Letter from Scotland 12th October 2012

by John Knox

My highlight of the week was seeing a pod of dolphins leaping through the water in the Firth of Forth. What magnificent, friendly-looking creatures they are, intelligent too, by all accounts. They appeared just off North Berwick, heading towards the Bass Rock, on a beautiful sun-blessed afternoon.

We had just finished a day’s work clearing tree mallow on Craigleith Island – to save the puffins – when the dolphins bounded into sight, following a fishing boat up the Forth. They were leaping right out of the water, unmistakable bottle-nosed dolphins, their shiny skins glittering in the low sunlight. When our boatman came to collect us, he took us up close, explaining that the dolphins would follow our boat because we were herding a shoal of fish ahead of us. We could hear the dolphins breathing as they rolled and dived not six feet from our railing.

Apparently there are around 120 bottle-nosed dolphins living along the east coast of Scotland. They are most often seen in the Moray Firth but we were lucky enough to have found 15 or 20 of them on a rare day’s outing to the Firth of Forth.

On land, things have not been nearly so interesting. The UK and Scottish governments have reached a deal to allow the SNP’s referendum on independence to go ahead in the autumn of 2014. The step-dancing around this agreement has been going on for months, with Alex Salmond making a final twirl – some call it brinkmanship – before the signing ceremony with David Cameron, due this coming week.

The agreement sees the Westminster government granting the Scottish Parliament the legal right to hold a referendum in exchange for there being only one simple question – yes or no to independence. There will be no second question on more powers for the Scottish Parliament within the UK – though, according to the opinion polls, this is what most Scots want.

There were further signs of the recession this week with news that Hall’s food processing factory in West Lothian is nearer than ever to closure, with the loss of 1700 jobs. The Dutch owners Vion say the factory, which produces sausages, black puddings and haggis, is losing £75,000 a day. Closure would be a major blow to the Scottish farming industry, which supplies the factory with 8,000 pigs every week. The Scottish government has been holding talks with the company and hoping a new owner can be found but it’s facing some harsh economic realities.

Creative Scotland – the government’s arts agency – has been facing some harsh realities too. No one seems to like the way it’s handing out its £83m budget. A letter from a hundred prominent Scottish artists accuses the agency of “ill-conceived decision-making, and a lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture.” Names on the letter include the national poet Liz Lochhead, the playwright John Byrne, the composers James Macmillan and Sir Peter Maxell Davies, the film-maker Andrew Gibb and writers Ian Rankin and A L Kennedy.

It seems Creative Scotland is being too short-term, too commercial and too bogged down in “ business-speak and obfuscating jargon.” A spokesman for the agency only made matters worse when he said: “ We are listening very closely to what the sector is telling us and we are taking positive action as a result, across a number of operational and strategic areas.”

Speaking of getting bogged down, I’m happy to report that Scotland’s famous peat bog – in the Flow Country – has won a grant of £9m – not from Creative Scotland thankfully but from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It will help to return an area of seven square miles of forestry to pure peat bog in this remote part of Northern Scotland.

This will not only be good news for otters, hen harriers and golden plovers but also a small step forward for homo sapiens because peat bogs absorb a huge amount of our carbon dioxide. The Flow Country alone, 540 square miles of it, absorbs twice as much C02 as the whole of Britain’s forests put together.

As they say on the Moon, one small step for man, one giant leap for dolphins.