LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 17th April 2014

Easter has been slow in coming this year. The daffodils have faded, the weather turned mild some time ago, the school holidays are just about over and there’s been a quietness about the place. “Where have all the children gone?” asked an elderly neighbour of mine. And he answered his own question with a disapproving shrug of the shoulders: “They’re all playing on their computers instead of being outside in the park and in the streets.”

John Muir Photographed in 1912
John Muir
Photographed in 1912
Our hero of the moment, John Muir, would not have approved of that. This weekend we celebrate the great outdoor-man’s birthday (21st April) with a festival of special events. It’s a hundred years since the founder of the conservation movement died but the land of his birth has only recently got around to acknowledging his achievements and establishing a Trust in his honour. Our National Parks are barely ten years old.

A new John Muir cross-country trail is being officially opened on Monday, tracing the Muir family’s route from Dunbar to Helensburgh as they emigrated to America in 1849. As they passed through Falkirk they may have seen the real “kelpies”, the working horses on the canal path or in the coal-yards. This weekend, Andy Scott’s tribute to the kelpies, two 30-metre high steel kelpie heads, are to be brought to life in a spectacular son-et-lumiere show to launch the town’s new eco-park.

Red Road flats No longer part of the opening ceremony
Red Road flats
No longer part of the opening ceremony
Scotland’s other piece of outdoor theatre has had a bothersome week. The organisers of the Commonwealth Games have been forced to change their minds about their crazy plan to blow up the Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony. The public outcry had been so noisy and so widespread – 17,000 people signed Carolyn Leckie’s petition – that the organisers concluded the plan was too divisive. So they are going to fill the 15 second gap with some other manifestation of Glasgow’s ambition to move on from its chequered past.

The SNP’s similar ambition for Scotland was on show in Aberdeen last weekend, its last party conference before the referendum on 18th September. The one-word message on the big screen was “Forward.” The Yes campaign says it has seen its support in the opinion polls rise from 38 per cent last autumn to 46 per cent today. A poll in The Scotsman puts it at a more modest 37 per cent. Another, by TNS, puts it at 29 per cent. But what is not in doubt is that support for independence is growing.

Trident - part of the negotiations
Trident – part of the negotiations
The No campaigners this week brought out the top brass of the UK military machine to argue that an independent Scotland would be disastrous for Britain’s defence capability and for jobs. The defence secretary Philip Hammond suggested that negotiations over the removal of Trident nuclear weapons from Scottish soil would be linked to other negotiations – over the currency, the share of national debt, welfare and pension arrangements – and thus would take longer than the SNP realise.

But Alex Salmond put all that down to “more of Project Fear.” In contrast, the Yes campaign, he said, was “positive, hopeful and up-lifting.” In his speech to the conference he appealed to women voters to join the Yes campaign and bring about a “transformation of childcare”. And to the Labour voters he said: “ The referendum is not about the SNP, it’s about Scotland. Vote Yes and Scottish Labour can return to its core values.”

Scotland's islands - looking for more autonomy
Scotland’s islands – looking for more autonomy
A lot will depend on the state of the economy come referendum day in September. (A lot, but not everything and it’s hard to know which way perceptions about the economy will affect the vote.) But this week, at least, we had good news. Inflation has fallen to 1.6 per cent and, since earnings are increasing at 1.8 per cent, we have living standards rising for first time since the crash five years ago. The unemployment figure has risen slightly in Scotland but, at 6.5 per cent, it’s better than the UK as a whole and is much improved on a year ago.

This week Scotland’s islanders have been on the campaign trail – if not for outright independence, then at least for more home rule. They’ve held talks with UK ministers and met the Scottish cabinet on one of its away-days in Stornoway on Wednesday. The “Our Islands, our Future” campaign want more powers for the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland over issues such as energy, fishing, and the Crown Estate revenues.

Personally, I want home rule for Inch Park. It’s a cone’s throw from my house and all week I’ve been watching workmen dismantling one of its 150 year old elm trees. Perhaps it had to come down – the tree surgeons said it was rotten – but I hope the imperial government of Edinburgh City Council will plant a new tree in its place. I notice that the RSPB has announced plans to plant 100,000 more trees on its reserve at Abernethy. Maybe they could send one down to us, so that we can preserve our little bit of the great Caledonian forest.