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A positive year for Mactaggart & Mickel

The house builder, Mactaggart & Mickel, has reported turnover up by 48% in the last financial year. The group’s sales reached £56m in the year to April, with pre-tax profits up from £1.35m to £2.4m. The company says that its results reflect new developments and the launch of a part-exchange scheme.

Mactaggart and Mickel LogoThe firm’s Chief executive, Ed Monaghan, explained that the market was “slowly finding its feet again and we have achieved strong forward sales across our developments for the next financial year. The newly-launched Help to Buy scheme is a welcome incentive to further stimulate the market. Any initiative which encourages consumers to buy more and the industry to build more is a positive but there is no quick fix solution. A medium-term view, steady growth and the continuation of our diversification strategy are what will stand the business in good stead for future prosperity.”

The firm has a £26.5m contract from the Commonwealth Games. As one of the biggest contractors for the Games village, it’s responsible for building 225 of the 700 homes for athletes which will then be handed over to Glasgow as part of the games’ legacy.

Mactaggart and Mickel Timber Systems

Mactaggart and Mickel Timber Systems

The company diversified during the downturn. It’s been working for housing associations and local councils as well as expanding its office and home renting business. It’s also pioneered new construction methods, such as pre-fabricating large sections of new homes in its Timber Systems factory in Coatbridge. In the last financial year, the company won sub-contracting work for Miller Homes and Ogilvie Construction. At present, it has projects in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ayrshire and west of Scotland.

The company’s business in England is also growing. It’s recently added to its English land bank, with almost 1200 acres across 18 planning projects in the south-west and north-west of the country. For example, it has consent for 400 house site in Cheshire, which it intends to sell early next year.

Scotland lost to Belgium at home

Well it was to be expected I suppose.

Scotland FC LogoLast night, Scotland were brushed aside by Belgium in their latest World Cup qualifying tie. As Gordon Strachan rightly said, his players could not be faulted for effort, but added his charges struggled to match the Belgians physically. “We cannot make players bigger, stronger, quicker,” said Strachan, sounding as if he was quoting another sporting motto, minus the Latin.

To a point, I see what he’s saying. Christian Benteke probably strikes the fear of God into opposition defenders, while our assorted bundle of Naismith, Rhodes, Griffiths and McCormack are as fearsome as a Sunday school. The national team boss though would have some substance to his argument if it wasn’t for the fact that the best player in the world was the diminutive Lionel Messi, who is smaller, lighter, but skilful …

Boxing, for the most part, is subjective. Spotting which blows landed, those that scored, those that hurt, and those that missed isn’t easy. Still, when you invite along a bunch of judges to score a world title contest, you would think that they’d have half an idea of what they were looking for.

Ricky Burns (Creative Commons)

Ricky Burns
(Creative Commons)

Not so American judge Carlos Ortiz Jr, installed for Ricky Burns’ fourth defence of the World Boxing Organisation lightweight title. You see, Ortiz was only looking for one thing; a home winner.

Burns was pummelled by challenge Raymundo Beltran for 12 rounds beating the Scot both in the ring and on most people’s scorecards. Judge Andre Van Grootenbruel of Belgium (who looked neither bigger, stronger or quicker than the other adjudicators) had it 115-113 for Beltran, but British judge Richie Davis returned a puzzling 114-114 draw. Maybe he’s sponsored by Cuprinol for that fence he sits on. Amazingly though, Ortiz Jr had it 115-112 for Burns, the overall contest therefore deemed a draw. Burns retained his title while Beltran left for home believing he had just been mugged.

Not only was this one of the most blatant hometown verdicts ever seen in a British ring, this contest was elevated to arguably the most embarrassing moment in Scottish sport of all time, ahead of Argentina 78, Rangers, Hearts and trying to claim the world elephant polo championship as a respectable sporting title.

Burns had little to say on the matter. He spent Sunday having a titanium plate screwed into his broken jaw, an injury he’d carried from being cracked in the second round. No-one can deny the Coatbridge fighters bravery. What many overlooked however was that being brave or gutsy isn’t part of the scoring criteria. In all of this Burns did nothing wrong, the innocent party. Unlike the sport of boxing …

Joy amongst grapple fans (said in my best Kent Walton voice) that wrestling has been reinstated as an Olympic sport for the 2020 and 2024 Games after being voted in ahead of baseball/softball and squash. It is, of course, the ancient form of Greco-Roman wrestling that has been included. A massive disappointment for those who had read many a column inch on this announcement hoping to find a mention of mud, jelly, Kendo Nagasaki or Ralph Bates and Oliver Reed.

Meanwhile, I loved the headline attached to the story about squash once again being omitted from the biggest show on earth. “Squash Banging Head On Brick Wall,” it proclaimed. Which to be honest, would probably make more of a spectator-friendly sport than squash itself …


Ikechi Anya (Creative Commons)

Ikechi Anya
(Creative Commons)

Gordon Strachan’s ‘bigger, stronger, quicker’ line was still resonating when he picked his team to play Macedonia which included Watford winger Ikechi Anya, in from the start after making his debut as a sub against Belgium. And Anya’s selection proves to be inspired as he turns in a Man Of The Match performance in a 2-1 win, opening the scoring. All this as well from someone who probably measures 5’6” stretched out. Maybe through the euphoria of an away win the national team manager didn’t realise he’d knocked down his own argument …

I was amused when I spotted this on Twitter the other evening from the Macedonia v Scotland match programme. I did have a chuckle to myself. It reminded me of the time Celtic came up with the idea to charge photographers for taking pictures at Parkhead. The snappers walked out and so ensued a Mexican standoff.

What to do about photographs though?

At The Mirror, we hit upon the bright idea of using children’s drawings to illustrate Celtic stories while the dispute continued. I particularly recall some brilliant representations Henrik Larsson and Enrico Annoni, but after a few days the clever idea of licensing photographers was binned, as sadly, were the kids cartoons.

Maybe I should start the Macedonian Mirror? Now, don’t all start chipping in for my ticket …


Stewart Regan

Stewart Regan

Ian Black finds out his punishment for betting on football matches including three times against him own team. The ten-game ban, with seven suspended (so effectively a one-match ban for each time he thought either he or his team-mates weren’t up to it) was considered fair by some, though many more thought the suspension far too lenient – especially those who lost money betting on certain games Black was involved with.

Drug cheat cyclist Lance Armstrong has handed back the bronze medal he won at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I suppose it’s a start. Now for those millions of dollars in sponsorship and seven machine washed yellow jerseys …

Lastly, SFA chief Stewart Regan reckons the ‘feel good factor’ is returning to Scottish football, this, on the day Scotland fall another 13 places in the FIFA world rankings. Some folk are easily pleased …

<em>Picture: Andrea_44</em>

Picture: Andrea_44

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Scotland has its fair share of quality fish and chip shops. Atlantic Fast Food in Coatbridge fought off all other UK competitors in 2009–10, and the Anstruther Fish Bar triumphed in 2008–09, to win the coveted industry-awarded Seafish Fish & Chip Shop of the Year title.

Forget the BAFTAs and the Oscars, it’s the humble fish supper that takes centre stage here.

Judged in true Simon Cowell fashion (“I think you have to judge everything based on your personal taste – and if that means being critical, so be it…”), the chippies on trial must convince a panel of judges, endure rigorous taste-testing and shine for impromptu kitchen inspections. Nose-picking teens, or grimy fingernails handling your cod piece, would result in instant elimination for any aspiring chipper.

Entries to the national awards are scrutinised by a judging panel composed of a mix of the National Federation of Fish Friers, the National Edible Oils Distributors’ Association and Seafish, together with a variety of independent industry experts. Sadly, the creative naming of the chippy doesn’t assist in placement, otherwise Hector’s Plaice in Kyle of Lochalsh would be in with a shout.

Also on the wall of chip shop fame is the Townhead Cafe, Biggar (2007) the Bervie Chipper, Inverbervie (1997) and the West End Cafe, Rothesay (1994). For chips alone, Moore’s Chip Shop in Castle Douglas gained a Choice Chip Award for 2012 and the current Scottish Fish and Chips of the Year award is held by the Bay in Stonehaven. We salute you!

Entries open soon for the 2012 awards, and my vote goes to… the Dunkeld Fish Bar. This friendly chippy counter has heroically and consistently supplied fantastic hot and crispy fish suppers on many a grueling A9 road trip.

National Chip Week UK (20–26 February) may have passed you by unnoticed, but this was a celebration of all things deep-fried potato, applauding the 277 million portions of chips sold in UK fish and chip shops per year. Despite suggestions that all this chip-munching correlates to the increase in obesity, there are actually fewer chip shops in the UK now than in the 1920s. The fad for battered and deep-fried pats of butter, on the other hand, won’t be helping the health and obesity statistics in Scotland.

The National Federation of Fish Friers is looking at ways to offer healthy alternatives to customers, and a reasonably recent innovation is the introduction of gluten-free fish and chips for customers with coeliac disease. Chippies as far afield as Plockton, Angus and Shetland offer this alternative.

If only we could just get rid of the cardboard boxes that now encase our favourite takeaway dish, and return to the fish supper wrapped in brown paper then folded into newspaper… Authentic, with a health nod to paper recycling, the sauce-soaked paper (I’m an Edinburger) was always worthy of a good sook and the contents just tasted better.

Chip trivia –

● A 2011 survey showed that fans of wedges are most likely to dip them in barbecue sauce, and ketchup is most popular with those who prefer oven chips and French fries.

Chris Verschueren from Kastel in Belgium holds the world record for the longest french fries cooking marathon. He cooked for 83 hours, serving 15,000 portions.

● The first fish and chip shop was reported to have been opened in the 1860s in London by Joseph Malin – although it was also claimed that premises near Mossley, near Oldham in Lancashire, were first.

● A quarter of all potatoes grown in Britain are made into chips – that’s around 1.5 million tonnes each year, or nearly the same weight as 125,000 full double decker buses.

● The record number of chip portions sold in a fish and chip shop in one day was 4,000.

● The chips eaten in Great Britain each year come from potatoes weighing the equivalent of nearly 2.9 million Formula 1 cars. Laid end-to-end, those chips would take you around Silverstone circuit over 1.5 million times – equivalent to more than 26,000 British Grands Prix.

● During world war two, chips were one of the few foods not rationed.

● The world’s largest fish and chip portion was made in July 2011 at the Wensleydale Heifer.

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Helpful for Scotland qualification <em>Picture: alexvc26</em>

Helpful for Scotland qualification Picture: alexvc26

By Stewart Weir

Scotland’s Ricky Burns beats Michael Katsidis on points to win the WBO interim lightweight title, his first contest at that weight.

It was a disciplined performance from the Lanarkshire fighter – featured in Weir’s Week previously, not so much for his pugilistic skills but for his artistry. Body art this is, tattoos in other words.

I’m sure he still has space for another couple. However, while he outdid Katsidis on points, the Australian probably won when it came to ink, appearing to have a massive sundial etched on his back. Impressive.

No point in Burns trying for the same. Compared to Queensland, there isn’t much sun in Coatbridge…

Saturday’s loss at home to Dunfermline Athletic is all too much for the Easter Road board, who bid farewell to manager Colin Calderwood after just 13 months in the job.

Calderwood had replaced John Hughes, who had replaced Mixu Paatelainen, who had replaced John Collins, who had replaced Tony Mowbray, who had replaced Bobby Williamson, who left in April 2004.

Six managers in seven-and-a-bit years. But by Tuesday, chairman Rod Petrie will claim to have received over 40 applications for the vacancy.

Two things stick out there. If none of the above lasted very long in Leith, why do Hibs think they’ll find better this time around?

And secondly, Petrie didn’t go into specifics about who had applied. I mean, 40 applications is different from 40 applicants. Could there be one man who has sent his CV in two-dozen times? Is anyone that desperate?

Apart from Rod Petrie…

And the SFA’s performance director Mark Wotte has plenty to say about the state of the Scottish game and where it might be headed.

“You have to set your goals high. How can Uruguay be world no.4 and Scotland not?

“It would be crazy to say Scotland will reach no.4 in the rankings, but you have to believe that you can change things.”

And he’s right. But in the past umpteen years we’ve heard a lot from Dutchmen and how they might change the world, or at least Scotland.

Back in 1995, Rinus Michels was part of Ernie Walker’s SFA “Think Tank” before it sprung a leak. Dick Advocaat was introduced by Rangers in 1998 and will be best remembered, not for unearthing fantastic talent, but for spending fortunes to deliver domestic success.

Now Wotte, the former Southampton manager, is planning great things for Scotland youth.

Fundamental to his performance strategy is the appointment of seven regional performance coaches to work out of appointed schools that will house the most talented kids in the region. He expects that, by 2020, this will have provided six or seven players to the senior squad.

I’m a Dutchmen if it does – but then we all might be…

Just a matter of days after the world found out about his illness, former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier succumbs to liver cancer.

His passing brought back memories of the halcyon days of the early 1970s, when Frazier formed an historic triumvirate in the heavyweight division, alongside Mohammed Ali and George Foreman.

In many people’s eyes, Frazier was an imposter, merely keeping the world-title belts warm for Ali who had been out of commission, banned by the boxing authorities for refusing to go to Vietnam.

However in March 1971, Frazier hammered the unbeaten Ali – and so, instantaneously, became one of the most famous faces on the planet.

Not just in sport. Up there with the US president, Her Majesty the Queen, and Robert Redford. For that was the standing of the world heavyweight champion at that time.

I had a good chat on-air in the wee sma’ hours with talkSport’s Mike Graham. And what was apparent to both of us was that, despite the moving tributes written and broadcast, so many of those penning or airing those words weren’t around when Frazier and Ali were at their collective peak, and so really had no idea just how big they were, as celebrities, as personalities and as icons.

Maybe that also had something to do with the fact that there were only two versions of the title and there was only one champion – and that everyone had the opportunity to see them in action, albeit on the BBC the following night when most knew the outcome.

A far change from nowadays, where there are so many different divisions of the same weight division, with the action entirely divided up amongst various satellite and pay-for-view networks. Will the current title holders be mourned the same way. I very much doubt it.

A few hours after airing my views on boxing with Mike Graham, I’m back on the airwaves, this time on BBC Radio Scotland with Kaye Adams debating the Scotland national team being full of non-Scots.

Jordan Rhodes, son of former Dunfermline goalie Andy, is the latest Englishman to be “Jockified”, in his case under the “schooling” rule to join the likes of Matt Gilks, Phil Bardsley, James Morrison, Jamie Mackie and Craig Mackail-Smith as adopted Scots, qualifying under various criteria from parents, grandparents, schooling, a liking for Tunnock’s caramel wafers, or owning a West Highland terrier.

Me, I don’t have an issue with it. Scotland might as well play to the same rules and regulations as everyone else. Why handicap yourself by only playing “true-born” Scots, when some “true-born Scots” want to play for other countries, like the Republic of Ireland for instance?

What I do take exception to are those who have played under-21 football elsewhere, then use Scotland as a flag of convenience to become full internationalists. That, pulling on one jersey and then swapping it for another, I just cannot work out, other than believing such folk are just completely mercenary.

All of which reminded me of an evening watching Champions League highlights several years ago, during which I was bemoaning the lack of Scots participating.

“There’s one,” said the better half.


“And another.”

Asked where exactly, she pointed out “them with the Scottish names” – Benni McCarthy from South Africa and Roy Maakay, a Dutchman. And, at their best, I would have happily taken either as honorary Scotsmen…

Snooker supremo Barry Hearn gives an interesting interview to the Yorkshire Post where he admits to blackmailing players

Hearn has been under fire from the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, with the former world champion critical of the tactics employed by Hearn to get leading players to play in lesser Players Tour Championship events.

“I made them ranking events to actually force the players into playing,” admitted Hearn.

“Ronnie is quite right that it is a form of blackmail, and I put my hands up and plead guilty. When I don’t do that blackmail, like at a recent invitational event in Brazil, nine out of the top 16 didn’t travel because they probably thought it was a long way to go.

“I should have made it a ranking event and that would have justified Ronnie’s case.”

If Barry is pleading guilty to blackmail, could this start a trend amongst other managers and promoters who might want to admit to charges of neglect, deception, embezzlement, gross mismanagement and the likes?

I’m sure there are several players who could offer up names and suspects…

The eleventh of the eleventh is a poignant day for many, when those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country are remembered.

This week, international associations and players from the Home Nations demanded the right to wear poppies on their shirts. After the intervention of various people, including Prince William, FIFA relented and will allow poppies to be worn on armbands.

FIFA had deemed that the poppy symbol contravened their law on political and/or religious messages on shirts.

However, the poppy is not political, and neither is it religious, although some would argue against both of those truths. It is simply a mark of respect.

FIFA just didn’t get that, and probably still don’t. But then given how that organisation is run, who runs it, and what they’ve managed to miss in recent times, we shouldn’t be surprised they didn’t understand something as simple as paying one’s respect to those who died for their county.

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments, @sweirz

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<em>Picture: Glasgow Survival Guide</em>

Picture: Glasgow Survival Guide

Walking down from the train station, Coatbridge on a Sunday night: and out of the depths of your podcast, someone’s finger jabs you in the arm. There’s a nano-second of tension and readiness, until I see the broad, clear-skinned face of a mid-teen girl, tall and warmly dressed. But she’s obviously scared, and already talking as I pull out my earphones.

“… So mister are you going down this hill? I canny walk on ma own, see there’s people I might meet here who are gonnae do me, they’ve said they’re gonnae get me the night if they see me…” I quickly agree. As we walk, I try to sift through her babble.

How’s school? “No at school. Hit a teacher wi’ a chair when I was seven. She shouted right in ma face, there wis spittle coming aff her! So ah gave her an answer!” Are you going back to your mum or dad? “My dad’s in jile for murder. I don’t talk tae ma mum. I’m in care.”

We march along, as she spiels out a tangled skein of boyfriends, territories, intoxicants. I try another note of concern: don’t you think you should be getting away from this bunch? “Oh I canny … but … In two years I’m going down to Derby?” Why? “All my pals from the home went down there”. What are they doing? “Some at college, some working. That’s where I’m off tae, fuckin’ ooty here.” What do you want to be? She turns her shining face to me, deadpan. “I’m trainin’ to be a beauty therapist.”

We get to her safety zone, at the corner of the town’s West End Park, and the aspirant beatifier strides off. You take care now, ok? “Aye, ah’ll dae ma best,” she says cheerily, skipping along like a universal daughter.

It must be a combination of my non-driver’s life on trains, combined with freelance hours that put me in the deadspots and dregs of a day, but I do seem to harvest stories like this. A few months ago, late at night again, a broken wee guy with a red crescent scar on his cheek unstoppably told me his story. “On the methadone, I’m no’ doing too bad… but I’ve gottae stay away from ma brer [brother], he’s bad news, always gets us intae it…”

Suddenly a change of tack. “You gettin’ ready for holidays?” I might do Italy in summer. “Aye I’ve done Italy. Poland, Germany, France too”. That’s busy: how, when? “I used to represent Scotland fur Tai-Kwan-Do. I’ve no goat ma medals now. It was my care worker in the home, he was a trainer, goat me intae it.” Now that I look at him, he’s a wiry guy – though there’s glue poured into his consciousness, a slurring on his lips.

I can’t help asking: so what happened, then? “Aww…” Head down and to the window. “My brer again. He’s a header, pulled me intae it. But it wis me that showed the blade, I wis the one that got done … I can only blame masel’, mucker, it’s ma fuckin’ load.” He rallies again, wanting to present well. “I mean, I got intae a fight the other day cause this guy wouldn’t give’s seat up for an auld doll. I fuckin’ made ‘im … But, ‘er ye go, wrang again.”

I had these two in my head yesterday, as my feet turned me away from another train journey and towards the Glasgow Film Theatre, to watch Peter Mullen’s new movie, Neds. The first thing to say is that Neds shouldn’t be read too sociologically.

The journey depicted – bright dux of his primary school is dragged down by early 70’s gang culture, oppressive father and brutal schooling, and turned into knife-wielding, overcompensatingly-violent street thug – seems to be, going by his interviews, mostly Mullen’s own (with a few symbolic embellishments). The film’s main character ends up a crescent-scarred delinquent bashing out metal in the remedial classes – but even so, he’s reading Jung and Marx under the workbench.

And it’s only someone possessing an innate dramatic talent that could come up with a closing scene as profound as Neds. Two boys, both bent out of shape by their casually violent circumstances, one of whom has already beaten the other into imbecility, tiptoe through a pride of lions in their local safari park (their tour bus has broken down). As the boys pass among the animals, desperately holding onto each others’ hand in their crumpled school uniforms, these natural predators sit with an implacable magnificence: a reproach to every tooled-up tough-guy.

Mullen’s point here is, I think, truly ambiguous. As an academic noted in the Sundays, some current street gangs have been around for nearly a century – cross-generational rites of male teenage passage for school-age youth, in industrial (and now post-industrial) localities.

So do we read the boys shuffling through the lions as a sign of how artificial and consciously willed their human disputes are – and thus, how remediable too, with enough mindfulness and social resources? Or is Mullen saying – along with many recent psychologists – that there are no “good old days” for the potential for gangs and violence at this stage of young male development? That it’s as natural as a lion pride?

If the latter, then reports of current initiatives that aim to woo the neds away from their gangs with alternative exuberances and solidarities – mostly sport, it would seem, and new jobs as “youth workers” – will work. If gangs are a form of play, then most attractive, less destructive play-forms should be promoted.

But games and sports that siphon off excessive energies, or social employment that amounts to a bribe not to fight, are ultimately poor development options here. World history is going to be so much more demanding of these kids than that.

We live under a globalisation where more and more of the Western ex-proletariat will be surplus to economic requirements. Other workshops of the world are making their ascent. Human-substituting automations of all kinds are creeping their way into business strategies.

Our only hope in Scotland is a democratic intellectualism worth the name – a mass cognitive and creative society, in which Scottish skill levels and products/services are practised at a high, non-outsourceable level.

If we don’t get there, we will consign millions of our compatriots to permanent economic redundancy – as Jimmy Reid once explicitly warned – and all the downward spirals of self-esteem which that generates. Do we want community tribalism, or vampiric drugs culture, filling this gap where purposelessness and uselessness lives?

Yes, I’ll allow myself a light bang of the drum for independence, as one way of fomenting general Scottish positivity and can-do spirit, through national control of our structures and resources. But in the phrase of our universal daughter at the beginning of this piece, this country also needs as large a dose of “beauty therapy” as it can take.

However much I enjoyed Neds, when I finished I immediately wanted to see 10, 20, 50 Scottish movies that filled in the gaps between this and, say, the softer elements of Gregory’s Girl. The more powerful stories we can tell about the subtle struggles between conformity and transformation in the everyday life of Scotland, the better.

The very existence of Mullen’s films would seem to be a testament to the fact that a strong sensibility can burn through the most unwelcoming of environments. But perhaps we need more ned filmmakers, not just registered beauticians or refereed combatants – and that’s before we even get to the scientists or engineers.

Perhaps we need more compelling audio-visual narratives about the latent and diverse talents of Scottish life – more than just the occasional art movie, or the simplicities of crime or soap operas: and this is a real challenge to whatever we might mean by a “creative” Scotland. If my regular commutes are anything to go by, it’s not as if the stories aren’t out there.

For more from Pat Kane on Scottish current affairs, please go to his Thoughtland blog.

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We’ve collected pictures from across Scotland – and even up in space – to show how the big freeze is transforming the country.

Heavy going on Oui Oui

Climbing Oui Oui

David “Heavy” Whalley of Burghead took this picture of Dan Carroll – ex-RAF Kinloss mountain rescue team leader and Everest summiteer – climbing Oui Oui, a frozen waterfall at Creag Dhubh near Newtonmore last Monday. “You have to be aware of a huge chandelier of hanging icicles which could make your day!”, says Whalley. “As it is a waterfall it was fairly wet, but an amazing situation. The views were breathtaking and the sunset was wonderful on the way home.”

All in Vane

Vane Farm snow
Chris Tyler is working at the Vane Farm bird reserve near Kinross and took this picture of just one night’s dump of snow last Tuesday.

Snow on the Voe

Lower Voe
“I took this photo whilst driving through the snow to work on Wednesday morning,” says Peter Peterson, a communications manager with Shetland Council. “Trees are few and far between in Shetland, so this scene with the snow hanging on the branches of the Lower Voe trees was almost too good to miss!”

Arthur’s Seat: The Hard Way

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh
“Not Glen Coe, but Edinburgh,” says Richard Webb, a teacher from Cockenzie. “The summit of Arthur’s Seat is always exciting. On Thursday it was in full winter condition – no different to Highland hillwalking, save for the proximity of the nearest coffee shop.”

Frozen Forth

Ice on the Forth
“Ice was floating in the Forth at Stirling on Friday,” says freelance researcher and lecturer Tessa Carroll, “just as there was at the end of last year.”


Drumpellier cricket ground
Retired mathematics lecturer Ken Stewart photographed a ground mist hanging over the snow-covered Drumpellier cricket ground at Coatbridge on Saturday morning.

Nowhere fast

Edinburgh car
Going nowhere fast: an urban street scene snapped on Saturday by freelance IT consultant Oron Joffe in the Craigmount area of Edinburgh.

Bonnie Corbett

Ben Ledi
The trick on Saturday was to get away to the hills if you could. Your correspondent was on the summit of Ben Ledi at lunchtime…

Monumental journey

Wallace Monument
…but it wouldn’t be so easy to get there now – this was one of the roads out of Stirling as skies started to clear after Monday morning’s heavy snowfall.

White out

Dundee University satellite photo
This satellite image from Dundee University shows the whole of Scotland wrapped in the white stuff.

A house construction siteFrom October, new homes in Scotland will have to be more energy efficient, have greater sound insulation and better levels of security. The thinking behind the new building standards announced this week is to cut emissions, create jobs in small-scale renewables and save money. So why does the housebuilders’ trade association cry foul?

The sector seems to be facing in two opposing directions. While it’s true that some of them still use building methods which would have been familiar to the Romans, others have happily been embracing new techniques and technologies, though sometimes without getting the credit.

At a social housing conference last year, the housing minister, Alex Neil, said that Scotland should been looking to Scandinavian methods of construction. Houses, he told them, should be prefabricated in factories and then assembled on site. You could watch some of them fuming as they listened to that speech.

Companies like Deeside Timberframe, Scotframe and Mactaggart and Mickel are already using exactly those techniques. Some homes now being built for Dunedin Canmore Housing Association in Edinburgh were initially put together in Mactaggart & Mickel’s factory in Coatbridge – there’s an open-day at the factory to show the public what goes on there later this month.

In many respects, the homes built or planned for housing associations and local authorities already meet the new standards. Their housing stock’s gone through a major upgrade in recent years. So that may be partly behind the protests from Homes for Scotland. Its chief executive, Jonathan Fair, believes that refurbishment of existing properties is the way forward.

To some extent, he has a point. Too much of Scotland’s privately owned housing stock is, in European terms, substandard. Hard-pressed homeowners can’t afford the upgrades in the current economic climate. That’s especially true for many of those who exercised their “right to buy”.

“The home building industry remains fully supportive of the sustainability agenda, and is already leading the way towards a low carbon economy when compared with almost all other industry sectors,” Mr Fair explained. “But this momentum must be balanced against technical and affordability constraints.”

His case is that the industry has gone through its worst crisis since the Second World War. At its height, they told anyone who would listen that the number of skilled craftsmen being laid off was equivalent to the closures of Ravenscraig, Motorola and NEC all at the same time. All of those companies got a government-appointed “task force” to help, they said. Why can’t we?

House prices, always a barometer of the economy in the public mind, have recovered somewhat. Yesterday (Thursday), the Halifax published its latest survey which shows that the average UK house price is now more than 9 per cent higher than the low point in last April. In fact, house prices rose steadily in the second half of last year, helped by a drop in supply and a rise in demand.

In the view of Martin Ellis, economist at the Halifax, “there are signs that an increase in the number of properties available for sale is beginning to reduce the imbalance between supply and demand. This should help to contain the upward pressure on house prices.” He added that the number of sales had been increasing for the last three quarters.

There’s also evidence that some of the major companies are starting to recover. Last month, Taylor Wimpey, one of the UK’s largest housebuilders, announced a cut in its pre-tax losses for 2009 and said it expected to see a gradual recovery. A few days later, Bovis Homes confirmed that it had returned to profit.

On top of that, the Scottish Government confirmed last month that at least 1,000 homes will be built as part of an initiative to supply more properties for rent. It will be funded through the new National Housing Trust in which local councils join forces with developers to build and let houses in areas where many people are unable to buy or rent at market prices.

So with green shoots on the horizon, what’s Homes for Scotland’s argument? Well, Jonathan Fair doubts if “new homebuyers are willing to incur premiums of up to £8,000 for low carbon living or ‘bolt-on renewables’ which seem to offer little in the way of payback, are difficult to understand and operate, or remain unproven with regards to long-term performance and maintenance”.

But arguing that money should go into retro-fitting existing homes rather than new build is actually the expensive option. The extra cost of better insulation and airtightness at the time of construction is a tiny fraction of the total price. It will usually pay for itself in lower fuel bills in a matter of months.

Even more alarming, it’s been suggested that Scotland’s new energy standards won’t even match those set by Sweden the late 1970s. Which begs the question: should we accept that this country continues to lag more than 30 years behind the best in Europe … or look for something better?