LETTER FROM SCOTLAND: 30th December 2012

Christmas has been dull, cloudy, rainy, windy, misty, raw and long. But the bleak mid-winter has been lit up by a string of cheerful little scenes appearing like Christmas lights. There were the inflatable Santas blowing in the wind from upper balconies. A candle-lit service on Christmas eve in my local church and, on Christmas morning, Mozart’s “Gloria in Excelsis” sung by the choir in St Giles Cathedral.

And, dare I say it, but I found the post-Christmas rush to the shops quite exciting…from a distance. On Boxing Day, apparently, the shopping centres in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee were mobbed. People queued for bargains like next year’s economic troubles were never going to come. And on-line shopping sites were never busier.

I spent that wet Boxing Day cycling through the misty country lanes of Midlothian. Nothing was stirring there. No horses and hounds came bounding past, no tally-ho-ing. Though, I see that the Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire hunt were out, red jackets and all, one of ten hunts still left in Scotland, despite the ban on hunting with dogs.

There was also, of course, a full list of football fixtures that miserable day – and rugby in the Borders. In the mountains there was skiing. A thousand took to the slopes on Cairn Gorm. And I don’t know whether Boxing Day dipping in the sea counts as a sport, but dozens of hardy swimmers took the plunge at Prestwick and there were 200 chilly-looking folk at Aberdeen beach.

Anyone would think we were already a sporting nation, and the Commonwealth Games are still two years away. Perhaps though, like the shopping, all this Christmas activity is an escape from the grim realities of economics and politics. This week, business leaders in their New Year messages, have been underlining the dangers of further recession and urging the Scottish government not to forget the economy in its drive for independence.

House prices are still falling, by around 2 per cent. The number of houses changing hands in the third quarter of the year was down to its lowest level since records began in 2003. Four towns in Scotland are among the worst in the UK for house price falls – Wishaw, Hamilton, Ayr and Inverness. But there are still some hotspots and signs of an increasingly unequal nation. The price of an average house in Dick Place in Edinburgh, for instance, is now £1.7m, making it Scotland’s most expensive street.

The Christmas week has brought its share of disasters. A hundred homes in Stonehaven were flooded. Roads and railway lines in the North East were closed because of rising flood waters. The main road to Kyle of Lochalsh was closed at Stromferry because of yet another landslide. Three Buddist monks from Thailand were killed in an early morning road accident on the A68 in the Borders. And a mountain guide was killed in a fall in the Cuillins on Skye.

But whatever the disasters in this unkind year, we are still preparing for a good Hogmanay. Here in Edinburgh, Princes Street is being sealed off for the traditional fireworks and rock concerts. In Glasgow, the usual high-jinks are being scaled back this year to a “family friendly” ceilidh and curling on the ice rink, all finishing at a respectable 10pm. In Stonehaven, they are going ahead with the usual “Fireballs” ceremony but the proceeds of a charity collection will go to the victims of the flooding.

And I cannot end the year without mentioning the Scots who have won prizes in the New Years Honours List. Andy Murray gets an OBE for his remarkable tennis year, winning an Olympic Gold medal and the US Open. The rower Katherine Grainger gets a CBE. Another of our rowers Sophie Hosking gets an MBE. So too does the canoeist Tim Baillie and the horse jumper Scott Brash.

The physicist Peter Higgs is made a Companion of Honour for his discovery of the so-called God particle. There’s a knighthood for the principal of Aberdeen University Ian Diamond and a CBE for the journalist Magnus Linklater. The violinist Nicola Benedetti gets a MBE, as does the actress Siobhan Redmond. The Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor is given an OBE. And just to show that it’s not only celebrities who get honours, Ian Craig has been given an MBE for his services to beekeeping and Agnes Leash from Shetland has been given a British Empire Medal for services to crofting.

With so many stars, Christmas has not been so dull after all.