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Argyll and Bute

The Falkirk Wheel – a triumph of engineering

I’ve recently found myself wondering how our infrastructure helps to shape our environment and behaviours. We take most of the built networks for granted, mumble when some fall into disrepair and shake our heads when promises of the future are unfathomably delayed.

After long considering the challenge, I decided to run home to Edinburgh after a day at my client’s offices in Glasgow. The Wednesday evening’s prognosis was for fair weather and a near full moon. Butterflies flitted in my stomach. I was relishing the approaching shift in space and time within the confinement of the busy Central Belt and between one workday and the next. At the back of four pm, I gave thumbs up to my colleagues and left the building.

Forth & Clyde Canal in Glasgow

Forth & Clyde Canal in Glasgow

Befitting a love of the outdoors, I chose the Forth & Clyde and the Union canals as the route. As my pace began to settle through Lambhill, I thought about how life was before, during and after the construction of the waterways. Without the combustion engine, it would have been an enormous challenge to excavate the dolerite, cart off the debris by horse and bring in materials to strengthen the banks. A temporary society would have congregated by the corridor, with farriers and wheelwrights, tinkers and hookers. Interim bridges might have connected the people between the good and bad sides of the trench.

As the afternoon sun dropped and a six-stride crossing of Kirkintilloch’s Cowgate came and went, I began to imagine the impact of the canal. It linked (the rich), divided (the poor) and enabled interaction between all strata. Furthermore, it influenced the transit of goods, services and ideas, and affected, ever so subtly, the prevalence of flora and fauna. The change was irreversible. The same is true of the creation of subsequent train, tram and asphalt networks and the designation of today’s urban developments. Clever modern routes involve multi-level crossings, like those used in Canada to let moose pass under the parkways. My opinions on the best of planning initiatives are best left to another journey, another post.

Wildlife on the Union Canal

Wildlife on the Union Canal

I ran on and on. Backcasting anglers focused on their translucent lines, which ended in miniature concentric circles on the calm of the drink. Endless reflections of poplars and ash and oak contrasted only with the canalside gardens that spilled out onto the towpath. Assumptions that our canals are ribbons of discarded shopping trolleys and floating Pilsner bottles must be shattered. No, there is pride on the canals of Scotland these days. You only have to read about the Helix by Grangemouth and Falkirk and the fabulous Kelpies sculpture. It’s a M9 white-line drifter between junctions five and seven.

For ten miles I ran along with a friend. We chatted about this and that. Despite the technical difficulties, it might have been easier to get large projects completed at the end of the eighteenth century than it is now. The efficacy of change decreases with increasing democratisation, it seems. In formerly ‘backward’ countries like China, the government can decree that a route shall be built. And it will. In Britain, our multi-layered society lets royalist, religious, feudal, merchant, government and capitalist models dance the Gay Gordons with interest groups and quangos. The result is a cacophony of developmental paralysis. Although it’s frustrating, perhaps this is actually the right path for us and is the price to pay for stability beyond the reach of most nations.

The Union Canal at the top of the Falkirk Wheel

The Union Canal at the top of the Falkirk Wheel

At the Falkirk Wheel, a triumph of engineering that opened after the Millennium, I climbed the grassy bank to join the younger Union Canal. It was immediately darker and narrower. My sore feet pounded the compacted earth. The moon rose. Owls began to hoot. I found it tremendous that, beside the old Lothian coalfield villages, a shaft of water and light and foliage could give such pleasure to the weary commuter.

The half-miles clicked by in the half-darkness. Across Britain there are dozens of canals, with just a handful in Scotland. The Caledonian stitches up the magnificent fault line of the Great Glen. Meanwhile, the Crinan gives light work for sailors otherwise rounding the Mull of Kintyre. The Monkland is a smaller resource that links with the Forth & Clyde. So that’s a total of five, each extremely valuable for nature and recreation.

Less known is the planned-but-never built scheme to move Dreadnought-class battleships from the Clyde to the Forth. Two routes were proposed before the Great War, either of which would have matched the Panama in depth and breadth. The finances meant that those chipping their influence into the arms race had to pick between more boats or a new shipping mechanism. If the canal had been started, it’s my guess that the imperative would have galvanised the mission. You can look at the Alaskan Highway to understand what people can do when the cause is unequivocal.

The Union Canal near Winchburgh

The Union Canal near Winchburgh

At Linlithgow, I caught the sound of church bells on the water and the bogeys of the 21:59 for Waverly departing a minute late. The railroad was, of course, the next era in our transport history and must have caused headaches for those who were making their life from the canal. It’s hard adapting to change, that’s for sure. We only have to compare our own situation, as society copes with pressures from all sides, not least in the movement of information. But by this point, approaching 40 miles on my run, I was too tired to engage in philosophy.

Finally, a light from afar cut a swathe through the night. It was a friend who’d ridden out from Edinburgh. After high fives, he turned to pedal behind me and illuminate my figure. It created a giant running man whom I could never quite catch up. I boosted my stride length and stoked my arms, but still I wasn’t quick enough. At Winchburgh, I stopped running. We left the water’s edge and immediately found houses, pavements, roads, taxis and kebab shops. I’d had an adventure that seemed on another planet, yet suburbia had never been more than fifty yards away all night.


Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. In his professional life, Nick works in corporate communications and information strategy. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Scotland boasts over 50 beaches that have been awarded flags recognising their safety, water quality and beach cleanliness. Another seven beaches have also been awarded the blue flag, for which the beaches must pass over 30 stringent environmental criteria.

That is a very good starting point for any beach, but for a beach to be special, it should make you draw breath when you first see it.

Wide strips of the finest white sand lapped by pale turquoise (albeit cold) sea water and framed by a rugged coastline must place Scotland’s beaches as some of the best worldwide.

Combine this beauty with a dollop of folklore, some local knowledge or an unbeatable view, and you have a beach worthy of a visit.

Often remote, and requiring a little effort to get there, the following five beaches are definitely worth the effort.

<em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Picture: Anne Burgess

Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
Arguably one of Scotland’s finest beaches, here the Atlantic meets a wide stretch of golden sand, backed by dunes and surrounded by towering cliffs and a tall sea stack, Am Buachaille, Gaelic for the Herdsman.

Remote and beautiful, it requires a six-mile round trip that takes you across moorland, past a freshwater loch and the ruin of a croft reputedly haunted by a mariner who would knock on the window on stormy nights.

With the Atlantic breakers crashing into this bay, many vessels were shipwrecked here through the centuries prior to the building of the Cape Wrath lighthouse in 1828, and there have been many strange sightings in the bay.

A good many walkers and crofters claim to have seen the ghost of a uniformed mariner, thought to be from a shipwrecked Polish ship. In 1900, a local crofter and his dog were terrified when they saw a mermaid perched upon a rock in the bay – the crofter remained adamant about his encounter throughout his lifetime.

<em>Picture: Wendy Kirkwood</em>

Picture: Wendy Kirkwood

Sanna Bay, Ardnamurchan
This picturesque white shell sand beach sits nestled at the most westerly point in mainland Britain. Getting there involves a tortuous drive on single-track roads along the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

Huge dunes and outcrops separate small bays from large sweeping bays on this stretch of coastline, and the outlook from the shoreline is spectacular.

Sitting on the beach you look out to the Ardnamurchan lighthouse as well as the islands of Rum, Muck, Eigg and Canna. The Cuillin of Skye can also be clearly seen.

On the approach to the bay there is an anomaly in the surrounding countryside worth noting. Next to the hamlet of Achnaha is a flat circular area, about two miles in diameter, that is encircled by a ring of steep and craggy hills – the crater of an extinct volcano that you drive across to reach your destination.

<em>Picture: Robert Guthrie</em>

Picture: Robert Guthrie

Traigh Ban nam Monach, Iona
Iona has a peculiar spiritual quality. Besides the peacefulness, the light and colours are somehow special: verdant greens against pink granite, and the palest white and pink sands shelving into an azure sea.

Traigh Ban nam Monach (Gaelic for “white strand of the monks”) is one of many fabulous beaches on Iona. Close to the abbey and nunnery, this stretch of white sand, with smooth flat rocks, is a place to quietly sit and contemplate. And to examine beached jellyfish.

On the west side of Iona at Camus Cuil an t-Saimh (Bay at the back of the ocean, pronounced approximately Cam-us cool un tav) is a huge expanse of white beach, with the Spouting Cave next to it. This spews foaming seawater upwards in a jet when the tide is right.

A little further on is St Columba’s Bay. Here, on the glassy smooth pebbles, St Columba landed in his coracle in 563AD.

<em>Picture: Bob Moncrieff</em>

Picture: Bob Moncrieff

Kiloran Bay, Colonsay
Kiloran Bay is an inlet on the north-west coastline of Colonsay and forms a perfect crescent of golden sand. The beach is bordered by Colonsay’s highest hill, Carnan Eoin, and on a clear day Mull can be seen in the north. Looking out to the Atlantic, the next stop would be America.

In 1882, a Viking boat burial was found at Kiloran Bay. The grave dated from between 875 and 925. The Viking man was buried in his boat with his horse, his weapons and a number of other everyday objects.

<em>Picture: John Allan</em>

Picture: John Allan

Coilleag a’ Phrionnsa, Eriskay
Better known to non-Gaelic speakers as Prince’s Bay, it was here on 23 July 1745 that the French ship Du Teillay put ashore a small boat with a famous passenger.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – first set foot on Scottish soil at this white sandy strip, before sailing to the mainland to raise his standard at Glenfinnan.

Rich in history and culture, this bay and the surrounding beaches would have been worked by the crofters and their ponies, collecting seaweed and shellfish in creel baskets.

Eriskay ponies, the crofter’s best friend and most ancient of Hebridean breeds (and critically endangered) still free-range and can be found grazing the machair and wandering upon the sparkling white sands.

When the SS Politician sank off the Western Isles in 1941, carrying a major cargo of whisky bound for New York, the Eriskay locals – once the crew were safely rescued – raced to retrieve the ship’s liquid cargo, hiding the bottles before the excise men could find them.

This was the inspiration for Compton Mackenzie’s comedy Whisky Galore!, which was later made into a successful film.

But as well as whisky, it is said that the Politician was carrying eight cases of currency to the West Indies and the United States. In all, there were nearly 290,000 ten-shilling notes, worth the equivalent of several million pounds at today’s prices.

Five more great Scottish beaches to consider…
Luskentyre, Harris
Mellon Udrigle, Wester Ross
Achmelvich, Assynt
Cambo Sands, Fife
Burghead Bay, Moray

Trident submarine on the Clyde <em>Picture: JohnED76</em>

Trident submarine on the Clyde Picture: JohnED76

By Rob Edwards

The safety of the nuclear bombs and submarines on the Clyde is being increasingly jeopardised by the UK government’s spending cuts, a Ministry of Defence (MoD) report has warned.

The public, military personnel and the environment could be put at risk of accidental explosions, spillages or radiation leaks, according to a new assessment by the MoD’s internal watchdog, the Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board.

A summary of the board’s report for 2010 by its chairman, Howard Mathers, says that safety issues “present a risk that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain that the defence nuclear programmes are being managed with due regard for the protection of the workforce, the public and the environment.”

The report by Mathers, posted on the MoD’s website without announcement, warns that there is a “lack of adequate resource to deliver the Defence nuclear programmes safely”. There is an “adverse trend in resources’, Mathers points out, “which I expect will become yet more painful.”

Mathers adds that “the frequency and significance of incidents remain too high as a result of poor control of work”. The principal dangers in the medium term, he says, “are the adequacy of resources, both money and staff complement, and the maintenance of a sustainable cadre of suitably competent staff.”

The MoD was accused by one of its former senior safety officials of allowing defence cuts to “trump” safety. Lessons from previous reports had been “ignored”, said Fred Dawson, who was head of the MoD’s radiation protection policy team before he retired in 2009.

“Decisions were taken in the defence review without a proper consideration of their impact on safety generally and nuclear safety in particular,” Dawson said. “The ability of the MoD’s internal regulator to do its
 job is being compromised by the lack resources.”

The assessment by Mathers is the latest in a series of warnings from within the MoD about the impact of cutbacks on nuclear safety. It comes in the wake of reports last week that UK defence ministers had decided to hand over the management of the nuclear bomb base at Coulport on Loch Long to a group of private companies, including the US arms dealer Lockheed Martin.

Trade unions, politicians and disarmament campaigners warned that public safety would be endangered because companies could be tempted to cut corners. A motion expressing concern was lodged in the Scottish parliament by the SNP MSP, Bill Kidd.

The Coulport sell-off was also condemned as “absolutely horrific” by the SNP minister and newly-elected MSP for neighbouring Argyll and Bute, Michael Russell. “The privatisation of weapons of mass destruction is a policy without precedent and can only be described as both foolhardy and reckless,” he said.

The move, however, was defended by the local Liberal Democrat MP, Alan Reid, who pointed out that the site would still be owned by the MoD. “The Labour Party started the privatisation of our nuclear deterrent,” he said. “This is a continuation of the process begun by Labour.”

An MoD spokesman said: “The MoD takes its nuclear safety responsibilities very seriously. Work is underway to deliver continuous safety improvement in the areas raised by the report.”

Rob Edwards, environmental news and comment.

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The Caledonian Mercury has invited some of those in the election firing-line to send regular bulletins about the personal side of campaigning. Alison Hay is the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Argyll and Bute.

    Monday 25 April
    Disaster! My campaign manager has strained a tendon doing DIY at the weekend and will have to rest his foot for a few days, My husband John has gallantly stepped into the breach and will help me with leaflet delivery over the next couple of days, so I’m back on the campaign trail after having a rest on Sunday afternoon.

    We’re on Lismore this afternoon with my husband driving. Mixed reactions, with ferries and roads the main issues.

    Tuesday 26 April
    Today it has been agreed that we meet at Cairndow Oyster Bar which is about 30 minutes from where I live. Argyll and Bute’s MP Alan Reid is joining John and me to deliver leaflets in Cairndow, Strachur, St Catherines, Tighnabruaich and Kames on the Cowal peninsula. Again, the weather is wonderful and I’m beginning to develop a tan. Campaigning is great in weather like this.

    This evening is the Dunoon hustings and I’m not looking forward to it. Mike Russell and the SNP are in difficult water! They promised the Dunoon residents two new boats in exchange for votes, in 2007. They have failed to deliver and the Dunoon/Gourock ferry service will become passenger-only from the end of June. Dunoon residents are not best pleased.

    Wednesday 27 April
    The time is 9am and I’m in Connel near Oban. Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott is paying a visit to Connel post office to promote our support for rural post offices. The owner is Rosie Stevenson. She has diversified her post office into a grocer’s shop.

    She opens early to provide filled rolls, papers, etc to the workmen on their way to work. She is very happy with the progress she is making and is happy with the help she has had from Alan Reid.

    Also with us this morning is George Lyon MEP, the Scottish Liberal Democrat campaign manager. A happy time was spent talking to the press and drinking tea supplied by Rosie. We leave about 10am and head down towards Kennacraig to catch the 1pm ferry to the island of Islay. My campaign manager Tony is back, hobbling, assuring me he is better but I’m sceptical.

    We spend the afternoon on the island of Jura and drive 18 miles to Ardlussa over the worst roads I’ve been on yet. At Ardlussa a surprise awaited: visitors can use a small walkie-talkie to send their order to a house about 400 yards away and the lady will bring out your order of tea and you can sit on the beach to drink it. In this weather I can think of nothing nicer.

    Thursday 28 April
    Leafleting in Islay, particularly Port Ellen which we had not done during our previous visit. Then drove to Portnahaven and spoke to another postmaster who has a problem with planning. Back to Port Charlotte and visited the Museum of Islay Life and the local café.

    Then back to Bowmore for the evening’s hustings at the High School. Mr Russell does his usual and tries to blame the school closures on me; he doesn’t get away with it this time. His infamous email was quoted from and his interference as education minister with council business was commented on. He is behaving outrageously and keeps denying he said eight or nine schools “could be taken through with little difficulty”.

    Why the people of Argyll and Bute believe the SNP wouldn’t close schools if it didn’t happen to be election time is a mystery.

    Friday 29 April
    On the ferry back to Kennacraig, then leafleting in Tarbert. Tomorrow is a walkabout in Dunoon. Only four more working days to go to “E-Day”.

    Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

    Aberdeen Central <em>Picture: Richard Slessor</em>

    Aberdeen Central Picture: Richard Slessor

    The second in our series on key swing seats for the 5 May election.

    Aberdeen Central
    Labour’s Lewis Macdonald has represented the centre of Aberdeen since the parliament opened in 1999. However, his majorities have been going down with each election as the SNP has chipped away at the Labour vote.

    At the last election, Mr Macdonald only secured the seat with a majority of 382 over the SNP – and, according to one authoritative assessment, this has been eroded even more by boundary changes so that the SNP now actually has a notional majority of 349.

    Either way, this is a very tight contest. Mr Macdonald has worked very hard to keep this seat, but in Kevin Stewart he is up against the deputy leader of the city council.

    If even a small fraction of the pro-SNP swing detected in national polls is translated through into this constituency, then Mr Stewart will be elected on 5 May.

    Also standing: Sheila Thomson (Liberal Democrat), Sandy Wallace (Conservative), Mike Phillips (National Front).

    Prediction: SNP gain from Labour.

    Argyll and Bute
    There is one issue dominating the election in this west coast constituency – school closures.

    The council proposed a series of school closures a year ago, which caused a massive backlash. Then the SNP group on the council (after taking advice from Mike Russell, the education secretary) decided to start opposing the cuts.

    Mr Russell – whose wife is a teacher in the area – is now the SNP candidate. The issue of school closures – which ones will actually close and who is to blame – is still swirling around Mr Russell and the SNP and has the potential to damage the SNP vote.

    However, this seat did elect an SNP MSP in 2007 in the popular Jim Mather, and Mr Russell will be hoping that he can take over where the retiring Mr Mather left off.

    He does face a strong challenge, though, from Alison Hay of the Liberal Democrats. Privately, senior Lib Dems have been talking up her chances, but she will have to buck the national trend of anti-Lib Dem voting to take this constituency.

    Also standing: Jamie McGrigor (Conservative), Mick Rice (Labour), George White (Liberal), George Doyle (Independent).

    Prediction: SNP hold.

    Caithness, Sutherland and Ross
    The Liberal Democrats have a very good record of getting elected then working an area so well that they guarantee their re-election for many years to come.

    That happened here with Jamie Stone, the Liberal Democrat MSP from 1999 until his decision to retire from politics this year.

    Without that personal vote for Mr Stone, the Nationalists believe this seat is vulnerable, and although an assessment of the boundary changes gives Lib Dem Robbie Rowantree a notional majority of 2,500, SNP strategists believe that is vulnerable.

    The SNP candidate is the experienced list MSP Rob Gibson, who is well known in the area.

    The Liberal Democrats expect their vote to decline, but are hoping enough of their supporters stay with them to keep the SNP at bay.

    Also standing: John MacKay (Labour), Edward Mountain (Conservative).

    Prediction: SNP gain from Liberal Democrats.

    Edinburgh Central
    This appears to be one of the most open constituencies of all in Scotland. All four of the main parties now appear to be within 3,500 votes of each other, so – conceivably – it could go to any of them.

    Labour’s Sarah Boyack is the sitting MSP, but she holds a notional majority of just 719 over the SNP.

    Nationalists have been suggesting that Ms Boyack knows she is vulnerable: why else, they ask, would she put herself on the regional list as well?

    But it appeared to Labour before the campaign started that the Liberal Democrats would be their main rival in Edinburgh Central, and that was why Ms Boyack was worried about her position.

    With the Lib Dem vote falling away, Labour managers hope they will attract enough wavering Lib Dems to head off Marco Biagi’s SNP challenge.

    Also standing: Iain McGill (Conservative), Alex Cole-Hamilton (Liberal Democrat).

    Prediction: Labour hold.

    Edinburgh Southern
    This should be one of the most comfortable Liberal Democrat seats in the country. Sitting MSP Mike Pringle enjoys a notional majority of nearly 4,000 – but, ever since the campaign started, Labour strategists have been insisting that their canvass returns show a big swing from the Lib Dems to Labour.

    Labour leaders believe it will be enough to send Paul Godzik, their candidate, to Holyrood for the first time, while the Lib Dems think that Mr Pringle has a strong enough personal vote to confound the national anti-Lib Dem voting patterns.

    Labour will need to start picking up seats from the Lib Dems in Scotland’s urban areas if they are to match the SNP’s success in doing that in rural Scotland. This would be as good a place as any for them to start.

    Also standing: Gavin Brown (Conservative), Jim Eadie (SNP).

    Prediction: Labour gain from Liberal Democrats.

    Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

    Iona Abbey cloisters <em>Picture: David P Howard</em>

    Iona Abbey cloisters Picture: David P Howard

    The Caledonian Mercury has invited some of those in the election firing-line to send regular bulletins about the personal side of campaigning. Alison Hay is the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Argyll and Bute.

      This week sees me continuing my “overseas” travel, interspersed with some council business but with ramifications on the campaign.

      Monday 18 April
      What a beautiful Monday morning – where better to be than on a CalMac ferry heading to the Island of Bute, the shortest crossing in Scotland from Colintraive to Rhubodach, time roughly ten minutes.

      I have a date with Bute FM at 10am. They‘re asking all candidates the same question: why should the people of Bute vote for them? Easy question, how long have your listeners got?

      In the evening it was the Bute hustings, and with Argyll and Bute council proposing to put North Bute primary school out to formal consultation the evening looked set to be a bit of a bumpy ride for yours truly – as it turned out to be. The SNP education minister denying he had interfered with the process and me saying he had, entertainment for all.

      Tuesday 19 April
      Education meeting at the council, where the council decides to put 11 schools out to formal consultation – a 12-hour meeting which ended at 10:55pm. Not a good day and all councillors very unhappy to be in this situation, but the education department needs to take its share of the pain of the cuts.

      Wednesday 20 April
      Today I’m stuck at my computer writing answers to questions from the Oban Times, the Argyllshire Advertiser and the Campbeltown Courier. Don’t these journalists realise I’ve got an election to win?

      I just make the deadline with two minutes to spare, raised blood pressure all round. In the evening off to Oban for a visit to Atlantis Leisure, Oban’s swimming and sports facility. I’m there for the opening of the new children’s soft-play area, a great success.

      Thursday 21 April
      Back on the high seas again, this time to Mull and Iona. This evening in Craignure, where Lesley Riddoch will host the Mull hustings, and before that Alan Reid MP, Tony my campaign manager and I have a great day. I meet an old friend on Iona who takes me round and I spend time speaking to the Mull and Iona Community Trust and seeing round their new community and charity shop and centre.

      The hustings evening went better than I feared: the issues discussed were sustaining rural communities and infrastructure, eg roads, health care, fairer ferry fares and inevitably schools.

      Friday 22 April
      Weather continues to be bright and sunny, Argyll and Bute at its best, no midges yet! I caught the 8:45am boat back to Oban and drove home. I have to be at Auchindrain museum today for the opening of the refurbished tearoom and visitor centre.

      The museum is taking down a tattered old saltire flag and replacing it with a new one. The old one is being respectfully folded and cremated. The new tearoom looks fantastic and the museum is now set for a good summer.

      Saturday 23 April
      Went with my husband to Bridge of Orchy to knock on some doors. Bridge of Orchy is tiny and is at the extreme edge of the constituency, and is often forgotten about. I think it important to try and visit every town and village at least once, and the towns more than once, during the election. It’s amazing the number of times people have said to me “You’re the first candidate we’ve seen”. As it’s Easter weekend, I’m having this evening off to visit relatives in Taynuilt.

      Only ten days to go and the pace is hotting up. Next week Oban, Mid-Argyll, hustings in Dunoon on Tuesday evening, across the seas to Islay and Jura with a hustings on Islay on Thursday evening, back to Tarbert, finishing the week back in Dunoon on the Saturday. I’ll write again on Sunday next.

      Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

      Alison Hay

      Alison Hay

      The Caledonian Mercury has invited some of those in the election firing-line to send regular bulletins about the personal side of campaigning. Alison Hay is the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Argyll and Bute.

        Let me introduce myself – I’m Alison Hay and I’m standing for election in the Scottish parliament on 5 May, as a Scottish Liberal Democrat.

        The campaign for the election is split into two chronological sections. The Long Campaign extended from January 2011 until the parliament was dissolved on 22 March. The Short Campaign runs from 23 March to polling day. An insight into my campaign story in Argyll and Bute follows in the coming weeks.

        Argyll and Bute, is the most beautiful constituency in Scotland. Don’t just take my word for it, ask anyone, ask my opponents!

        It has 25 inhabited islands within its borders, and covers over two million acres of land. The constituency is what is termed a four-way marginal. I think this means that the four main parties all think they have a chance at winning the seat. This is of course nonsense, there is only going to be one party winner. Seriously, though, this will be a very closely contested seat and the winner is anyone’s guess – although I hope it will be me.

        Campaigning in earnest all began with the run-up to the long campaign before Christmas. However, in Argyll and Bute, this largely meant not doing much, because the weather was terrible, people were busy with Christmas present-buying and I would have been, in good Glaswegian terms, hunted! (Told to go away politely!)

        I spent my time organising and planning how I would travel around this vast county, not a simple task and I may as well not have bothered, since everything appears to take on a mind of its own. Take last week, for example.

        My campaign manager and I were meant to be leafleting in and around the Mid-Argyll area, places like Tayvallich, Crinan, Achnamara. Did this happen? No! I ended up in Dunoon on the Tuesday, Campbeltown on Wednesday – at an opening of some new allotments – and on Friday I was at Auchindrain museum near Inveraray.

        Anyone looking at a map would see these places are not exactly close together. Buses were not handy, so I’m afraid the mileage on my Renault Modus rose considerably. This has not been an isolated incident and as you will see next week my journeys will combine the feelings of a cruise ship to paradise with a full work day.

        Today (Sunday 10 April), my husband and I drove to the Cuan Ferry and, as foot passengers, sailed over to the island of Luing. Luing has a total of 93 houses on it, nestles in the Firth of Lorn about 30 miles south-west of Oban, and little has changed here for 200 years.

        The island is about six miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide. The main centre of population is Cullipool with its whitewashed cottages. These were originally the homes of the slate quarriers, and at its height there were 170 men employed at this.

        For our day on Luing we walked to the primary school which has opened as a café during the holidays. We had lunch, walked some more, had afternoon tea then walked back to the ferry and home. We had nothing but sun glorious sun, Argyll at its perfect best.

        I’m signing off now, tired but content with how the week has gone. I’ll write again next week.

        Want to discuss other issues? Join the debate on our new Scottish Voices forum

        Michael Russell <em>Picture: Crown Copyright/Scottish Government</em>

        Michael Russell Picture: Crown Copyright/Scottish Government

        Michael Russell has served as secretary for education and lifelong learning since 2009, and is standing as the SNP candidate for Argyll and Bute on 5 May.

        The strangest question I was ever asked on a doorstep was on the last Saturday of the 1987 election campaign, which was my first parliamentary outing. In torrential rain I knocked on a door in Stonehouse in Lanarkshire, about the most distant town from the sea in Scotland and nestling within the old Clydesdale constituency which was totally landlocked.

        The voter, however, wanted to know the SNP position on lighthouse dues – and specifically to whom they should be paid. Playing for time, I parried with remarks about the weather, the campaign and lots of other things until I dredged from my memory something I had read somewhere about the issue. Amazingly, my response seemed to satisfy him.

        This election has produced no such surprises as yet – though, having just looked it up, I am now adequately if not fully prepared to discuss the General Lighthouse Fund and the levying of 38p per net registered ton for up to nine voyages a year with a tonnage cap set at 35,000.

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        Fortunately most of the questions relate so far to the SNP government’s council tax freeze, to the state of the roads, to education (and particularly student fees) and – in Argyll at least – to the strong disregard in which voters now hold Nick Clegg in particular and the Liberal Democrats in general.

        Politicians do evince powerful reactions. Over the years, I have heard astonishing vitriol about friends of mine and fawning appreciation of others with whom I refuse even to spend the time of day. But there seems at present to be a special circle of electoral hell reserved for the man who only 12 months ago former and future prime ministers were clamouring – on live television – to agree with.

        In the Highlands, what is openly talked about as the Liberal betrayal is felt especially keenly. A prominent Shetland crofter, explaining the Liberals’ historic hold on whole swathes of the north and west, once said to me that his grandfather had told him that the Liberals were the party that had saved crofting and given the islanders a future, victories they had won by by standing up to the lairds.

        Now – to men like him – it seems as if that history has been turned on its head. The crofters’ party is doing the lairds’ dirty work and slashing the services on which rural areas depend. Promises made just a year ago – such as the promise not to raise VAT – are being broken, and claims trumpeted from the rooftops – like an unshakable commitment to reduce rural petrol prices – are turning out to be hollow indeed.

        Liberalism in the Highlands and Islands has always been based on the strength of the candidate as well as the cause. Men such as Inverness MP Charles Fraser-Mackintosh – known in the 1880s as “the Member for the Highlands” as a result of his advocacy of land reform and Gaelic – embraced both Land League and Liberal principles, and the open preference expressed this week by John Farquhar Munro for Alex Salmond as first minister reflects that tradition.

        JF was the co-sponsor of my Gaelic Bill in the first parliament and he is the best type of old-style Highland Liberal – determined to say what he believes to be true, no matter what his party or his opponents think.

        I have experienced both sides of that determination, as his dogged (and successful) resistance to many of the changes proposed by the Shucksmith Commission on crofting made my work as environment minister particularly difficult for a while.

        The SNP’s natural embrace of a strong localism – ensuring that decisions are made as close to communities as possible – and our radical approach to land reform, including our determination to repatriate the earnings of the Crown Estate, give a message to Highland communities that is in keeping with their traditions as well as their present need.

        A commitment to the language (I was particularly proud to be the first-ever government minister to speak in Gaelic at a European Council of Ministers) and a passion for education (including ensuring the protection of rural schools) strike a chord as well.

        Richard Lochhead and Roseanna Cunningham have also demonstrated a practical approach to supporting rural industries and rural employment that is producing results, though there is much still to do.

        With four weeks to go in this campaign – it has been a long one – it is more than likely that there will be more surprise questions in store for me and for every other candidate. But I think the real surprise of this election would be if the new-style Liberal Democrat candidates in the Highlands and Islands did not find themselves paying a very heavy electoral price for their party’s decision to sell its political soul for a share of power in London.

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        Sound of Islay <em>Picture: Andrew Curtis</em>

        Sound of Islay Picture: Andrew Curtis

        Anyone who has travelled the short distance between Islay and Jura knows how strong the pull of the Atlantic can be in this most intriguing of sounds.

        The little Port Askaig car ferry often has to head off from the shore at a sharp angle just to make to the other side, because the strength of the tide racing between these two Hebridean islands is so fierce.

        Now, though, that power is to be harnessed in the world’s biggest tidal energy project. Scottish ministers gave the go-ahead today to a £40 million ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) plan which is expected to provide enough electricity for all 3,000 homes on Islay twice over.

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        Research work has been going on in the Sound of Islay for the last couple of years, and in July 2010 SPR applied for consent to construct and operate a ten-turbine demonstrator tidal stream energy array, but this has only now been approved.

        Not only is it expected to keep Scotland at the forefront of tidal energy power, but the development will provide a significant jobs boost for an island community which has struggled because of a lack of employment opportunities over recent years.

        Finance secretary John Swinney determined the application for the 10 megawatt facility, as it is in energy minister Jim Mather’s Argyll and Bute constituency.

        “With around a quarter of Europe’s potential tidal energy resource and a tenth of the wave capacity,” Mr Swinney said, “Scotland’s seas have unrivalled potential to generate green energy, create new, low-carbon jobs, and bring billions of pounds of investment to Scotland. This development – the largest tidal array in the world – does just that and will be a milestone in the global development of tidal energy.

        “[The] ScottishPower Renewables array will work in harmony with the environment and use the power of the tides in the Sound of Islay to generate enough green energy to power double the number of homes on Islay. There is simply nothing like it consented anywhere else in the world.”

        SPR is also entering its tidal farm in the Pentland Firth – between Caithness and Orkney – into the £10 million Saltire Prize for marine energy innovation.

        First minister Alex Salmond met SPR and Hammerfest Strøm (a company jointly owned by SPR and Norwegian energy companies) in Norway last year. Hammerfest Strøm is developing one of the world’s most advanced tidal turbines, the HS1000, which will be used in the Sound of Islay development. Burntisland Fabrications Limited has a £2 million contract to build the turbines.

        The Scottish government’s target is to meet 80 per cent of electricity demand from renewables by 2020. In 2009, 27 per cent of electricity demand came from renewables.

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        A mock-up of the proposed windfarm off Tiree by No Tiree Array group

        A mock-up of the proposed windfarm off Tiree by No Tiree Array group

        Tiree is known for its surfing beaches and its sunlight but it is the abundance of another natural resource around this tiny Hebridean isle – the wind – that has triggered such a major battle between residents and developers that it could derail at least part of the Scottish Government’s renewable energy plans.

        ScottishPower Renewables wants to build an offshore windfarm just off the southwest coast of Tiree. The energy company insists that the Argyll Array, as it is known, is vital if Scotland is to meet its ambitious renewable energy targets.

        However, plans for the Argyll Array have prompted a furious backlash from Tiree residents for two simple reasons: it is going to be really, really big and extremely close to shore, so close and so big, in fact, that campaigners believe it will overshadow everything on one whole side of the island.

        If given the go-ahead, this proposal could see the erection of 180 turbines, each one 600-ft tall – the size of the Gherkin building in London. The turbines might end up being smaller that that, but if they are smaller then there will have to be many more them, perhaps as many as 500 of them.

        The development would start just three miles from the Tiree coast and cover an area of almost 140 square miles. Given that Tiree is just 40 square miles in size, it is easy to why many residents are so concerned about the effect that this project will have on their community.

        Members of the action group which has been created to fight the plans, No Tiree Array, insist they are not against windfarms. Indeed, they say they would welcome proposals to site the wind turbines 22 miles from shore.

        They just don’t want them so close that they affect every view, every beach, the surfing, the wind-surfing and the fishing on one side of the island.

        At the moment, the Argyll Array is part of the Scottish Government’s draft plan for offshore developments which ministers want to get through parliament before Holyrood rises for the election campaign at the end of March.

        The minister pushing it through is Jim Mather, the energy minister, but also the SNP MSP for Argyll and Bute, the area affected by the proposed development.

        No Tiree Array have already lodged a formal complaint with Mr Mather, complaining about the way the consultation over the draft plan was carried out and raising questions about his dual role: the MSP for area and the minister responsible for the draft plan.

        This is a big, big issue for Tiree and, indeed, for Argyll and the Hebrides but it neatly encapsulates some of the dilemmas posed by the push for renewables.

        If half our energy is to come from renewable sources by 2020, then the windfarms have to go somewhere. Also, some have to be very, very big indeed, with massive turbines generating significant amounts of energy.

        The area around Tiree is windy. It is known for its wind and there are not nearly as many people there to be affected by a windfarm as there are say, in the Central Belt.

        But Tiree is also beautiful, mostly unspoilt and an archetype of the sort of Hebrides which visitors want to see. It is also home to 800 residents and another 3,000 semi-permanent visitors who come every summer.

        ScottishPower Renewables insists that the water is too deep to site turbines 22 miles offshore. The turbines have to be in close to make the operation work but many residents feel their community, their culture, their whole way of life will be destroyed if the project is given the go-ahead.

        Dr Alison Kennedy, spokeswoman for No Tiree Array, said she believed this was a classic case of a small community being trampled over by big companies, by government and, ultimately, by a huge windfarm.

        She told the Times she had not spoken to a single islander who supported the plans.

        Dr Kennedy said: “The seascape from the south of Tiree is going to become one giant fleet of enormous turbines. Tiree is a beautiful little island with some of the best beaches in the world but the whole atmosphere, the whole shape of the island is going to change. It is going to be industrialised.

        “These proposals are way out of proportion for the island itself and they are going to change the whole way of life for this tiny island with 800 souls. The community will be destroyed, tourism will be destroyed. I cannot understand why Alex Salmond wants to destroy the Western Isles, one of the world’s most beautiful areas.”

        The campaigners claim they were not allowed to raise objections to the Argyll Array itself during the consultation process, just the general draft plan for the whole of Scotland.

        But they believe that they should be able to object at this stage because, if they do not succeed in stopping the Argyll Array now, they are likely to lose the argument in principle and will not be able to defeat it at a later stage.

        “The consultation process has been a complete farce,” Dr Kennedy said.

        And she added: “I know we need energy and windfarms but I cannot see the logic of this. You have to place windfarms where you don’t destroy communities and this monstrous development will destroy this tiny island community.”

        However, a spokesman for the Scottish Government defended the administration’s approach to offshore wind energy. “Scotland has massive renewable energy resources and is at the forefront of advances in offshore wind energy generation. The Scottish Government welcomes developments in the sector and with as much as a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind energy potential Scotland is well placed to become the continent’s green energy powerhouse. “

        And Simon McMillan for ScottishPower Renewables, which is planning to develop the Argyll Array, said the water was too deep for the turbines to be sited at least 35km from the shore. He said they had to be within 22km of the shore to stay within Scottish waters and he stressed that the company had given an assurance they wouldn’t come within 5km of land.

        He said: “This is a very important project. This is a key part in meeting our carbon-reduction targets and, as an offshore development, this is an excellent location.”

        And Mr McMillan added: “We have a very good track record of working with communities and we will keep the community constantly in touch with the project as it develops.”

        Members of the No Tiree Array group have vowed to keep fighting the development. They have also produced some startling, professionally designed images showing how close the turbines will be to shore and how, they believe, they will dominate the island. They are determined to win, believing the fate of their island is at stake if they lose.