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Western Isles

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Scotland boasts over 50 beaches that have been awarded flags recognising their safety, water quality and beach cleanliness. Another seven beaches have also been awarded the blue flag, for which the beaches must pass over 30 stringent environmental criteria.

That is a very good starting point for any beach, but for a beach to be special, it should make you draw breath when you first see it.

Wide strips of the finest white sand lapped by pale turquoise (albeit cold) sea water and framed by a rugged coastline must place Scotland’s beaches as some of the best worldwide.

Combine this beauty with a dollop of folklore, some local knowledge or an unbeatable view, and you have a beach worthy of a visit.

Often remote, and requiring a little effort to get there, the following five beaches are definitely worth the effort.

<em>Picture: Anne Burgess</em>

Picture: Anne Burgess

Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
Arguably one of Scotland’s finest beaches, here the Atlantic meets a wide stretch of golden sand, backed by dunes and surrounded by towering cliffs and a tall sea stack, Am Buachaille, Gaelic for the Herdsman.

Remote and beautiful, it requires a six-mile round trip that takes you across moorland, past a freshwater loch and the ruin of a croft reputedly haunted by a mariner who would knock on the window on stormy nights.

With the Atlantic breakers crashing into this bay, many vessels were shipwrecked here through the centuries prior to the building of the Cape Wrath lighthouse in 1828, and there have been many strange sightings in the bay.

A good many walkers and crofters claim to have seen the ghost of a uniformed mariner, thought to be from a shipwrecked Polish ship. In 1900, a local crofter and his dog were terrified when they saw a mermaid perched upon a rock in the bay – the crofter remained adamant about his encounter throughout his lifetime.

<em>Picture: Wendy Kirkwood</em>

Picture: Wendy Kirkwood

Sanna Bay, Ardnamurchan
This picturesque white shell sand beach sits nestled at the most westerly point in mainland Britain. Getting there involves a tortuous drive on single-track roads along the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

Huge dunes and outcrops separate small bays from large sweeping bays on this stretch of coastline, and the outlook from the shoreline is spectacular.

Sitting on the beach you look out to the Ardnamurchan lighthouse as well as the islands of Rum, Muck, Eigg and Canna. The Cuillin of Skye can also be clearly seen.

On the approach to the bay there is an anomaly in the surrounding countryside worth noting. Next to the hamlet of Achnaha is a flat circular area, about two miles in diameter, that is encircled by a ring of steep and craggy hills – the crater of an extinct volcano that you drive across to reach your destination.

<em>Picture: Robert Guthrie</em>

Picture: Robert Guthrie

Traigh Ban nam Monach, Iona
Iona has a peculiar spiritual quality. Besides the peacefulness, the light and colours are somehow special: verdant greens against pink granite, and the palest white and pink sands shelving into an azure sea.

Traigh Ban nam Monach (Gaelic for “white strand of the monks”) is one of many fabulous beaches on Iona. Close to the abbey and nunnery, this stretch of white sand, with smooth flat rocks, is a place to quietly sit and contemplate. And to examine beached jellyfish.

On the west side of Iona at Camus Cuil an t-Saimh (Bay at the back of the ocean, pronounced approximately Cam-us cool un tav) is a huge expanse of white beach, with the Spouting Cave next to it. This spews foaming seawater upwards in a jet when the tide is right.

A little further on is St Columba’s Bay. Here, on the glassy smooth pebbles, St Columba landed in his coracle in 563AD.

<em>Picture: Bob Moncrieff</em>

Picture: Bob Moncrieff

Kiloran Bay, Colonsay
Kiloran Bay is an inlet on the north-west coastline of Colonsay and forms a perfect crescent of golden sand. The beach is bordered by Colonsay’s highest hill, Carnan Eoin, and on a clear day Mull can be seen in the north. Looking out to the Atlantic, the next stop would be America.

In 1882, a Viking boat burial was found at Kiloran Bay. The grave dated from between 875 and 925. The Viking man was buried in his boat with his horse, his weapons and a number of other everyday objects.

<em>Picture: John Allan</em>

Picture: John Allan

Coilleag a’ Phrionnsa, Eriskay
Better known to non-Gaelic speakers as Prince’s Bay, it was here on 23 July 1745 that the French ship Du Teillay put ashore a small boat with a famous passenger.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – first set foot on Scottish soil at this white sandy strip, before sailing to the mainland to raise his standard at Glenfinnan.

Rich in history and culture, this bay and the surrounding beaches would have been worked by the crofters and their ponies, collecting seaweed and shellfish in creel baskets.

Eriskay ponies, the crofter’s best friend and most ancient of Hebridean breeds (and critically endangered) still free-range and can be found grazing the machair and wandering upon the sparkling white sands.

When the SS Politician sank off the Western Isles in 1941, carrying a major cargo of whisky bound for New York, the Eriskay locals – once the crew were safely rescued – raced to retrieve the ship’s liquid cargo, hiding the bottles before the excise men could find them.

This was the inspiration for Compton Mackenzie’s comedy Whisky Galore!, which was later made into a successful film.

But as well as whisky, it is said that the Politician was carrying eight cases of currency to the West Indies and the United States. In all, there were nearly 290,000 ten-shilling notes, worth the equivalent of several million pounds at today’s prices.

Five more great Scottish beaches to consider…
Luskentyre, Harris
Mellon Udrigle, Wester Ross
Achmelvich, Assynt
Cambo Sands, Fife
Burghead Bay, Moray

Soay sheep <em>Picture: Evelyn Simak</em>

Soay sheep Picture: Evelyn Simak

By Elizabeth McQuillan

Domestic livestock and pets have been propagated and genetically fiddled with throughout the centuries in order to fulfil the criteria of us humans. Whether it’s line-breeding within a family – which is most definitely not encouraged within the human population – or crossbreeding, the aim is to produce the favoured characteristics,

Cockapoo, shih-poo/poo-shit (I kid you not) and Chorkie breeds are the latest humiliation that the dog world must contend with to please the fanciful and indulgent whims of the pet owner.

Cockapoo puppy <em>Picture: Hydnjo</em>

Cockapoo puppy Picture: Hydnjo

The current trend is for farm animals that supply to supermarket requirements. We want Schwarzenegger cattle that carry a large bulk of muscle tissue or, instead, Dolly Parton cows to produce industrial quantities of milk. They may have a foul temperament and be prone to health issues, but these are of less consequence to the consumer.

    According to the EU welfare people, the “high input-high output”, involving high-intensity farming, has emerged due to economic developments. And the cows must comply.

    Average daily milk yield ranges between 20kg and 40kg per cow, and during this period the cows usually are milked twice a day in a milking parlour. On large farms, however, especially where there is an automatic milking system or a milk carousel, the cows are milked up to three times a day. On average, the cows spend up to three hours of their daily time budget in and around the milking process. This is an abnormal yield, and perhaps amounts to ten times the volume that would be produced if left to Mother Nature.

    In the meantime, blastocysts have been grown in laboratory petri dishes, and one sickly cloned ewe produced (RIP Dolly) in order to perpetuate a single animal. As an aside – Dolly was named after the famous country and western singer due to being cloned from breast tissue.

    Scots Grey rooster <em>Picture: davide ferro</em>

    Scots Grey rooster Picture: davide ferro

    This research has wider implications, and the prospect of cloning in the future makes Dr Frankenstein’s disavowed experiment seem pretty tame.

      Before we tampered with our animals, and customised them, the small crofts and farms of Scotland had some hardy creatures which were built to be self-sufficient and able to survive with the minimum of fuss.

      Each was expected to be an all-round performer. Every animal produced young in the natural way and at a natural rate, providing modest quantities of milk (while leaving plenty for the offspring) or eggs, and meat when the time came. The animals were handled regularly and lived in close proximity, so needed to be of a tractable temperament.

      Championing our native breeds, let me introduce…

      Poultry – the Scots Grey would be the chook most often found strutting around an old farmyard. An endangered species, it is a rather handsome sort, with barred or “cuckoo” black/grey plumage. These guys produce good meat, lay eggs year-round and are great at foraging for their own food. They even take themselves up into the trees to roost at night, so negating the need for novelty hen houses.

      Another is the Scots Dumpy (possibly referred to in Gaelic as Coileachchime and Coileach degh sheinneadair). The name relates to their incredibly short legs and this could be advantageous in a bird that was not to go ranging very far. Legend has it that, due to their superior hearing, they were used as ambush alarms by the Celts and Picts.

      Eriskay pony <em>Picture: Eriskay Pony Society</em>

      Eriskay pony Picture: Eriskay Pony Society

      Equine – The Eriskay pony lightened the burden for those living in the Western Isles, carrying heavy peat and seaweed in basketwork creels slung across their backs as well as harrowing, pulling carts and taking the children to school. Freed from the constraints of labour, they now make superb ponies for children, being docile and having a great jump. With fewer than 300 breeding females worldwide, these ponies could do with a little Scottish support.

      Shetland cow <em>Picture: Mike Pennington</em>

      Shetland cow Picture: Mike Pennington

      Bovine – Shetland cattle have been ousted by market forces, but are superb all-rounders for the small-scale farm or smallholding. There are only 350 breeding females, which again makes them very rare. According to the Shetland Cattle Breeders Association: “Crofters in the Shetland Islands depended on this cow’s milk and beef for their very survival, and in the past it has worked in the field too. Due to the harsh environment of the Islands the Shetland cow has developed into a small, hardy animal, able to thrive on poor grazing, and with a high natural resistance to disease. For its owners to survive it had to be versatile – to produce a calf every year of its life, which often extended into its twenties.”

      Boreray sheep on Boreray <em>Picture: Richard Webb</em>

      Boreray sheep on Boreray Picture: Richard Webb

      Ovine – The oldest sheep, and critically endangered, is the Boreray. These are the descendants of the domestic sheep which were kept by the St Kildans. When the inhabitants evacuated Hirta (the main island of St Kilda) in 1930, all their domestic stock was evacuated with them. Other breeds worth a mention are the seaweed-munching North Ronaldsay, Castlemilk Moorit and Soay.

        Some of the original Scottish breeds are now extinct, but these Scottish rare breeds live on and could do with a resurgence in interest in their value, to prevent them heading the same way as the dodo.

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        libdem1Speaking in Argyll and Bute, Scottish Liberal Democrat Campaign Chair George Lyon slammed the SNP for failing to provide islanders across Scotland with relief from high ferry fares.

        It was confirmed last month that a Scottish Government pilot scheme that cut fare prices significantly in the Western Isles would be extended into the next Parliament.

        The Scottish Liberal Democrats have committed to maintaining investment in essential lifeline transport services for island communities.

        Commenting, Mr Lyon said:

        “Although the extension of the Road Equivalent Tariff scheme was certainly good news for the Western Isles, it offers nothing for people in Orkney, Argyll and Bute or other island communities who will not benefit. This is an electoral bribe from a party desperate to hang on to an island seat.

        “The fact is that the Scottish Government needs to be working to bring fares down for all islanders, not simply those areas that voted SNP at the last election. Whether it is ferries or planes, the basic principle is simple. Transport to and from the Scottish islands needs to be affordable if these communities are to thrive.

        “The Scottish Liberal Democrats are committed to protecting essential lifeline services across the Highlands and Islands and will ensure that people in areas like Argyll and Bute receive the help they need, irrespective of how they choose to vote on polling day.”

        Commenting as the SNP publish their 84/94 manifesto achievement document, George Lyon also accused the SNP of having failed Scotland’s voters.

        “They have not dumped student debt, they dropped the first time buyers grant, they let teachers down and they shelved the independence referendum, all promised in their 2007 campaign. What kind of record is that?” Mr Lyon said.

        “This list is a joke. They have even included policies not even started under their Government. It’s shameful that they are trying to take credit for ideas and polices that aren’t even their own. The Scottish public won’t trust the SNP again. Scottish voters want a party who have real solutions for creating jobs, keeping services local and restoring excellence to education.

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        “It is Scottish Liberal Democrats who have those solutions. We have published a costed manifesto that has the right solutions for Scotland and it is Liberal Democrats who have the courage to deliver them.”

        Turning his attention to Labour’s plans for exports, Mr Lyon said:

        “The Labour party are full of grandiose ideas that have absolutely no substance to back them up. The Labour party have come forward with no plan on how they will achieve their export targets.

        “Scottish Liberal Democrats are different. We have real solutions for Scotland.

        “We have published a detailed export action plan for increasing exports in Scotland which includes setting an ambitious target to grow the value of Scottish exports by 50 per cent by 2020.We are the only party who has pledged to double the number of companies engaged in exports.

        “These are solutions that Scottish businesses need and we are the party to deliver them.”

        A mock-up of the proposed windfarm off Tiree by No Tiree Array group

        A mock-up of the proposed windfarm off Tiree by No Tiree Array group

        Tiree is known for its surfing beaches and its sunlight but it is the abundance of another natural resource around this tiny Hebridean isle – the wind – that has triggered such a major battle between residents and developers that it could derail at least part of the Scottish Government’s renewable energy plans.

        ScottishPower Renewables wants to build an offshore windfarm just off the southwest coast of Tiree. The energy company insists that the Argyll Array, as it is known, is vital if Scotland is to meet its ambitious renewable energy targets.

        However, plans for the Argyll Array have prompted a furious backlash from Tiree residents for two simple reasons: it is going to be really, really big and extremely close to shore, so close and so big, in fact, that campaigners believe it will overshadow everything on one whole side of the island.

        If given the go-ahead, this proposal could see the erection of 180 turbines, each one 600-ft tall – the size of the Gherkin building in London. The turbines might end up being smaller that that, but if they are smaller then there will have to be many more them, perhaps as many as 500 of them.

        The development would start just three miles from the Tiree coast and cover an area of almost 140 square miles. Given that Tiree is just 40 square miles in size, it is easy to why many residents are so concerned about the effect that this project will have on their community.

        Members of the action group which has been created to fight the plans, No Tiree Array, insist they are not against windfarms. Indeed, they say they would welcome proposals to site the wind turbines 22 miles from shore.

        They just don’t want them so close that they affect every view, every beach, the surfing, the wind-surfing and the fishing on one side of the island.

        At the moment, the Argyll Array is part of the Scottish Government’s draft plan for offshore developments which ministers want to get through parliament before Holyrood rises for the election campaign at the end of March.

        The minister pushing it through is Jim Mather, the energy minister, but also the SNP MSP for Argyll and Bute, the area affected by the proposed development.

        No Tiree Array have already lodged a formal complaint with Mr Mather, complaining about the way the consultation over the draft plan was carried out and raising questions about his dual role: the MSP for area and the minister responsible for the draft plan.

        This is a big, big issue for Tiree and, indeed, for Argyll and the Hebrides but it neatly encapsulates some of the dilemmas posed by the push for renewables.

        If half our energy is to come from renewable sources by 2020, then the windfarms have to go somewhere. Also, some have to be very, very big indeed, with massive turbines generating significant amounts of energy.

        The area around Tiree is windy. It is known for its wind and there are not nearly as many people there to be affected by a windfarm as there are say, in the Central Belt.

        But Tiree is also beautiful, mostly unspoilt and an archetype of the sort of Hebrides which visitors want to see. It is also home to 800 residents and another 3,000 semi-permanent visitors who come every summer.

        ScottishPower Renewables insists that the water is too deep to site turbines 22 miles offshore. The turbines have to be in close to make the operation work but many residents feel their community, their culture, their whole way of life will be destroyed if the project is given the go-ahead.

        Dr Alison Kennedy, spokeswoman for No Tiree Array, said she believed this was a classic case of a small community being trampled over by big companies, by government and, ultimately, by a huge windfarm.

        She told the Times she had not spoken to a single islander who supported the plans.

        Dr Kennedy said: “The seascape from the south of Tiree is going to become one giant fleet of enormous turbines. Tiree is a beautiful little island with some of the best beaches in the world but the whole atmosphere, the whole shape of the island is going to change. It is going to be industrialised.

        “These proposals are way out of proportion for the island itself and they are going to change the whole way of life for this tiny island with 800 souls. The community will be destroyed, tourism will be destroyed. I cannot understand why Alex Salmond wants to destroy the Western Isles, one of the world’s most beautiful areas.”

        The campaigners claim they were not allowed to raise objections to the Argyll Array itself during the consultation process, just the general draft plan for the whole of Scotland.

        But they believe that they should be able to object at this stage because, if they do not succeed in stopping the Argyll Array now, they are likely to lose the argument in principle and will not be able to defeat it at a later stage.

        “The consultation process has been a complete farce,” Dr Kennedy said.

        And she added: “I know we need energy and windfarms but I cannot see the logic of this. You have to place windfarms where you don’t destroy communities and this monstrous development will destroy this tiny island community.”

        However, a spokesman for the Scottish Government defended the administration’s approach to offshore wind energy. “Scotland has massive renewable energy resources and is at the forefront of advances in offshore wind energy generation. The Scottish Government welcomes developments in the sector and with as much as a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind energy potential Scotland is well placed to become the continent’s green energy powerhouse. “

        And Simon McMillan for ScottishPower Renewables, which is planning to develop the Argyll Array, said the water was too deep for the turbines to be sited at least 35km from the shore. He said they had to be within 22km of the shore to stay within Scottish waters and he stressed that the company had given an assurance they wouldn’t come within 5km of land.

        He said: “This is a very important project. This is a key part in meeting our carbon-reduction targets and, as an offshore development, this is an excellent location.”

        And Mr McMillan added: “We have a very good track record of working with communities and we will keep the community constantly in touch with the project as it develops.”

        Members of the No Tiree Array group have vowed to keep fighting the development. They have also produced some startling, professionally designed images showing how close the turbines will be to shore and how, they believe, they will dominate the island. They are determined to win, believing the fate of their island is at stake if they lose.

        Snow tyre tracks. <em>Picture: Steve Karsch</em>

        Snow tyre tracks. Picture: Steve Karsch

        By John Knox

        Before we rush into forming a national police force or a national fire brigade or we set up regional education authorities or reform the structure of the health service, let’s just pause for a moment and consider the question as a whole. How should local services be delivered?

        It’s fashionable to suppose in this age of austerity that it’s more efficient – and therefore better – to provide public services from a central agency. It’s said to cut down on administration costs and ensure there are uniform standards across the country. So local councils are downgraded to consultation status or rubber stamp operations. They have become a quaint reminder of times gone by when local democracy was possible and the royal burgh or the parish was responsible for the schools, the drains, the turnpikes and the poor houses.

        In a certain way, centralisation is more efficient, but I don’t think it’s better. We need a countervailing force to the centralisation that is going on across the world. Don’t get me wrong, the global economy is a good thing. Our co-operation with UN, the EU and the UK institutions has led to greater prosperity and security and a finer appreciation of environmental and cultural issues. But I think we need to balance all that with as much local autonomy as possible and the delivery of public services on the ground is an ideal place to start.

        I would like to see our existing 32 local councils being given many more powers. Devolution was never supposed to stop at the gates of the Scottish Parliament. So instead of creating central agencies for police, fire, health and education services, I would like to see them remain with local councils, indeed to be devolved still further.

        Each local council, I believe, should have its own police force, fire brigade, water company, school system, health board, social work department, environmental service, transport department, enterprise and tourism agency. In this way we would have a true integration of local services. And we would have local accountability … though local managers, local councillors and, every four years, local voters.

        Of course, there would be nothing to stop councils entering agreements with their neighbours to have shared specialised services and to learn from each other. There might even be a Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to stage conferences and provide expert advice. But each council would be free to make its own individual arrangements and to fix its own policy on issues such as, council tax levels, licensing arrangements, pay and conditions for its staff.

        Some people will argue – indeed many do – that to have each of the 32 councils running its own accounts department, wages office, procurement system etc is a huge duplication of costs. In the days of Victorian clerks it may have been – though it did provide much needed employment. Nowadays, however, there are computers to do much of the clerking work and no doubt there are software packages which could handle most of a council’s admin burden. And that burden would not be so large as for a nation-wide bureaucracy.

        Indeed managers would be able to lead their departments much more efficiently. They would know their staff better, know the local conditions, have the freedom to try new things. If mistakes were made, they would only affect one council, not the whole country, and perhaps neighbouring councils would be able to come to the aid of departments in difficulty.

        Think of a sudden fall of snow, for instance, where one council had underestimated the amount of grit it needed or the number of snow-ploughs it should invest in. It could pay one of its neighbouring councils – where there was no snow – to come and help clear the roads.

        Other people argue that giving councils too much autonomy would lead to a “post code lottery” of services. It may well do. But what is wrong about that? If one council decides to raise its council tax to pay for better services, why shouldn’t it? The danger is, of course, that poor councils, like Glasgow, would get left behind. But, as happens at the moment, they could be subsidised more heavily by the Scottish Government.

        Still other people say having a patchwork of local rules and regulations, charges, taxes and services would create a complicated Scotland, a place where it would be difficult to do business or for workers to move from one area to another. But, hey, life is complicated. We have grown used to that, and nowadays we have the internet to help us. I honestly don’t think it would add a lot to Tesco’s day to have to find out what conditions apply to a new store opening in Clackmannanshire. Or for a teacher to find out how much he might be paid if he applies for a job in the Western Isles.

        And on this issue of pay, an autonomous council system would allow each council to set its own pay rates to attract the staff it needs. The Western Isles may need to pay more for a teacher than, say Eastwood, because the cost of living is much higher in the Hebrides. Glasgow may have to pay its teachers more than Eastwood because the schools are tougher. There is nothing wrong in this, so long as we have a minimum wage, set nationally, which would prevent councils engaging in a race to the bottom.

        This idea of setting salaries at a level to attract the appropriate staff is perhaps fairly novel in our fossilized wage system, but among its advantages is that managers need not be paid international salaries and bonuses. So long as a council can get a suitably qualified person to do the job, it need not pay a high wage. We could then move away from a system which pays salaries of over £140,000 a year to nearly a thousand public servants in Scotland.

        Finally, there will be some people who say a cultural revolution on this scale is too disruptive. We have already had two reorganisations of local government in the last 30 years – both by the Tories in search of political revival and both have proved difficult and costly. But retaining the existing 32 councils and gradually adding to their responsibilities need not prove so difficult. It means, when it comes to reform, thinking about the downstream solution as well as the upstream, devolving power rather than centralising it.

        I’m told that a flock of birds does not have centralised system of control, no one bird is in charge. And yet the flock sweeps about the sky elegantly and efficiently, forages for food, makes great journeys to the breeding grounds and generally lives in a sustainable economy. They do this by each bird making its own decision locally, depending on its neighbours’ actions and its own circumstances.

        Another, less picturesque, example is the internet. It is made up of a myriad of individual contributions. In fact it’s how society as a whole works. So it should be with councils. If we take away local decision-making and local action, what role is there left for the individual spirit and energy of the people on the ground who actually deliver the services ? We have an educated and lively workforce in the public sector, let’s use it.

        It seems to me a great waste to create a central police force or social work agency and then to split it down into local divisions – which would inevitably have to happen. You are left with a system of un-integrated public services with local “managers” who are not managing at all but waiting for orders from headquarters. Their talents, training, energies and sense of responsibility are not being fully harnessed.

        Instead, we should have the courage to carry on with the devolution project and let a thousand flowers bloom.

        <em>Picture: Ben Coulson</em>

        Picture: Ben Coulson

        At a time when pressure groups, local authorities and others are calling for a massive increase in social housing, it’s astonishing to discover that the number of vacant properties in Scotland is almost at record levels. The latest “vacant property report” from the Bank of Scotland shows that the numbers are at their highest level for six years.

        The figures are historic, dating back to September 2009 when the recession was at its height and the housing market seriously depressed. But even so, there were 106,239 empty homes around the country, up from 103,433 the year before. Between them, they account for over 4 per cent of all homes in Scotland.

        The information also tells us something about the relative state of the local economic environment around the country. The Western Isles for instance has the largest proportion of vacant homes in Scotland (13.3 per cent); that’s over three times the national average. Argyll and Bute (11.4 per cent) is not far behind with Orkney (8.9 per cent) coming third.

        The authorities with the lowest rates however are not necessarily obvious. North Lanarkshire and East Renfrewshire have the smallest proportion of vacant homes (both 1.9 per cent) followed by Midlothian (2.1 per cent). The four main cities are all clustered together around the 4 per cent mark. It’s worth bearing in mind however that North Lanarkshire also saw the largest percentage increase – 23 per cent – in vacant properties.

        The report says that house prices are lower in the local authorities with the largest proportion of vacant homes. Earnings, too, are lower. Nine out of the 10 local authorities with the highest proportions of vacant homes have levels of average earnings up to 9 per cent below the Scottish average.

        Suren Thiru, Bank of Scotland’s housing economist, is concerned “that the number of vacant homes has increased for the second successive year following several years of decline. This is a trend that needs to be reversed, particularly within the context of Scotland’s longer term housing needs. Areas with high levels of vacant properties are often areas with lower than average earnings and property values.”

        The report prompted Gordon MacRae, the head of communications and policy at Shelter Scotland, to note that there was “a significant level of vacant homes across Scotland with the potential to help in the fight to solve Scotland’s housing crisis. It also adds weight to our drive to bring Scotland’s empty homes back into use through The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership – launched last month and funded by the Scottish Government.

        “At a time when there is a shortage of funding for affordable homes and more people in need, local authorities need to use all means available to them and show innovation in encouraging owners to bring empty properties back into use. Whilst bringing good standard empty homes back into use can play its part, let’s not forget there is a housing crisis in Scotland and that many more social homes need to be built.”

        That’s a view shared by Andrew Field, deputy chief executive of the SFHA, who added that “anything which helps bring empty houses back into use is a good thing. But the country faces such a major housing shortage that the crucial issue is ensuring that the Scottish Government puts adequate capital investment into building new homes for affordable rent.”

        Mingulay. <em>Picture: Kloniwotski</em>

        Mingulay. Picture: Kloniwotski

        By John Knox

        Efforts to protect Scotland’s cold water reefs have run into opposition from fishermen in the Western Isles. The government wants to designate the coral reefs, off the island of Mingulay at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides, a Special Area of Conservation. But the fishermen fear it will lead to a fishing ban and yet more restrictions on their industry.

        The reefs were only discovered in 2003 when the area was mapped using sonar equipment. They lie 13 kilometres east of Mingulay in about 100 metres of water. It’s thought the corals have been quietly growing on the steep rocky shelves there for the past 500 years and are now standing 5 metres above the sea floor. They are they only known coral reefs in Scottish inshore waters – though others have been discovered off Rockall and in the Darwin Mounds off Cape Wrath.

        The Scottish Government is under pressure from a European Habitat Directive to protect the rare cold water reefs which could be home to some 1,300 species, including sea anemones, snails, limpets, urchins, sea cucumbers, sea stars, octopuses, bristle worms and various sponges A new species of sponge, Cliona caledoniae, was discovered only last year.

        But a group of fishermen and other islanders, calling themselves SHAMED, Southern Hebrides Against Marine Environment Designations, has written to the environment secretary saying : “We believe our survival depends on the local democratic management of the resources in this area. This hard-won right, which has been enhanced in recent years by our determined efforts to grasp every opportunity to develop local businesses and services, would be swept away if these designations were to be imposed by the Scottish Government.”

        The environment agency Scottish Natural Heritage is carrying out a consultation exercise on the establishment of the conservation area (SAC) and it’s tried to reassure the fishermen, saying the reefs do not lie in traditional fishing waters.

        But the fishermen are suspicious. They say the Western Isles has had a bad experience with SACs. “Protection of various species of birds is causing havoc throughout the islands,” they say. “And we are aware of bans on fishing activity within existing marine SACs throughout the UK.”

        They’ve collected hundreds of signatures on a petition to parliament calling for an inquiry into SNH’s designation process. And they cite the case of the SAC on Barra and Uist which led to the notorious hedgehog cull to protect birds such as oystercatchers, dunlins and ringer plovers.

        The fishermen say they have their own proposals to protect the coral reefs. SNH, for its part, says the consultation exercise is “a genuine opportunity for people to comment on the scientific justification for the SAC and on the social and economic aspects of the designation. … It will be for ministers to decide whether or not to confirm the site.”

        The dawn of beer: Cue music from '2001: A Space Odyssey'. <em>Picture: Apolinar Fonseca</em>

        The dawn of beer: Cue music from '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Picture: Apolinar Fonseca

        By Elizabeth McQuillan

        Academics have pondered over why we began to cultivate cereal, and in particular barley, crops alongside our livestock around 4000 BC. Common sense dictates that these grains provided an ideal source of carbohydrate, and it allowed some welcome additions such as bread, porridge, and sugars into the larder. But archaeological findings also suggest that we were partial to a bit of ale to wash down our supper, and that we have been home-brewing for quite some time.

        In fact radiocarbon dating of residues found in a drinking vessel in Strathallan, Fife, identified the alcoholic tipple as having been fermented as early as the second millennium BC (1540BC to be exact; at a time when the ancient Egyptians were erecting gargantuan pyramidal structures). Next to this archaeological find lay the body of a young woman, so perhaps it had been a bad pint, or there was some refining still to be done with that particular recipe.

        Fast-forwarding to our crop-growing Neolithic and Bronze Age years, at a ceremonial site in Balfarg/Balbirnie, Tayside, fermented grain and plant residues were found in large buried earthenware vessels – evidence that the cultivated grain was being used for more than making porridge and bread. The sample also contained the pollen of Deadly Nighshade, which may have had hallucinogenic properties, or perhaps was designed to poison all the party guests. Again, the recipe maybe just needed a bit of tweaking.

        But then, without the benefit of a biochemistry degree to understand the processes involved, these early brewers could only experiment and learn through trial and error how to achieve the best brew. Shared with their neighbours, they probably drank the good with the bad, and slept off the effects to come back and try another day.

        So, what would the brewing process have involved in 4000BC?

        Malting (germination) could be achieved in watertight vessels with frequent water changes or by placing the grain in a tied bag in a running stream so the water remained fresh and didn’t require changing. Soaked grain would then be laid on a flat floor away from the outside elements and regularly raked and watered. Once the grain reached an early stage of germination, the grain would be dried with a kiln to preserve the sugars.

        Mashing (when starch is converted to sugar) involved grinding the grain with quernstones. This would help release natural enzymes and speed the conversion of the remaining starch to sugar. The gentle heat needed could have been provided by hot stones or by using the ash from the fire.

        Sparging is washing through the mash with hot water to produce sweet wort that can then be fermented. Our ancestors would have probably used their woven baskets for this job, and let the watery soup filter into an earthenware vessel. The spent grain provided quality fodder for the livestock.

        Fermentation needs yeast, and there are a number of possible methods to explain how this yeast was introduced. Airborne yeast could be enough but, in the Western Isles, a hazel “wand” was traditionally used to stir the brew during fermentation. Each time the wand would stir a new batch, the dried yeast on the wand would reactivate the process. Perfect.

        A couple of mystical, biochemical hocus pocus weeks later, and a tantalising pitcher of ale with supper was a reality. And a party a racing certainty.

        by John Knox

        <em>Picture: David Lally</em>

        Picture: David Lally

        The finishing touches are being put to a new pontoon around the royal yacht in Leith harbour. No, not HMS Britannia but a real racing yacht with sails, the Bloodhound, once owned by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

        It was bought from the restorers at the beginning of the year and has been on display beside the Britannia for the past few weeks but from next week visitors will be able to take a much closer look, from the new pontoon.

        It’s a magnificent 63ft long ocean racer, a real classic yacht from the 1930s. She was built by Camper and Nicholson’s of Gosport for a rich American, Ike Bell, who became so much of an Englishman that he was Master of the Wiltshire Hounds – hence the boat’s name, Bloodhound.

        She won many a race, from Cowes to Bermuda, and was the America’s Cup competitor of her day. Prince Philip bought her in 1962 and won quite few races – with the help of a crew of 12. He also took her on the Royal Family’s annual cruise, with Britannia, to the Western Isles. There, Prince Charles and Princess Anne learned to sail in her, a hobby which has remained with the Princess ever since.

        The boat was part of the Royal fleet for seven years. Then it went through a succession of owners, slowly rotting away beneath them. Finally a boat-restorer in Poole, Tony McGrail and his wife Cindy, bought the tired old Bloodhound and spent nearly a million pounds bringing her back to her former glory.

        It’s now a fully working yacht again. In fact, from next summer you will be able to charter it and teach your own princes and princesses to sail. The Duke used to lend the Bloodhound to youth groups when he wasn’t using it and many thousands of youngsters have learned to sail in it.

        I thought, as I looked at this lovely yacht, that it’s become a floating illustration of how the monarchy has changed. What used to be the preserve of dukes has now become available to dustmen. Well, a few of them could charter the boat for a week, at say £1200 (the price has not yet been fixed, and you may have to pay an extra £600 for a professional skipper).

        The fact that Bloodhound has ended up in a public museum says it all. There are now no longer any royal yachts, Britannia was the last of 53, stretching back to Charles II’s time in 1660. The Queen no longer has a crew of 240 to accompany her on overseas visits, no travelling band, no on-board laundry or ship’s hospital or her own Rolls Royce. I believe she was seen recently on an ordinary train, admittedly in the first class compartment. Prince Charles will soon be cycling to all his engagements on his bicycle.

        It’s all downhill once you lose your yacht. But the Royal Family’s loss is Edinburgh’s gain. Hoist that sail, comrade.

        <em>Picture: David Iliff</em>

        Picture: David Iliff

        Chan eil mise ag iarraidh gun tachair e ach tha e a’ sìor-fhàs duilich an gnothaich seo a sheachnadh. Le mar a thathas a’ sgrùdadh sgìrean Pàrlamaid dha Westminster tha e gu bhith a’ ciallachadh gu bheil e gu bhith duilich argamaid a dhèanamh son sgìre Pàrlamaid nan Eilean Siar a chumail air leth leatha fhèin.

        Tha an riaghaltas ann an Lunnainn den bheachd gu bheil cus buill-pàrlamaid ann is gum bu chòir an àireamh a ghearradh is cur a do suas ri 200 de na buill. Tha iad a’ cumail a-mach gun fheum cosgaisean poilitigs Bhreatainn a ghearradh. Tha fios gu bheil a h-uile càil anns an t-saoghal phoblach ga ghearradh anns an là a th’ ann. Ach tha sin a’ ciallachadh ceistean dha na h-Eileanan an iar.

        Chan eil ach beagan is 20,000 luchd-bhòtaidh anns an sgìre. Tha sgìrean gu leòr ann an Sasainn far a bheil na mòr-chuidean mòran nas mò na sin gun luath air àireamh air luchd-bhòtaidh. Tha gu leòr ann an Sasainn den bheachd gu bheil luchd-poilitigs is riochdachadh gu leòr againn ann an Alba mar-thà, chan eil cho fada ri sin bhon a bha an dà chuid Prìomhaire is Seansailear Albannach againn. Tha buill Westminster againn, tha Pàrlamaid Dhùn Èideann againn, is chan eil a dhìth tuilleadh ach allt aig ceann an taigh againn. Tha sin uile a’ ciallachadh gu bheil an t-argamaid son sgìre Pàrlamaid fa leth dha na h-Eileanan gu bhith a’ fulang.

        Tha fios gu bheil argamaidean ann son sgìre fa leth a bhith aig an sgìre. ‘S iad na h-Eileanan Siar an aon àite ann an Alba far a bheil mòr-chuid de luchd-bruidhinn na Gàidhlig. Tha an sgìre far air falbh gu leòr bho àitichean eile is gu bheil feumalachdan is gnothaichean eadar-dhealaichte a’ buaileadh oirnn. Ach le cuid de roinnean pàrlamaid ann an Sasainn gu bhith a’ fàs cho mòr ri 90,000 fo na planaichean ùra, chan eil e gu bhi càil nas fhasa an t-argamaid a dhèanamh.

        Nam bithte ag iarraidh na h-Eileanan Siar a chuir còmhla ri sgìrean eile, ciamar a dh’ oibricheachadh e? An tigeadh iad a-steach còmhla ris an Eilean Sgìtheanach? Nan tigeadh, am biodh sin a’ ciallachadh gun fheuimte sgìre Loch Aillse a thoirt a steach cuideachd? Tha fios nach eil na seann sgeulachdan mu dheidhinn ‘nàimhdeas’ eadar Leòdhasaich is Sgìtheanaich cho buadhmhor is a bha iad. Ach chanadh gu leòr gu bheil an dà sgìre cho eadar-dhealaichte is nach bu chòir dhaibh a bhith còmhla.

        Tha fios gu bheil Comhairle nan Eilean Siar air a bhith a’ beachdachadh agus a’ bruidhinn air an seo. Tha fios gu robhas a’ bruidhinn agus a’ smaoineachadh air an seo bho chionn fhada. Ach bidh muinntir nan Eilean an dòchas gu bheileas a’ bruidhinn ri na daoine ceart agus gu bheil fios aca càite am faigh iad èisteachd cheart.

        Tha crìonadh na sgìre a thaobh daoine cuideachd gu bhith a’ togail ceistean gu leòr eile. Ma thathas a’ dùnadh sgoiltean agus a’ gearradh ann an ospadail, carson a tha ùghdarras foghlaim agus Bòrd Slàinte air leth gu bhi ann tuilleadh? Tha fios gu bheil gu bheil clèireachd is seirbheisean taic a-nis cudromach son oibrichean anns an sgìre, ach tha deisichean gu leòr ann an Dùn Èideann is Lunnainn a thigeadh air ais leis a’ phuing nach e sin as caithreach gu bheil na buidhnean sin ann.

        ENGLISH SUMMARY: Reforms which will cut the number of MPs at Westminster pose uncomfortable questions for the Western Isles. It will be harder to argue for the case for a separate MP when the number of voters (about 20,000) is less that the majorities in some English seats.