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.