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A striking image of Duffus Castle has been selected as the winner of the Benromach Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Photography competition.

Outright winner John Macgregor Seasons - Frosty Morning at Duffus

Outright winner
John Macgregor
Seasons – Frosty Morning at Duffus

The stunning photograph showing the historic property on a frosty winter morning was taken by John Macgregor from Lossiemouth. Frosty Morning at Duffus was one of three images by Mr Macgregor to be shortlisted in the final of the competition – and all of them received prizes. He wins a five-day commission to capture the 2014 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival on film, along with a cash prize, trophy, bottle of Benromach malt whisky and tickets for the prestigious opening night dinner.

Michael Urquhart, managing director of Gordon & MacPhail, the owners of Benromach Distillery, says the competition always attracts entries of a very high standard. “I was really impressed by each and every one of the entries this year,” he said. “The very high calibre never fails to amaze me. This was one of the most difficult years to judge because of the quality, and to determine an overall winner was a real challenge. Each of the entrants has really taken the theme to heart and delivered results far beyond our expectations. We asked for images that encapsulated the spirit of Speyside, and the entrants have certainly delivered.”

John Macgregor Abstract - Seaside Sculpture

John Macgregor
Abstract – Seaside Sculpture

James Campbell, chairman of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, was delighted with the continuing success of the competition. “All of the entries this year have been superb,” he explained, “and John is a thoroughly deserving overall winner; his frosty morning shot of Duffus Castle captures the stunning pink hues of the sunrise. Not only does the competition put this beautiful part of the world on the map, but it also provides a platform for photographers whose work is exposed to thousands of people at the festival and at the viewing gallery online.”

Mr Macgregor’s shot – Seaside Sculpture – took the honours in the abstract category, while his photograph called Happy and Grumpy was runner-up in the people section. The runner-up in abstract was Gabriel Varga from Slovakia with her image, Out of Service – a photograph of an old red telephone box.

Alistair Petrie Seasons - Winter Pines

Alistair Petrie
Seasons – Winter Pines

In the category for seasons, Alistair Petrie from Carnoustie scooped first place with his Winter Pines image. The runner-up in this category was Helen Crowley from Elgin with Tattie Field. In the people category, the winning image of Tomnarieve – a farm worker overlooking a flock of sheep – was taken by Myrddin Irwin of Tomintoul.

The touring exhibition of the finalists’ photographs is currently at Benromach Distillery, but moved to the Grain to Glass Exhibition at St Giles’ Church in Elgin – another part of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival – from Thursday, April 17.

The images will take pride of place at the Festival Hub in the Square at Dufftown for the duration of the Festival from May 1 – 5. They will go on tour at libraries across Moray in May and June, the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh from July, and back to Benromach in September.

The finalists’ photographs are currently on display online at www.spiritofspeyside.com and visitors to the site are asked to vote for their contender for the People’s Choice. The winner of this competition will be announced later in the year.

Myrddin Irwin People - Tomnarieve

Myrddin Irwin
People – Tomnarieve

The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, which is now in its 15th year, takes place at venues across the region. A signature event for Homecoming 2014, it will start Whisky Month – a four week national celebration of Scotland’s world class food and drink.

It will also launch a brand new event this year – The Spirit of Speyside Sessions – which aims to put to spotlight on the area’s traditional music heritage with concerts and ceilidhs being staged in venues closely linked to the whisky industry.

Tickets for all events in the 2014 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival programme can be bought via the website. The Festival is also active on social media – facebook.com/WhiskyFestival and @spirit_speyside on Twitter.

Rare medieval letters relating to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce are to be exhibited together for the first time. The exhibition entitled ‘Wallace, Bruce and Scotland’s Contested Crown’ will open at Stirling Castle next month and brings together two unique manuscripts which provide a fascinating insight into the different paths taken by these two leaders in securing the Scottish crown.

Wallace Letter  Copyright of the National Archives

Wallace Letter
Copyright of the National Archives

On display will be a 700-year-old letter from King Philip IV of France to his agents in Rome commanding them to ask Pope Boniface VIII to support Wallace. Written in November 1300, the letter was discovered in the Tower of London in the 1830’s and is currently on loan to the National Records of Scotland from The National Archives in London. In 2011 a panel of experts concluded that it was likely to have been in Wallace’s possession, although how and why remain unclear.

The Wallace letter will appear alongside a letter to King Philip IV of France. Dating from 1309 it was written by Scottish barons attending the first parliament following Robert the Bruce’s seizure of the throne in 1306. Their declaration of support for Bruce as the rightful king of Scots marked an important moment in the recognition of his crown. The document is preserved in the National Records of Scotland.

Bruce letter  Copyright of the National Records of Scotland

Bruce letter
Copyright of the National Records of Scotland

Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop said that the bringing together of these documents for the first time would “provide a fascinating insight into one of the most turbulent periods in Scotland’s history. This is a fantastic opportunity for visitors to view these rare and special documents which provide a tantalising glimpse into the lives and legacy of two of Scotland’s most famous historical figures.”

Tim Ellis, Keeper of the Records of Scotland and Chief Executive of the National Records of Scotland, added that the “death of Alexander III in 1286 triggered a dynastic scramble that came to a head in 1306, when Robert the Bruce seized the Scottish throne. This exhibition brings together for the first time two archival treasures connected to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and adds to our understanding of this fascinating period of Scottish history. We’re delighted to be holding the exhibition which has been made possible through support from Historic Scotland and The National Archives.”

The ‘Wallace, Bruce and Scotland’s Contested Crown’ exhibition will form part of a series of events at Stirling Castle which will tell the story of the events leading up to the Battle of Bannockburn, which marks its 700th anniversary this year. This will include a living history event ‘The Road to Bannockburn’ and an exhibition of paintings by renowned artist Iona Leishman.

Dr Lorna Ewan  Historic Scotland

Dr Lorna Ewan
Historic Scotland

Lorna Ewan, Head of Visitor Experience for Historic Scotland, who operate Stirling Castle, pointed out that the castle had “played a key role in the events leading up to Bannockburn. The siege of the castle was the catalyst for Edward II to send a 17,000 strong army to Scotland who met Bruce’s men at Bannockburn so it provides a fitting location to tell the story to visitors.

Over the weekend of the 24th and 25th May, the Road to Bannockburn living history event will explore the events that led to this decisive clash. Visitors can find out about the tactics and weapons of the armies and join our forensic team in discovering more about the injuries sustained by the soldiers.

“Meanwhile Iona Leishman’s exhibition of paintings will provide a poignant overview of the realities of war. Together with the Wallace and Bruce exhibition they will provide visitors with an insight into one of the most famous periods in Scotland’s history.”

The ‘Wallace, Bruce and Scotland’s Contested Crown’, exhibition which is part of the Year of Homecoming programme, will open at Stirling Castle on 3rd May and will run until 1st June.

The once stereotypical image of men in tweed conjured up by the words ‘whisky drinker’ is long gone in the drink’s spiritual home.

Lauren (left) and Steph Murray

Lauren (left) and Steph Murray

There is nothing new about the number of Scottish women who enjoy sipping our national drink, and in recent years there has been a sharp rise in the number of females breaking into a traditionally male-dominated industry by taking on key production and management roles.

But sisters Steph and Lauren Murray have taken their passion for the amber nectar to a whole new level. Along with their parents Michael and Marie, they have turned their backs on the bright lights of Glasgow to buy a hotel in rural Speyside with the aim of turning it into one of the country’s leading destinations for whisky lovers.

Steph (28) and Lauren (23) took over at the helm of The Dowans Hotel in Aberlour last year after being won over by its location in the heart of Scotland’s most famous whisky producing region. Speyside is home to more whisky distilleries than any other part of the country, including internationally renowned brands such as Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan.

Steph found herself working in the hospitality sector while studying for a degree in international politics and human rights at the University of Glasgow. Unable to find work after completing her studies, she stayed on at the city’s prestigious One Devonshire Gardens and was offered a role as a supervisor.

The gardens at the Dowans Hotel

The gardens at the Dowans Hotel

“Working in a hotel was never something I thought about as a career option, but I really enjoyed it – even more so when I became part of the management team,” explains Steph.

“It’s probably fair to say that a lot of young people think about jobs in the hospitality industry as something to do to get by while at university. But as time went on I realised how much potential there was to develop professionally and to go beyond traditional student roles like working behind the bar.

“Things changed when my dad took early retirement three years ago. He could see how many hours I was working and while the experience I was getting was invaluable, the monetary benefit didn’t match. He also knew that Lauren, who was studying international hospitality and event management at Edinburgh, was also going to face difficulties getting work when she finished her degree.

“That’s when, as a family, we came up with the idea of buying a hotel that Lauren and I would run together, operating to the high standards that we had both set for ourselves.”

Lauren adds, “We had always enjoyed family holidays in the Highlands when we were young, so we were naturally drawn here in our search. We wanted to own somewhere we had a real passion for, and which we could share with the local community.

Bistro and bedrooms have been refurbished

Bistro and bedrooms have been refurbished

“We fell in love with The Dowans from the moment we saw it. It had a good reputation as being a country sports hotel, but we could see the potential straight away to develop something really special for whisky tourism. We made it our aim from day one to build relationships with the local distilleries.”

Over the past 10 months the family has been carrying out an ambitious refurbishment programme. Many bedrooms and the bistro have been overhauled – a second fine dining restaurant called Spé was opened in February – but one key change is yet to happen.

They plan to remove the bar from its current location in a snug lounge, and move it to another part of the hotel where the already huge collection of single malt and blended whisky from Speyside – and beyond – will be expanded even further.

Spirit of Speyside Festival

Spirit of Speyside Festival

Visitors and locals alike have been raising a glass to the investment and of their commitment to supporting the whisky industry: the hotel is fully booked during the region’s biggest celebration of all things malt – the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival.

The Festival, which takes place this year from May 1-5, is largely regarded as one of the world’s must-do whisky events. Last year it had 32,000 visits to events and generated £1.65m for the local economy – a figure which could be smashed this year as ticket sales look on course to break records.

The Dowans will be hosting five events during the Festival. A venison and whisky pairing has already sold out, while only a few tickets remain for its two luxury whisky dinners and two whisky tasting sessions, where there will also be a discussion on collectible malts.

“Whisky is huge here, and on top of developing our skills in hospitality we’ve also had to learn about the industry so that we can share it and educate our visitors,” says Lauren.

“We are so excited about the Festival – we couldn’t believe it when one of our events sold out within hours of tickets going on sale. We’ll be welcoming lots of people who are really passionate and enthusiastic about whisky, so it will be an excellent opportunity for us to test our own knowledge.

“I didn’t think I would have to learn a whole new topic so soon after my degree, but it shows that there is always scope to grow and learn new things in every career.

“We’ve currently got 150 malts in our collection and Steph has been preparing her own tasting notes to share with guests. We’ll be expanding the range when we move the bar into its new location, so there will be a whole new set of malts to discover.”

Steph adds, “I think people are genuinely quite intrigued by the changes that are going on at The Dowans. People are always a surprised when they find out that a hotel built on the country sports and whisky tourism is being run by two relatively young girls.

“We’ve never been daunted by the scale of what we’ve taken on, just very excited. I think aiming to achieve more, being ambitious and never being afraid of a challenge are key pieces of career advice, regardless of the industry you work in.”

Tickets for all events in the 2014 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival – a key event in Homecoming 2014 which will kick off Whisky Month in May – can be bought via the website www.spiritofspeyside.com The Festival is also active on social media – facebook.com/WhiskyFestival and @spirit_speyside on Twitter.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust was founded in 1964 by Sir Charles Connell, an Edinburgh lawyer and keen ornithologist. He brought together a small team of experts and enthusiasts who were inspired by the wildlife trust movement already under way in England. Within two years it had started a network of local groups and acquired its first reserve, a small woodland in Ayrshire. Since then it has grown to become one of the major environmental organisations in Scotland with 120 reserves, 35,000 members, a staff of about 100, 20 local groups and over a thousand working volunteers.

Puffin on Handa

Puffin on Handa

Most of its reserves are small patches of woodland, marsh, bog or moor, close to where people live, so that wildlife and human life are not seen as opposites but as part of the same natural world.

But the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) also has some large and spectacular reserves – the Loch of Lowes with its famous ospreys, the Falls of Clyde with its peregrines, the Montrose Basin for migrating geese and the isles of Eigg and Handa on the west coast.

This year the Trust is also celebrating the first five years of two important wildlife projects. It has re-introduced native beavers to Scotland after an absence of 400 years. There are now 15 beavers living wild in Knapdale in Argyll, the subject of an experiment to see what effect they will have on the local environment.

SWT LogoThe SWT has also been heavily involved in the fight to save the red squirrel and there are signs that this native species is holding out well against the grey invaders in the marginal lands of the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and South Ayrshire and in the more northerly battlegrounds of Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

The Trust has also branched out into wider campaigns to save Scotland’s landscape and marine environment. Its “Living Landscape ” project in Coigach and Assynt has recently won a £100,000 lottery grant to plant trees, restore bog and moorland and create footpaths. The idea is to link wildlife territories across a large and diverse area of the countryside. It’s also been campaigning hard to have marine protected areas established around Scotland’s coast.

Rabbit in AssyntSWT volunteers were recently invited to a reception in the Scottish Parliament, acknowledging their role in campaigning and working for the environment.

Along with the other conservation organisations – RSPB, WWF, John Muir Trust, Friends of the Earth – the Wildlife Trust has been influential in driving Scotland’s environmental agenda.

Its chief executive for the last ten years, Simon Milne, is a well known figure on the environmental landscape and has established the SWT as one of Scotland’s most respected institutions. He now goes on to the prestigious post of Regius Keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

His successor as chief executive is Jonathan Hughes who began as a ranger on the SWT reserve at Loch Fleet in the 1990s. Since 2009 he’s been the Trust’s director of conservation. He takes over with this disturbing thought in the latest edition of the Trust’s magazine:

“ We have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. We are living through an era of profound changes to the planet’s biosphere, changes which are happening almost entirely due to the influence of human activity. It is within this context that the Trust faces its next 50 years.”

For details of your nearest SWT reserve: www.scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk

The Statute of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn

It will take place, as the original one did, over two glorious days, at the end of June. The 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s victory over King Edward II will be a battle for independence fought, not for real, but for a virtual reality…as befits our modern age.

Bannockburn Re-enactment (Picture: NTS)

Bannockburn Re-enactment
(Picture: NTS)

The SNP’s propaganda war-machine will be using the images conjured up by the re-enactment of the battle, on the supposed field at Bannockburn on the 28th and 29th June, to lob a few emotional rocks at the No campaign. Meanwhile, up the road in Stirling, the No campaigners will be hoping that the British Armed Forces Day, will be attracting 100,000 spectators waving Union Flags. The flat carse-land at Stirling will not have seen anything like it since 1314.

It’s hard to resist the temptation to draw some parallels. Edward II (David Cameron) was coming north to relieve the siege of Stirling Castle ( occupied by the No campaigners). Robert the Bruce (Salmond) drew up his troops in front of the castle and, by skilful manoeuvring, beat off a force at least 10 per cent larger than his own (the current gap in the opinion polls).

Such amusing parallels may seem too obvious and too extreme but there’s no doubt that a lot of political strategy has gone into these visitor attractions. The 700th anniversary of Bannockburn was always going to be an important even – no matter what the political circumstances of the time. No doubt the National Trust set about rebuilding of the visitor centre, at a cost of £9m, in all innocence. This is due to open in March and will include, of course, a virtual reconstruction of the battle.

bannockburn 11It then looks like the Scottish government persuaded the National Trust to stage a real re-enactment of the battle and a whole weekend of colourful events over the 28th/29th June. It would include a number of themed “villages”, live music, craft shows, and food and drink stalls. It couldn’t help becoming a patriotic, if not nationalist, event. It was part of the euphoria package of Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup and Homecoming which might persuade doubting Scots to vote Yes for independence.

Then some bright sparks in the No camp in Stirling – where the Conservatives and Labour have formed a Unionist coalition against the SNP – thought up the idea of bidding to hold the UK Armed Forces Day on the same weekend. It would reinforce “Britishness” and spike the guns of the SNP down the hill at Bannockburn. The Defence Secretary Philip Hammond jumped at the suggestion and announced that Scotland should again host this important annual event – even though it had only recently been in Edinburgh – and, of course, Stirling would be the ideal place. Let battle commence…for visitor numbers and TV coverage.

Bannockburn Re-enactment (Picture: NTS)

Bannockburn Re-enactment
(Picture: NTS)

The National Trust panicked. It had only sold 2,000 tickets out of 45,000 at that stage and it was fearful of making a massive loss. Mr Salmond sent Visit Scotland to the rescue but the event was trimmed from 3 days to 2 and its budget cut from £950,000 to £650,000. Visit Scotland bosses are currently in trouble with MSPs at Holyrood for not telling them about the changes when they gave evidence to the tourism committee in mid-January. The bosses at Stirling Council are also in trouble, explaining how they will pay the bill of £250,000 for staging the Armed Forces Day.

Faced with such jolly confusion, I decided I should do my patriotic duty and go to both events on Saturday 28th June. They both sound like a great day out – or, at least, half a day out each. But as with so many things these days, it’s not that easy to get tickets.

When I typed Bannockburn into my computer, I landed in the National Trust’s visitor centre with its game-boy presentation of the battlefield. No mention of the June weekend. The next two Bannockburn entries turned out to be “unavailable”. I then tried the Visit Scotland website but there was no link to a ticket office. There was however a telephone number, which turned out to be the rather harassed lady at the aforementioned National Trust visitor centre. Once her computer had been cranked up she was able to give me the name of a website, called Ticket Soup, which might sell me some tickets.

This indeed was a useful website. It didn’t sell soup but it did sell tickets for “the performance” on Saturday 28th. Prices ranged from £20 to £75, plus a £2 booking fee, plus an outrageous £2.30 for postage. They must be heavy and bulky tickets but I look forward to them thumping down on my door mat.

Not everyone will be as persistent in their patriotic duty. As often is the case, Scotland will need to get its tourism business up to speed if it’s to make a success of either of these events in the summer. We also need to get rid of the petty divisions and rivalries which have led to such a farce.

Scotland’s wild places need to be protected

The John Muir Trust has welcomed the result of a Scottish Natural Heritage public consultation on its core wild land map, describing it as a “resounding endorsement” of the proposal to step up wild land protection. According to its analysis of the 410 responses received:

80 per cent back the wild land map
14 per cent oppose the map
6 per cent are neutral

John Muir Truse LogoIn the view of Stuart Brooks, chief executive of the John Muir Trust, “the scale of support for the map and the eloquence of the responses underline how passionately people value Scotland’s wild land.

We would now urge politicians of all parties to come together to support the map as the next step towards protecting Scotland’s world famous wild land from unsightly and ecologically damaging development. In particular we would ask the Scottish Government to include a reference to the wild land map in the draft National Planning Framework, which is now being scrutinised by parliamentary committees”

John Hutchison Stop the "mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes"

John Hutchison
Stop the “mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes”

Hundreds of individuals and dozens of not-for-profit organisations, including environmental charities, councils, community groups, and national bodies such as SportScotland and Historic Scotland have thrown their weight behind the wild land map.

John Hutchison, who chairs the Trust, stressed that the map was about protecting wild land from energy corporations and landowners intent on exploiting it for profit. “As one of the main driving forces campaigning for the map,” he explained, “the John Muir Trust would emphasise that this is not about preventing small-scale development of renewables or other infrastructure by communities and local people.

“This is about stopping the mass industrialisation of our wildest landscapes under tangles of turbines, pylons, road and power sub-stations. These developments might generate lavish profits for landowners and distant shareholders, but they create few if any jobs for local people.”

All of the responses can be downloaded from this page on the Scottish Natural Heritage website.

The Tale of the Lonesome Pines

Gosh, we are becoming an imperious nation. The mighty Scots Pine has just been declared our national tree. The Scottish Parliament is considering making the Golden Eagle our national bird. We already have the lion rampant. I hate to think what insect we might choose as a national emblem…the praying mantis perhaps. Thank goodness for the humble thistle.

Silver Birch Came well down the list

Silver Birch
Came well down the list

The Scots Pine came top of a consultation exercise carried out by the parliament’s petitions committee, well ahead of the rowan and the holly.The silver birch, my favourite candidate, came well down the list. I can only think this is because of the Scots Pine’s grandeur. They are not unique to Scotland. We don’t have that many of them, we are down to our last 250 million (around 8 per cent of our woodland). We chopped most of them down, remember, when we felled the ancient Caledonian forest.

They are only called Scots Pines because they do not grow naturally in England. But they are native to much of northern Europe, from Spain to Siberia. In Norway they are called the Norway Pine, in Mongolia the Mongolian Pine. Besides, they are not nice-looking trees. They are scraggy below and bushy on top. They don’t turn golden in autumn or light green in spring. They don’t sway in the wind or give shelter to much wildlife. And, like most of us these days, they live too long.

The Golden Eagle too is a worrying statement of national aggrandisement. The Conservative MEP Jackson Carlaw reminded us this week that the eagle was a symbol of the Roman invaders and the Nazis. He suggests we should adopt instead the cheery little Robin. The late Helen Eadie, MSP for Cowdenbeath, once championed the cause of the pigeon, though she called it the “dove of peace.”

Golden Eagle Scotland's favourite wild creature

Golden Eagle
Scotland’s favourite wild creature

The merciless Golden Eagle came top of a poll carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage, not just as our favourite national bird, but our favourite animal, beating the red squirrel, the red deer, the otter and the harbour seal. And, again, way down the list came some of my favourites, the puffin, the pine marten and the wildcat.

I’m left wondering if this is the sort of country I want to live in. It’s a question constantly on the lips of the referendumistas these days. And there was plenty for them to obsess about this week. The Governor of the Bank of England (and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland incidentally ) came north to meet the First Minister to discuss his plans for a currency union after independence.

Mark Carney Governor of the Bank of England

Mark Carney
Governor of the Bank of England

This cool Canadian, Mark Carney, hinted vaguely that Scotland would have to sacrifice some of its financial sovereignty if a sterling zone was to avoid the problems the euro zone had been experiencing. The pro-union side took that to mean that an independent Scotland would have to accept whatever interest rate, debt level and tax-and-spend plans the Treasury in London might dictate. Mr Salmond read it rather differently – it was the Governor of the Bank of England accepting that independence could happen and that “technical discussions” could get under way about how a sterling zone would work. There would be no question however of an independent Scotland having its tax or spending plans dictated by London.

The Scottish government has meanwhile been making economies of its own this week. It announced that the number of police control rooms are to be cut from 11 to 5 and fire control rooms from 8 to 3. The fire brigade union said it will be “a disaster” for the north of Scotland but the government says it will lead to a more efficient service. The changes will be phased in over the next five years and there will no compulsory redundancies.

Mike Russell Attacked UK immigration rules

Mike Russell
Attacked UK immigration rules

The education secretary Mike Russell also breezed into the independence debate this week with a tirade against the UK immigration rules. He said they were preventing Scottish universities attracting valuable graduate students from India, China etc. He accused the Westminster government of being driven by xenophobia and the fear of UKIP. But an opinion poll in The Scotsman earlier in the week showed that more than half of Scots favour new limits on immigration. And I havn’t heard the Scottish government offering to take in refugees from Syria.

While on opinion polls, it’s perhaps worth recording what looks like a decisive shift in favour of independence. An ICM poll in Scotland on Sunday shows the Yes camp on 37 per cent, up 5 from last autumn. And when the 19 per cent undecided are excluded, the figure rises to 46 per cent. It’s being seen as a vindication of the SNP’s white paper putting the emphasis on child care.

I hope the children of Shetland were safely tucked up in bed on Tuesday night, as the Up-Helly-Aa celebrations saw the streets of Lerwick invaded once again by the Vikings. The Jarl Squad, a fearsome looking bunch of men in beards, threw their flaming torches into the traditional longboat and pushed it out to sea. Apparently in Norse mythology, the eagle was a symbol of strength and I guess the longboats were built of good Norway Pine. So perhaps our choice of national emblems is a sign that we are following our North Sea neighbours and heading for independence.

Scotland’s favourite bird
[Photo by Jon Nelson, Creative Commons]

The Scottish Parliament has heard an appeal to make the Golden Eagle the national bird of Scotland. It came from the RSPB’s Duncan Orr-Ewing and wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan. During his comments to the Petitions Committee, Mr Buchanan called for an end to the “persecution” of the birds in Scotland, arguing that he along with others was “astounded” that both shooting and poisoning took place.

The petition was first lodged in December by RSPB Scotland. Mr Orr-Ewing described the bird as a “true bird icon of Scotland”. He pointed out that many highland chieftains wore an eagle feather, as did the Royal Company of Archers. With only 431 pairs of golden eagles remaining in Scotland, he added that this represented “the whole of the UK’s breeding pairs, and it is regarded as a Scottish species.”

There was an objection to the plan from the Conservative MSP, Jackson Carlaw. He pointed out that the eagle had been used as a symbol both by the Roman empire and later by Nazi Germany. In his words, “The golden eagle is the symbol of an empire that once invaded large parts of Scotland, and more recently of another empire that tried to.”

He went to say that it was “a symbol of imperial power of which Scotland is emphatically not, never has been, and hopefully never will be.” He asked why another national symbol was needed and suggested that the robin would be a better candidate. However, the Committee agreed to take the proposal forward and it will now go out to public consultation. It follows a similar appeal for the Scots pine to be designated as Scotland’s national tree.

A report published by RSPB Scotland last year said there had been a “significant number” of occasions where birds of prey had been illegally killed in areas managed for grouse shooting. Just last month, police in Angus appealed for information after tests showed that a golden eagle found dead there had been poisoned.

Last year, as part of the Year of Natural Scotland, the eagle came top in a poll run by Scottish Natural Heritage and VisitScotland to find Scotland’s favourite wild animal.

The poetry of Robert Burns
Hand written manuscripts on display at the National Library of Scotland

It has come three years late but it’s welcome for a’ that. We have finally seen a significant fall in unemployment. It is down to 6.4 per cent, the lowest figure for five years and a big fall from the usual figure of over 7 per cent. (It’s still 7.1 per cent for the UK as a whole.) In particular there has been a very welcome fall in youth unemployment, though it is still nearly 20 per cent.

Unemployment is down

Unemployment is down

Does it mean the years of austerity are over? Certainly not. Firstly, it’s not clear if the figures can be trusted – they seem to have caught the experts by surprise. Secondly, the bald figures do not give us the breakdown for part-time or temporary work – and the Labour Party tell us that a third of jobs in Scotland are now part-time or temporary. Thirdly, real earnings are still falling behind inflation. And fourthly, the Chancellor seems intent on cutting more jobs from the public sector.

So I’m left feeling unsure about whether we are entering a period of sustainable economic growth or just stumbling towards another quagmire. Certainly the Scottish government has been complaining that the budget it’s been given is still in austerity mode. But when the finance secretary John Swinney outlined its £35 billion worth of spending to parliament this week he did manage to squeeze out a little more money for childcare (£59m) and free school meals (£55m) and £20m to help council tenants offset the so-called bedroom tax.

Alex Rowley MSP Victor in Cowdenbeath

Alex Rowley MSP
Victor in Cowdenbeath

This was enough to persuade the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to add their votes to the SNP majority and the budget was passed by 90 votes to 13. There was a further outbreak of collaboration when Labour’s finance spokesman Iain Gray revealed he was in “constructive” discussions with Mr Swinney about the best way to protect people from the “Tory bedroom-tax”. This is rainbow politics indeed.

While this was going on at Holyrood, across the water in Fife the parties were fighting each other in the Cowdenbeath by-election. It was no surprise that Alex Rowley held the seat for Labour – he is after all the leader of Fife council. On a low turnout, of 34 per cent, the other parties did as expected, the SNP coming second, the Conservatives third. But the Liberal Democrats suffered another disaster, coming in fifth, behind UKIP.

In the wider referendum campaign, we’ve had another of those curious opinion surveys showing that if people thought they would be £500 a year better off, then support for independence rose from its usual 30 per cent to over 50 per cent. And if they thought they would be £500 a year worst off support for independence sank to just 15 per cent. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey also shows that voters are not much influenced by arguments over currencies or membership of the EU. Professor John Curtis says, in his analysis here in the Caledonian Mercury, that this is because opinion on these issues is equally divided among supporters of both the Yes and the No camps. It leads him to the conclusion that the economy is the crucial battle-ground.

Prof John Curtice Are modern Scots just a 'parcel of rogues'

Prof John Curtice
Are modern Scots just a
‘parcel of rogues’

I am reluctant to disagree with the world expert on these matters but here goes. I think the 1500 Scots who took part in the survey were not being serious. They were caught in bar-room mood. We are not such a parcel of rogues to be swayed by a £500 bribe, or by predictions over currencies or memberships. I think as we get closer to 18th September, people will vote with their heart not their head, and cultural and historical issues will determine the matter.

There was evidence of that Scottish heart last week when 3-year old Mikaeel Kular went missing from his home in Edinburgh. Hundreds of neighbours turned out to help the police search for him. And then, sadly, they turned out again to lay flowers and attend a church service to remember him. His body was found in woodlands in Fife and his mother Rosdeep Kular appeared in court on Monday charged with his murder.

We suffered another very different tragedy on the same day young Mikaeel was found. This time there were no crowds, only a mountain rescue team. Donald Tiso (50), of the famous Tiso family of adventurers, died while climbing with a friend on Ben Starav south of Glencoe. He was a director of the chain of 21 Tiso outdoor clothing and equipment stores and a keen photographer and supporter of the Scottish music scene. His father, who founded the firm in the 1960s, was also a keen mountaineer but died in a boating accident when he was just 57.

Burrell Collection  Items can now be leant out

Burrell Collection
Items can now be leant out

MSPs had one final duty this week. They passed the Burrell Collection Lending and Borrowing Bill, a private piece of legislation which will allow Glasgow City Council to lend pieces from the Burrell art collection to galleries abroad. It breaks one of the conditions laid down by the shipping magnate Sir William Burrell when he left his huge collection of world paintings, tapestries, sculptures etc to the city when he died in 1958.

It’s a timely example of Robert Burns’ famous line: “Nae man can tether time nor tide.” Circumstances change. One generation cannot bind another.

To celebrate Burns Night – on Saturday – the National Library has put on public display one of its greatest treasurers, the Glenriddell Manuscript, copies of some 50 poems, all in Burns’ own hand, and 27 of his letters sent to his friend Captain Robert Riddell in the 1790s. They somehow found their way to a gentleman’s club in Liverpool which disgracefully put them up for sale in 1913. Luckily, a rich American John Gribbel from Philadelphia bought them and returned them to Scotland. Unlike Sir William Burrell he did not need a parliamentary vote to persuade him to do the right thing. The collection contains such classics as Holy Willie’s Prayer and the aforementioned Tam o’ Shanter.

Unfortunately it doesn’t contain his later song, “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” which is perhaps best suited to these times of austerity and with which I raise a glass to honest Rab on his birthday.

“Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an a’ that:
The coward slave we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that !
For a’ that and a’ that,
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.”

Highland estates – call for ‘radical reform’

The question of land reform causes hackles to rise – on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, there’s a certain resentment that so much land in Scotland is owned by so few people. On the other, much of the land in this country is so poor that few people would actually want to own much of it.

Scotland needs a  'fairer distribution of land'

Scotland needs a
‘fairer distribution of land’

But when Scotland’s environment minister, Paul Wheelhouse, said on a BBC Scotland documentary that MSPs would fail the people of Scotland if they do not reduce the dominance of large, traditional sporting estates, then the reaction was inevitable. In the programme, he doubted whether “anyone would design a system where you ended up with only 432 people owning half the private land.” He went on to say the he would have designed a system “where you ended up with such a concentration of wealth and ownership in such a small group.”

Even before the programme was broadcast, the land owners went of the attack. For example, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, Douglas McAdam, said that “from what we have seen in advance of this programme, the contribution of estates is questioned by those who are opposed to their existence.

“The reality however is that estates do make a very substantial social, economic and environmental contribution. A recent survey of a cross section of our membership recently revealed that their combined investment plans in rural development projects are in excess of £820 million. Our very conservative estimate is that across the membership that figure would be well in excess of £1 billion.”

Jamie Stewart Director Countryside Alliance Scotland

Jamie Stewart
Countryside Alliance Scotland

Much of the debate about land reform in the Highlands revolves around the role of the large estates in ‘country sports’ – hunting, shooting and fishing. It prompted Jamie Stewart, director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance Director, to point out that an independent study had found that “Scotland generated £240 million pounds (GVA) from shooting and shooting related activities in 2004/5 and further reported that the sector supported 11,000 jobs. PACEC (Public and Corporate Economic Consultants) have been commissioned to repeat the study in 2014 with significant indications of growth on the previous study.”

“I am unaware of many sectors in the UK, never mind Scotland, that can report growth in the wake of the country’s greatest post war economic crisis; this growth can, in part, be accounted for by the sustained investment of those who own land and create employment. To break up the sporting estates would only serve to reduce localised employment opportunities and the knock on economic downturn it will surly lead too.”

Alex Hogg Scottish Gamekeepers Association wants 'clarification'

Alex Hogg
Scottish Gamekeepers Association wants ‘clarification’

The chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Alex Hogg, immediately asked for ‘clarification’ of the minister’s comments. “It seems,” he said, that the voice and the jobs of working keepers, who are at the sharp end of the skilled management of Scotland’s countryside, are being forgotten in this debate. We will be seeking clarification from the environment minister on what the Scottish Government, and the leading SNP administration’s intentions are, when it comes to safeguarding the jobs of those drawn into what seems to be an ideological issue.”

By contrast, the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, welcomed the idea that land reform was being placed higher on the political agenda. Its chairman, Christopher Nicholson, insisted that land tenure had been “cast into the long grass for too long and we look forward to some radical proposals from the Land Reform Review Group whose interim report dramatically shied away from any consideration of Scotland’s land tenure structure and tenant farming. We also welcome environment minister Paul Wheelhouse’s commitment to a fairer distribution of land and hope that the Scottish Government will now look towards creating a fresh vision for rural Scotland and press forward with a programme of land and tenancy reform.”

In a curious intervention in the debate, Charles Moore weighted in through a blog in the Spectator in which he suggested that Alex Salmond could be compared with Robert Mugabe! He wrote that the SNP had radically misunderstood the situation. “It believes,” he said, “that big Scottish landowners are rich because they own the land. For a long time now, it has been the other way round. They own the land because they are rich. Once they own it, they tend to become a lot poorer. Then they sell it to new rich people with money to burn, and so on. Hardly any Highland land makes money.

Without philanthropists, megalomaniacs and serious sportsmen pouring cash in to maintain these difficult places, their communities, and so the environment, would suffer. You can see this happening already in the islands where crofters’ rights have been exercised. One great independence leader who played this issue politically was Robert Mugabe, dividing the spoils among his followers and ruining the land in the process. Will the next be Alex Salmond?”