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If you want the right person to present on ‘Business in the Asian Century’, one can’t get much better than the Global MD of McKinsey, perhaps the consultant’s consultancy. This was the most recent event for the Asia-Scotland Institute, which promotes awareness and collaboration between one small vibrant nation of rugged mountains with a distant continent that’s 568 times its size and 812 times more populous. We are not afraid!

Dominic Barton (Pic: Wikipedia)

Dominic Barton
(Pic: Wikipedia)

Enter Dominic Barton, a Canadian at the top of his game and, until recently, head of McKinsey’s activities in Korea and Shanghai. With a list of titles that rivals anyone outside the royal family, the Edinburgh audience of a Monday night could only expect a compelling and sincere delivery. From the outset there was complete silence as Mr Barton explained the enormous changes over the next two decades in Asia. There will be further urbanisation into cities, growing life expectancy and a doubling of the middle class. This would be coupled with a shift eastwards of the talent, capital, headquarters and brand strength of new corporate players, many of which operate in unique, local conditions, and are unknown to western markets.

This shall happen, regardless of the Euro or US-cultural hegemony of the current period. Disruptive technologies would enable the transformation. McKinsey names the top five as mobile online, automated knowledge, the internet of things, cloud computing and robotics, each obeying the merciless momentum of Moore’s Law. Eastern industry leaders have no compunction in cross-sector competition: for example, Alibaba, the Chinese online store – Global trade starts here ™ – has successfully entered the loans market because it understands far more about its customers’ habits and needs than your traditional bank. What implications, I ask, does this have to old economies, where things are done a certain way and investment houses are unassailable? Such a brave new world does not respect gentlemen’s agreements.

Mekong River Its water is shared by several countries (Pic: Creative Commons)

Mekong River
Its water is shared by several countries
(Pic: Creative Commons)

And as a backdrop to all this change, the Global MD highlighted an enormous resource scarcity. How do you feed, teach, clothe, transport, shelter and amuse so many more people, each consuming so much more. There will be a 40% gap in water scarcity by 2030, leading to issues between border nations: Ethiopia and Egypt on the Nile; China with Vietnam, which both tap the Mekong. And the sorting of waste, the harnessing of renewable energy, the reduction of pollution – all these will be challenges.

The mood in the room, when I looked around and listened for the falling pin, seemed to be positive. Yes, it was all about challenge, but not how to stop it, nor a fear of it, nor how our lives would be affected adversely because of wealth moving east, but about the potential.

The questions, moderated by Bill Jamieson from the Scotsman, proceeded for half an hour, but all the time I was thinking, and I couldn’t stop these thoughts for the rest of that evening. To me, it was all about how, in a society where we’re unable to rip up everything and start afresh, can we continue to hunt with the tigers. Our rivals are companies so young they can install smart cloud-based systems overnight. Their employees make their homes in cities with streets without trace of dilapidated Victorian infrastructure. They are served by political structures that enable things to happen efficiently without paying lip service to aristocracy, church, state, local bureaucracy and pressure lobbies. No, we have a different legacy, the prize for getting there earlier, the shackles of democracy laid over tradition. Perhaps, after all, it is now the West that has further to go.

The million-dollar question asked of Mr Barton (an answer to which he hadn’t quite figured out) was by how much Asian countries would disrupt the profit pools of individual Western businesses? Answers on a modern postcard via www.nickwilliams.org I’ll forward it on – trust me.

The Asia-Scotland Institute was founded in Edinburgh in 2012 and is chaired by Roddy Gow.

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NWNick 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. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

By Mark Winskel, University of Edinburgh

Both the Scottish and UK governments have published new contributions on the energy and independence debate in recent days. Energy Secretary Ed Davey visited Edinburgh to coincide with the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s 100-page “command paper” on the subject.

It was far more substantial than the Scottish government’s 11-page publication, which was released two days before. For the Scottish media this was a headline news item, with both Davey and Fergus Ewing, his Scottish counterpart, giving interviews.

The UK government paper presents detailed arguments and cost estimates for the historic, current and future benefits to Scotland of being part of an integrated GB energy market. It emphasises that Scottish businesses and consumers enjoy substantial net benefits from being part of the UK.

For example, the costs of renewable energy subsidies are supported by all UK electricity bill payers, and almost 30% of the total goes to wind farms and other generators based in Scotland. This is despite the fact that Scotland accounts for only around 10% of UK electricity sales.

Grid and other benefits

DECC’s report points to similar benefits from supporting Scottish electricity grid investment (key for getting renewable energy to users further south) and subsidising remote and off-grid Scottish consumers.

As costs grow in the next few years to meet policy targets for decarbonisation and renewables expansion, DECC estimates that Scottish consumers would pay between £38 and £189 extra per head each year on their energy bills by 2020 if the country was independent.

Other costs and risks of independence are also set out: the threat posed to major Scottish-based but UK-funded public investments such as the Green Investment Bank, which is based in Edinburgh; and the proposed Peterhead carbon capture and storage demonstration plant – one of two in the UK earmarked for support through the UK Government’s £1 billion support fund (the other is in Yorkshire).

DECC also notes a broader problem of attracting capital for a newly independent small country – touching on the bigger issue of currency stability in the absence of a shared pound.

The Scottish response

The Scottish government’s statement is not a systematic and detailed counter to the UK government’s arguments. Instead it describes how Whitehall has mismanaged energy policy.

The Scottish government has to tread a delicate line here, arguing the failure of current arrangements while also noting successes such as the growth of the Scottish renewables sector and continued oil and gas revenues.

The main points of criticism are underinvestment and the looming capacity crunch in UK electricity supply; Conservative/Lib Dem divisions on energy policy leading to loss of investor confidence; and the UK’s costly commitment to new nuclear power stations.

The Scottish government claims its own approach to energy policy has been “clear and consistent”. In contrast to DECC’s arguments about the subsidy benefits to Scotland from GB market integration, this report talks about how the UK relies on Scotland to “keep the lights on” by acting as its energy reserve.

Compare and contrast

Read alongside each other, the Scottish paper is more selective and overtly political. There has been a lack of detail in the Scottish government’s statements on energy matters and independence to date, though that may change with the imminent report from the Scottish Regulatory Commission on Energy Regulation.

As with the currency question, the Scottish government essentially argues for continuity after independence: continued operation of an integrated GB market reflecting common interests in energy supply security and the growth of low carbon generation.

The UK government argues that independence would lead to losing the benefits of integration, with post-independence governments and regulators on each side of the border required by statute to serve self-interest rather than common interests.

Admittedly, this ignores wider factors. DECC argues the case for the benefits of scale and integration but at the same time the UK faces a possible withdrawal from the EU after the 2015 general election.

For the Scottish government, the largely unanswered question is: “What is Plan B if the UK government refuses to recognise the common interests in an energy partnership after independence?”

As with independence matters more generally, undecided voters are left frustrated by the absence in much of the public debate of a balanced and thorough analysis of the claims and counter claims.

This piece is one of two that The Conversation has published on this subject today. The other can be read here.

The Conversation

Mark Winskel receives funding from the EPSRC, NERC and ESRC. Mark’s views are his own and not those of the UK Energy Research Centre.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

By Peter Strachan, Robert Gordon University

The twin goals of UK energy policy should be to ensure security of supply for households and businesses, and to ensure the electricity we use is affordable. Unfortunately, the current UK coalition government is failing on both fronts.

In particular its flagship initiative, Electricity Market Reform, has led to a hiatus in energy investment. This is very bad news for England. In effect we are now seeing a critical reduction in our spare energy capacity, which will eventually see electricity costs spiral out of control. For London this might well mean the lights going out post-2015.

Self-sufficient Scotland

As Scotland exports approximately one quarter of the electricity it generates, this is not such a problem for Edinburgh. In recent years this has been bolstered by a truly world class renewables industry. Scotland now produces nearly the equivalent of 50% of its electricity from renewable energy sources such as onshore wind and hydro. This will increase to around 70% by 2017.

I strongly reject Ed Davey’s announcement that if Scotland votes yes then Scottish electricity bills would increase. This can be seen in a comprehensive report that I published with colleagues from a number of universities from across the United Kingdom in December.

To summarise some very complex arguments, as a result of the coalition government’s decision to fund new nuclear build, we found that a Scottish government committed to no nuclear build would actually see reductions in consumer electricity bills compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. Scottish consumers would not be subsidising the hundreds of billions of pounds of investment that new English nuclear power stations require.

DECC’s big budget drain

Already the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spends £2.5 billion or 42% of its annual budget on existing nuclear legacy. Of that, £1.6bn is spent on managing the waste at Sellafield alone.

In its misguided aspirations the coalition government is now writing a blank cheque for new nuclear. At a time of unprecedented financial austerity this is somewhat astonishing.

Under no scenario can I see electricity bills in an independent Scotland increasing along the lines outlined by Ed Davey. Even without an integrated electricity market, Scotland would be able to sell its electricity to England at commercial rates. England currently has to resource much of its electricity requirement from Scotland; there is no alternative source for the majority of it. It is pure fantasy on the part of Ed Davey to suggest otherwise.

Scotland offers an excellent model of how to deliver a world-class energy policy. The coalition government could learn much from us.

This piece is one of two that The Conversation has published on this subject today. The other can be be read here.

The Conversation

Peter Strachan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

A report from the Federation of Small Business (FSB) has claimed that Scotland has the worst mobile coverage in the UK. Citing the Scottish government’s own research, the organisation wants the planning rules relaxed to allow development which would boost coverage.

Andy Willox Change the rules to improve coverage

Andy Willox
Change the rules to improve coverage

Although the Government has said that it was “committed to improving mobile coverage in Scotland”, the evidence suggests that over a quarter of the country doesn’t enjoy adequate coverage. For the FSB, that isn’t good enough with Andy Willox, its Scottish policy convenor, insisting that good quality mobile phone coverage for businesses was not a luxury but a necessity.

“Too much of Scotland doesn’t have adequate mobile phone coverage,” he said. “Our members tell us that new technology will be vital to grow their business and our visitors tell us that they want to use their mobile devices if they’re in the centre of Edinburgh or on the Isle of Mull.

“We’re writing to the Scottish government backing their proposals to amend the planning system and improve Scotland’s levels of connectivity. But that can’t be the end of the story. Businesses and their customers across Scotland want better coverage and we must see bold action to ensure that no part of the country is left behind. It is unacceptable that a quarter of Scotland doesn’t even have a 2G signal.”

Coverage in some rural areas can be very poor

Coverage in some rural areas can be very poor

The evidence comes from a Scottish government report, published last autumn, which acknowledged that more than a quarter of the country had 2G coverage that was either “fair” or “poor”. What that means is that users would find the signal was “insufficient for good quality connection”. By combining data from a number of sources such the Scottish Ambulance Service and Scotrail, it also reached the conclusion that the majority of Scotland’s land mass lacked good quality 3G coverage.

Mr Willox went on to say that the figures suggested that “Scotland has the worst coverage amongst UK nations. We must get to grips with this problem before our businesses lose out to better connected competitors and visitors don’t come to Scotland for fear of being cut off from the rest of the planet.”

In a statement, the Scottish Government said it was “committed to improving mobile coverage in Scotland. Achieving widespread 4G coverage, whilst ensuring that the gap between those who do not receive 3G or even 2G services does not widen, is a priority. The proposals will encourage operators to make use of existing sites.”

mobile phone research

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.

Tragedy is never far away. I live less than a mile from Liberton High School in Edinburgh where on Tuesday a 12 year old girl was killed by a changing-room wall which fell on her. Since then her picture, a beautiful and lively-looking girl, has been smiling out at me from every newspaper and television screen. How could it happen? And in a place were I have been a visitor on several occasions and where she should have been safe.

Keane Wallis-Bennett Died when a wall collapsed on her

Keane Wallis-Bennett
Died when a wall collapsed on her

Keane Wallis-Bennett was in her first year at the school. She was an “excellent” pupil, said her head teacher. She was good at sports, a good team player and keen on the environment. Her parents described her as “ our princess who dreamed of being prime minister.”

Investigators are still trying to find out exactly what happened. But many questions are beginning to fill the cold spring air. Was there an earlier warning, as some pupils suggest, that the wall was “wobbly”? Did the routine building inspection last year miss something? Are other similar dividing walls safe, in this school and other schools of this vintage? Liberton was built in the 1960s.

Whatever the answers, this single tragedy has stopped the nation in its tracks. Tributes and expressions of sympathy have poured in from pupils, parents, prime ministers and parliaments.

This is a case of “ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

The gloomy news has matched the gloomy weather we’ve had all week, indeed for the past fortnight. Sea mist and a cold wind from the east have put a halt to spring. Is this another sign of climate change, I wonder. This week’s report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change contains yet another warning of worse things to come. It’s certainly put more wind in the sails of those arguing for Scotland to become one of the world’s leading countries for renewable energy.

Jonathan Hughes A new geological age

Jonathan Hughes
A new geological age

The new chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Jonathan Hughes, has been warning that we are now living in a new geological age, the Anthropocene, in which man for the first time is having a crucial effect on the planet. And he isn’t the only one. Noah has been woken from his biblical sleep this week to warn us again that we should be behaving better and looking after our planet. Edinburgh was a brief stop-off point on Russell Crowe’s whirlwind tour of Britain to promote the film.

Meanwhile someone in the Highlands has been busy poisoning 16 of our wildlife stars, 12 red kites and 4 buzzards. Their carcases were all found in the same part of Ross-shire, south of Conon Bridge, over the past two weeks. The RSPB officer in the area, Brian Etheridge, who has been helping to reintroduce the birds for almost 20 years, said it’s been the worst fortnight in his life. Police Scotland said it’s the worst case of wildlife poisoning on record.

Police Scotland itself has been under scrutiny this week, exactly a year after it was formed by the merger of the eight regional police forces. The chief constable Sir Stephen House said public trust in the new force was growing, crime figures were continuing to fall and he was on target to achieve savings of £1bn by 2026. The new unitary force has been under the cosh over its alleged lack of local accountability and for its high rate of “stop and search”.

Questions about the opening ceremony

Questions about the opening ceremony

Questions are being asked too about the Commonwealth Games. Will it be too disruptive for the ordinary traffic of Glasgow? And are the organisers about to commit a PR crime by demolishing the Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony? Five 30-storey buildings, relics of the 1960s, are to be blown up in a 15 second live sequence shown on the stadium’s big screen. “Glasgow is proving it is a city that’s proud of its past but doesn’t stand still,” explained Eileen Gallagher, chair of the ceremonies committee. “ Glasgow is constantly renewing and re-inventing itself.” I’d say this is a pretty high risk, high rise exercise.

But I don’t suppose the opening and closing ceremonies – which incidentally will cost £14m – can be a pipe band, a few Highland dancers and a game of bowls. Even members of the Methil Bowling Club, who’ve just held their own closing ceremony, would expect more than that. Their club has closed after 114. It was established by Captain George Moodie, who retired to Fife, after serving as the first captain of the Cutty Sark. Now that is a part of Clydeside history we can be proud of.

Finding the right kind of help[/caption]An Edinburgh entrepreneur has launched a drinks business that pledges a fifth of all profits to Forces and Veterans charities.

Chris Gillan Wanted to give something back

Chris Gillan
Wanted to give something back

Military veteran Chris Gillan, has established Heroes Drinks – which through the sale of its vodka, not only gives back to the British Military Forces, but will also employ veterans, including those with disabilities caused by service.

Based in Leith, Heroes Drinks was a concept thought up by 34 year old Chris, after he left the military after nine years in service. In 2010, with help from a friend he served with, Chris found a supplier and started developing his premium 37.5% vodka.

“The idea for Heroes came about after meeting the father of a friend of mine, who had worked in the wholesale alcohol trade for more than 30 years,” said Chris. “I wanted to create a business that produced a quality product, but also gave back to the Forces and veterans – and after getting some advice about the industry and suppliers, Heroes Drinks was formed.”

After working with a drinks manufacturer and flavour technologists to create a product that ‘reflected the high standards that are synonymous with the British Military,’ Heroes Vodka was trialled at the 20th anniversary of the Royal Logistics Corps at the Price William of Gloucester Barracks in April of last year.

“The 20th anniversary celebrations in Grantham, was the first public outing for Heroes Vodka, and while most people might think it would be an ‘easy’ test run, as I was in the company of friends, it was still a fraught time,” he explained. “The product went down exceptionally well with everyone, but I just wasn’t happy with the packaging – so after doing some research on my own, I decided I needed to partner with an expert to help with that element, and to undertake sensory analysis of the product. That’s when I approached Interface, who helped to identify an academic expert at the University of Abertay, and advised on funding options that would help pay for the research I needed,” he said.

Louise Arnold Interface Finding the right kind of help

Louise Arnold Interface
Finding the right kind of help

Interface – The knowledge connection for business – is a free service which connects businesses to expertise available within Scottish academia and pinpoints funding opportunities that are available, in order to help stimulate innovation and growth in the Scottish economy.

Interface advised Chris that he would be eligible for a £5,000 Innovation Voucher that would cover the costs of the research he wanted to undertake with Abertay, and in January this year a three month Market, Consumer and Sensory Analysis project got underway.

“I wasn’t aware that I could access the kind of help Interface gave me. They put me in contact with experts in the field I work in, and told me what funding I could apply for. Being able to access funding through the Innovation Voucher Scheme has meant I’ve been able to, with expert help from Jennifer Bryson at Food Innovation at Abertay, test Heroes Vodka to an extent I hadn’t previously considered. Not only have we looked at consumer acceptability in relation to branding, price and taste, but we’ve utilised state of the art consumer eye tracking technology as well,” he said.

Louise Arnold, Project Executive, at Interface added: “Heroes Drinks is just the type of company that we are trying to help. Not in terms of sector, as we work across a multitude of industries, but in terms of what Chris is trying to achieve for the business. Being able to source the right academic to help him undertake a research project that will help grow the company and boost sales, is ultimately what we are here to help businesses do.

“Regardless of company size, Interface can help match businesses to the right expert in a Scottish University, and advise on the best source of funding available to complete that project,” she said.

Chris Gillan concluded: “At the moment, Heroes is mainly sold online, with the majority of sales being business to business; so all of the information that we’ve gleaned from working with the University of Abertay will help us make a much stronger case when it comes to discussions about stocking our brand in supermarkets. And the more shelves we can get Heroes Vodka on, the more money goes back to British Forces charities and the more veterans we can employ.”

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 history of Scotland could well be written up as a search for energy. We began by cutting down the Caledonian forest, then cutting up the peat bogs, then mining the coal, then building hydro-dams and nuclear power stations, then drilling for oil offshore, and now building wind farms – on and off-shore. This week, the plan for one of the world’s biggest wind farms was given approval – 326 turbines 14 miles out in the Moray Firth.

Chancellor George Osborne 'Glee' at the estimates for oil

Chancellor George Osborne
‘Glee’ at the estimates for oil

Energy-related history can give us as much insight into our country’s character as the battles between the clans or the royal families, or the disruptions caused by religious sects or the industrial revolution or the class struggle. Would we, for instance, be having a referendum on independence if it wasn’t for “Scotland’s oil?”

The Chancellor, wisely or not, strayed into this minefield in his budget statement on Wednesday. George Osborne announced, with some glee I thought, that the official estimate of oil and gas revenues from the North Sea over the next four years had been downgraded by £3bn to £22bn and it would leave an independent Scotland, he said, with a shortfall in its government budget of £1,000 per head of population.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s deputy leader, responded by saying Westminster’s estimate of oil revenues “goes up and down like a fiddler’s elbow.” And besides, it took no account of the rise in revenue expected from the increased production which will surely follow the new investment by oil companies in the North Sea.

Freeze on whisky duty

Freeze on whisky duty

Mr Osborne pleased Scotland a little better when he announced a freeze on whisky duty, a cut in the tax on beer of a penny a pint and a cut in bingo tax to 10 per cent. How his major changes to pensions work out will have to be seen. Will retirees drawn on their pension pots and spend the money now or will they invest in annuities and the new pensioner bonds ? Scotland’s finance industry will be waiting anxiously to find out.

On Tuesday, the Scottish Labour Party published its “white paper” on further devolution. Finally, after some internal wrangling it seems, we have Labour’s alternative to independence. The Scottish Parliament, it says, should have more control over income tax, 15p out of every 20p. It should also take over the administration of housing benefit (allowing it to abolish the so-called “bedroom-tax”), some disablement benefits and the work training programme.

Crucially too, the Scottish Parliament should have the power to increase the income tax rates on the highest earners and reform the property tax system. The party leader Johann Lamont said: “ The Scottish Parliament would then have the power to reverse the Tory cuts for the rich and ensure that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden.”

Meanwhile the Tories have been outlining a totally different direction of travel. At their conference in Edinburgh last weekend, their leader Ruth Davidson said: “We shouldn’t be digging deeper into people’s pay packets. The Scottish Conservatives are committed to cutting the tax bills of working Scots.” She talked of rewarding the “everyday grafters” and the “working class” and shaking up the “amoral” welfare state. Revolutionary stuff indeed.

The Thin Red Line History will not repeat itself

The Thin Red Line
History will not repeat itself

This, while a real revolution has been going on in the Ukraine…a president ousted, the province of Crimea lost. The small Ukrainian community in Scotland has so far supported the new pro-western government in Kiev. But I can’t help the thought that “it’s Russia’s oil” which will determine the outcome of this crisis. Back in 1854, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders bravely held the “thin red line” against the Russians at Balaclava. But I doubt if we can do the same this time. Indeed, we shouldn’t attempt it. The referendum in Crimea has been decisive. We should accept the result, as hopefully we will do in Scotland in September.

Worrying though all this is, we won’t escape war or history during the Edinburgh Festival this summer. The programme has just been announced by the outgoing director Sir Jonathan Mills. One of his main themes is war, especially “the war to end all wars” which began 100 years ago this year. The programme includes Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, “All Quiet on the Western Front” by the Thalia Theatre of Hamburg and Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony performed by young musicians from the Ukraine.

Confidence highest since survey began

The latest quarterly confidence report from the Federation of Small Businesses shows that small business confidence in Scotland has risen to match the UK average. The organisation’s Voice of Small Business Index shows confidence rising in the first quarter of 2014 to its highest level since the data series began at the start of 2010. The Scottish confidence index measures +36 points this quarter, up 15 points since the last measurement, and is now slightly higher than the UK average of +35.7 points.

Andy Willox

Andy Willox

Further, a net balance of 18 per cent of Scottish small firms expect profits to rise this quarter with a 31 per cent balance expecting a turnover boost over the same period. More than half (52%) of all Scottish small firms now plan to grow over the next year with more than a quarter (27.6%) planning to increase capital investment. Around one in seven (12.9%) small businesses now report that credit availability is good or very good, compared to around one in 15 (6.6%) who said the same in the first quarter of 2013.

In the next three months, a balance of 7 per cent of Scottish small businesses plan to increase staff numbers. However, more than a quarter of Scottish businesses (27% this quarter) continue to cite access to skilled staff as a significant barrier to their growth.

In the view of the FSB’s Scottish policy convenor, Andy Willox, “It is great news that Scottish small businesses are now as bullish as their counterparts elsewhere in the UK. We need to turn this vigour into growth and jobs – and we must see this trend continue for the remainder of the year.

“As trading conditions improve, it is vital that businesses are ready to cope with rising demand. Firms with a full order book for the first time in years may need help with working capital and growing businesses will need to find the right skilled staff. To this end, we need to see governments in London and Edinburgh continue to back our members and the wider small business community. Further, Scottish local councils should not forget the critical role they play in their local economies – we need all of our decision-makers looking at new ways to back local growth and jobs.”