LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 22nd FEBRUARY 2013

The crofters of Raasay are furious. They have lost the shooting and fishing rights on their island to the highest bidder, a stalking firm from South Ayrshire. The eleven crofters say they have spent the last 18 years carefully building up their business – managing the deer population, investing in refrigeration facilities, establishing a wholesale trade in venison and catering for sporting parties. And now the magic carpet has been pulled from under their feet by the government, all because they came a few quid short in the new-fangled tendering process.

They’ve accused ministers of behaving as badly as the old absentee landlords. And this on the home soil of island champions like Sorely MacLean the Gaelic poet and Calum MacLeod the man who build his own road by hand, because the Council refused to do so. Incidentally, the two mile road, 50 years old, is now falling into disrepair, another sign of absentee landlordism perhaps.

The shooting rights issue broke surface in parliament on Thursday during first minister’s question time. Alex Salmond said he was bound by the legal red tape surrounding the public tendering process. But the argy-bargy quickly moved on to waiting times in the health service. This has been a running sore, so to speak, over the last few months. It was opened again this week by a report from Audit Scotland which found that the accounting system in the NHS was not sufficiently accurate to track whether health boards were massaging their waiting time figures or not.

No patient is supposed to wait more than 18 weeks between their GP’s referral and the start of their treatment. But apparently there was an increasing number of patients being classed as “socially unavailable” for treatment – perhaps on holiday or away on business – and thus not counted against the 18 week target. The increase came to a suspicious end when NHS Lothian was found to be offering patients treatment at hospitals in England and then removing those patients from their lists when they refused to travel south.

The whole argument comes down to one of resources. The SNP government says it has protected the health budget from Westminster’s austerity measures, but it has not increased in line with demand or even rising costs. And there is no sign that the winter of cutbacks and hardship will turn to spring any time soon.

Scotland’s leading children’s charities joined forces this week to publish a study showing that 20 per cent of children in parts of almost every council area in Scotland are living below the poverty line and they predict that government spending cuts are about to make matters much worse. In Glasgow North East for instance, 43 per cent of children are living in poor households. (“Poor” being defined as 60 per cent of average income.)

The unemployment figure this week may have fallen slightly to 7.7 per cent but people seem to be no better off and consumer spending is down. The Scottish Retail Consortium says 10 per cent of shops are now empty and boarded up. The explanations put forward are that more people are in part-time work, more are self-employed on lower earnings, productivity is down, and more and more people are giving up the search for work altogether.

In all this winter gloom, we needed something to cheer us up and it came in the pleasing form of Emeli Sande. The singer and song writer from Alford in Aberdeenshire stomped all over the stage at the Brits, winning two awards – best British solo female artist and best British album of the year. Emeli went to the same school in Alford where her Zambian father was a teacher and wrote her first song at the age of 11 for the end of term show. She left her medical course at Glasgow University when her music career suddenly took off in 2008. The rest is legend.

And so was my Monday night. I was enticed into the vaults under the Royal Mile in Edinburgh by a woman dressed as a witch. Be assured that this was an official tour and I was with a group of 30 witnesses. We were “treated” to some gory tales of torture, hangings and ghosts from long ago and, at one point, the witch lunged at me with a knife.

I thought I was a goner, like Sir John “Red ” Comyn who fell to Robert the Bruce’s knife in 1306. Sir John was a rival for the Scottish throne and old Uncle Bob, who’s victory at Bannockburn we shall be celebrating next year, decided he’d better make sure of his place in history while he could. Somewhat embarrassingly, we have been reminded of this piece of political manoeuvring by the discovery of Sir John’s pendant in a muddy field in Kinross earlier this month.

A metal detector enthusiast from North Berwick John Eldridge at first thought it was a school prefect’s badge from the 1960s or 70s because it was so perfectly preserved. Sir John’s three sheaves are clearly seen on the pendant which is assumed to have fallen from the reigns of his horse while he was on his way to Loch Leven castle. Oh how the past comes back to haunt us.