LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 9th May 2014

Fate is a cruel thing. This week we are mourning the loss of a young, courageous and talented woman who we are proud to claim as a Scot, though she was of Russian origin and lived in England. The tennis star Elena Baltacha has died of liver cancer at the age of just 30.

Elena Baltacha (Picture from Wikipedia)
Elena Baltacha
(Picture from Wikipedia)
She was among the top 50 women tennis players in the world. She was Britain’s number one. She won 11 singles championships. She reached the third round of both Wimbledon and the Australian Open. And all this, despite suffering from a chronic liver complaint and several serious injuries. Her fellow-players have been lining up all week to say what a lovely, unassuming person she was.

She arrived in Britain at the age of 5 when her father, Sergei Baltacha a professional footballer, signed for Ipswich Town. He’d played for Dynamo Kiev and the USSR. Her mother Olga was also a sports star who represented the USSR in the pentathlon. The family moved to Scotland in 1992 when Sergei was signed up by St Johnstone in Perth. Encouraged to play tennis by her mother, Elena soon made her presence felt on the tennis circuit. By the age of 15 she was the Scottish women’s indoor champion.

Of course, she knew the Murray family and, like them, had to leave Scotland to further her career. At the age of 19 she was diagnosed with a rare liver complaint but it didn’t stop her reaching the top of British tennis and carrying our hopes in a series of international competitions. She was a big powerful player with a fast serve and a fearsome two-handed backhand.

An ankle injury last year persuaded her to retire. She married her coach Nino Serverino and they set up a tennis academy in her old town of Ipswich. But earlier this year she was diagnosed with cancer and the “bonny fichter Bally” has gone to play her tennis elsewhere.

Increase in waiting times
Increase in waiting times
The nation’s health has been another talking point this week, in particular the queues forming in the corridors of accident and emergency departments. Audit Scotland brought out a report which found that the number of patients waiting for more than four hours to be treated had increased nearly three times, from 36,000 to 104,000, over the five years to 2013.

The opposition parties took Alex Salmond to task over this “failure” at first minister’s question time. But he was able to claim that 93 per cent of patients were seen within the four hour target time and the figure is improving, and, anyway, it’s better than in England and Wales and better than when Labour were in power. The underlying causes for the increase appear to be “bed-blocking” in hospitals and the fact that people with minor conditions have no where else to go. It’s a classic case of non-holistic thinking – if you cut the budget for community or local authority services then the hospitals are swamped.

European Elections Politicians more concerned with the referendum
European Elections
Politicians more concerned with the referendum
When not thinking about hospitals, the political parties have been launching their Euro election campaigns. Polling cards have gone out, posters have appeared on lamp-posts and at railway stations urging us to vote on 22nd May. Everyone is waiting to see how well UKIP, the anti-EU party, will do in Scotland. It got just 5 per cent of the vote last time. But it’s been hard for the politicians to keep their attention on Europe when all they want to talk about is the independence referendum in September.

Finally, it’s been a good news week for the pine martin. The population is estimated to have grown to around 3,000. The Scottish Highlands have long been this furry creature’s last refuge but now there have been sightings in forests on the southern fringes of Glasgow, in the upper Tweed valley and in Annandale. It’s the first time the pine martin has been seen in southern Scotland for 200 years.

Be warned, though, they may be cuddly-looking creatures but they are wily. You need to keep you henhouse door closed at night and if they nest in your loft, call an expert !