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Spring is in the air

After nearly a week of fine weather, I have finally been convinced that spring has arrived. The daffodils opening their bright little faces was the confirmation I needed. They’ve made me as light headed as William Wordsworth, the man who stole some good lines from his wife and sister to write that famous poem.

Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar Castle

I was wandering as lonely as a cloud through the Craigmillar estate when I saw my host of golden daffodils this morning. Of course the snowdrops and the crocuses have been out for weeks and the gorse on Arthur’s Seat has begun to blossom but daffodils, for me, are the real sign of spring.

The cold gales have gone. The deep snow on the Cairngorms is melting fast and the wettest winter for over a hundred years is over. Suddenly life seems easier and more cheerful.

Even the long road to the referendum seems less daunting. We were treated this week to the usual spring ritual of a row over the GERS figures (government expenditure and revenue, Scotland). They revealed an embarrassing public sector deficit of £12bn (8.3 per cent of GDP), caused largely by a 40 per cent fall in oil revenues. It’s the first time in five years that the deficit was higher than for the UK as a whole, which allowed Alex Salmond to claim, at first minister’s question time, that last year was a blip and that new investment in the North Sea will bring in much higher revenues in the future.

Gordon Brown Out of hybernation

Gordon Brown
Out of hybernation

This week also saw Gordon Brown come out of post-prime-ministerial hibernation to enter the referendum debate. He made a speech in Glasgow calling for more tax powers for the Scottish Parliament, allowing it to raise up to 40 per cent of what it spends. He cast it as part of a plan to write a new constitution for the United Kingdom, guaranteeing home rule for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

This came perilously close to the Liberal Democrats’ idea of a federal Britain. And indeed Sir Menzies Campbell – elder statesman of the Lib Dems – said he could see common ground emerging among all the pro-Union parties for more powers for the Scottish Parliament. He called for a constitutional summit of all parties within 30 days of a “NO” vote in the referendum in September.

O dear, there’s been another leak. Actually, it’s a leak about a leak. It all happened at the Dounray nuclear establishment in Caithness in the spring of 2012. A test reactor for the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines apparently sprang a leak and a small amount of radiation escaped. At first this was described as “level zero” on the safety scale and there had been “no measurable change in the radiation discharge”. But the defence secretary Philip Hammond later changed this to “no measurable change in the alpha-emitting particulate discharge.”

Dounreay

Dounreay

Whatever this covers up, he could not disguise the fact that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency was not informed until nine months after the incident – and was asked to keep it quiet. The Scottish government was not informed at all. We only found out about it last week as part of Mr Hammond’s announcement to the House of Commons that he was spending £120m on refuelling one of the navy’s submarines because of the incident at Dounreay. As in most nuclear matters, it’s all as clear and simple as Higgs-Boson.

It’s not been a good week for the Royal Navy. The 800 strong workforce employed by Babcock to service the submarine base at Faslane and Coulport on the Clyde walked out on strike for the first time in 40 years. They’re protesting against a one-percent pay rise at a time when they say managers are giving themselves a 9 percent rise.

Still at sea, on the surface this time, a Scottish round-the-world yachtsman has been rescued after his boat was hit by a huge wave off Cape Horn at the southern tip of Chile. Andrew Halcrow, aged 54 from Shetland, described how his mast was broken by the wave as he lay in his bunk. “It was so brutal, I was sure a ship had rammed into me,” he wrote on his website. It’s the second time Mr Halcrow has tried to sail single-handed around the world. His first attempt in 2007 ended when he became ill while sailing off the Australian coast. He’s now trying to recover his 32ft boat and we should all cheer his bravery if he ever sails it back to Shetland.

Finally, I see that Rangers are bravely fighting their way back from financial disgrace. They’re now unbeatable at the top of Division One after their 3-0 defeat of Airdrie on Wednesday night. They will go into the Championship league next season against the likes of Dundee, Falkirk, Alloa, Raith Rovers and Queen of the South. And if they triumph again, they will be back in the Premier League this time next year. All they have to do now is hold a board meeting that doesn’t end in tears and a court hearing.

Pan-Am Flight 103
(Picture: Air Accident Investigators)

For years, the former Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, insisted that there were fundamental flaws in the accepted explanation of what caused the Lockerbie disaster.243 passengers and 16 crew were killed on 21 December 1988. Another 11 people died in the ground. After a three-year investigation involving both Scottish police and the American FBI, the finger of blame was firmly pointed at Libya – then a pariah state.

Tam Dalyell Always insisted the Iranians were responsible

Tam Dalyell
Always insisted the Iranians were responsible

It took 11 years before the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was persuaded after protracted negotiations to hand over the two men who were eventually tried at Camp Zeist. Only one of them, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, was convicted and sent to prison in Scotland. However, Mr Dalyell, sounding like a lone voice in the wilderness, continued to question both the evidence and the result of that trial. In interview after interview, he insisted that the investigators had been looking in the wrong place and that the real culprits would be found in Iran.

Now, a documentary from the Arab television station, Al Jazeera, has presented evidence which suggests that he may indeed have been right. Indeed, it appears to cast doubt over the entire investigation, because documents obtained by the network and verified by security experts point instead to the involvement of Iran Secret Service, Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the liberation of Palestine – General Command.

The documentary backs up Tam Dalyell’s assertion that the bombing of the American aircraft was an act of revenge for the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by USS Vincennes earlier in 1988 which killed 290 people. The television station said it had obtained US Defence Intelligence Agency cables confirming the commission of the operation by Iran. As part of its investigation, the reporters secured interviews with a former CIA agent and a senior Iranian intelligence official.

The former CIA man, Robert Baer, claimed that the CIA and FBI investigations diverged completely…because the case was being run by the Department of Justice in complete disregard to the intelligence. “As far as I can tell,” he told the programme, “someone said, look, Libya is vulnerable to prosecution, small country, Gaddafi sated, let’s go for it.” He insisted he was not giving a controversial opinion – adding that, on the intelligence side, the CIA “to a man” said it was Iran.

The documentary will be shown at 8 o’clock tonight on Al Jazeera – Lockerbie: What Really Happened?

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.”

Syrian health system ‘broken’

save-the-children-logoSyria’s shattered health system is forcing health workers to engage in brutal medical practices and a series of epidemics have left millions of children exposed to a plethora of deadly diseases, Save the Children says in a new report.

‘A Devastating Toll: the Impact of Three Years of War on the Health of Syria’s Children’, sheds light on a broken health system and its consequences: children not just dying from violent means but from diseases that would previously either have been treatable or prevented.

The extent of the health system collapse in Syria is borne out in many horrific ways, including:

    Children having limbs amputated because clinics don’t have necessary equipment for appropriate treatment
    Newborn babies dying in their incubators during power cuts
    Patients being knocked out with metal bars owing to a lack of anaesthesia
    Patients undergoing potentially deadly person-to-person blood transfusions

March 15 is the third anniversary of the start of the conflict in Syria and a humanitarian crisis which has had a devastating impact on children. At least 1.2 million children have fled the violence and become refugees in neighbouring countries, another 4.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, and more than 10,000 have been killed.¹

Events marking the date are due to take place in more than 30 countries around the world this week, including in Scotland where Save the Children will hold a candlelit vigil in Edinburgh on Thursday.

Neil Mathers Save the Children

Neil Mathers
Save the Children

Neil Mathers, Head of Scotland at Save the Children, said: “This humanitarian crisis has fast become a health crisis. Children inside are enduring barbaric conditions. Simply finding a doctor is a matter of luck; finding one with the necessary equipment and medication to provide proper treatment has become almost impossible. The desperate measures taken by medical personnel to keep children alive are increasingly harrowing.”

One doctor working inside Syria told Save the Children: “Every day we have injured children suffering from critical burns and fractures, they need to have complicated operations but in this small hospital we don’t have the capacity. In some cases we have to cut their limbs off to try to save their lives – because if we don’t they will bleed to death.”

Among the most worrying trends is the re-emergence of deadly and disfiguring diseases such as polio and measles, which can permanently maim, paralyse and even kill. Up to 80,000 children are likely to be infected by polio’s most aggressive form and are silently spreading the disease.

The majority of illnesses affecting children right now inside Syria are treatable and mostly preventable within a functioning health system. Those diseases include measles, diarrhoea, and respiratory illnesses, all among the most deadly diseases worldwide for children aged under five. As one measure of how far Syria’s health systems have fallen, in 2010 a total of 26 measles cases were reported in the whole of Syria for the entire year. In the first week of 2014, just in children aged under five, 84 cases were recorded in northern Syria alone.

Two hundred thousand Syrians have died of treatable chronic diseases such as cancer, asthma and diabetes – double the number killed by violence. It is probable that many thousands of these were children. No longer able to buy medication or access regular medical care, everyday conditions are now fatal.

Across Syria, more than 60 per cent of hospitals are no longer functional. Nearly half of Syria’s doctors have fled the country: in Aleppo, a city which should have 2,500 doctors, only 36 remain. Of the country’s ambulances, 93 per cent have been damaged, stolen or destroyed, while many health workers and medical staff have been killed, imprisoned, or have fled the country altogether.

Save the Children calls for the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous resolution on humanitarian access to be implemented immediately, and for children and their families to be given access now to vaccines, food, water, medicines and other life-saving assistance, wherever it is needed.

Neil Mathers said: “The international community is failing Syria’s children. They are injured and wounded and unable to access treatment; they contract polio and other preventable diseases that kill and disfigure them; and they suffer and die from not being able to get the right medicine. World leaders must stand up for the young victims of this conflict and send a clear message that their suffering and deaths will no longer be tolerated.”

Flags of Norway and Iceland

I wondered why the Norwegian and the Icelandic flags were flying in the strong wind blowing off the Solway Firth. Was this an invasion from Alex Salmond’s “arc of prosperity”? Afterall, we are living at a time of changing national boundaries across Europe. But it turned out that the flags were to welcome feathered visitors to the nature reserve run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Caerlaverock.

Whooper Swans in Galloway

Whooper Swans in Galloway

Thousands of barnacle geese fly down to spend the winter here from Svalbard in the far north of Norway. Hundreds of whooper swans make the journey from Iceland every year. We watched as the swans were fed. The warden cast grain on the water from his wheelbarrow and the yellow-beaked birds jostled for position. At first they all faced one way, then the other and all were cautious about going near the nets where they were caught for tagging the day before.

It all symbolised for me the state of Scotland’s local government. An unlikely comparison I know. But if we take the warden to be the SNP government casting its £10.5bn funding to the 32 local councils and the whooper swans to be those councils each fighting for their “fair share”, then this is the situation we are in.

Councils Split

Councils Split

The issue has come to a head over the last few weeks, with the threat of seven local councils – and perhaps more – leaving the umbrella organisation COSLA, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and forming a rival grouping. The dissidents so far are: Glasgow, Inverclyde, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire, West Lothian, Aberdeen and Dumfries and Galloway.

Of course, party politics is involved. Labour control half of the 32 councils, and therefore have control of the central decision-making committee in COSLA, the committee of council leaders. The other parties don’t care for this arrangement and are suggesting that decisions should be taken at the quarterly convention where they stand more chance of success.

This squabbling among the whooper swans wouldn’t matter too much, were it not taking place against an overall cut in the size of the spending wheelbarrow. There’s also a divisive public debate over the role of local government and the services they run. Not to mention a referendum over which national flag should be flying over the council chambers.

Glasgow Council - left CoSLA

Glasgow Council – left CoSLA

For the last six years councils have all faced the same way and accepted a council tax freeze imposed on them by the SNP government. Now the straight-jacket is beginning to hurt and many councils are asking themselves why they should stick with a system that limits even the 20 per cent of revenue that councils raise for themselves through local taxes. Like the whooper swans, many are now cautious of being caught in the centralising net of national government.

Those who want to keep COSLA together argue that local government will lose out if it has no collective voice. Each council will be bullied by central government in turn. Besides, negotiating pay and conditions for the 250,000 people who work for local councils is easier done through one organisation. So too is common research, or “best practice” guidance or co-operative arrangements between councils on issues such as special schools, road repairs, re-cycling etc.

This story of local government flux is often overlooked and yet it is of immediate importance to our everyday lives…..how schools are being run, rubbish collected, old folk looked after, parks and libraries kept open, businesses given the services they need to operate. It is also about democracy, giving people control over their own lives in a world which is being increasingly centralised.

Yes, birds of a feather flock together but they also have individual lives. The interplay between these two aspects of both birds and humans is still a bit of a mystery. But it is a process which has served us well and should not be given up.

Soon the whooper swans will take off for the breeding grounds in Iceland and the barnacle geese will fly back to Norway. A collective decision will be taken, but no single bird – or even a central committee of birds – will dictate when they will fly and where.

‘What Women Want, What Women Need’

380 women from throughout Scotland are expected to descend on the Scottish Parliament to celebrate International Women’s Day. The theme for this year’s event is ‘What Women Want, What Women Need’. Through an annual roadshow programme, the SWC meets with women from all over Scotland, who provide an insight into what they want and need in order to improve their lives

Agnes Tolmie

Agnes Tolmie

Issues such as better transport, accessible, affordable childcare and opportunities for education and employment are consistently discussed. Employer support, Government initiatives and local investment are just some of the mechanisms required to support the achievement of these wishes.

Speakers on the day include Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP; Alicia Castro, Argentine Ambassador to the UK; Alison Fraser, SWC Volunteer; Abby Mavers, an actor in BBC’s ‘Waterloo Road’ and Scottish comedian Susan Morrison

SWC Chair, Agnes Tolmie, explained that there was “a feeling that in many ways, women ‘have it all’. The reality is far from that ideal. Significant obstacles still exist across a number of areas such as education, employment and representation in political and public life. One of the most important ways of breaking down these barriers is to listen to women and take on board what they really want and what they really need. This will not only improve their lives, but the lives of their families and communities as a whole.

The SWC are delighted to be able to bring women together from different backgrounds and of diverse ages from throughout Scotland on International Women’s Day. We look forward to celebrating with all women attending.”

By Michael Emerson, The Centre for European Policy Studies

Events in Ukraine mark not only the start of a momentous shift in the region, but serve to chart the disturbing erosion of Britain’s global clout. If only the UK government would take its lead from the approach taken by its embassy in the heart of Kiev.

Foreign Secretary William Hague began his term in office by issuing instructions to his entire diplomatic core to resist by all legal means any attempts to increase the “actorness” of the EU in foreign and security policy. This led to a year of obscure diplomatic blockages, where common positions by the EU in various international forums could not be adopted, because the UK in a minority of one was contesting the legal basis for EU representatives to speak on behalf of the EU and its member states. At one point no less than 100 common positions were held up. That particular episode was brought to a close by the adoption of an agreement stating the obvious by the council of foreign ministers in October 2011.

While this must go down as one of the most boring and non-substantive wastes of diplomatic time in the history of Europe, it was not without serious reputational consequences for the UK.

The UK, with its privileged seat as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has been now for decades sitting on its reputation as one of the “big three” of EU foreign policy, alongside France and Germany – although the latter still lacks status at the UN Security Council.

This reputation has been wasting away, and the episode I’ve mentioned is just one reason why. Further evidence of it surfaced during recent weeks in Ukraine in two ways.

Out of the picture

Institutionally, the Ukraine crisis was tackled with the aid of mediation by three EU foreign ministers, from France, Germany and Poland, co-signing the agreement that preceded the end of the Yanukovych regime. This was a new “big three” in action on behalf of the EU. Why was the UK not there, since in the past it would automatically have been invited in these informal self-selection process to be part of the leading action? Answer: some combination of Poland’s successful diplomatic activism by foreign minister Radoslav Sikorsky, and the UK having vacated its seat through persistenly wanting to minimise the “actorness” of the EU.

On a substantive point, what does Ukraine want? In the most profound sense Ukraine wants Europe. As one citizen on the Euromaidan put it last week, “we do not want to go to Europe, we want Europe here”. Ukraine as a society does not “want” the UK, or France, or Germany individually. And of course these countries are seen to be part of Europe. But where should the action come from? It is absolutely clear that Ukraine is not strategically interested in any specifically UK action, unless it forms part of EU action. There is no sense in any distinctly UK bilateral policy of political significance there.

Curiously, while the top-level speeches and attitudes of the Conservative Party ministers of the Coalition government have been vacating the UK’s effective seat on the international stage, the competent staff work of the Foreign Office has been doing some excellent things, including in Ukraine. An example is a low-cost project to map out how an enhanced EU communications strategy in Ukraine could be designed. This has turned out to be an excellent piece of professionalism, in which the UK embassy in Kyiv has been doing an impeccable job of acting itself with and on behalf of the EU.

But back now to the big picture for the UK in the world. The UK needs now to decide pretty fast on its strategic orientation for its European and foreign policy. The Ukraine episode is a warning. The UK’s perceived position on the world stage is on the slide. Let’s relate this more broadly to the UK’s standing in the world at large, for example its permanent seat in the UN Security Council, the jewel in the crown of the Foreign office. This may be tactically secure through the veto powers of permanent members. But the process whereby the rest of the world considers the UK’s position to be an increasing anomaly is ongoing. As US president Barack Obama has said with clarity, the UK as a vigorous part of a strong EU is what the US wants; the UK as a seceding or semi-detached, minimalist member state is not of interest.

Michael Emerson was previously EU ambassador to Moscow. CEPS is a politically and financially independent research institute.

The Conversation

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

A chance to get away from it all?

As I lay in my wind-battered tent last weekend, I must admit I did not think about how the events of this week would unfold…the clash of the cabinets, the debate over North Sea Oil, the vote on corroboration. Instead I was wondering if the scout leader would call me out to help rescue a tent-full of 12 year-olds which had been struck by a blown-away tent from further up the field. Luckily, he handled the crisis by himself and I remained snug in my sleeping bag…until I too had to get up and re-peg my own tent before it blew away.

Church of Scotland LogoThe annual “Brass Monkey” camp held at Bonaly Scout Centre on the edge of the Pentland Hills really puts life in perspective. Here the concerns are high winds, rain, tents, rucksacks, meal times, wide games and watching the citizens of the future cope with life’s early challenges. All 160 scouts seemed to be having a great time, untroubled by the sterling zone, the EU entry requirements, jobs, house prices, climate change and life’s later challenges.

But hey, the life of the nation is not at all the same as “life” in general. And thank goodness for that. The Church of Scotland brought out a report this week which tires to bridge this gap between the two worlds. It appeals to voters in September’s referendum on independence not just to ask; “What’s in it for me ?” (pensions, wages, oil revenues etc ) but to consider what’s best for the country. The debate, it says, should be less about currencies and constitutions and more about social values such as fairness, equality, integrity and participation.

Two cabinets talked of  'Scotland's Oil'

Two cabinets talked of ‘Scotland’s Oil’

So how does this apply to “Scotland’s oil” ? Well, not one but two cabinets met to discuss this in Aberdeen on Monday. David Cameron brought the UK cabinet to Scotland for only the third time in its history. Ministers had before them a report from Sir Ian Wood calling for a new oil industry regulator which will encourage smaller companies to take over mature wells and squeeze the last £200bn of oil and gas from the North Sea. But it cannot be done, Mr Cameron warned, without the “broad shoulders” of UK investment.

The UK energy secretary Ed Davey also found time to pop up to Peterhead to announce that, at long last, the gas-fired power station there is to have a pioneering £100m carbon capture system installed.

Alex Salmond meanwhile staged his own cabinet meeting in a church, a few miles down the road, in Portlethen, followed by a public question and answer session. He wanted to highlight the difference between his down-to-earth “people’s government” and the posh boys from London who “jetted in and jetted out” to a meeting behind closed doors deep inside BP’s main Aberdeen office building. They were only here, he said, to keep Scotland’s oil for themselves “and squander it as they have done for the past 40 years.”

Standard Life nae mair?

Standard Life nae mair?

Back in Holyrood on Thursday, Mr Salmond was facing another foe, Labour’s Johann Lamont, who asked him how many companies it would take to consider leaving Scotland before he realised independence was bad for jobs. “It isn’t just Bathgate no more, or Linwood no more,” she said, quoting the Proclaimers, “It was Standard Life no more, Royal Bank of Scotland no more, if Scotland became independent.”

Standard Life bosses told their shareholders this week that they were planning to set up new companies south of the border and abroad if Scotland voted to be independent, because of uncertainty over the currency and pension and insurance regulations.

RBS - Record Loss but huge bonuses

RBS – Record Loss but huge bonuses

The Royal Bank of Scotland said it would have to shed jobs in Scotland, as it down-sized to concentrate on retail home banking again. It’s just reported a loss of £8.2bn for the year 2013. It’s the bank’s biggest loss since it had to be rescued by the UK government in 2008. But amazingly, it’s didn’t stop the bank paying out £576m in bonuses. Perhaps the bank is considering a move to another planet.

The SNP government was undaunted by these headwinds and it pressed ahead in parliament with its latest legal reforms. MSPs voted 64 to 5 in favour of the Criminal Justice Bill, which includes a controversial measure to drop Scotland’s unique and age-old rule of “corroboration” – the need for two distinct pieces of evidence for a prosecution to be mounted in court. Most Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs abstained and called on the government to think again, as indeed has the parliament’s own justice committee and a string of senior judges and court lawyers.

So the battered tent of democracy continues to be blown to and fro. I’ll be amazed if the Criminal Justice Bill makes it through all its parliamentary stages unaltered. I’ll be amazed too if more large companies and UK government ministers don’t raise more doubts about independence in the weeks ahead. But I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t just result in more Scots saying “Yes we can ” to independence. Like those scouts at Bonaly, they won’t be put off by head winds, rain or negative messages.

The 2014 shortlist announced

A mouthwatering competition has been set up in the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards, with eight of the region’s finest malts set to battle it out for honours in the eagerly anticipated annual contest.

BenRiach goes head to head with Knockando

BenRiach goes head to head with Knockando

A judging panel comprising industry leaders, acclaimed writers and specialist retailers whittled down 46 entries at a blind tasting event at the Knockomie Hotel in Forres this week before finally settling on their finalists in four categories.

And now that the experts have shortlisted the final drams, the power of determining the overall winners will be handed over to visitors to the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival. A series of roving judging sessions at which festival-goers will get to blind taste all of the shortlisted entries is being staged during the Festival, which takes place from May 1 to 5.

Ben Riach 12-year-old and Knockando12-year-old will go head to head in the 12-year-old and under category, while the Balvenie 15-year-old and the Singleton 18-year-old will compete in the section for malts aged 13 to 20 years.

Pot Stills by Forsyths

Pot Stills by Forsyths

In the 21-year-old and over category, the finalists are Glenfarclas 30-year-old and Cardhu 21-year-old, while in the section for distillery special editions Tamdhu 10-year-old will go up against the Glenfarclas 25-year-old.

The awards are sponsored by coppersmiths Forsyths of Rothes – the company responsible for building many of the pot stills in which the shortlisted single malts were distilled.

James Campbell, chairman of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, says, “In some ways it must be a dream job for our expert panel to spend a day nosing and judging such high quality Scotch malt whiskies, but on the other hand they face an immensely difficult challenge. The whisky produced on Speyside is among the best in the world – deciding which entries are worthy of making the final is an almost impossible task.”

Penny Ellis Power to the People

Penny Ellis
Power to the People

Whisky writer Penny Ellis, a director of the Festival who also organises the awards, adds, “This is the only whisky awards in the world where the power to decide the overall winners is handed over to members of the public. However, the Festival is all about people: the people with the passion that drives production of our malt whisky, and the people who are passionate supporters of our national drink.

“The roving judging sessions are a great opportunity for our visitors to also take the blind taste test, and for them to sample some of the best whiskies that Speyside has to offer. Visitors may have their own favourite malt, but tasting it blind means that they cannot be influenced by presentation or brand loyalty – all they have to go on is smell and taste.”

The roving judging sessions take place at Ugie House Hotel, Keith on April 25; Glenfiddich Distillery, Dufftown on April 30; The Drouthy Cobbler, Elgin on May 1; Aberlour Hotel, Aberlour, Richmond Memorial Hall, Tomintoul and Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort on May 2; Stuart Arms, Dufftown and Rothes Social Club on May 3; and Forsyths Coppersmiths, Rothes on May 4.

The final judging will take place here in May

The final judging will take place here in May

The final judging session and awards prize-giving will take place – along with a ceilidh – at Glen Grant Distillery in Rothes on May 4.

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

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

Tickets for all events in the 2014 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival programme, including the roving judging sessions, can be bought via the website.

Scotland – overburdened by iconography

by Charlie Laidlaw

Companies stand or fall on the authenticity of their brands, with brand value an integral element in corporate and marketing strategy – the same is true of countries.

Scotland's 'brand' draws heavily on its history

Scotland’s ‘brand’ draws heavily on its history

This is a pertinent observation ahead of Scotland’s independence referendum later this year. If Scotland does vote to go it alone, it is the value of the country’s brand that will sustain it – driving everything from inward tourism to international investment.

Of course, defining a national brand and its value to the economy is virtually impossible, as perceptions vary enormously. The Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index,which ranks countries against a number of criteria, offers some insight.

We are, of course, hotwired to think in shorthand. For example, think of Italy, and what do you associate it with? Pizza? Ferrari? Do you have a positive view on Italian manufacturing quality? Would you buy an Italian product against a competitor product from, say, France?

Think Italy - Think Ferrari

Think Italy – Think Ferrari

In some instances, the national brand guessing game is easy. Germany, for example, despite being on the losing end of two world wars, has achieved an international reputation for engineering excellence that has made it the economic powerhouse of Europe.

In that sense, Germany has reinvented itself. So too, Japan. “Made in Japan” once meant cheap and second-rate. Now, the Japanese automobile and electronic industries straddle the world, and stand for excellence and reliability.

Scotland too has reinvented itself, most obviously by Sir Walter Scott who organised King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. It represented nothing less than a national brand makeover, making all things tartan chic and fashionable. Later, Queen Victoria put the heroic back into the Highlands.

A national brand make-over in the 1820s

A national brand make-over
in the 1820s

In some ways, for such a small country, Scotland is overburdened by iconography: from tartan to whisky, from lochs to glens, shortbread to haggis, bagpipes to the Loch Ness Monster, golf to kilts…the list goes on.

National symbols are important because they sustain economic activity. For example, Scotland’s tourism industry employs some 200,000 people and visitors spend almost £11 billion a year – with many of those visitors coming from other parts of the UK. Will they still come if Scotland becomes independent?

The tourism and hospitality industry seems split on that one, despite the Scottish government promising to cut VAT for the sector and reduce airport tax.

Whisky is another icon, an industry that employs 10,000 people and, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, exports in excess of £4 billion. But food and drink extends well beyond the water of life. Scotland is also home to about 25% of the UK’s beef cattle, and we catch over 50% of the nation’s fish. Our salmon rivers are world-famous, supporting rural and remote communities.

Scotland invented retail banking

Scotland invented retail banking

Or financial services, another national icon, with Scotland also credited with “inventing” retail banking. Yet if Scotland achieves independence, banks would have over 1,000% of Scotland’s GDP. When Iceland’s banks went bust, their assets were some 880% of GDP. Is that brand strength, or brand risk? Westminster politicians obviously think so, having blocked Scotland from entering into a UK Poundland after independence. Does Scotland therefore revert to its own currency? Or, longer term, think about the Euro?

(Incidentally, it was Sir Isaac Newton, then Master of the Mint at the Tower of London, who brought Scots coinage into line with the rest of Britain following the Act of Union).

Oil and Gas A diminishing asset?

Oil and Gas
A diminishing asset?

The financial case for independence is based, at least initially, on two iconic industries – North Sea oil and the financial sector. The SNP hopes to secure some 90% of tax from oil and gas, albeit a diminishing source of revenue, and a healthy slice of income from the country’s financial sector. (That’s leaving to one side the issue of Scotland’s share of national debt).

That means that Scotland the Brand will be dependent on a diminishing asset under its waters, and a sector that (post-crash) the country can’t necessarily rely on to deliver a safe return. Let’s not forget that, against Scottish tax revenues of some £60 billion annually, the cost of the bank bailouts was some £500 billion in loans and guarantees.

Scottish Government Committed to renewable energy

Scottish Government
Committed to renewable energy

It’s why the SNP government is keen to develop renewables as a new icon of Scottish industry, despite some ambivalent figures – for example, that offshore wind investment halved to £29 million last year. Biggest blow was a decision by Scottish Power to drop plans for the £5.4 billion Argyll Array windfarm.

Scotland has other strengths, particularly its track record of invention: from penicillin to the postage stamp, from TV to the telephone, the steam engine to logarithms…that list also goes on and on, to modern advances in gaming to Dolly the Sheep. If Scotland the Brand stands for anything, it must also be about education, innovation and invention. Medical and scientific research may become brand icons of the new Scotland.

Festivals - all part of the brand

Festivals – all part of the brand

However, in this year of decision, Scotland the Brand will also step onto an international sporting stage, helping the country to redefine itself (again) as a country of beautiful cityscapes and wilderness. The Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup couldn’t have come at a better time for the pro-independence lobby.

But it’s the future that will better define Scotland the Brand: how the country’s universities engage internationally; how Scotland diversifies from oil and financial services; how Scotland can find niche industries to build worldwide reputation; how it attracts inward investment; and how it promotes its festivals, cities and landscapes.

Scotland may or may not vote for independence. But the debate has done one great thing for Scotland: it has raised awareness internationally in Scotland the Brand, a marketing opportunity that the country should grasp with both hands.

Charlie Laidlaw is a director of David Gray PR and a partner in Laidlaw Westmacott.