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John Knox

The Great Outdoors should be an essential part of education

Outdoor education has been shown across time and geography to be an effective and safe means of learning. It’s relevant equally to participants from challenged backgrounds as for those who are more fortunate. The space beyond the classroom walls is suitable for the transfer of technical content and is the perfect medium for learning soft skills, such as leadership and resilience. As examples, we can turn look to the Scouts, the Outward Bound Trust or the concept of the traditional summer camp, which is a mainstay of youth activities in North America.

Outdoor Education  Debate in the Scottish Parliament

Outdoor Education
Debate in the Scottish Parliament

Over recent months, there’s been increasing discussion in Scotland about greater use of the outdoors in schools. A recent debate led by the Education and Culture Committee in Holyrood looked at the benefits to society in general as well as the potential to satisfy the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence. The country is blessed with a hugely varied landscape and, compared to most of the world, a generous attitude towards access for all and for free. In cash-strapped times, it seems criminal not to use the outdoors more.

The Scouts provide outdoor education (Picture: John Knox)

The Scouts provide outdoor education
(Picture: John Knox)

I believe passionately that everyone should have the opportunity to become the best they can in the domain of their choosing. Achieving self-knowledge is harder for some than for others, and that path can be forced, foiled or facilitated at school. Over the years, pedagogic methods have evolved with technology and fashion – everything from learning by rote (which I received ad nauseam as a student in early 1990s China) to remote, multi-media delivery by Webex. However, despite the internal combustion engine, globalisation and the internet, pupils in Britain are taught subjects indoors just as they have been doing since the Elementary Acts of the late nineteenth century within the same architectural configurations.

The effectiveness of the outdoors as a learning environment is because it is unstructured. Freedom from fixed seating creates liberty of expression; everybody can play director, while the teacher becomes a guide; the whole world becomes the object of study. In the outdoors you can discover physics from watching rivers, improve confidence by climbing mountains, develop communication through recounting stories around the campfire.

Future Shock CoverI don’t believe that everybody has to be academic to reach his or her potential. Using personal wealth as a benchmark, we can look at the education of the 50 richest billionaires on Slate: many flunked college or didn’t bother at all. In a balanced economy there’s a large percentage of jobs that don’t require traditional indoctrination: for the nation to get the best from its human resources, we should be encouraged to achieve possibilities that match our personal interests, drivers, values. We do not need the dystopian (but unfortunately reasonably accurate) vision of the Alvin Toffler Future Shock society. Our sustainability depends on using the positives of our heritage, creativity and human connectedness.

I’m a fan of incorporating as many learning methods as possible to bring knowledge and experiences to young people. There’s a long list of means to achieve this besides indoor school time, ranging from work placements and apprenticeship schemes to ball sports and adventurous trips. Variety is the key, but it’s not easy to get the balance. Application is more difficult than theory, while success is at least 99% perspiration. The Curriculum is challenging for schools to implement when the bricks and mortar reinforce old ways, teachers are trained to oversee single subjects and budget restrictions lead to difficult choices.

Wayne Bulpitt  UK Chief Commissioner The Scout Association

Wayne Bulpitt
UK Chief Commissioner
The Scout Association

Over the past two decades, health and safety culture has reduced the value of many organised outdoor activities. It has warped the definition of ‘risk’ into that of ‘danger’. I interpret risk as an entirely neutral term denoting outcome based on choice and the application of resources. As reported in the Telegraph recently, the Chief Commissioner of Scouting, Wayne Bulpitt, claimed the movement has benefitted in popularity because “schools have taken a more rigid approach to stopping activities”. Consider the risk of not letting young people get wet and be challenged in awkward ways… erm, perhaps a witless, scared society ten years from now?

However, I’m positive about the future of learning in Scotland. There are many initiatives, private and public, new and old, ready to integrate with schools. Examples include the Adventure Learning Partnerships from WideHorizons Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. In addition, the media seems to be adjusting its bias against outdoor adventures. So with a new year ahead, it’s my hope that the tide of funding for outdoor youth charities and state-run outdoor centres in Scotland will run full flow again.

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

www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline

Stramash – a game of skill rather than luck

When East Lothian-based games developer, Tony Mitchell, announced he was launching a new family board game with a quirky Scottish twist, most folk asked if there was going to be a digital version. However, market research told him there was still a steady market for ‘traditional’ board games, and people still loved the idea of sitting at a table and playing together.

Tony Mitchell Still a need for games the whole family can play

Tony Mitchell
Still a need for games the whole family can play

The ‘eureka’ moment came after Tony played a version of an ancient Parcheesi game developed by a friend’s uncle which had very few rules, but an infinite combination of strategic, indeed ‘sleekit’, moves. With a background in sports marketing, the game reminded him of many on field skirmishes, and Stramash, the Scottish Board Game, was born.

According to Tony, the game is simple, but requires a certain degree of sleekitness. “It’s a classic chase game but has been described as being like ‘Ludo on whisky’, he says. “It uses interlocking board pieces called Mashies and coloured marbles or Laddies. The key difference is that Stramash is played with playing cards instead of dice, so players must depend on their strategic skills and not simply luck to win the game. As the name suggests, it can become quite feisty. But it’s simply good old-fashioned fun.”

As most Scots will know, the word ‘stramash’ has its origins in Scotland and has come to mean a ‘disorderly gathering’ or ‘ruckus’. It was most famously used by sports broadcaster Arthur Montford when describing a goalmouth rumpus in the 1960s.

Stramash LogoTony has enhanced the Stramash myth by introducing a number of spoof back stories to the game, claiming that Queen Victoria was a big fan and that John Knox banned the game when he became first head of the Church of Scotland as it caused too much aggravation (see below).

“The back-stories are a nod to the myths of the Loch Ness Monster and ‘haggis hunters’,” says Tony. “These are stories that people have talked about for years and often taken with a big pinch of salt, but are testimony to the affection people have for Scotland and the inventiveness of its people.”

With its high production values, Stramash is now attracting a lot of attention and already has a distributor in the USA and Sweden.. The game Stramash can be played by 2 – 6 players and is suitable for ages eight upwards. It costs £39.95 (including UK post and packaging) and can be ordered either direct from the company or from the Amazon website

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Stramash: “History and Heritage”

At the end of 2008, a cache of documents came to light in strange and mysterious circumstances in Edinburgh. This strange collection of documents purported to be from a wide variety of sources, the earliest from around 1707. Some looked genuinely old and some more modern. Some were scraps, torn from letters and manuscripts. Some were printed material of greater length. The only things they had in common was their subject matter, a board game called Stramash and they all seemed to have been written in Scotland.
There have been many theories throughout the centuries about Stramash. Here are just a few – believe them if you will:

Rob Roy MacGregor rejected the normal glass marbles when playing Stramash, and instead used discoloured musket balls which he said were “The Dukes’ Balls”, gouged from the wounds he received at the hands of the Dukes of Atholl and Montrose while on the run on Rannoch Moor.

In the 1800s, Scottish regiments were not allowed, according to King’s Regulations, to carry “items of entertainment” in their packs. However, many soldiers kept their dirk down one sock and their Stramash ’Mashie’ (board piece) down the other. Many officers turned a blind eye to this for the sake of morale.

In 1759, Benjamin Franklin visited Edinburgh, drawn by the hotbed of genius at that time. He was introduced to the delights of Stramash by David Hume who brought him to a game at Allan Ramsay’s house.

An anonymous research graduate was working in the National Library and found some references to Stramash in Sir Walter Scott’s draft notes for “Waverley”. According to these documentary notes the source he was using was the weekly Edinburgh paper “The Brig’ o’ Dean Blether*”. (* “The Brig O’ Dean Blether” was literally a weekly newspaper as it would appear to have only been published for one week in May 1807).

I was brought up in the Church of Scotland. (My parents were, rather obviously, fans of its founder.) But like most Presbyterians I suffer from a mixture of pride and despair when I read and watch reports of its General Assembly which has been taking place in Edinburgh this week.

General Assembly LogoThe Assembly of 850 ministers and elders made headlines with their series of cartwheels on the issue of the appointment of gay ministers. When they came upright again – if I can use that term – they voted by 340 to 282 to stick to their original doctrine of no sex outside marriage but they would allow individual congregations to elect gay ministers if they wanted to.

As you can perhaps imagine, there was a lot of dancing on theological pinheads before they arrived at this happy compromise, which hopefully will head off another Disruption. So far, only two congregations have left over the issue.

Quite why the church spends so many theological hours in the bedroom is beyond me. I would have thought there are more important issues to address in the living room or the kitchen, or the garden or the wider world.

To be fair, this week’s Assembly has had debates on poverty, the state of the Kirk’s caring services (which employ no fewer than 1300 people) its overseas development programme (this year featuring Bolivia) and its peace efforts in Israel and the Middle East. But these worthy issues always seem to be been overshadowed by such personal issues as gay clergy. Gay marriage is another bedroom issue on which the church is clashing with the rest of society, or at least with the Scottish and Westminster governments.

It’s not much wonder that only 40 per cent of the Scottish population tell the Census they are members of the Church of Scotland, only 16 per cent say they are Roman Catholics and a third say they have no religion at all.

John Knox

John Knox

The original John Knox would turn in his grave, under that car park by St Giles, if he knew how we had betrayed his Reformation of 1560. After all, his main point was that personal beliefs were a matter between the individual and his God – whoever or whatever He is. The Reformation set everyone free to make his own way to heaven. And that, in my view at least, means the Church has to accept a spectrum of belief – from fundamentalists who take the Bible as literally true, to liberals who regard it as a collection of symbolic stories which help us think about the spiritual issues of life. But right now, as I see it, the fundamentalists are winning and the Kirk has ceased to be a broad church.

So, having got that sermon off my chest, what else has been happening this week? The terrorist attack in London, in which a soldier was decapitated by suspected Islamic extremists, was condemned in the Scottish Parliament, as it was at Westminster. And party leaders here have been anxious to calm nerves and express the hope that it will not lead to religious or racial tensions.

Alex Salmond MSP

Alex Salmond MSP

But soon, normal service was resumed with the politicians trading figures over Scottish independence. On Tuesday, the first minister Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon went to the Alexander-Dennis bus manufacturer in Falkirk to launch a booklet outlining the economic case for independence. Scotland they said was a country rich in natural resources but held back by governments in London. Scots had paid more in tax per head than the rest of the UK for every one of the last 30 years (including oil revenue), so an independent government would have more to spend on public services. And it could encourage growth in the private sector by cutting corporation tax to 3 per cent below the UK rate (ie to 17 per cent).

Meanwhile the UK Treasury brought out a report saying an independent Scotland would not be able to guarantee bank deposits and it would struggle to protect pension funds. Others raised the spectre of an influx of students from England after independence because they would not have to pay university tuition fees.

Isle of Lewis

Isle of Lewis

The SNP fought back by announcing government permission for the world’s largest wave power project, off the north coast of the Isle of Lewis. Aquamarine have plans for a 40MW “wave power farm” capable of powering 30,000 homes, more than double the number of households in the Western Isles. The company is currently testing its machines in the Pentland Firth. All it needs now is the miracle — a cable connection to the grid.

And speaking of miracles, there were two last weekend here in Edinburgh. One was the feeding of the 5000 who turned up to the Kirk’s “Heart and Soul” outdoor event in Princes Street Gardens, complete with picnics, music, games and doves of peace. The other was the feeding of the 4000 cyclists who pedalled to the Scottish Parliament to demand that 5 per cent of the transport budget be devoted to cycling. They were led by Graeme Obree. Where was our other cycling hero, Sir Chris Hoy? Well, he was pictured later in the week arriving at the General Assembly as one of its special guests. So perhaps the Kirk is about to get on its bike and go through another life cycle.

By the time you read this letter, I may be dead. Indeed you may be dead. We may all be dead. Christmas may never come. Because today, Friday 21st December 2012, is supposed to be the day the world ends, according to the Mayan calendar. The news bulletins have been full of it, as if we were wishing it may actually happen.

My sister-in-law is an anthropologist specialising in the language and culture of the Maya people in South America. For the past few months she has been explaining the curiosities of the 5,125 year-long cycle of the Mayan calendar to a somewhat alarmed public.

But in case you think eschatology is a thing of the distant past or of distant places, remember that we came very close to it in the year 2000 when our computers were supposed to malfunction and bring airplanes and power supplies crashing to a halt. Here in Edinburgh we still have a Victorian church building, beautifully decorated by the artist Phoebe Anna Traquair, which should never have survived the year 1900, according to its millennialist founders.

Of course, the world may end at any moment from a meteor strike, or a large volcano or a nuclear explosion. And it will certainly end one day, when our sun runs out of energy – it’s already into its middle age. But we may go on for some time.

So if this is the last week of our civilisation, then what has it been like? The war in Syria has continued. We are all still in shock at the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Here at home, the weather has been dark, wet and apocalyptic. East coast towns are recovering from last weekend’s storm. Harbour walls from North Berwick to Lossiemouth were breached. People were evacuated from their homes in Peterhead and Stonehaven. A sailor was lost at sea from an oil rig vessel in what was described as “a perfect storm.”

But we have survived. In fact we have thrived. We learned this week that Scotland’s population is at a record high 5,295,000. There are more people coming to live here, the birth rate has risen and more of us are living longer. But, worryingly, there are now more people over 65 than there are under the age of 15, for the first time ever.

We learned also that poverty is spreading. The areas of deprivation are no longer confined to Glasgow. Ferguslie Park in Paisley is now officially the most deprived neighbourhood in Scotland and parts of North Lanarkshire are now in the top 15. There is also an increasing divide in the school system between poor and rich areas. The latest exam results show that Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh and Jordanhill in Glasgow are the top performing state schools in Scotland. But Boroughmuir and is just a few miles from Wester Hailes to the west and Castlebrae to the east where not a single student gained a Higher pass. And Jordanhill is just up the road from Govan where only 5 per cent of students gained three Highers or more.

The Labour Party leader Johann Lamont said this week that our education spending needs to be targeted more wisely. In a speech marking her first year as leader, she said free university tuition was not sustainable and she called for the re-introduction of graduate contributions. Meanwhile, the education secretary Mike Russell has allocated an extra £10m to universities to help them provide more places for students from deprived backgrounds.

On Wednesday, we welcomed home a contingent of 60 soldiers from Afghanistan. The Royal Scots Borders have been brought home for Christmas, three months ahead of schedule. They are part of the quickening run-down of British forces from Afghanistan announced by the Prime Minister that same day.

David Cameron also announced that, after 70 years, the men who served on the arctic convoys in the Second World War are to be honoured with a special medal acknowledging their bravery and commitment. The convoys set sail from Loch Awe on the west coast of Scotland in bitterly cold conditions on what Churchill called the “worse journey in the world” to provide our Russian allies with supplies to the northern ports of Archangel and Murmansk. The families of the men – only 200 of the 66,500 who sailed are still living – have been refused a medal for 70 years because Russia became an enemy in the Cold War and the rules of the honours system became, shall we say, a little entangled.

Another Christmas present was the settlement of the rail disputes which had threatened chaos for passengers on Christmas Eve. The RMT union called off a series of strikes after talks with Scotrail and with Virgin Cross Country. The Cross Country dispute was over pay and conditions. The Scotrail dispute was over the sacking of a ticket collector. Neither side gave details of the agreements reached and it all looked like negotiation by brinkmanship in the run up to Christmas.

And so we enter the period of peace and goodwill. Look out for the star in the east, Jupiter. And let’s hope the dark clouds and the bright Christmas lights allow us to see it. If, that is, we are still here.

It’s been a year of reckoning

We’ve all been counting up the cost of the bankers’ recession, which shows every sign of going on and on. The bankers and the tax avoidance companies are finally being made to pay for their misdeeds. So too are the press. European leaders have been counting up the cost of the crisis in the euro-zone.

The dreadful death-count has continued to rise in the wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Gaza. Climate change has begun to exact its price, with mighty storms and floodings and the wettest summer for 100 years. Scotland is in the countdown to the referendum. The Queen is also in the counting house, reckoning up her 60 years on the throne. And the British Olympians have counted up their 65 medals.

As I look back over my diary, I feel bruised by this tough old year of 2012. It began with the storms of January, the worst for 13 years. The wind blew at over 100 mph on my local Blackford Hill in the centre of Edinburgh. It ended with an icy snap in December, which brought me skidding off my bike, and then another storm which blew in over the harbour walls along the whole east coast. But it is the events in the wider world that have shaken me more.

Where have all the jobs gone ?

Economic growth was virtually non-existent in Britain in 2012. The unemployment rate hovered around 8 per cent all year, with youth unemployment at over 20 per cent. And this while the number of part-timers has risen to a quarter of the workforce and hundreds of thousands have given up looking for work altogether. Average wage rises are well below inflation, 1.4 per cent compared to inflation at around 3 per cent. So consumer spending, especially in Scotland, is down, leading to even less growth in the economy.

The Chancellor’s budget in March did little to change this. In fact, it became known as the “omni-shambles” with u-turns becoming necessary on the pasty tax, the charities tax, and the caravan tax. But there was no turning on the 5 per cent cut in income tax for the highest earners. By the time he came to his autumn statement in December, George Osborne had to admit that national debt was rising, not falling, and that his austerity programme of public sector cuts would have to continue until 2018.

To be seen to be doing something to get the economy growing again, he announced an extra £5 billion of capital spending over the next two years. £330m of that is coming to the Scottish government for new schools, road improvements and house-building.

In the euro-zone, things are even worse. Growth in 2012 is expected to be minus 0.4 per cent. Unemployment is over 11 per cent. In Greece and Spain it’s over 25 per cent. They’ve had to be bailed out, along with Portugal and Ireland, by the European Central bank. The row over whether the European Union budget should be one for growth or austerity has led to increasing calls in Britain for a referendum on our continued membership of the EU.

Bashing the bankers

The banking year began with Fred “the shred” Goodwin having his knighthood taken away by the Queen for his disservices to banking. Stephen Hester, the new man at the Royal Bank of Scotland, was forced by public opinion to forgo his bonus (don’t worry, he still gets a basic salary of £1.2m.) Peter Cummings at HBOS was fined £500,000 for helping to bring the bank to the edge of collapse. Bob Diamond, the quiet American, was forced to quit as chief executive of Barclays Bank when it was caught fiddling the Libor interest rate. And that’s not all the banks have been up to. Alliance and Leicester was fined £7m for mis-selling payment protection insurance. Standard Chartered and Lloyds were fined for sanctions-busting. HSBC was fined for money laundering.

No wonder, the government is tightening up the regulations and bringing in a Canadian Mountie Mark Carney to police the Bank of England and wake it from its slumbers.

Blaming the press

Lord Leveson spent much of the year listening to tales of misbehaviour by the press. Milly Dowler’s parents had indeed a dreadful tale to tell. A parade of celebrities said they too had suffered press intrusion. The inquiry found that reporting by elements of the press had been “reckless and outrageous” and it recommended a strengthened press complaints council, backed up by new legislation. It seems to me, as a humble journalist myself, that Lord Leveson overlooked the fact that the main culprit, the News of the World, has been shut down and two of its editors are facing criminal charges. Phone-hacking is already illegal, so is bribing the police. And he appeared to forget that it was a newspaper, The Guardian, which broke the story that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked in the first place.

And it wasn’t a good year for the broadcasters either. The BBC got caught up in the Jimmy Savile scandal. And both the BBC and ITV had to apologise and pay damages for wrongly suggesting that “a senior Conservative of the Thatcher era” was guilty of child abuse.

A year is a long time in politics

The SNP chose Burns Day, of course, to published their white paper on an independence referendum. It suggested the vote should take place sometime in the autumn of 2014 and that the Scottish Parliament should determine the question, or questions, and that 16 and 17 year-olds should be allow to vote. After several months of wrangling, a deal was signed on 15th October in Edinburgh in which David Cameron promised to introduce legislation at Westminster giving the referendum protection against legal challenges, in exchange for Alex Salmond agreeing to have just one question – independence yes or no ?

The “devo-plus” campaign, launched in February, was disappointed that the option trending best in the opinion polls – more devolution – was not being put on the ballot paper. The Yes campaign was duly launched in May and the first march and rally was held in Edinburgh in September. The No campaign, preferring to be called the Better Together campaign, was launched by the three main opposition parties in June.

All things political in Scotland are now seen through the prism of potential independence. In the local council elections in May, for instance, the SNP emerged as the largest party, winning 424 seats to Labour’s 394. It is now involved in running 13 of Scotland’s 32 districts.

At Westminster more cracks in the coalition have emerged. The Liberal Democrats are unhappy with the Conservatives over Europe, the welfare reforms and the NHS. Nick Clegg even insisted on making a separate speech from the Prime Minister on the Leveson inquiry. But the Liberal Democrats have gone along with the Chancellor’s austerity programme and his tax cuts for the rich, in exchange for lifting low-earners out of income tax altogether.

Abroad, France turned decisively left, electing a Socialist president. In Russia, Vladimir Putin won a third presidential term, claiming 64 per cent of the vote. The United States saw its most expensive and divisive election campaign ever. In contrast, Xi Jinping walked stiffly onto the stage at the Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing and was declared supreme leader of over a billion people.

In Japan, the chaos caused by the tsunami has scared the voters back to the old regime. And in the emerging democracies in the Middle East there’s a cauldron of tribal, Islamic and secular parties and no one knows which will finally bubble to the top.

War and peace

The civil war in Syria has now claimed the lives of 40,000 people. The West has been forced to stand by and watch as the Assad regime clings to power and pounds rebel areas with heavy artillery and aircraft fire. The UN has been unable to act because Russia and China have vetoed any direct intervention, for reasons which are still unclear.

But Syria is only one of a dozen major conflicts which have been raging this year, each one causing more than a thousand deaths – in Burma, Afghanistan, NW Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Mali and the drug war in Mexico.

In Afghanistan, more than 3,000 people have been killed this year, 44 of them British soldiers including Captain Walter Barrie (right). It brings the total number of British troops killed in the 12 year-long-war against the Taliban to 438. This year there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of insider attacks by Afghan army and police recruits on Western soldiers sent there to train them. These so-called “green on blue” attacks now constitute 15 per cent of all foreign troop deaths. The latest Scottish soldier to die in this way was Captain Walter Barrie from Glasgow. He was shot dead after a friendly football match with Afghan troops on Remembrance Sunday.

On the peace side of the equation there is not much to report. But Israel did conclude a peace agreement of sorts with Hamas in the Gaza strip. There are talks going on between the government of Sudan and some elements of the rebel fighters in Darfur. And the Colombian government has begun talks with the Farc rebels to bring an end to a conflict that has cost 600,000 lives since it began in the 1960s.

It was the Norwegians who brought the two sides together. And it was again the Norwegians who decided that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize should go to the European Union for keeping the peace in Europe since the Second World War (except, of course, for the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia).

Shocking and inexplicable events

What possessed the captain of the Costa Concordia to take his cruise ship so close to the Italian coast on the night of 13th January ? Although 4,000 passengers and crew were rescued, 32 died. What caused the driver of a Belgian school coach to crash inside a tunnel in the Alps on the way to an Easter ski-ing holiday ? Twenty two children and six adults were killed. What secrets did the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbassset al Megrahi take to his grave when he died at the end of May ? Why were two policewomen shot dead when all they did was attend a routine call at a house in Manchester ? Why was the al-Hilli family gunned down on a remote road in the French Alps ? And how was the school shooting in Newtown Connecticut allowed to happen ?

Another bad year for the environment

Ice caps melted. Sea levels rose. Storms intensified. Records on rainfall and temperatures were broken. CO2 emissions grew. Fewer birds flew. And still the politicians did nothing much about it.

According to a study in the journal Science, ice melting in the Arctic and Antarctic has caused an 11mm rise in sea levels across the globe in the last 20 years. Arctic sea ice is less than half what it was 40 years ago. And although there has been a pause in global temperature rises, CO2 emission are still rising by 3 per cent a year, according to researchers in the Netherlands where sea level rises matter rather a lot.

Britain had its wettest summer for a hundred years. The United States had its warmest year since records began in 1895. Globally, it was the 9th warmest year on record. Hurricane Sandy struck the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard of America in November and caused over a hundred deaths. It was closely followed by typhoon Bopha in the Philippines which killed over 900 people.

Here in Scotland, over a hundred homes were flooded in the village of Comrie in Perthshire. There was flooding too in the Borders and in Dumfries. In Aberdeen, strange brown/white foam whipped up by the worst September storm for 30 years blanketed the seafront. Then in December, the east coast was swamped again by high tides and stormy seas. The changing climate has brought sea bird numbers tumbling. According to Scottish Natural Heritage, the number of breeding birds has dropped by half in the last 25 years. This year saw continued declines in the number of kittiwakes, fulmars and arctic terns.

The Scottish government missed its interim target for cutting CO2 emissions. It abandoned its new energy efficiency standards for new homes. And yet the environment minister Paul Wheelhouse set out for the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha saying Scotland would be catching up and meeting its world-beating emissions reduction target of 42 per cent by 2020. He doesn’t have much competition, since the 197 countries represented at Doha could only agree on postponing the targets fixed in Kyoto from 2015 to 2020.

The achievements of 2012

The Queen has had a remarkably successful Jubilee year, touring the countries of her United Kingdom, attending everything from pop concerts to cathedral services. And who can forget her standing for four hours in the rain while a flotilla of boats paraded up the Thames ? And it looks like her succession is assured with the Royal Wedding at the end of April and now a great-grandchild on the way.

The London Olympics were another remarkable triumph. As team GB accumulated the medals, it dawned on us Scots that we are quite a sporting nation afterall. We won seven gold medals. Sir Chris Hoy won two of them in cycling. Andy Murray won a gold in London and went on to win the US tennis open championship in New York. The rowers Katherine Grainger and Heather Stanning both won gold. And also on the water Tim Baillie took a gold medal in the canoeing. Finally Scott Brush from the Borders helped Britain win the team event in the horse jumping.

In other sports, Scotland has not done so well. In rugby, we have had a disastrous year, falling to 12th place in the world rankings. Eve Muirhead’s ladies curling team just failed to hold on to their gold medal at the top of the European league, losing out to Russia in the final extra “end”. And in football, we came bottom of our group in the World Cup qualifying rounds.

Celtic, though, have done us proud by winning a place in the final round of the European champions league – beating the mighty Barcelona on the way. It didn’t matter they were held to a draw by St Johnstone the following week.

Rangers meanwhile have had an “annus horribilis” being forced into administration in February over a huge tax bill. Ironically, when it came to court, the tax authorities lost the case but everyone realised the taxman had won a moral victory and that Rangers had been indulging in a tax avoidance scheme which, while it may have been legal, was unfair. The club was demoted to the third division. But it has been reborn under a new owner Charles Green. It has attracted £20m of new investment and is winning its games, hoping to be back in the premier league before too long.

But looking beyond our small world, one of man’s great achievements this year has been to land another spacecraft on Mars. The car-sized “Curiosity” landed in the Gale Crater at 6.14 BST on 6th August, after a 350m mile journey lasting eight months. One of the first areas it explored was Glenelg, now twinned with the Highland village of the same name.

Also leaving the Earth this year were two other space explorers, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, and Sir Patrick Moore, the eccentric Englishman who presented “The Sky at Night” for over 50 years. He would have enjoyed one of the last achievements of 2012, the discovery, by astronomers at Edinburgh University, of a new galaxy out on the very edge of the universe. The exciting thing about Galaxy UDFj- 39546284 is that it was formed very soon after the big bang 13 billion years ago and it apparently shows us that our universe rolled out from the central bang in a fairly orderly fashion and not in one instant outburst, but rather like one of those spectacular mortar-style fireworks on Hogmanay.

And so we enter a new year, reckoning that we have learnt the lessons of the old one.

The latest report on the decline of our seabirds, highlights yet again our reluctance to do anything that interferes with the commercial exploitation of the sea or do anything much about climate change.

The report, from the RSPB, finds that Britain’s seabird population is falling by half a per cent a year, which may not sound much but over 25 years that builds up to a substantial fall. In the case of kittiwakes, they are down by 55 per cent since 1986, shags 42 per cent, the Arctic skua 72 per cent and the Roseate tern 75 per cent. The reasons are, of course, the shortage of fish and other sea food, habitat loss and climate change.

This week (the first week of December ) the world’s environment ministers meet again at the latest UN Climate Change conference in Doha. The Scottish environment minister Paul Wheelhouse will be there boasting about our world-beating greenhouse gas reduction target of 42 per cent by 2020. But we have already missed one of the milestone targets earlier this year. And as regards the seas around Scotland, we are pressing ahead regardless with oil and gas production, off-shore wind farms and even hoping to operate our own (more relaxed) fishing controls.

There is also a mysterious two-year delay in drawing up a National Marine Plan. And the slow progress in defining Marine Protected Areas means that energy and fishing companies can get on with their business before any new environmental restrictions are put in place.

In the long run, we seem to adopting one of John Maynard Keynes’ more unfortunate sayings: “In the long run, we are all dead.” But as Donald Trump is finding out, even in the short run, there are disadvantages to trampling on the environment. He didn’t much care about the environment when he “fixed” the sand dunes on the site of special scientific interest at the Menie Estate but now he complains that someone else wants to spoil the environment with an off-shore wind farm.

Fishermen have been hit by a similar boomerang. They want to spend more days at sea catching fish – ignoring the scientific advice from the European Commission that 70 per cent of the fish stock are being over-fished and species like the cod have very nearly been fished out altogether. Then they wonder why their industry is down from around 2,500 boats a decade ago to just 2,000 today.

They blame the Norwegians or the Faroese for stealing “their” fish and expect the hated European Commission to do something about it. They complain about the Spanish armada coming to hover up Scottish fish but the so-called slipper skippers (men who’ve retired but who still have quota permits) have often sold their permits to Spanish companies.

At next month’s fishing negotiations in Brussels Scottish fishermen hope to be given more local control over fish stocks, saying they would manage them wisely for the long term. Yet just a few years ago no fewer than 14 Scottish skippers were found guilty of breaching the quota limits in a £37m operation that went on for three years, a fraud on an industrial scale. No wonder we need three fishery protection vessels, two aircraft and a satellite tracking system to police our fishing grounds (and all paid for by the tax-payer, not the fishing industry).

The oil and gas industry is also pretty careless when it comes to looking after the North Sea. In the first three months of this year, 69 oil and chemical spills were notified to the authorities, a figure which has doubled since 2005. BP was by far the worse offender, but the French company Total also gave us the largest leak, an escape of gas from its Elgin rig off Aberdeen which lasted a month.

Scotland’s 250 marine fish farms are also potential polluters of the sea, particularly as more and more chemicals are being used to treat sea lice. The use of chemicals has increased 110 per cent in the last four years. The Salmon and Trout Association says samples of the sea around 13 per cent of fish farms have been found to have chemical residues more than the permitted limit.

The anglers are also worried about the rise of escapes from fish cages, causing contamination of wild salmon. There have only been three incidents of escapes this year – involving 11,000 salmon – but in the severe storms of January 2005 up to a million farmed salmon and trout escaped from damaged cages.

There is a bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament to tighten the regulations on fish farming. There are also moves being made under the new Marine Acts to bring in planning regulations and marine protected areas but progress is slow, suspiciously slow. Conservation organisations, under the umbrella campaign Environment Link, are outraged that the Scottish Marine Plan has been postponed from this year to 2014 – giving time, they say, for the fishing, oil and gas, and wind farm industries to go ahead with business as usual before any new conservation measures or planning controls can be brought into effect.

Preliminary survey work has been carried out on the planned network of marine protected areas (MPAs) but none so far has been introduced. Further details are to be published next month and there are some hints as to what areas are being considered. Survey work has established severe damage to the sea bed around Loch Broom, the Summer Isles, Gairloch, Loch Fyne, Loch Sween and Loch Linnhe.

Arran, of course, already has its experimental no-take fishing zone in Lamlash Bay. Islanders in the Fair Isle have put forward a plan for a demonstration MPA extending out to 15km around their coast. Parts of the North Sea, such as the Fladen Grounds, have been found to have large populations of ocean quahog, a type of clam which can live for up to 400 years. And the cold water reefs around Hatton Bank and Rochall off the West Coast have been designated European special areas of conservation. So the map of protected areas is beginning to emerge, areas in which fishing or fish farming or heavy engineering may be banned or restricted.

Of course, the fishing and oil industries say they are willing to co-operate with MPAs but I guess there will be a lot of underwater fighting – or at least behind the scenes negotiations – before a definitive map is published, ready for approval by parliament. There is already a public squabble over the criteria used to designate an MPA.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, for instance, insist that Scotland’s 20 species of whales and dolphins should be fully protected but opponents argue that whales move around rather a lot. The same could be said of cod or salmon or herring. And what about the 200 species of birds that regularly live in Scotland. Are all their habitats and food sources to be protected ?

Probably not. And the signs are that in the political balance to be struck between the different marine interests around Scotland, the commercial interests will come first and the birds and the fish and the corals and the 400 year old clams will have to take care of themselves.

Calton Hill, best not mentioned <em>Picture: Andrewyuill</em>

Calton Hill, best not mentioned Picture: Andrewyuill

By Diane Maclean

As Edinburgh once more puts on its glad rags and prepares for the deluge, it would be inhospitable of us here at The Caledonian Mercury not to pre-warn visitors of a few hidden dangers lurking between the cobbles and the disintegrating tram-tracks. (That’s two dangers for starters and they don’t even make the list.)

As you pack your suncream and thermals, Alka-Seltzers and The Dictionary of Pretentious Quotes, factor these potential pitfalls into your preparation. As we say here: fail to prepare and prepare to… fall victim to the dreaded Edinburgh Festival madness. You have been warned.

Altitude sickness
The Athens of the North it may be, but if you’re seeking a European capital comparison you’d be better thinking of Rome. No, not because we’re suave, drive around on egg-blue scooters and have a pathological dread of efficiency – but because, like Rome, Edinburgh is built on seven hills.

Being of a Presbyterian nature, we don’t go in for namby-pamby names like Aventine and Palatine. Here it’s simply “the big hill that goes down to the Cowgate”, “the killer hill that goes down Broughton Street”, another few bigger and smaller hills – and Arthur’s Seat, the remains of a spewed-up piece of supervolcano where you get great views and can do fantastic roly-polies.

There’s also Calton Hill, but the less said about that the better.

Sex
You may think that here in the cold, dark north there’s a somewhat prurient attitude to sex – and in many ways you’d be right. John Knox’s “monstrous regimen of women” may well still believe that “sex is something you use to carry the coal in”. But not for nothing are Morningside’s elite referred to as dressed in “fur coats, nae knickers”.

The steely gaze of Protestant forefathers would discourage even the most ardent admirer, yet wander off Lothian Road and you find yourself in the midst of the “pubic triangle”, where sex shops and strip bars abound. So many contradictions, so much potential for a slap in the face. If in doubt, don’t risk it. Other than that, there’s not a Scottish lass or lad around who wouldn’t fall for this classic chat-up line: “If you were a burger at McDonalds I’d call you McBeautiful”. (The Caly Merc advises readers to use this gambit at their own risk.)

Time
The locals would suggest that during the Festival, time is illusory, with normal 15-minute journeys taking up to a fortnight. Time can be confusing for visitors, too. You could try turning to the locals to help, but they’ll just growl at you.

Daybreak is in the middle of the night and night-time doesn’t begin until after midnight. Your body clock is probably kaput, what with all the battered food, strong drink and getting repeatedly lost in the pubic triangle. Luckily, there is always the One O’clock Gun to keep you right – if, that is, the fright doesn’t kill you. Oh, and remember the clock at the Balmoral Hotel is kept deliberately fast in order to encourage tardy train-travellers to get a move on.

Wildlife
There’s the usual variety of animal life in Scotland’s capital. Beware the urban foxes (Stockbridge ladies of a certain vintage). Scarier, though, are the biggest and most brutal seagulls imaginable. Not only are these winged behemoths everywhere, but – even when not visible – their maniacal dawn cackling is enough to waken even the most comatose drunk. Brollies, when not needed for the rain, are to be encouraged to ward off both aerial attacks and seagull bombs.

If that wasn’t enough to worry about, there’s always the potential of jailbreaks from Edinburgh Zoo. Although it’s probable that the story of escaped wolves is a myth, the zoo has had problems in the past with its animals. As recently as July, a baboon made a partially successful bid for freedom.

Edinburgh is a city where if you think you’re seeing pink elephants, you might just be seeing pink elephants.

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The Cairn Gorm funicular. <em>Picture: keepwaddling1</em>

The Cairn Gorm funicular. Picture: keepwaddling1

By John Knox

I’ve just returned to lower-earth after a camping trip on the high Cairngorm plateau. What a wonderful upper-earth experience that is … in good weather. Mountain ranges stretch into the distance, beneath an ever-changing sky. Corries and cliffs, sharp peaks and gentle brown moorland trace the near sky-line. Beneath your feet, like paving stones, the rocks are smooth and white/grey. The air is so fresh, filled with oxygen and the scent of heather. Snow buntings sing. But who has a right to roam in this other world? All of us, or just the careful few?

On a good summer’s day, a thousand visitors will come up here on the funicular railway. Only a handful will climb the mountain all the way from the car park to the upper station at 1,097m. Those who take the railway are not allowed out of the enclosure around the top station and restaurant, for fear they will damage the rare arctic and alpine flora or that they will get lost on their way to the summit, a kilometre away and up another 148m.

This rule has been hotly debated ever since the railway opened in 2001. I debated this with myself and my companions as we walked across the plateau to Ben Macdui and then pitched our tents down by the lochans above Loch Etchachan. What a privilege to be here, I thought. And what a thrill. Should anyone, however unfit or lazy, be denied this breath-taking experience ? It’s one of the precious things life has to offer.

On the other hand, this can be a dangerous place in bad weather, a place where winds can reach 176mph, temperatures can drop into the minus 20s and snow can lie waist deep. Conditions can change from summer to winter in half an hour. It’s not a place for scantily clad tourists.

It’s also a SSSI, a site of special scientific interest, where the landscape, and its flora and fauna, are protected by law, European directives and international treaties. The tramping feet of tourists, however they are dressed, could easily damage this fragile arctic environment.

I’m reminded of the short story by HG Wells in which a man travels back in time a couple of billion years and is warned not to step off the protective walkway extending from his time machine. But he does so anyway and stands inadvertently on a rare plant. When he returns to the present day, there is nothing there! We don’t want to stamp out the tiny signs of life on the Cairngorm plateau.

So there is tension here between what is good for man’s spirit of adventure and well-being and what is good for his environment. I tend towards the spirit. And I don’t see what harm a few thousand rubber-soled boots would cause on the rocky surface of the plateau. So I would allow people who ride up on the railway to walk on to the summit unhindered. Of course, they should be advised about the weather and urged to stick to the path but otherwise they should have the same freedoms at a thousand metres as they do down at the car park.

Happily, the two sides in the argument have reached a compromise which seems to be working well. You can now buy a “Walk at the Top” ticket for £14, which includes the rail fare (£9.95) plus a guided walk to the summit. And probably such compromises are the way to handle the dilemma we increasingly find ourselves in, in a nation which is gradually rediscovering its countryside. And in a nation which urgently needs to improve its exercise rate – only a third of us take regular outdoor exercise, which is why the other two thirds are overweight.

Unfortunately we are not looking after our protected areas any better than our health. A report out last week from Scottish Natural Heritage found that only 77 per cent of the 1,881 sites (SSSIs, SACs and SPAs ) were in a favourable condition, no increase on the year before and way short of the government’s target of 95 per cent.

Some of this is not only our own fault. Climate change, for example, has meant a decline in many sea-bird sites. But we are still guilty of draining our peat lands, or allowing over-grazing by deer or permitting invasive species to spread. And, of course, we daren’t mention golf courses on the sand dunes. It’s strange that we are so precious about the rocky surface of the Cairngorm plateau and so careless about other areas of natural beauty and wonder.

One way of protecting wildlife sites is to manage the thousands of visitors who come to see them…. building paths, interpretation centres, providing car-parks, restaurants, toilets, and at times railways. These honey-pot developments allow mass tourism in some places and at the same time divert people away from wilder places where only a handful of walkers and climbers will have the time and energy to venture.

When Queen Victoria climbed Ben Macdui, on 7th October 1859, she noted in her diary that “it had a sublime and solemn effect” on her. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all benefit from such an experience ?

Edinburgh tram excavations, 2009 <em>Picture: Anthony O'Neil</em>

Edinburgh tram excavations, 2009 Picture: Anthony O'Neil


Two days ago, John Knox wrote a piece arguing that the troubled Edinburgh trams project ought to continue, and making reference to John Carson, who will be standing for election to the Edinburgh council later this summer. Mr Carson now offers his response.

While Mr Knox is of course entitled to his views on the Edinburgh trams, some of his assumptions and assertions about my campaign for a seat on City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) require to be corrected.

Mr Knox mentions my previous employment at Network Rail. I was initially their director of regulation and business planning and latterly director of maintenance, a record of which I am proud and which has given me a unique insight into the practicalities and complexities of major projects.

He is right that I have no objection to trams in principle. My objection has been the incompetent way in which the Edinburgh project has been conducted, which prompted me to observe three years ago that the £545 million project would end up costing over £1 billion and be years over deadline.

I don’t claim this as a great feat of prophecy. Any councillor who had read the briefing note produced by Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (tie) on the signing of the infrastructure contract could have reached the same conclusion. The note clearly stated that there was a “variation clause” in the contract to cover changes in design, sequence and ground conditions. But the document also said that 100 per cent of the risk had been sold to the contractor and that 95 per cent of the price was fixed.

In these glaringly contradictory terms lie the seeds of the current disaster. The fact that Transport Scotland approved a project built on this contractual absurdity says much about their competence as financial managers of the grant to the project.

Mr Knox is right to suspect that SNP does not want to stop the trams, for all that party’s strenuous positioning on the issue. The nationalists have had many opportunities to pull the plug, since voting to approve the botched contracts that have put CEC on the road to ruin. The SNP deputy leader in Edinburgh, councillor Steve Cardownie, appears to have been too addicted to the benefits of office to have done more than bluster.

As to the sums involved, even the enormous figures that Mr Knox throws around in such cavalier fashion are conjectural. It is impossible to get a straight answer from CEC. Truth has been in scarce supply over the years of tie’s mismanagement. The sums Mr Knox mentions are grossly ill-defined. What does all this expenditure represent? Is it money spent to date and/or committed? Does it or should it include the further sums proffered by Mr Knox due to be claimed by the contractors? This week we are told by veteran Liberal Democrat ex-MP John Barrett that the utilities cost is to rise to over £100m – a two-and-a-half time increase – but is this included?

Mr Knox’s assumptions on how much more will be needed to complete the project are equally vague. He seems to rely on what “councillors have been assured” to make his points. He forgets that, until very recently, the people making the assurances were mendaciously briefing that the project was “on time and on budget”, and that the 800 or so claims submitted by the contractors were merely a symptom of their delinquency.

I can assure Mr Knox that the contractors have given fixed prices to exit the project and to build to Haymarket, but insurmountable problems with fibre optic cables that could take a further 18 months of closures stops them doing so for St Andrew Square.

On the basis of a reported cost of £700m to build the tramline from the airport to St Andrew Square, the cost per metre of the project will have increased by an order of five since 2003. tie planned lines that extended to Newbridge with a loop to Granton. To claim, as Mr Knox does, that the project is short of only £200m to “complete” demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the issues involved.

There have been successful UK tram systems where the risk was sold down to PFI (private finance initiative) owner-operators. Mr Knox fails to mention Sheffield, where their trams system was sold to Stagecoach for £1. Suffice to say these UK projects were all better run than tie’s has been. In their conceit, tie decided that they were best placed to take this risk, a decision for which Edinburgh has paid dearly.

The much-hyped 30 June meeting has already been considerably undermined by the press – and, with no substantive figures likely to be produced, any report will result yet again in a delayed decision. The current Lib Dem administration is borrowed to the hilt, with no surpluses and a likelihood of large ongoing subsidies required if the line is built to St Andrew Square, funding the excess is proving impossible.

Mr Knox should also know that a low growth, delayed development scenario (less severe than current recession) in the final business case (section 9.101) forecast ongoing losses on a combined bus and tram operation growing to £60m by 2031.

It is important to stress that the role of the SNP government in this farce has not been totally flushed out. Their grant of £500m was based on rules set by government “delivery” arm Transport Scotland, which should have guaranteed that public money would only be spent on defined and demonstrable achievements of project milestones. Clearly this has not been done. It was Transport Scotland which was also responsible to finance secretary, John Swinney, for approving such fundamentally flawed construction contracts. The elephant in the room is the reluctance of the SNP government to rule on the concessionary fare issue as, without this major concession, trams are doomed.

My manifesto for election to CEC will make a case for the project to be stopped and the existing works mothballed. This will allow decision-makers to take stock, and get rid of tie and the current contractors.

If there is to be “a fairly easy choice” on spending in excess £200m, let it be used to offset the £247m of cuts between 2009 and 2019 planned by this current administration and maintain standards in our nurseries, day centres, schools, sport facilities and refuse collections.

In a difficult economic climate, it would be good management for the council to determine local priorities and protect them against the ravages of budget cuts, not jeopardise them further by the commitment of unquantified money to deliver a piece of non-viable tramline.

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<em>Picture: Phillip Capper</em>

Picture: Phillip Capper

By John Knox

In the precarious world of Scottish agriculture, 2010 will go down as a “not bad” year. Official estimates just out show that total income from farming increased last year by 18 per cent in real terms to £618m.

The astonishing thing is that most of that is made up of subsidies from the tax-payer, £597m. Which means that the money we pay in the shops for our food is no where near the cost of production.

The National Farmers Union says: “These figures show that the support farming receives from the European Common Agriculture Policy remains essential for the survival and well being of farm businesses in Scotland.”

Its policy director Scott Walker says the next round of negotiations in Europe must make sure that CAP is properly funded and that the support goes to individual farms to enable them to continue producing home-grown food and preserve the countryside.

The graph of Scottish farm income over the last 30 years looks like the outline of the Himalayas with huge peaks and deep valleys but the long-term trend is inexorably downwards. In 2009, total farm income fell by 15 per cent. There was a big dip in 1998, another dip in 1985 and again in 1980. It’s all a long way from the halcyon days of the early 1970s when total farm income in real terms was over £1.2 billion. Farmers do better in times of inflation.

Even in the good year of 2010, average farm income was down 12 per cent at £34,400. This is the return made by the average farm to the farmer and his family, for their labour, and for the capital invested in the business: seeds, fertiliser, livestock, machinery, land and buildings.

It’s not a lot and the fact that the average is falling when the total is increasing, means many poorer farms are struggling to survive. Not much wonder we saw farmers protesting about the low price of milk just before Christmas. They say they are only getting 25p a litre for their milk, while it is selling in the supermarkets for 62p. Either the big stores are making a huge profit or they are not charging enough for their milk. The cost of production, the farmers say, is 28p a litre. That’s why over 50 dairy farmers left the business last year. There are hardly a thousand left.

Dairy farmers and fruit farmers have suffered the worst in the last year while cereal and livestock farmers have benefited from higher prices and the lower cost of fertilizers.

In farming, there are so many variables – the weather, the global prices of wheat, barley, oats, lamb, beef, milk, fruit, vegetables, fertilizer, oil – none of which the individual farmer has any control over. Yet he or she must sow seed or buy young livestock or invest in new machinery or buildings or fencing or drainage in the hope that there is a profit at the end of the season. And the sums of money involved are huge. A tractor for instance costs around £60,000. These are risks few city-dwellers would be prepared to take. You have to be brought up in a long tradition of faith in the future.

Farmers’ leaders increasingly take a global perspective. In reaction to last week’s UK government’s Foresight report on global food and farming futures, the NFU said: “The reality is that Scottish farmers are already delivering on the report’s central theme of sustainable intensification of farming.” The report talks of the need to feed a world population of 9 billion by 2050 and at the same time to combat climate change. The NFU warns that difficult decisions lie ahead on the “dysfunctional nature of our supply chain” and on the public’s reluctance to embrace new technology such as genetic modification.

I went along to the new Agriculture Centre in Stirling to see a part of the supply chain for myself. In one sale ring, 837 cattle were sold in a rattling chant from the auctioneer and the slightest of nods from farmers leaning against the ringside. And in a second ring, by coincidence I presume, 837 sheep were sold.

To the outsider, it’s all a mystery, numbers like £900 for the cattle and £60 for the sheep flew through the air. Men with prodding sticks guided the leaping animals into and out of the ring from the silver pens behind. Trucks and trailers stood ready to collect the animals at the side of the building later. And farmers in thick jerseys chatted in the bare-walled café and settled their bills at the auctioneer’s counter.

It all seems a world away from the hallowed halls of the supermarkets with their fancy packaging and low prices. Yet the two worlds are in reality one. We push our trolleys full of groceries towards the check-out with hardly a thought for the farmer in his field and the global forces with which he has to contend.

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