My week began in the snow-capped Cairngorms. Blustery showers blew in from the north west but when the sun shone, the rivers sparkled. Spring is late here. The birch trees have only just turned a light green. The grass and heather are still straw-brown, winter-worn. A squadron of wagtails flitted along the shore of Loch Morlich and a red squirrel scampered away from me and disappeared over a fence.
I was here in this wonderful wilderness to gain my mountain leadership certificate but being out of town – for whatever reason – always gives you wider perspective on life, a breathing space. And how we need it after the long winter, now giving way slowly to a cool and indecisive spring.
We are coming into what used to be called Scottish Biodiversity Week (18th – 26th May). It’s been given the more earthy title of Scotland’s Nature Festival and this year it stretches across 150 local events, from a guided ramble around Dunnet Head in Caithness to a “welly walk” at Bowhill in the Borders. It’s all to celebrate the planet’s two million known species – including, of course, our own, which is not yet one of the 130 which are becoming extinct every day.
And our natural environment sure is in trouble. Take our beaches, for example. This week the Marine Conservation Society reported that Scotland’s beaches are in their worst state for five years, with an average of 2,041 pieces of litter per kilometre. Monifieth beach near Dundee was the worst offender during the Society’s “Big Beachwatch” weekend last September.
Further up the east coast, Donald Trump has gone to court to protect his beach from an experimental wind farm a mile off-shore. He says it will spoil the view from his new golf resort in Aberdeenshire and he’ll fight his one-time friend, “Mad Alex” (Salmond) to hell if he has to. There is, of course, an alternative point of view which suggests that what Donald has done to the sand dunes was not exactly environment-friendly and Scotland needs to develop its off-shore wind industry for when the oil runs out.
That won’t happen till the end of the century, according to Fergus Ewing the energy minister. He caused expert eyebrows to rise when he suggested that new oil fields west of Shetland would keep us going till well beyond the accepted end-date for Scotland’s oil, 2050.
“Scotland’s Oil” takes us into the big event of the week, the resurfacing of Gordon Brown, once Prime Minister of these islands. He came out of “retirement” to lead the Labour Party’s campaign for a No vote in the independence referendum. This is not to be confused with the No vote campaign led by his former Chancellor Alistair Darling. Mr Brown’s pitch is to the traditional Labour supporters who don’t much like the idea of working with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in the “Better Together ” Darling-led campaign.
Described in one newspaper account as “prowling the stage like a bear” at the Commonwealth Games arena in Glasgow, Mr Brown urged Labour supporters to ask themselves: “ Were Keir Hardie and the trade union leaders wrong, stupid or naïve …..to believe that Scottish values could be best realised inside the United Kingdom ? ” I presume there was a loud “No” from the faithful.
Meanwhile, down the road at the Lighthouse (an art centre and symbolic lighthouse) the SNP’s deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon attempted to answer the 500 questions the Better Together campaign have been asking about independence. “Exact answers on some key issues might be beyond reach at this time,” she admitted but she blamed the UK government’s policy of no pre-negotiations for this. And she went on to ask the No campaign a number of “2020 questions” of her own.
One was about the European Union. Would the UK still be in the EU in 2020, given the goings-on at Westminster where Tory backbenchers are insisting on a law promising an in-out referendum in 2017 ?
But while the politicians talk, the economy continues to burn. Retail sales are down 2 per cent, compared to last year. Food sales suffered their biggest fall for 14 years. On Thursday the Royal Bank announced a further 1400 jobs are to go, half of them in Edinburgh. Mysteriously, the official unemployment figure has fallen slightly to 7.3 per cent in Scotland (compared to 7.8 per cent across the UK). But the statisticians let us guess how much of this is due to people finding only part-time work and how many people are giving up the search for work altogether.
It might help the economy if firms like Amazon were to pay their tax in this country rather than in Luxembourgh. It was disclosed this week that the internet mail-order company, which made £4bn of sales in the UK last year paid only £2.4m in tax to the Treasury, almost exactly the amount it received in government grants to build its warehouses and call centres in places like Dunfermline and Edinburgh.
Finally, to the tale of the Moderator’s ring. From time immemorial, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – which meets in Edinburgh this coming week – has worn a ceremonial ring on his or her ecclesiastical finger. Unfortunately the ring went missing when the out-going Moderator Rt Rev Albert Bogle had his bag stolen at Edinburgh Airport last month. The new Moderator Rev Lorna Hood decided to use a replica ring but when she took it to the jewellers to be altered, the staff became suspicious. They reported her to the police. “I might have ended up on the “wanted” list on Crimewatch,” said Mrs Hood. Instead she has been sentenced to a week in the big chair at the General Assembly.