 September 2009

BBC Scotland Bashing Goes On

The Megrahi affair continues to be something where the vast majority of ordinary people do believe that Kenny MacAskill was right, but the politically motivated continue to take every opportunity, however obscure, to try to score points.
Why, though, is BBC Scotland one of the worst offenders?
Why have BBC Scotland 'taken the opportunity' (as they put it), to send a reporter and camera crew to Syracuse University in the Good Ol' US of A, to find out what students there, where 35 of their number were lost in the bombing, think?
And why only now, weeks after the event?
Exactly what is BBC Scotland's editorial agenda here? They appear to have an overriding interest in keeping this 'on the boil' come what may, despite mounting evidence that Megrahi is, like as not, innocent.
Come on Aunty Beeb, you're getting boring in your old age!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Bounders and Boundaries

The news that the Boundary Commission have completely ignored representations made from Badenoch and Strathspey, from our MSP, Fergus Ewing, from myself and from The Highland Council and made no changes at all to their recommendation that Badenoch and Strathspey be carved up for electoral purposes between Inverness and Lochaber in a pathetic blind adherence to the numbers game is nothing short of an utter disgrace.

Despite this being about the boundaries of the Scottish Parliamentary Constituencies, the decision is a reserved matter and will be made by Westminster's poodle in the north, The Secretary of State for Scotland, not by our own Parliament.

The breathtaking and dismissive arrogance that denies us even a local inquiry hearing into our grievances is yet more evidence that devolution is an increasingly unsatisfactory half way house. How is it possible that a raft of clearly expressed views, including unanimity across the political divide in Highland Council, can be ridden over roughshod by an undemocratic bunch of numpties reporting to an anachronism from the past?

It is quite extraordinary that these clowns in Edinburgh can actually consider it reasonable to expect the MSP for the new constituency that will include more than half of our area, on the western side of the Cairngorms National Park, to be able to represent constituents from Aviemore down to Lochaber, across to Uig in north Skye, then back across to Dingwall, north of Inverness. Aviemore to Uig is 163 miles. This is twenty three miles further than it is to Glasgow City Centre, and an amazing thirty six miles further than the trip to Holyrood itself. All this would be bad enough by itself, but to take all of the connections of the area of Badenoch and Strathspey and rip them apart in a divorce that nobody wants for the sake of equality of numbers is total idiocy. In rural environments, equality of numbers is in no way related to equality of representation.

All we have left to battle on with now, given that the Boundaries Commission won't even give us a local inquiry because they say 'they have enough information to come to a decision' is to write to the Secretary of State for Scotland to urge him to reject the Commission's proposals.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Whose Opinion?

So the BBC (Biased Broadcasting Corporation) say they have an opinion poll which says 60% of Scots think Kenny MacAskill's decision to release Abdul Baset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was wrong, but the poll was of a grand total of 1005 people living in Scotland. How representative was it? How were the 'random' telephone numbers chosen? How come I have been totally unable, so far, to find anyone at all who thought the decision was wrong?
Brian Taylor's smug, self satisfied report on the poll was totally predictable - yet another flimsy attempt to undermine the SNP Government. It is time to root out this parcel o' rogues and have real Scottish reporting by a real Scottish media.
I prefer to believe that Scots are better than that; that they understand why the decision was made; that they know what compassion is all about; and that they know, deep down, that the trial was a stitch up anyway and that regardless of whether or not al-Megrahi was in any way involved, the truly guilty have never been brought to justice.

Friday, 21 August 2009


And so it begins ..... the condemnation of the release of al-Megrahi; the careful and deliberate emphasis on the BBC National News that this was the work of the Scottish Government - not their government; The pathetic whimpering of the Scottish opposition parties that they wouldn't have done it - oh dearie me no - not us; the righteous indignation from the United States.
Admittedly, it was not in any sense appropriate for Libya to openly celebrate his arrival back in his homeland as they did - but it was surely not surprising that they did, given their continued belief that he was always innocent. As things stand, al-Megrahi remains convicted of the crime of which he was accused, and will not see the day that his innocence is proven - if ever that day arrives.
That all of those affected by the crime may never truly know the truth is a shame, yet Kenny MacAskill is quite right that if there should ever be an arena in which the whole thing is reviewed and all of the evidence brought to light, that should be a higher authority than Scotland - it should be for the United Nations to show some guts, determination and, dare I say it, unity. But what matters for Scotland is that we did the right thing. We showed that as a Nation, we are capable of compassion and mercy; we demonstrated our Christian principles. Kenny MacAskill stood for us all, and held up to the world all that is good about Scotland. Amid the cheap political posturing, we must not forget that.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

To Be A Nation Once Again

A short while ago, Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill announced that Abdul Baset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is to be released on compassionate grounds.
I felt immense pride, listening to the carefully constructed words of the announcement. Not just pride that Scotland, as a Nation, can uphold our long held principles of compassion and mercy, but also in the inspiring words in which he framed his announcement.
It was delivered on Scottish soil, and related to a crime committed over Scottish soil; Kenny MacAskill's announcement was placed firmly in a global context, yet emphasised the principles of Scottish Justice and of the Scottish people perfectly.
Today, no matter what the USA may say, or Westminster, or the baying pack of political opposition dogs here in Scotland, for me, Kenny MacAskill proved, beyond a shadow of doubt, that whilst we may not yet be independent, we are a Nation once again.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Thou Shalt Not Pass

Since 2005, the Patiala Pipe Band, from Lahore, Pakistan has competed each year in the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow.
Not this year.
The UK Borders Agency refused entry visas to around thirty members of the band, along with all bar one of a thirty five man strong government and trade delegation from Lahore, which is twinned with Glasgow.
Despite pleas from the Scottish Government and the Scotland Office, the UKBA would not relent.
That Scotland's national interest can be damaged in this way by a petty and small minded organisation operating under rules set by Westminster is yet another reason why we need independence now.
This ridiculous ruling is an appalling manifestation of what 'tough immigration rules' really means. For a welcoming, friendly and open nation such as ours, this is an anathema. An independent Scotland would sweep away much of this nonsense and replace it with rules that reflect our national psyche. Of course we would want to effectively control illegal immigration. Naturally, we would want to ensure that visitors returned home when they were supposed to - we just wouldn't use a sledgehammer to do it!


When it was reported a few days ago that Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi was likely to be released on compassionate grounds, I felt immense pride in our government that we could show the world that here in Scotland, we do things differently, and we can recognise that to leave a man dying of prostate cancer, who has always protested his innocence, to die far from home and family is pointless; has nothing whatever to do with justice; and would represent no more than a final, spiteful act of retribution. In my mind, along with that of Jim Swire, whose daughter was a victim of the Lockerbie abomination, al-Megrahi was always innocent; nothing more than a manipulated pawn in a political game in which the American machine found it convenient to ostracise Libya.
That the US had, just a few months earlier, shot down an Iranian airliner seemed to matter not one jot. And Americans today still believe what they are fed by their own machine.
The original speculation of release on compassionate grounds would have meant that al-Megrahi's appeal could continue, and the new evidence from foreign parts could be heard. There was more than a chance, therefore, that his pleas of innocence might finally be vindicated - even if the likelihood is that it may have come too late for the man himself.
And so, when the news came that he was abandoning his appeal, a couple of days after he was visited by Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, I felt cheated and let down. It's hard not to believe that somewhere along the line, the pressure not to have the potential embarrassment of the new evidence meant that somewhere, somebody had been 'got at' by the might of the machine.
It remains now to be seen whether al-Megrahi is finally released on compassionate grounds, or simply returned to Libya to serve out his last few days or weeks of sentence there, because he had dropped his appeal and, by doing so, become eligible for transfer. I still live in hope that, despite the venomous reaction of the United States of Indignant Retribution, we will choose to release him and show the world that the true face of compassion is alive and well, and living in Scotland.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Ups and Downs of Scottish Tourism

On July 24th, VisitScotland finally owned up to what had been obvious to many - that numbers of visitors to Scotland last year were down by over one million - an eight percent drop. They announced that tourist spending fell by four percent, down £156 million, of which £113 million was attributed to business tourism, with business spending down by fourteen percent.
In truth, these figures, in time of recession, weren't all that bad - and came as no surprise to all those who have felt over the years that VisitScotland were past masters of the art of telling porkies ayway. A refreshing change to hear something believable.
Ah yes, but that was then - this is now - just a couple of weeks later.
Today VisitScotland reportedly made the announcement that a record £63.5 million was generated in Scotland through tourism last year. They said the drive to encourage people to visit during the quieter tourist months brought in £17 million more than the previous year ....
Confused? Yup, so am I. These figures seem to bear no relation to the reality on our streets last year, and don't seem to match up in any way to the earlier figures. Somewhere along the line, we're obviously comparing apples with pears - but the biggest question is are VisitScotland statistics rotten apples?


So that well known diminutive boat rocker, Hazel Blears has returned to her car in sunny Salford after delivering Labour leaflets about what they're doing to reduce crime, to find that her car has had its windscreen severely dunted and all four tyres slashed. The possibility that this has happened because disaffected voters of whatever age have recognised her car and taken the opportunity to protest cannot be discounted. It can't be condoned, of course, but it cannot possibly be ruled out. Unless you're Hazel Blears, that is.
She, in her infinite wisdom, has chosen to blame 'bored teenagers with nothing to do on a hot afternoon'. Even if that were true what does it say about the Labour administration in Salford and the facilities they do (or don't) provide for teenagers?
Worse, the statement itself says a great deal about Ms Blears' respect for teenagers in her constituency (zero) and about her own self denial. Oh, yes, and 'police have appealed for eye witnesses'.... did they, I wonder, appeal for eye witnesses when my daughter's car was broken into recently in Salford - of course not.
All men and women are equal - equally irrelevant - unles you're an MP.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

When will they ever learn?

In July 2007, an experimental project to discover more about the cultural behaviour of Golden Eagles began when an Eagle chick, named 'Alma' by the project, was ringed and fitted with a GPS transmitter. Since then many people have followed Alma's progress on the internet through the website run by legendary conservation trailblazer Roy Dennis - The Highland Foundation for Wildlife
Now, after two years of tracking Alma, followed by thousands of interested people on the internet, Alma has been found dead - poisoned in Glen Esk, Angus. In this single despicable and criminal act, someone, for whatever unknown motive, has destroyed two years' work, the season before Alma was due to mate. This is the second Eagle poisoning in Scotland this year. Some firmly believe that these incidents are the work of rogue gamekeepers, still living in the dark days and determined to preserve the grouse population for the delectation of the wealthy; some that it is the work of farmers who still believe young lambs are the target of this aerial Monarch of the Glen. It is easy for accusations to fly around - but perhaps the very fact that Alma was being tracked will help to narrow down the circumstances sufficiently to point the finger toward the guilty party. The project subsequently ringed two other chicks, Angus and Tom. Sadly, Angus's transmitter failed, but Tom's is still going strong and you can watch his progress on the website. Perhaps some of you may be sufficiently inspired by what the Foundation does to decide to make a donation. I know I will, in memory of Alma. And I will continue to hope that Tayside Police will aprehend the culprit(s) and achieve a successful prosecution.
Where have all the Eagles gone, long time passing
Where have all the Eagles gone, long time ago
Where have all the Eagles gone, Poisoned victims every one
When will they ever learn, When will they ever learn.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The Money Merry-Go-Round

Our local newspaper, the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, has a regular column entitled 'Foolscap' - a collection of disconnected jottings with a humourous edge that as often as not, pokes fun at local worthies, but occasionally produces the odd real gem.Such was the case this week, with the tale below ....

A TALE for our times. One day a wealthy tourist arrived in a small town, let us call it Nethymore.

He walked into the only hotel, laid a £100 note on the reception counter and went to inspect the rooms upstairs in order to pick one.

The hotel proprietor took the £100 note and ran to pay his debt to the butcher. The butcher took the £100 note and rushed to pay his debt to the pig farmer.

The pig farmer took the £100 note and ran to pay his debt to the supplier of his feed and fuel. The supplier of feed and fuel took the £100 note and rushed to pay his debt to the town's 'lady of the night', who in these hard times had given her "services" on credit.

She ran to the hotel to pay off her debt with the £100 note to the hotel proprietor to pay for the rooms that she rented when she brought her clients there.

The hotel proprietor then laid the £100 note back on the counter so that the wealthy tourist would not suspect anything.

At that moment, the rich tourist comes down after inspecting the rooms, picks up his £100 note saying that he does not like any of the rooms, and promptly leaves town.

No one earned anything. However, the whole town is now without debt, and looks to the future with a lot of optimism.

And that, dear reader, is how our Government is doing business today – and possibly a leisure company near you.

There's no denying foolscap's story made me smile - definitely better than reading the news. But, of course, the flaw in the argument is that the hotel keeper didn't actually get to keep the £100 note, so he is still out of pocket. So the paradigm here might just be that the hotel keeper in this story is you and me - the taxpayer. The banks still pay their executives big bonuses; the Westminster crew continue to fiddle the books; companies get rescued; like the transfer market in football, the money just keeps moving round - and the fatal flaw is that it's our money, but there's precious little chance of our getting it back, whilst the dole queues continue to grow. How much would we give for the rich tourist - a one G Brown Esq - to take his money and leave town?

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Every Party's Got Numpties

We all like to think that the political party we live and die for can do no wrong, and everybody in it is totally brilliant; quite beyond criticism. Truth is, of course, that it's never like that, and the concept that everybody's perfect is obviously unsustainable. Sometimes, when there's a difference of opinion, it's on something that matters and affects people's lives and aspirations, but sometimes, sadly, it just gets silly. So here we are, in the middle of the midsummer silly season, and SNP MSP Sandra White has lodged a motion condemning the level of coverage of the Ashes Cricket series in Scotland. On TV last night she described it as 'wall to wall' coverage. I can only assume that someone in her home has been watching it ball by ball on Sky Sports (like me). Apart from that, the only coverage has been highlights nightly on Channel 5, and some (limited) coverage on the 'national' news channels in the sport section. Never mind that twenty eight thousand Scots play cricket; never mind the host of teams up here in the North of Scotland Cricket League, like Forres St Lawrence, who I used to play for; never mind the famous Freuchie - kings of village cricket; never mind that Scotland have taken their place on more than one occasion in world cup limited over tournaments, and will surel;y continue to do so. But the real point is that this is simply wrong-headed woolly thinking on an issue that in the grand scheme of things simply doesn't matter. It's a totally daft motion that serves no useful purpose at all. There's a much bigger issue in the discussion on whether or not Scotland should have our own public service television broadcaster - an independent Scottish BBC - something many of us passionately believe in, and an issue I have made the case for on BBC's own 'Newswatch' programnme. This is something that does matter, for as long as we continue to be given 'the news, weather and travel where you live' in a five minute slot on breakfast TV, a mere half an hour each early evening and five minutes late at night, our television persona will always be that of just another UK region and we will continue to be fed "National" news like that this morning on the crisis facing England in the cost to older folk and their families of personal care - which, of course, is not an issue in Scotland at all, or the ballyhoo about O and A level results weeks after our young folk have had theirs. I could go on and on.... And then of course, there's that gatuitous and overblown phrase "our Scotland correspondent" so beloved of BBC news editors. Nice to know we deserve one then.... But to confuse public service broadcasting with commercially motivated satellite channels that viewers pay to subscribe to simply clouds the issue and devalues the real argument and to pick on cricket when there's so much more to genuinely complain about is just plain numpty.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Closing the A83

Most folk would, of course, naturally regret the deaths of two servicemen when their Tornado crashed into a hillside in Glen Kinglass, above the A83 near Arrochar. There is, of course, very little left of the aircraft, and access to the crash site is pretty much only by helicopter. Yet for all that, the A83 - the main artery to the area around Loch Fyne, has been closed and remains closed today. The diversion that is in force is a seventy five mile detour. The damage this does to the tourism industry in the area is immense. It is hard to imagine that this closure is for any other reason than the convenience of the investigating services. It is certainly nothing whatever to do with the security of the crash site - years ago, I was involved in keeping the crash site of a Jet Provost secure in Shropshire - I know what's involved. No amount of restriction of public access will bring these aircrew back - but if the A83 is not opened again soon, businesses that suffered a while back due to the landslide that closed the road may this time simply not survive.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Who's Corrupt?

Amongst all the fuss and palaver about MP's in Westminster who are 'at it' - working the system for all they're worth - and then some, here's another wee thought .... Over the last ten or eleven days, the Daily Telegraph has deliberately chosen to drip feed scandal on what is, let's remember, a small minority of the six hundred-odd MP's in Westminster. They allegedly paid a large sum of money to obtain this material illegally, so large that they dare not reveal how much - and there's no 'freedom of information act' to apply to newspapers. They have chosen, with undisguised glee, to maximise the damage that is being done to Parliament simply to sell their newspaper. So who's the most corrupt here?
Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that our MP's are Angels - clearly some of them are not - and it's one thing to use the system they have in place - even though it clearly needs to be radically changed, but quite another to abuse it. But when push comes to shove, isn't this just a wee bit the pot calling the kettle black?

Monday, 18 May 2009

Pomp and Circumstance

Last Wednesday, I made the long trip to Ballachulish, in the stunningly beautiful landscape around Glencoe, for a little bit of ceremony. My brother, Adrian, who used to be a gamekeeper once upon a long time ago, became ordained in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and subsequently took up a ministry down in Englandshire - right down at the bottom end of Englandshire to boot - near Brighton. Now it was to be time for him and his wife Patsy, together with one remaining daughter still at home, Donna, to make the trip back home to take up a post of Rector of the six charges of St Adamnan Duror; St Bride, Onich; Holy Cross, Portnacrois; St John, Ballachulish; St Mary, Glencoe and St Paul, Kinlochleven in the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles. The service was excellent, and carried through not just with due solemnity, but also with great good humour by the two rival Bishops involved. The chalice which Adrian used for Communion is known as the Appin Chalice, reputed to have been carried by the Appin Stewart Regiment in the uprising of 1745 - or quarter to six as it's sometimes known - and used for Communion before the Battle of Culloden. It's an interesting claim, and one that appears to have rather better proberty than that of Macpherson's Fiddle - the broken remnants of which can apparently be found in half a dozen places. Anyhow, I digress, in somewhat Ronnie Corbett style, so back to the day - there were some excellent hymns, really very well sung by an enthusiastic congregation, apart, that is, for 'You Shall Go Out With Joy' at the end, which rather floored them all - so much so that at one point, Donna and I suddenly became aware that we were the only two left singing, which dampened our ardour somewhat. More a case of 'You Shall Go Out with a Whimper'! Adrian really will have to get on and teach them all this great celebratory song! After the service, all made their way to Kentallen Hall (though there appeared to be some dubiety about whether said hall was in Kentallen or Duror - such are the ways of the West Highlands....) to be presented with the most magnificent spread of goodies provided by the ladies of the charges. Such were the delights on offer, I simply must find another excuse to go back for a second round - Ceilidh, anyone?

Adrian and Patsy are lucky indeed to have found such a wonderful place to live and work, though my thoughts return to our mother, unable to leave her flat in Canterbury to be with us due to illness, and unlikely herself to ever be able to move back north. At least, once I have done the editing work, she will have a video of proceedings to watch. So, remembering the beauty of springtime in the West Highlands, I thought I might just close this blog with the first verse and chorus of a song of praise that I wrote a few years back, that somehow seems to be entirely appropriate :

As you look at the golden leaves of Autumn
Shafts of sunlight glinting in the trees
As you catch the first snowflake on the mountain
Heart aglow although your fingers freeze
In every passing moment of contentment
You feel in every season of the year
Who do you think has made this magic for you?
How can you not believe Our Lord is here?

Our Lord is here
Among the deer
Beside the swiftly flowing stream, Our Lord is Here
Our Lord is here
His presence clear
His words are calling through the glens
Our Lord is here

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Gaelic in the Highlands

Friday saw the opportunity to take part in a Gaelic Awareness day organised by the Council at headquarters. Initially offered to members of the Council's Gaelic Committee, with a maximum of eighteen places, the course invitation was extended to all elected members, and I was delighted to be able to take up the chance. 'Gaelic Awareness', I hear muttered under the collective readership's breath .... a bit dull? Well, no, actually. Course presenter Roddy Maclean made the day wide ranging, entertaining and challenging - the latter especially in getting us to overcome our inhibitions and try a bit of the language itself. Aspects of the unfortunate historic repression of the language were covered - not just at the hands of the Westminster Governments of the time, but just as much by the lowland Scots - although it was surprising to see that one of the last southern stronholds of Gaelic was way down in Galloway and South Ayrshire. In talking about place names and their origins, the strong connections between the names and the landscape were evident, and the links between language and culture - the way in which language is the weft that binds cultural threads into a cohesive whole were explored by what it would be fair to say was an enthusiastic audience. The course ran from 9.30 right through to 4pm - yet I can honestly say that time seemed to fly by, and my ageing attention was held throughout. One of the most interesting side issues that we explored was the reluctance in Caithness to accept the Council's Gaelic road signs policy. Wick member Graeme Smith gave us a careful and considered explanation of why the policy and its implementation to date had raised so many hackles and explained that it was more an issue of presentation and pace of implementation, rather than blank refusal. Personally, I could appreciate what he was saying. It's something of the old adage that government without consensus is bad government - perhaps greater efforts could have been made to reach that consensus. 
But perhaps the single biggest threat to the health ofthe language is apathy. If not enough care, and too few see that vital link between Highland culture and identity that the language represents, the future is bleak. To that end, the biggest single disappointment of the day was that, out of a council of eighty members, just seven made the effort. So thanks are due to George Farlow, Roy Pedersen, Angela MacLean, Janet Campbell, Graeme Smith and Jaci Douglas - who made the effort to be there for the middle part of the day despite her husband being away, and the need to get her young family off to school and collect them in the afternoon. To everyone else ... where were you? You really don't know what you missed - and if the opportunity comes round again, don't miss out.
And to Ruairidh MacIlleathain, Tapadh leat.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Come out, come out, wherever you are

The Gurkha saga rumbles on. This afternoon, it was reported on Radio Scotland that Phil Woolas was refusing to come out of the Westminster TV studio because Joanna Lumley was waiting to speak to him on the other side of the door after the Home Office had sent letters out to five Gurkhas rejecting their applications for residence. The unedifying prospect of a Minister of State reportedly too frightened to face the delectable - and hardly wicked witch of the west - Ms Lumley shows just how untenable the Government's position has become. Eventually, we were all able to witness Mr Woolas stating that the letters of rejection didn't mean rejection, followed by Ms Lumley apparently dictating what the Government's new policy will be, whilst Mr Woolas, like a tame lapdog, stood to one side, nodding like Churchill (the dog, that is). Oh, Yes!
At the same time, We in The Highland Council were unanimously voting to write to the Prime Minister to urge that the London Government give Gurkha soldiers and their families the same rights as those from the Commonwealth - and to state that Gurkhas will be made most welcome should they choose to settle in the Highlands. Let's hope Gordon Brown isn't too frightened to open the letter!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Woolas Thinking

What is it with Labour politicians from Manchester way?
First we had Hazel (yes, hello, I'm down here) Blears sounding off about her own leader for putting himself 'on the wrong side of the British sense of fair play' over the Gurkhas issue, whilst herself meekly voting on party lines. Now we have that Owdham Tinker, Phil Woolas, Minister of State for borders and immigration, describing the campaign to give Gurkhas the right of residence as 'Political Populism'. This is nothing more than a disgraceful and distasteful insult to all right thinking people. It belittles the Gurkhas, it belittles the people of Britain and it belittles the man himself. If this is the best he can do as the Minister of State responsible for this sorry affair, then it's time he went.


Monday afternoon saw me down at our superb Highland Council run Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore. Around a year or more ago, after a planning meeting in which it was agreed that a sleeper house could be demolished, I featured on the front page of the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, calling for a survey of the sleeper houses that remained in the area, lest they might all disappear before we realised, and expressing the hope that the Folk Museum might be able to save some. I'm delighted to say that I was invited down yesterday to the opening of one that had been moved from the grounds of a house in Newtonmore and lovingly re-set into a mid nineteen fities setting.
So what on earth is a 'sleeper house' I hear you ask, with breathless enthusiasm... This is a vernacular style of building from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries unique to this area, which came about with the building of the railways. These houses were built using railway sleepers - sometimes used, and sometimes new. They were generally set vertically mounted, and being eight feet six inches long, were just the right height, though there are one or two examples around with two stories and all sorts of embellishments. 
Most were simple, with few rooms, and were an inexpensive, but quite warm and snug, way of 
building a house in the days when all you needed was a bit of land - no planning permission, no building regs - just get on and build yourself somewhere to live. For many others, there was a tradition, around the turn of the century, to let out their more opulent homes during the summer to the hunting shooting and fishing brigade, from the times when the summer influx was truly massive - when a little tailor's shop in Newtonmore Main Street imported fourteen tailors from Glasgow to cope with the demand for tweeds - and when double and even triple headed steam trains with twenty four or more coaches thundered through the Pass of Druimuachdar carrying the eager hordes of hoy-poloy for their annual sport. But if the locals vacated their granite built houses of substance for the summer, they had to have an alternative - and the 'summer house' in the garden, built of sleepers, was exactly that. The building that has been lovingly moved by Bob Powell and his team at the Folk Museum is of that ilk. It was moved from the garden of Daluaine, in Newtonmore. Built in the early 1900's, this small house, measuring six metres by three metres also had a brickwork fireplace and chimney and a corrugated tin roof. 

It was externally rendered with lime plaster onto a wooden lath base, then later clad in corrugated iron. The building had two rooms, a living space with the ceiling following the pitched roof line, and a bedroom, with a lower horizontal ceiling. At the same time that this building was offered to the museum, another former summer house once associated with the St Bride's and Laggan Church Manse was also offered, and although this could not be moved in its entirety, the tongued and grooved lining boards from its interior were recycled to replace those in the Daluaine summer house which had long since disappeared. The summer house has been faithfully reconstructed and partly rendered to reflect the original finish, with the other walls retaining the corrugated iron covering. The interior has been fitted out for the mid nineteen fities, complete with an old steam radio, coronation mugs and cups - and so many little touches that make real connections for those of a certain age, and a wonderful living history lesson for kids. Round the side, there's an outside privvy - though the staff are still trying to track down a roll of Izal to make the story complete! This is the real joy of the Folk Museum as it grows, piece by piece, building by building. It makes connections - in reflecting the story of the Highlands right through to the last half of the twentieth century it creates pathways of learning; it fires the imagination; it sparks memories; it entertains, through its programme of craft and activity demonstrations and recreations of life of the time. This summer, visitors can even try their hand at the sport of shinty - be warned - it's harder than it looks! But what is actually the best bit about the Highland Folk Museum is that it's absolutely free! Spend a day there - you won't be disappointed - oh, yes, and don't forget to take the short walk or drive into the village itself and down to the Clan Macpherson Museum at the other end of town - equally free - though they do appreciate a donation.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Does Europe Matter?

On June 4th - less than five weeks from now, we will be voting in the European Elections - hands up all those who knew that it was so close? Thought so - it didn't take too long to count both of you. And yet Europe has a mssive impact on all of our lives. In Scotland, we have, and historically have always had, many friends in Europe, who would listen to our small but considered voice, if only it could be heard above the clamour of our larger neighbours, who do their best to shut us out. In England, there is a different agenda for Europe, but one no less significant than our own. Yet the collective disinterest in Europe of our people, and, indeed, our political parties is tantamount to deafening silence. Only this week, a failure to agree in Europe on implmentation of the working time directive meant that the proposals had to be scrapped. In the Highlands, hasd these proposals gone through, our Fire Service, which uses retained, not full time, crews everywhere, apart from Inverness City, could have collapsed as volunteer crews found themsleves no longer able to contact for an appropriate level of service to the Fire and Rescue Service. Basically, 'available' time would count as working time under EC rules. Either the Fire and Rescue Service would have to move to full time crews only, or just not provide cover any more. The cost could have been many millions, and the service level would have been decimated. Thankfully, it didn't happen - yet - but we need strong Euro MP's making strong cases for our needs and aspirations - Euro MP's who know, recognise and understand the difficulties that are faced in our sparsely populated Atlantic fringe of Europe. Of course Europe matters - and so does the vote of each and every one of us. Come June 5th, let Scotland speak for Scotland - let the Scottish National Party's strong list of candidates show what they can do. The SNP list is -
Ian Hudghton
Alyn Smith
Aileen McLeod
Drew Hendry
Duncan Ross
Gordon Archer
They are alll ready and willing to act on behalf of this Nation's interests. Why would anyone vote for any other party when these men and women have got what it takes?

Bleary Eyed Labour

In what has undoubtedly been a bad week for Labour, that small, but seemingly ever-smiling blot on the Salford landscape, Hazel Blears, has been the latest to weigh in with a view that Labour has displayed a 'lamentable failure' to communicate. She says "We need to have a relationship with the voters based on shared instincts and emotions. "We need to start showing we understand the instincts, fears, hopes and emotions of the broad mass of British people." Fat chance - understand? shared? relationship? That'll be a tough one.
She also criticises the government's handling of the issue of the Gurkhas, saying it put itself "on the wrong side of the British sense of fair play, and no party can stay there for long without dire consequences". For a change, she's more or less right, if calling for the fundamentally impossible - but what are the motives of a government minister making such a critique? Is she looking to get herself fired to up her profile come the inevitable labour revolution? She can't possibly have her sights on the leadership herself .... can she? Certainly, another Maggie Thatcher, she's not - in terms of political stature, that is. She says she's really saying to all other ministers that they have to re-connect with people on the streets - get out and meet people - but John Prescott said that much better in his usual uncompromising way. Yet for all that, the picture is one of dis-unity, of petty squabbles and opening up of wounds. The clock is surely ticking on the last days of this government. But what of the alternative? Here in Scotland, we have a credible alternative - one that's already in Government, and doing very well thank you, despite the best efforts of London Labour at sabotage. In England, though, the current most likely alternative is the Tories. The effect in Scotland would be to put in Westminster a party that would try to do far more than Labour ever dared to crush the Scots latent desire to be a Nation again. A party whose mantra might well re-introduce that cursed missing verse of the 'National' Anthem - "Lord grant that Marshal Wade May by thy mighty aid Victory bring. May he sedition hush, And like a torrent rush, Rebellious Scots to crush. God save the Queen." Such a party may well accelerate our drive for independence, and might have the same effect in Wales, too. But would the Tories under David Cameron's Will O' the Wisp set of pseudo policies, really be good for England? It will not be too long now, before we will all have the opportunity to ask that question - and the opportunity to consider that if the - now dominant -new force in Scotland are the Scottish National Party, in England, too, it will be vitally important to ensure that at the very least, a credible third force holds sufficient balance of power to prevent the worst excesses of either Labour or Conservative administrations.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Fighting Spirit

My father commanded a contingent of Gurkhas in the first Chindit raids behind Japanese lines into Burma in the second world war. He and his men had been trained in the Indian jungle by the then famous tiger hunter, Jim Corbett, who had a breed of tiger named after him. He always used to say that he was proud to have served with these loyal, dedicated and fearsome fighting men and that it was an honour to serve with them. They were, and still are, known for their fighting spirit. 45,000 Gurkhas died fighting for Britain. 26 VC's have been awarded. Yesterday, their fighting spirit, alongside the redoutable Avenger, Joanna Lumley, surfaced once again as MP's defeated the government on the right of Gurkhas who have served us all in the British Army to reside in Britain. The vote is not the end of the story as it is now for the government to bring new proposals to the house, but the message sent yesterday to Brown's crumbling authority cannot be denied. Perhaps there is hope for the UK after all. Perhaps there is still some decency and honour left.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Wind of Change

There are wind farms - and then there are wind farms. Whatever the pros and cons of the big installations that march across the skyline like Birnham Wood come to Dunsinane, which we won't go into here, there is the issue of much smaller, community based schems and even wind turbines for individuals. Over in Mallaig, on the west coast, the Mallaig and Morar Community Association have an emerging proposal to install two 30ft high wind turbines on waste ground next to its car park, to solve the problem of 60% of it's £10,500 per year income being swallowed up by electricity bills. But following publication of the idea in their community newsletter opposition has rolled in - from Montreal, Florida and Adelaide. An American tour operator has the temerity to say that wind turbines are not what his clients wish to see. He claims, somewhat bizarrely, that Mallaig is noted for 'small islands, forests, mountains, waterfalls and wildlife'. And Dorothy is alive and well and living in the land of Oz! (oh yes - wasn't there a windmill on Dorothy's farm, now I come to think of it) Someone in Montreal says that she is horrified at the idea of these turbines being 'close to houses' because of the 'noise levels' - but many people have this kind of turbine actually mounted on their homes, or very close by - they are not the huge whirling dervishes of the wind energy farm. And the Adelaide contribution said 'If I can ever visit again, I would be very disappointed to see such a beautiful place exhibiting such an ugly reminder of the modern world'. That's as opposed to the beautiful working fishing boats streaked with those delightful variations of the colour of rust, or the elegant railway platforms, or those neat little articulated fish lorries then?
The trouble with the global communications world is that the capacity for the eccentric, the uninfomed and the opinionated becomes infinite. Come to think of it, this blog is testament to that!

Right to a Roof

The Scottish Government have announced a consultation on their intention to scrap the right to buy for all new council and housing association builds. It's estimated that between 2012 and 2022 such a move would retain between 10,000 and 18,000 homes in the low cost rent sector that would otherwise have been lost. The Tories introduced the right to buy back in 1980 and since then nearly half a million public sector homes have been sold, and only 42,000 built. The Government is also consulting on plans to make it easier to suspend the right to buy in areas where there is a shortage of affordable homes - something that is already in force here in Badenoch and Strathspey. Housing Minister Alex Neil has said that "ending the right to buy for new build houses will safeguard social housing for future generations across Scotland. "These changes, alongside our efforts to reverse the decades of decline in council house building, backed by £50M in finding, will support councils to begin building homes again."
Shelter Scotland have welcomed the move. Director Graeme Brown said "There's no point in running a bath with the plug out the other end and that's what we continue to do when we build good quality affordable rented homes and then sell them off at a discounted price." The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has welcomed the move. The Liberal Democrats have welcomed the move - Jamie Stone is quoted as saying "There is now an overwhelming case to abolish right to buy for new build council and social landlord houses."
So who, I wonder, might think it not such a good idea? I'll give you two guesses .... Yes, that's right, New Labour (Old Tory) and New Tory (Old Tory). Extraordinarily, Labour spokesperson Mary Mulligan described it as a cynical attempt to divert attention from the Government's failure to help housing associations build more affordable homes. That would be £50M worth of failure then would it? And whose economic situation might it be that makes it difficult to build in the first place? Tory spokesperson Mary Scanlon said that right to buy was "One of the great successes" of the last Tory Government. What kind of rose-tinted spectacles are you wearing Mary? Sure, every council house sold off is one more opportunity for a family to get a heavily discounted hutch up onto the housing ladder, but it's also another lost affordable home for a young family just setting out and flying the nest. Why should people start on the personal profit trail if it's at the expense of those who, as a result, can't even get a roof over their heads at a sensible price when they most need it, at the start of their working lives. Perhaps a better way might be to come up with some kind of scheme that incentivises those who are considering the first rung of the ownership ladder to take the step and move out of their social housing, freeing it up for someone who needs it.
But the real iniquity of it all lies inextricably with this discredited and tired Westminster Government. Labour spokespeople in Scotland can bleat all they like about 'failure to help housing associations' - but their masters in Westminster created a spurious scheme to persuade Local Authorities to get their tenants to agree to transfer of council stock to housing associations or trusts, in return for writing off council house debt. If, as in Highland, council tenants were very happy with their councils - even if it was on a 'better the devil you know' basis - the vote was an emphatic NO to the big Westminster bribe, then tough luck - other councils can have their housing debt written off, but you can't - you've been naughty boys and not gone along with what we want, and it's our ball, so we'll take it away. Meanwhile, I think it's some 43% of all council house receipts that go towards servicing our council house debt. So it's Westminster who are the main impediment to a resumption of council house building in Highland, and it's Westminster who are agin the idea of stopping the right to buy. And for the avoidance of doubt, no, it wouldn't be any better under Cameron's cronies.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Ward Business

Every second Monday is the date for our regular ward business meetings. These involve the four councillors for the ward, and our ward manager, Sue Palmer, who hails from Sheffield - on the wrong side of the Pennines for those like me with Lancastrian leanings, but still, nobody's perfect - anyhow, I digress - The ward business meeting picks up all of the issues which are of concern to any of us, so we can decide on a course of action to address them. In some wards, political differences mean that co-operation is non-existent, but thankfully, we don't work like that here. With two Liberal Democrats, one Independent and myself, SNP, we still manage to get along just fine and make joint decisions about things that concern us. Through the ward manager, we ask that representatives of council services where we have issues, or just simply questions, attend the meeting let us know what's happening or what they are planning. Today, we had two such attend to tell us of their plans for the development of the Highland Folk Park in Newtonmore and how they proposed they might move the exhibits from the now dilapidated buildings in Kingussie to their planned new home three miles down the road. There had been a long running sore in Newtonmore that the entrance to the Folk Park is well outside the village and that this tended to mitigate against any interaction between visitors to the folk park and the village itself - and vice versa. It was very gratifying to hear that, after years of trying to get them to address this issue, they are now actively looking at a pedestrian access at the village end of the park.
Another issue discussed today was efforts to rationalise the office spaces used by the council in Kingussie - we are scattered in five locations and the plan was to try to get everyone in the same location, but this is looking problematic, to say the least.
On a lighter note, though with a serious element, we were discussing arrangements to fly the armed forces flag for seven days from June 22nd, armed forces day. Naturally, we were happy to support the brave men and women who fight for our country - even if we don't always agree with the politics that says they have to - but Councillor Gregor Rimell's impression of the hoy-poloy of the armed forces had us all in stitches - a kind of local version of It Ain't Half Hot Mum. It's always good to know that there is room for some humour in your day - whatever you do.

Turning to domestic matters, yesterday, we heard that our daughter would be performing in a choir in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on Sunday June 28th, just a few days before her birthday, so it was onto the Flybe website to snaffle whatever flights we could for a trip down. Turns out that my other half will fly down on Friday morning, but I will go on the Saturday as I have a Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning meeting in Ballater on the Friday. Then we'll come back on the day after her birthday. This will be a great opportunity to show off the pictures and videos from India, from whence we will have returned just a fortnight earlier.

And today's thought ... so there's an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico which seems to be hitting them hard - although I heard one report that the '100 dead' was nowhere near the truth and that '5' might be nearer. And someone in Spain is a little bit ill, along with a couple of folk in Scotland who have 'mild symptoms'. In the words of Douglas Adams in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy ...

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Health and Efficiency

Those of a certain age will perhaps recall the magazine of that name, which, under the thinly disguised veil (or lack of it) of 'naturism' satisfied every schoolboy's pubescent fantasies with liberal helpings of the naked, if airbrushed, female form. My tale today is of a different Health and Efficiency - the imposition of Health and Safety considerations on what was once a simple job. Driving back from a Highland and Islands Fire Board meeting in Inverness, on the A9 trunk road, in a dual carriageway section, I came across one of those big yellow lorries with a huge flashing 'keep right' arrow on the back of it, moving very slowly. Another couple of hundred yards along the road, there was another one, performing exactly the same function, and moving equally slowly. Another hundred yards further along and guess what - there's another one. Immediately in front of this one is a little tractor, with a mowing attachment, trimming the roadside verge - a verge which, by the way, given that it's barely spring yet in the Highlands had no more than an inch of growth on it and really didn't need trimming yet. Once upon a time, this job would have been done by a machine on the verge, not one on the road with an attachment overhanging the verge, and there would have been a warning triangle or two by the road side ahead of the spot to warn of 'grass trimming'. Now, we're so ruled by the health and safety mafia that we get this kind of over-reaction - why three of the beasts, for goodness' sake? They're huge - you can't miss them - surely one would do if it's really necessary to have them at all. But what on earth is the cost per mile of trimming verges that don't need trimming using four vehicles and four drivers? And what is the value to the drivers of these vehicles of a job that must be as satisfying as being a lift operator in a bungalow?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

A Question of Planning

Wednesday night was the occasion of our regular Ward Forum - a meeting where community councils and members of the public can come along and ask questions - both lodged in advance and on the night - and usually each of these has a theme. Last night's was the perenninal issue of Planning - probably the most controversial and least understood of all matters that councils deal with. And as luck would have it, it was my turn to chair the meeting. It was no surprise that fifty people turned up - some with good questions and others with questions that revealed just how big the gulf was between what people think about planning and what the reality is. Head of Planning for Highland Council, Richard Hartland, explained the changes in planning law that are coming in this year, with disarming honesty and pulling no punches - where he felt that the Scottish Government had got it wrong, he said so, and where he felt that Highland Council could do things better, he said so, too. This was most refreshing, and I hope it was appreciated. Don McKee, Head of Planning for the Cairngorms National Park Authority added his perspective on the changes as to how the Park would handle applications. Then it was time for the questions.... Some folk think that, because councillors who are going to determine a planning application cannot comment on the merits or otherwise of an application until the day it's determined (we have to be able to evidence that we haven't 'pre-judged' an application before all the details are presented to us) that means they can't talk to us about an application, put their point of view, or ask us for advice about how to go about putting forward their viewpoint. This is totally wrong and we were able, I hope, to get across the message that councillors are always happy to listen to whatever anyone has to say - but also to make it clear that anyone means anyone - developers included! There were some folk present with definite agenda about one live planning issue or another and one who wanted to go off track and use the meeting as a vehicle for criticising his community council. I had to be firm at times - and certainly to put a stop to that line of statement - but I was conscious all the time of the need to maintain a balance between allowing people the chance to say what they wanted to, and keeping control of the meeting. By the end, I felt pretty exhausted by the process, but I kept the meeting to time and there were no complaints, so I hope I got it more or less right. The really good thing, though, is that enough people out there, who care about where they live, turned out to participate. We must never forget that planning affects people's lives and the places where they live more directly, and more permanently than anything else - a hole in the road is just a hole - and sometime it gets fixed (unless you live in Salford), but a concrete carbuncle in front of your house is there, for all practical purposes, for ever. It's the responsibility to strike the right balance that we must not lose sight of.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


So the Chancellor of the Exchequer has given us all the benefit of his wisdom in the form of the Budget statement, and we are all supposed to be eternally grateful that we have such experienced and capable hands at the helm of the United Kingdom's economy. The same hands, of course, that steered us into this mess in the first place. The same image of prudence that watched over banks out of control and city fat cats getting rich quick off the back of spiralling speculation. But this budget represents the ultimate betrayal. In effecting huge cuts in public spending - 'efficiency savings' he euphamistically calls them - the last remnant of any prospect that New Labour might be considered as a socialist party has been stripped away, and New Labour has now finally and fully adopted the mantle of Old Conservative. But worse, this budget, created by two Scots who should be ashamed of themselves, is the ultimate betrayal of Scotland. Here, both last year and this, we have done great things - we have boosted the pockets of every household in the country with a nationally agreed freeze on Council Tax, supported by extra money from the Scottish Government to Local Authorities to make this possible. We have cut prescription charges two years running. We have reduced to zero the non domestic rates for every small business with rateable value below £8,000, and reduced costs for those between £8,000 and £15,000. We have put money into housebuilding and more. And we have done all this within a background this year of the most measly of settlements from Westminster. We have done this through collective efforts to secure genuine efficiency savings to balance the books. That the Darling Bud of Westminster should say that 'Scotland must take it's share' of the cuts they now propose totally fails to recognise that the real home of prudence, care for our people and drive for efficiency is here in Scotland. Been there, done that, got the benefits. So what more can we achieve in the name of 'efficiency'? Am I alone in asserting that this is a clear, considered and deliberate ploy on the part of the Westminster Government to undermine all that the SNP Government has done in Scotland? I don't think so - but I just hope that enough of us will see through this thin veil, not be fooled by Westminster's betrayal of socialist values and of Scotland, and see off the dogs that rifle through the dustbins of economic downturn, scratching around for bits of meat. And to Scottish Liberal Democrats, I say 'can you really support the pathetic economic efforts of this Westminster government?' 'Can you really support what Broon and Darling would do to Scotland?' Perhaps it is time to join with us and make the Scottish Government a yet more powerful force for change.

A Long Day's Short Meeting

Back last Friday, I was asked by the Convener of the National Park Authority, to represent the authority at a Tourism Workshop yesterday (Tuesday) in Edinburgh hosted by Jim Mather MSP, the Scottish Government Minister for Tourism. This was to be from 11am to 2pm at a hotel in Ingliston, just outside the capital city. And so, at 6.55am, I left the house to catch the 07.22 train out of Aviemore, which arrived, painlessly enough, in Edinburgh at around 10am. With me were Andrew Harper, a senior staff member of the CNPA, and Alan Rankin, CEO of the Aviemore and the Cairngorms Destination Management Organisation (DMO). A taxi took us speedily to our destination, where we were first to arrive. The meeting itself explored issues about how to raise the profile of tourism, effective marketing, the roles of local authorities and of visitscotland, and also the roles of individual businesses and collective business organisations. I made the point that I felt for many small businesses, who simply didn't have the resources to be able to become directly involved, the only organisations that they could trust to represent their position properly were business organisations, like DMO's and Chambers of Commerce - as only they really understood the issues from a business perspective. Both Andrew and Alan chipped in with comments too - but this wasn't the kind of forum where it would have been welcomed if I had said what I really felt - that visitscotland's role should be to attract people to come to Scotland, but not to try to manage their needs once they arrived. If it were down to me, I would remove the visitscotland role of running visitor information centres altogether, and place this responsibility with tourism business organisations locally, to work with local businesses in each town and village to provide the services and information visitors need. After all, who knows the local area better than local people? And in whose interest is it that visitors are provided with all that they need and are kept happy more than that of local businesses? There is a natural synergy here that goes unheeded and unexploited. But to get there needs a softly softly approach. Highlight of the meeting was watching Jim Mather's expertise in using mind mapping software on the fly whilst running the meeting - quite a trick - and one I'd like to learn. But by 2pm, all was over, and time to make our way back to Edinburgh Haymarket station for the 15.39 train to Perth where we had forty minutes to wait for the train to Aviemore. I got back home at ten past seven. So that was over a twelve hour day, for a three hour meeting. At least there was the compensation of a lively discussion and exploration of the possible with Andrew and Alan on the way down. And the thought that, thank God, Jim Mather was mind mapping a whole meeting - if it had been mine alone.......?

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Caman watch this

Did I mention shinty? No, perhaps I didn't - so it's time to put that right. Shinty is a unique Scottish sport, played mainly in the Highlands, but also by some of those Sassenachs down south in Glasgow and Edinburgh (Sassenach is from the Gaelic word for 'Lowlander' and has nothing at all to do with being English....). Some have tried to paraphrase the spirit on the sport with the disarmingly simple, but utterly incorrect description that it's like hockey, with nae rules. Actually, shinty has many rules - and a far better offside rule than football ever managed - this one's a beaut - there is an area, shaped like a D surrounding the goal - known, strangely enough, as either 'the D' or the goal area. If an attacking player enters this area before the ball does, when the ball does finally enter the area, the player is offside. In the words of Alexander the Meerkat, simples! Hence the interestingly named but beautifully written shinty blog at - not mine - but in terms of writing quality, I wish it were.

Anyhow, I digress - My Saturday job is to write on shinty for the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, and take the photographs for the paper (which I also put up on the web, when I get round to it at ) Today I went down to Newtonmore for the second team game there against Kilmallie (near neighbours of Fort William on the west coast for the uninitiated). An entertaining game for the first half, which I watched, though the visitors capitalised on the few chances they created to take a 2-0 half time lead whilst the home side failed to capitalise on the rather more opporchancities (rip the late, great, Rikki Fulton) that they created. I left at half time to go to Kincraig (eight miles down the road) for the second half of the game there against visitors Lochbroom (from Ullapool, on the north west coast). Lochbroom were far too strong for Kincraig, whose mixture of ageing, but able players and enthusiastic youth has rather too much of the enthusiastic youth who run around a lot, but have a tendency to take their eyes off the ball and miss it altogether. Consequently, the defence leaks like a sieve as more experienced attackers take full advantage. Hence the end result - 7-2 to Lochbroom. But Kincraig soldier on in North Division 3, sometimes against all the odds, as their much bigger Premier League neighbours at Kingussie and Newtonmore inevitably get the pick of the talent.

And so to the picture above - it illustrated the basics of the game - the caman - or curved stick, and the quite lightweight leather ball, which has a wound worsted centre. But this picture also illustrates something else interesting - it's the old adage, once a sportsman, always a sportsman - the Kincraig player is none other than Andrew Freshwater - one time no 1 British skier, and currently commentator on ski-ing for the British Eurosport channel. And the picture below ...

well that just illustrates that, for the faithful, on a beautiful spring afternoon, even when your side's going down by a 7-2 margin, there's still something to smuile about, good company, and what we call up here 'the craic'.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Parking Problems

Today's main event was a meeting of the Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee, to do what's called the 'call in report', followed by an informal board discussion and a visit to the opening of an affordable housing development in Kincraig. So, I hear you avidly ask, what's a call in report? This is clearly the burning issue of the day.
Planning in the Cairngorms National Park is unique. There is nowhere else where the planning authorities remain the Local Authorities (Highland, Moray, Aberdeenshire, Angus) but the Park has the option, within twenty one days of the lodging of an application, to decide that the application raises issues of significance to the aims of the Park and that therefore, the Park's planning officers and the Park planning committee (which consists of the entire board) should decide on the application. Most applications don't get called in in this way - but some do - either because they are obviously controversial, or simply because they do directly impact on one or more of the Park aims. Call in doesn't mean that the Park is 'against' an application - it just means it thinks it is important enough for them to want to have a say. The side effect of this is that, since we have to decide this within twenty one days of any application being lodged, we have to meet every fourteen days - spring, summer, winter or autumn, in between Christmas and New Year included - keeps us on our toes....
The informal discussion invloved a presentation by the entertaining duo of 'Gergask Air' - Councillor Jaci Douglas and board member Lucy Grant, who transported us in their make believe world to the year 2050 and what the Park had achieved, by making changes in how it inter-related with partners and public, beginning way back in 2009. Fortunately they transported us all back to 2009 (apart from Convener David Green, who they seemed to want to leave lost in space), with plenty of food for thought on how we might improve things. From that we went on to a couple of working groups to look at what we do well and what we do not so well.
After lunch, we turned to the vexed question of a web portal for the Park, which has been in gestation for two years now, but still has issues in relation to delivering fair and equitable linkages to all members of all business organisations who have quality accreditation and should therefore appear on the portal. This is a really complicated problem because there are so many organisations that tourism businesses - especially accommodation providers - might choose to join - andwe can't be seen to be favouring one over any other. We need to work with the business community to obtain concensus on a way forward - but quickly!
Then on the Ard Gheal, the new group of four affordable houses built under the auspices of the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust, on land made available by the Forestry Commission. The houses actually cost around £160,000 each to build in the end, but with grants and part ownership, the price for each family was much reduced. Fergus Ewing MSP did the honours opening the development. Back then to the car, where a flat offside rear tyre greeted me - but a trip down to the boathouse at Loch Insh Watersports found Jonny Freshwater with a compressor to hand to oblige with a refill.
And finally .... today's beef - BBC Breakfast TV did a piece this morning on how the Royal Mail were withdrawing five post bus services from remote parts of the Western Highlands - but totally failed to mention that Hiughland Council had reacted swiftly to put emergency measures in place to maintain a public transport service in these areas whilst a more permanent solution was worked out. They had their story, and they were sticking to it, even when I contacted them to point out what we were doing. Such is life!

Thursday, 16 April 2009

First of the many

It's a bit on the wierd side to be sitting here tonight, gone 61 years of ancient, yet posting my first blog. I took this notion for no particular reason other than to try to get across what it's like being an SNP Elected Councillor in a Scottish Local Authority. Truth be told, I'm also a nominated member of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and, when I get the chance in between, an Artist - in which capacity, my claim to fame is having painted the pictures for Susan Hampshire's starring role in the BBC TV series 'Monarch of the Glen'. That's it, then, the briefest of introductions over - and time to put some meat in the sandwich.
So lets try and make a start.
This morning saw me make the trip which my sit up and beg Ford Fusion can now make on its own, up to Inverness - the Headquarters of almost all things Highland Council - for a meeting of the Audit and Scrutiny Committee - the only committee chaired by the official opposition - which we in the SNP currently are. It's role is to scrutinise and audit pretty much anything and everything - if it moves, scrutinise it till it stops, then audit it.
OK, so that's not really what it's about, but it has a serious role in ensuring that decisions are taken properly, policies and procedures are fully followed, and money is spent appropriately. Most interesting issue this time was an audit of job appointments, in which, amongst other things, it was discovered that five out of a sample of thirty five new appointments didn't get issued with contracts of employment. The audit recommendation was to ensure that all service managers informed human resources as they should so that contracts could be issued. But I know that there are many people washing around in the Council system who have never had a contract of employement, so I asked what they were going to do to track these down and fix it. They seem to have something planned, so we'll see.
After a bite of lunch - HQ's notoriously unidentifiable sandwiches - it was back home to log on to have a look at the test site for the National Park's new web portal - not yet launched, but intended to link to via local tourism marketing organisations' sites. The more I dug, the worse it got - inconsistent results and problems with some businesses not being found, or not being linked to. There is still some way to go with this, so I needed to take a trip down the four miles to Grantown to talk things through with the staff involved and agree what I was going to say at tomorrow's board meeting, and why. Perhaps there'll be more on this subject later. For those with a high boredom threshold and a death wish, watch this space.