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Glasgow

Easter has been slow in coming this year. The daffodils have faded, the weather turned mild some time ago, the school holidays are just about over and there’s been a quietness about the place. “Where have all the children gone?” asked an elderly neighbour of mine. And he answered his own question with a disapproving shrug of the shoulders: “They’re all playing on their computers instead of being outside in the park and in the streets.”

John Muir Photographed in 1912

John Muir
Photographed in 1912

Our hero of the moment, John Muir, would not have approved of that. This weekend we celebrate the great outdoor-man’s birthday (21st April) with a festival of special events. It’s a hundred years since the founder of the conservation movement died but the land of his birth has only recently got around to acknowledging his achievements and establishing a Trust in his honour. Our National Parks are barely ten years old.

A new John Muir cross-country trail is being officially opened on Monday, tracing the Muir family’s route from Dunbar to Helensburgh as they emigrated to America in 1849. As they passed through Falkirk they may have seen the real “kelpies”, the working horses on the canal path or in the coal-yards. This weekend, Andy Scott’s tribute to the kelpies, two 30-metre high steel kelpie heads, are to be brought to life in a spectacular son-et-lumiere show to launch the town’s new eco-park.

Red Road flats No longer part of the opening ceremony

Red Road flats
No longer part of the opening ceremony

Scotland’s other piece of outdoor theatre has had a bothersome week. The organisers of the Commonwealth Games have been forced to change their minds about their crazy plan to blow up the Red Road flats as part of the opening ceremony. The public outcry had been so noisy and so widespread – 17,000 people signed Carolyn Leckie’s petition – that the organisers concluded the plan was too divisive. So they are going to fill the 15 second gap with some other manifestation of Glasgow’s ambition to move on from its chequered past.

The SNP’s similar ambition for Scotland was on show in Aberdeen last weekend, its last party conference before the referendum on 18th September. The one-word message on the big screen was “Forward.” The Yes campaign says it has seen its support in the opinion polls rise from 38 per cent last autumn to 46 per cent today. A poll in The Scotsman puts it at a more modest 37 per cent. Another, by TNS, puts it at 29 per cent. But what is not in doubt is that support for independence is growing.

Trident - part of the negotiations

Trident – part of the negotiations

The No campaigners this week brought out the top brass of the UK military machine to argue that an independent Scotland would be disastrous for Britain’s defence capability and for jobs. The defence secretary Philip Hammond suggested that negotiations over the removal of Trident nuclear weapons from Scottish soil would be linked to other negotiations – over the currency, the share of national debt, welfare and pension arrangements – and thus would take longer than the SNP realise.

But Alex Salmond put all that down to “more of Project Fear.” In contrast, the Yes campaign, he said, was “positive, hopeful and up-lifting.” In his speech to the conference he appealed to women voters to join the Yes campaign and bring about a “transformation of childcare”. And to the Labour voters he said: “ The referendum is not about the SNP, it’s about Scotland. Vote Yes and Scottish Labour can return to its core values.”

Scotland's islands - looking for more autonomy

Scotland’s islands – looking for more autonomy

A lot will depend on the state of the economy come referendum day in September. (A lot, but not everything and it’s hard to know which way perceptions about the economy will affect the vote.) But this week, at least, we had good news. Inflation has fallen to 1.6 per cent and, since earnings are increasing at 1.8 per cent, we have living standards rising for first time since the crash five years ago. The unemployment figure has risen slightly in Scotland but, at 6.5 per cent, it’s better than the UK as a whole and is much improved on a year ago.

This week Scotland’s islanders have been on the campaign trail – if not for outright independence, then at least for more home rule. They’ve held talks with UK ministers and met the Scottish cabinet on one of its away-days in Stornoway on Wednesday. The “Our Islands, our Future” campaign want more powers for the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland over issues such as energy, fishing, and the Crown Estate revenues.

Personally, I want home rule for Inch Park. It’s a cone’s throw from my house and all week I’ve been watching workmen dismantling one of its 150 year old elm trees. Perhaps it had to come down – the tree surgeons said it was rotten – but I hope the imperial government of Edinburgh City Council will plant a new tree in its place. I notice that the RSPB has announced plans to plant 100,000 more trees on its reserve at Abernethy. Maybe they could send one down to us, so that we can preserve our little bit of the great Caledonian forest.

We have spent much of this week discussing the Red Road flats. Should they be blown up as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer? At first people were stunned by the idea. Then they thought it might be an April Fool joke. Then came the public outcry against it. Then the defence. Then a hint that the organisers might be changing their minds. And finally a letter to the newspapers from the chief executive of the games David Grevemberg re-affirming the decision that the 30-storey tower blocks are to be brought down live in front of a world-wide television audience of millions.

David Grevemberg Chief Executive, Glasgow 2014

David Grevemberg
Chief Executive, Glasgow 2014

“By dedicating just a few moments of the opening ceremony to the extraordinary story of Red Road it is our ambition to depict Glasgow as a brave, confident and great city that is confronting the need for change,” he writes.

The trouble is that the story of Red Road is not a happy one, at least it does not have a happy ending…even before the place is blown up. The seven tower blocks were built in the 1960s and were supposedly the very latest in working-class luxury. However they soon rotted away and became the new slums. One block has already been demolished, five are empty and are ready for the explosives squad. One will remain, housing refugees and asylum seekers.

So the questions being asked this week are: is blowing up the Red Road flats drawing the world’s attention to Glasgow’s failures? Is it disrespectful to the refugees still living there? Is destruction what Glasgow is about or should it be re-building? Will the 15 second explosion sequence work? Will it be safe? Will it really be a spectacle if most people are only seeing it on a screen in the Commonwealth stadium or on television? And, since we are only seeing it on a screen, why not show a recording of it?

Must Glasgow be better than the Olympic spectaculars

Must Glasgow be better than the Olympic spectaculars

There is also the whole issue of over-the-top opening ceremonies. Must we be better than the Olympic spectaculars? Must each show be bigger than the last, more shocking, more expensiv? ( The cost has gone up to £20m incidentally). What’s wrong with a parade and a torch-bearer to open the games? And, if we really want to push the boat out, a pipe band and a speech from the Lord Provost.

And talking of over-the-top showmanship, it didn’t come any better this week than ex-NATO potentate George Robertson’s declaration that Scottish independence would have “cataclysmic” consequences for global security. The break-up of the United Kingdom, he said, would weaken the West’s defences against “the forces of darkness.” This is surely “evil empire” stuff and a sign that Project Fear has finally lost touch with planet Earth.

There was another example this week from Ed Davey, the UK energy secretary. He put out a report claiming that Scottish energy bills would rise by an average of £200 a year as a result of independence. This was because the subsidy given to wind farms and other renewables would have to be borne by Scotland alone, rather than spread across the whole of the UK. The Scottish government hit back by saying the figures didn’t take into account the subsidy given to nuclear energy in England.

Margo MacDonald  A doughty fighter

Margo MacDonald
A doughty fighter

And for good measure, the Scottish government did a little scare-mongering of its own, this time over welfare cuts. It published a report saying Westminster’s cap on welfare spending will mean a cut of £2.5bn to benefits over the next two years, pushing – according to one estimate – 100,000 more children into poverty and setting back the fight against overall poverty by 10 years.

We are all missing one of Scotland’s most doughty fighters for independence, Margo MacDonald who died last week. She was 70 and had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Words that sprang up time and again in the tributes to her included, “forthright, determined, a bright light, a blond bombshell, a force of nature.” She began her political life with a spectacular win for the SNP in a by-election in Govan in 1977 and went on to have a career in local government and then in the Scottish Parliament, sitting latterly as an independent.

I’ll remember her for her clear-headedness and her skill in putting her arguments into a few straightforward words. I’ll also remember her courage in her personal battle with Parkinson’s and her campaign to bring dignity to the process of dying.

Spring has certainly arrived this week – after a pause in proceedings for the last fortnight. Leaves are starting to open, grass in being cut, and we awaiting any day now, the first osprey egg of the season at the Loch of Lowes. Yes, the “lady” is back. This remarkable old bird has returned to her Perthshire reserve for the 23rd year and is about to hatch her 69th egg.

Someone recently asked me how I created an article from scratch. What was my ‘process’? To tell you the truth, the answer was woefully inadequate and tangential. It should have been easy. Find the story, do some digging, check your facts, write it in the same structure shared by Adie or Waugh or Churchill. Finally, deliver the number one message in a catchy headline: Man bites dog.

I haven’t published for a while. Instead, I’ve spent my time being inspired by others, researching my next projects and thinking. The plan was to write about outdoor superstars. On the final evening of the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival, Swiss über-athlete Ueli Steck took the stage. Until recently he held the Eiger Nordwand speed record at a scalding 2h47 from bergschrund to summit. To accomplish such a notoriously dangerous route at speed needs single-minded masochism and 100% conviction.

Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden

Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden

However, rather than discuss those to whom all the accolades filter, I wanted to talk about sport for development. This ties in with planning the legacy from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, as well as a role I’ve taken on as mentor for Sported, which has its origins in the 2012 Olympics and aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people. I’ve also been reading about the use of sport in Rwanda to repair divided communities as the world remembers its massacre 20 years on. In more general terms, I’m fascinated by how group outdoor activities assist individuals and communities to grow stronger, remember their similarities and become more equipped for the future.

My inspiring subject this month is a couple from Leeds who’ve done something very punchy. Like Ueli, their endeavour required devotion, planning and buckets of optimism. I’d like to introduce you to Simon Buckden and Louisa Rodriguez. In March they ran from their home in Leeds to Downing Street, a total of 216 miles in a week.

You may be thinking that yes, this is a long way to run and needs a high level of fitness. Or you may choose to compare it to the headline-grabbing explorers – whether Ranulph Fiennes or James Ketchell – who travel infinite distances across sastrugi-covered poles and mind-twisting deserts with enormously heavy rucksacks. And there’s not even a pub at the end. The classic adventurers inspire because they take something that might seem physically impossible, but try their hardest to destroy everyone’s assumptions including their own.

The couple from Leeds had a different motive for their outdoor journey. It was to bring awareness for their recently-formed charity, Positive Action for PTSD. Simon is a survivor of multiple traumas and is not afraid to stand up and be honest, thereby helping himself and others. He and partner Louisa aim to educate everybody to remove stigma relating to witnessing and surviving traumatic events, to show that it’s not the preserve of the military, and to highlight the amazing things can be achieved by those who’ve suffered. It’s a wonderful mission.

My gran used to say ‘least said, soonest mended’. And my hope for 2014 is that this is no longer the case. The history of enlightenment shows us that ignorance and persecution can be followed by commonality and acceptance. You can trace this path with the ‘C’ word – from stigma, through medical trials of the nineteenth century, past the 1913 founding of the American Cancer Society, to this disease becoming something about which we talk and support openly. A physical impediment cannot be a reason to not be invited to participate, and nor should mental health, sexual preference, colour, race or gender. The only possible reason to exclude is apathy.

Most people can appreciate the physical endurance it takes to run back-to-back marathon distances. A journey of 216 miles is tough, especially without motorcycle outriders and marshals in fluorescent tabards. On the first afternoon, Simon got lost in the rain outside Sheffield. And I can appreciate how, day after day, the impact of each mile, furlong, lamppost and stride really starts to bite. It takes real mental strength.

The couple ran a strong communications campaign. They contacted all the press, used social media continually, met with the lord mayors of the towns en route and were greeted by MPs on arrival to the Big Smoke. And later that day the run was mentioned in Prime Minister’s Question Time. Having since spoken to Simon, I know that this is only the start. Like real sportspeople, they have the passion to take their vision global.

At a personal level, it wasn’t the run or the media effort that inspired me most, nor that they did everything with a small team and very little money. It was a book that they carried. Weeks before, they had asked as many people to share their stories of trauma and survival. Among the writers were ex-policemen and prison officers, victims of domestic abuse and road traffic accidents: a terrible catalogue that makes for grim but important reading. As a survivor of mountaineering incidents, I also contributed. Simon and Louisa ran with that book, showed it to everyone they met and delivered copies to ministers.

But it wasn’t until they kicked off the physical challenge that I appreciated the symbolism. They had printed very private stories, some of which had never been shared, to be taken on a street-pounding journey to Westminster. Simon and Louisa helped bring the extraordinary tales of ordinary people into the light, and perhaps helped, in some small way, to turn down the volume on the original memories with the new narrative of their odyssey. No speed mountaineer could humble me in this way. Like the daughter who wears a message to her mother as she warms up before the Race for Life, or the family who turns up to watch the returning Royal Scots Dragoon Guards parade from Holland Street to George Square, it felt like the perfect act of redemption.

———

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.

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.

More than 90% of small business owners in Scotland say they’ve already decided how they are going to vote in the September referendum on Scottish independence. But 48% of them believe independence would be a negative step for their business. 37% thought that independence would represent a positive step for their company, while 10% felt it would have no material impact.

Ingenious Britain Surveyed 1,000 firms

Ingenious Britain
Surveyed 1,000 firms

The finding comes from new research by Ingenious Britain, a small business network which surveyed 1000 small business owners in Scotland. When asked if they believed they had enough information from the different campaigns to make an informed choice about the potential impact of Scottish independence on their business, only 63% said yes compared with 37% who said no.

When it came to investing in the future, 41% felt that independence would make it less likely that they would be able to invest in growing their business. By contrast, 36% felt it made it more likely and 13% thought it would make no difference. They identifies two worrying factors. The first is a fear that business tax increases in an independent Scotland would have a direct impact on their ability to invest. The second concerns exporting to the rest of the UK which could be a big problem if Scotland had to adopt a new currency.

“One thing all businesses need, especially small businesses, is certainty,” said Marlon Wolff, CEO of Ingenious Britain. “There is an indication coming through our research that a sizeable proportion of small business owners have sufficient reservations about the potential negative issues and challenges independence might present to be seriously questioning whether it is really in the interests of their company. However, it is going to be a close decision with many reacting against what they perceive to be status quo in which their needs as Scottish businesses are not reflected or taken into account.”

Tessa Hartmann  Uncertainty having a negative impact

Tessa Hartmann
Uncertainty having a negative impact

However, it’s clear that business owners are as divided as the rest of the population. Dr Tessa Hartmann, who runs Glasgow-based Hartmann Media, a PR and communications company working in the fashion sector, is firm in her belief that independence would be a bad step. “Given the long life cycle in orders that exist within the fashion industry, the uncertainty is already having a negative impact on the sector and affecting our exports, especially as customers don’t know what currency we would be using in an independent Scotland.

“But more than that, Scotland’s long heritage in fashion and textiles has thrived as part of Brand Britain. Remove Scotland from the UK and many of our young designers and fashion companies would become ineligible for much of the crucial support and profile they currently receive from the likes of London Fashion Week and the British Fashion Council.”

However, Rory Haigh, who owns Optimum Underfloor Heating in Inverness, takes the contrary view and believes independence would be a boost for his business. “Scotland has completely different social and economic needs to the south of England,” he explained. “We are a small country with a good track record of entrepreneurship that is not currently being harnessed or promoted. The government of an independent Scotland would be far more proactive in doing that and in addressing the everyday needs and concerns of Scottish businesses.”

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.

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.

The late Sir Tom Finney in action
(Pictures from his memorial site)

Saturday
And the football world mourns the passing of Sir Tom Finney, aged 91.

The film footage played in tribute to Finney, his sport and his skill looked from a bygone age, unrecognisable to today’s game in more ways than one. Finney played 569 club games, all of them for Preston North End (although Palermo tried to buy him in 1952), a concept today’s footy fan may toil to get their heads around.

Sir Tom in his later years

Sir Tom in his later years

He also had a real job, a plumber to trade, although he did get a company vehicle as a perk of the job – when he was serving as a tank driver with the 9th Lancers during the Second World War.

I never saw Finney play, my knowledge limited to that crackling film, books and the opinion of those who did see him grace the international stage.

Finney won 76 caps for England, when for much of that time, Sir Stanley Matthews filled the right-wing berth. So Finney played on the left, or as an inside forward, or in the middle.

“Imagine the best players you ever saw and then think of Tom Finney as the sum total of their ability. That’s the player he was,” the late Bob Crampsey once told me. Something I still toil to get my head around …

Sunday
A week after they were tonked 5-1 at Anfield, Arsenal gain a measure of revenge by knocking Liverpool out of the FA Cup. While happy at his team’s performance, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers was upset that referee Howard Webb didn’t award his team a second penalty after Luis Suarez was fouled by Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. It was as they say, a decent shout as you will see here – although maybe Suarez’s slightly theatrical neck spring put some doubt in Webb’s mind …

Brendon McCullum  Unique cricketing talent (from Vimeo)

Brendon McCullum
Unique cricketing talent
(from Vimeo)

Monday
New Zealand cricket has had some many fine batsmen, but none in the Test match arena had ever scored a triple-hundred until now.

Brendon McCullum hits 302 against India in Wellington to become the first Kiwi batsman to join that select band, but in doing so the 32-year-old became a member of an even more exclusive club. Having scored a double-ton in the First Test, McCullum becomes just the third cricketer in Test history to follow a two hundred with the three hundred in consecutive matches.

The other two? Walter Hammond and Donald Bradman. Now, is that keeping exclusive company or what …

Tuesday
And the SPFL has a bit of a stooshie on their hands after it was revealed that Inverness Caley Thistle would only receive 8000 tickets for the League Cup Final against Aberdeen. Not just that, it looked as if they’d be stuck in a corner at Celtic Park while 30,000 Dons fans enjoyed the run of Parkhead. ICT’s fans demanded an increase in their allocation, 10,000 was the arrived-at number – considerably more than the 1458 who arrived at the Caledonian Stadium for their Scottish Cup replay against Stranraer.

Caley Thistle LogoBy my calculations, that’s 14.58% of what they were demanding for their big date in Glasgow. See me, see arithmetic!! Of course, it was all just a misunderstanding and with no sponsors to get in the way, and a 60,000 capacity at Parkhead, Caley Thistle fans will get as many tickets as they like – which should see a 40,000 ‘sell-out.’

Yes, one tier, in the Lisbon Lions stand at Celtic Park, will remain empty. Let’s hope there are not too many high balls then. Needless to say, this ‘non-fiasco’ played into the hands of those who would have you believe that the Ramsdens Cup final – featuring Rangers and Raith Rovers – has been earmarked for Easter Road to avoid any possible embarrassment that the lower league knock-out tournament would attract more of a crowd than the SPFL’s premier cup tournament.

Some people have too much time on their hands. Obviously, me amongst them …

Graeme Obree More available to uphold the students' cause (Pic; Wikipedia)

Graeme Obree
More available to uphold the students’ cause
(Pic; Wikipedia)

Wednesday
And intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden is elected to the post of student rector at Glasgow University, succeeding former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, and beating cyclist Graeme Obree, author Alan Bissett and Scottish Episcopal clergyman Kelvin Holdsworth in the poll. I listened to and read various explanations as to why the former US National Security Agency contractor gained the student’s support. Some said he was a hero, others pointed to his bravery.

For me, Obree ticks both of those boxes, and a few more; a sporting hero who made cycling’s rulers rewrite their rule book, who then admitted to being gay, showing bravery with that admission, and daily with the abuse he is subjected to. And he is available at short notice, unlike Snowden, who currently is demonstrating his bravery on a daily basis hiding in Russia …

Thursday
I’ve often thought the phrase of pictures saying a thousand words was commissioned by some TV exec to sell their football coverage – with this goal from Salzburg’s Jonathan Soriano being a classic example. The pictures say it all!

Friday
So it wasn’t to be for David Murdoch’s Team GB quartet out in Sochi. Still, at least there was a silver medal at the end of it. Oh, and the knowledge that in four years time, he won’t have to return as defending champion wondering if he should represent Britain or Scotland …

Children now have a right to a better life
(Photo: Sergey Ivanov/Creative Commons)

At last we are doing something for our children. Ashamed at leaving a quarter of them in poverty, a fifth of them unemployed, an economy in ruins and an environment increasingly polluted, this week the Scottish Parliament took one small step towards accepting their right to a better life.

Bill passed after a marathon session

Bill passed after a marathon session

MSPs passed the Children and Young People Bill after a marathon session on Wednesday. It confirms a few policy changes announced recently, such as the extension of hours for free nursery education and free school meals for all children in the first three years of primary school.

But, more radically and more controversially, it requires health authorities and education authorities to provide a “named person” or guardian for every child in Scotland up to the age of 18.

This health visitor, and in later years school teacher, will have a statutory duty to guard the rights of the child, make sure he or she doesn’t fall through the child protection net, and be someone who the child or the worried parent or relative can turn to for advice. Right wing politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders complain that this is the nanny state going too far. They still seem to believe that children are the goods and chattels of their parents, to be brought up as they see fit.

Children need to be seen as individuals (Pic: Steve Bowbrick Creative Commons)

Children need to be seen as individuals
(Pic: Steve Bowbrick Creative Commons)

I think that most of the modern world realises now that a child is an individual person and has his or her own rights. These rights should be protected by the community at large and include the right to a decent home, an education, free time and free thought, freedom from drug or alcohol addition or physical or emotional abuse. Obligations come later.

So, good for the Scottish Parliament for setting out this principle in law. All it has to do now is to find the funds for the 450 extra health visitors required and to make sure the system doesn’t get bogged down in bureaucracy.

There was some official rejoicing this week that unemployment appears to have fallen again, down 3,000 to 195,000. However the percentage figure has gone up from 6.4 per cent to 7.1. One wise man, interviewed in the street in Govan, put the case well: “They just move the figures around from one heading to another.”

A degree is no guarantee of a job (Pic: Creative Commons)

A degree is no guarantee of a job
(Pic: Creative Commons)

There are still an awful lot of people unemployed, or in part time work. One survey found that a quarter of all graduates are still looking for work a year after leaving university and nearly half of those who are in employment are in non-graduate jobs.

We have had a dramatic intervention in the independence debate. It came in just five words from a man who didn’t even turn up to say them. But that man happens to be David Bowie, speaking through the beautiful lips of Kate Moss at the British Music Awards in London. “Scotland, please stay with us,” he/she declared. Not usually noted for his Unionist political opinions, one wonders if he was put up to it and how many more celebrities will be deployed in the battle for hearts in the next few months.

Jose Manuel Barroso  Comments dismissed as part of 'project fear'

Jose Manuel Barroso
Comments dismissed as part of
‘project fear’

His profound few words dwarfed all the others this week. Sr. Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, told us it was “unlikely if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to win the approval of all 27 members of the EU if it wished to join. Danny Alexander, the chief secretary of the treasury, followed this up with a warning that the cost of a mortgage in an independent Scotland would go up by £5,000. But all of this was dismissed as part of “project fear” by Alex Salmond who said Scots would not take kindly to suggestions that they can’t be a successful independent country. “Yes we can,” he told a conference of business people in Aberdeen.

Barack Obama might enjoy the use of his phrase by a fellow politician but he might not be so pleased to learn that Glasgow University students have elected Edward Snowden as their new Rector. He’s the American security contractor currently hiding in Russia after telling the world about the USA’s electronic spying operations. By a large majority, the Glasgow students have send a defiant message to all in authority that they value their privacy and their freedom.

Eve Muirhead Bronze medal at Sochi (Pic: Wikipedia)

Eve Muirhead
Bronze medal at Sochi
(Pic: Wikipedia)

Glasgow citizens meanwhile have sent a defiant message to the authorities in the art world that they rather like Jack Vettriano’s paintings. They’ve gone to see them at the Kelvingrove Gallery in record numbers – 123,000 since September. Self-taught Vettriano is mocked by the art critics but his realistic, story-telling pictures are loved by the public and by the auctioneers.

And havn’t we done well in the Winter Olympics ? Scotland has played its parts in giving Great Britain its best medal total since 1924. England may have produced Liz Yarnold and Jenny Jones in the sledging and snowboarding events, but Scotland has triumphed in the game it invented, curling.

Blue-eyed girl Eve Muirhead and her team have won a bronze medal in the ladies curling and, in the men’s, David Murdoch’s team have reached the final, giving them at least a silver medal.

I happen to live only a stone’s slide from Thomson’s Tower built for the gentlemen of the Duddingston Curling Club who first wrote down the rules of the game in 1804. I wonder what they would have made of the ice maidens of Sochi.