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This week we’ve been celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Scottish Parliament…if celebrating is the right word. It is certainly the focal point for our current debate over independence, which boils down to the question: just how much power should the parliament have ?

The late John Smith MP Devolution "the settled will"

The late John Smith MP
Devolution “the settled will”

Almost everyone wants it to have more power. Unfortunately we are not being offered a range of powers in the referendum question, only a yes or no to independence. And looking back on it, this is one of the mistakes the Better Together campaign made at the beginning of this whole divisive affair.

John Smith, the Labour leader who’s death 20 years ago has been marked this week with the opening of a new Centre for Public Service at Glasgow University, once famously remarked that devolution was “the settled will” of the Scottish people. It has been anything but settled. John Smith may have started the ball rolling but Donald Dewar kicked it on with his famous remark – “devolution is a process not an event.”

So more powers are being devolved from Westminster all the time, the latest involves half of all income tax, landfill tax, stamp duty on house sales etc. The Better Together parties have promised still more powers, though, disastrously, they’ve not been able to agree on a detailed alternative to independence. Thus the referendum debate has become even more confused and uncertain.

Can David Cameron help create a "united front" against independence?

Can David Cameron help create a “united front” against independence?

The prime minister came to Glasgow on Thursday to try to forge a united front against independence, even invoking the spirit of John Smith. But Mr Cameron’s “sunshine” speech was not exactly helped by the Chancellor back at Westminster who repeated his warning that there can be no currency union after independence. And the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon was able to dismiss the spring offensive as a “Tory takeover of the No campaign.”

The referendum has however brought the dying tradition of the public meeting back to life. I was at a referendum debate in Edinburgh last Sunday afternoon – sponsored by the local churches – and every seat was taken. I could see steam coming out of peoples’ ears as they tried to keep their feelings under ecclesiastical control. The Church of Scotland – which holds its general assembly this coming week – has called for a service of national reconciliation in St Giles Cathedral in the immediate aftermath of the referendum in September.

It could be a humbling experience, if the campaigns turn nasty or if the result is close. Perhaps we Scots will be revealed as not the greatest practitioners of democracy in the world. After all, the parliament we have built over the last 15 years is not without its flaws. Its successes I think have included free personal care, free university education, the national parks, the smoking ban and being a national forum. But its failures are legion: the cost, the expenses scandals, its timidity over taxation, its failure to spread power down to local communities and its turgid and ineffective committee system.

Commonwealth Games Ticket fiasco

Commonwealth Games
Ticket fiasco

But parliaments are not the only things that can go wrong. The organisers of the Commonwealth Games suffered humiliation at the hands of their computer experts earlier this week. The sale of the last 100,000 tickets had to be suspended when the on-line and telephone systems designed to handle the stampede collapsed. Then our newest jail, HMP Grampian in Peterhead, which only opened in March, erupted in an old-style riot. Forty prisoners went on the rampage, beating up their new furniture and fittings. Police had to be brought in to restore order.

The brutal world of football also suffered a few shocks this week. The new owner of Hearts, Ann Budge, brought along her new brush on Monday morning and swept away the manager Gary Locke and eight other coaches and players. Instead she’s brought in a former manager Craig Levein and promoted Robbie Neilson to first-team coach. The Paisley club St Mirren have also promoted Tommy Craig from within. And in both cases, the new philosophy seems to be to nurture home-grown players rather than take part in the bidding war for outside talent. Not before time.

About the only place were tranquillity reigns is the European election. There are unlikely to be any riots or stampedes at the voting stations on Thursday. But we are all waiting to see if the SNP increase their number of seats from 2 to 3, whether Labour will keep their two seats and whether the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will hold on to their single seats or whether they will be taken by the Greens or UKIP. Who would have thought that democracy could be so exciting ?

Fate is a cruel thing. This week we are mourning the loss of a young, courageous and talented woman who we are proud to claim as a Scot, though she was of Russian origin and lived in England. The tennis star Elena Baltacha has died of liver cancer at the age of just 30.

Elena Baltacha (Picture from Wikipedia)

Elena Baltacha
(Picture from Wikipedia)

She was among the top 50 women tennis players in the world. She was Britain’s number one. She won 11 singles championships. She reached the third round of both Wimbledon and the Australian Open. And all this, despite suffering from a chronic liver complaint and several serious injuries. Her fellow-players have been lining up all week to say what a lovely, unassuming person she was.

She arrived in Britain at the age of 5 when her father, Sergei Baltacha a professional footballer, signed for Ipswich Town. He’d played for Dynamo Kiev and the USSR. Her mother Olga was also a sports star who represented the USSR in the pentathlon. The family moved to Scotland in 1992 when Sergei was signed up by St Johnstone in Perth. Encouraged to play tennis by her mother, Elena soon made her presence felt on the tennis circuit. By the age of 15 she was the Scottish women’s indoor champion.

Of course, she knew the Murray family and, like them, had to leave Scotland to further her career. At the age of 19 she was diagnosed with a rare liver complaint but it didn’t stop her reaching the top of British tennis and carrying our hopes in a series of international competitions. She was a big powerful player with a fast serve and a fearsome two-handed backhand.

An ankle injury last year persuaded her to retire. She married her coach Nino Serverino and they set up a tennis academy in her old town of Ipswich. But earlier this year she was diagnosed with cancer and the “bonny fichter Bally” has gone to play her tennis elsewhere.

Increase in waiting times

Increase in waiting times

The nation’s health has been another talking point this week, in particular the queues forming in the corridors of accident and emergency departments. Audit Scotland brought out a report which found that the number of patients waiting for more than four hours to be treated had increased nearly three times, from 36,000 to 104,000, over the five years to 2013.

The opposition parties took Alex Salmond to task over this “failure” at first minister’s question time. But he was able to claim that 93 per cent of patients were seen within the four hour target time and the figure is improving, and, anyway, it’s better than in England and Wales and better than when Labour were in power. The underlying causes for the increase appear to be “bed-blocking” in hospitals and the fact that people with minor conditions have no where else to go. It’s a classic case of non-holistic thinking – if you cut the budget for community or local authority services then the hospitals are swamped.

European Elections Politicians more concerned with the referendum

European Elections
Politicians more concerned with the referendum

When not thinking about hospitals, the political parties have been launching their Euro election campaigns. Polling cards have gone out, posters have appeared on lamp-posts and at railway stations urging us to vote on 22nd May. Everyone is waiting to see how well UKIP, the anti-EU party, will do in Scotland. It got just 5 per cent of the vote last time. But it’s been hard for the politicians to keep their attention on Europe when all they want to talk about is the independence referendum in September.

Finally, it’s been a good news week for the pine martin. The population is estimated to have grown to around 3,000. The Scottish Highlands have long been this furry creature’s last refuge but now there have been sightings in forests on the southern fringes of Glasgow, in the upper Tweed valley and in Annandale. It’s the first time the pine martin has been seen in southern Scotland for 200 years.

Be warned, though, they may be cuddly-looking creatures but they are wily. You need to keep you henhouse door closed at night and if they nest in your loft, call an expert !

Kenny MacAskill is in trouble again. Scotland’s justice secretary is like one of those skate-boarders who always seems to be tumbling towards a fall but always manages to stay upright. This time he’s been forced into a u-turn on “corroboration”.

Kenny MacAskill  Justice Secretary

Kenny MacAskill
Justice Secretary

His Criminal Justice Bill has run into mounting opposition for proposing to abolish the ancient tradition in Scots Law of two independend sources of evidence being required before a case can be brought to court. His idea is to increase the low rate of prosecutions in cases of rape, sexual assault and child abuse. Victims, he says, should have their day in court, even if their case does not pass the corroboration test.

To me, this whole issue is just a semantic dispute, since I don’t suppose there is a country in the world – or at least in Europe – which would put someone on trial without there being some sort of credibility test applied to the allegations, whether you call that “sufficient” evidence or “corroboration”. But the lawyers and the opposition parties have got themselves into a fury over it and now Mr MacAskill has been forced to postpone that part of his bill until a review of the “safeguards” is undertaken by a former judge Lord Bonomy.

Alex Salmond MSP Lowest level of crime

Alex Salmond MSP
Lowest level of crime

At first minister’s question time on Thursday, Alex Salmond faced calls from Labour and the Conservatives for Mr MacAskill to be sacked for the way he has handled the affair. And, of course, they had a list of previous “offences” which they said should be taken into account – the introduction of a single police force, the closure of many local court houses, the legal delays over the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol, the high rate of stop-and-search operations in Glasgow, and his decision in August 2009 to release the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

But Mr Salmond pointed out that Mr MacAskill had presided over the lowest level of recorded crime for nearly 40 years. It’s dropped 22 per cent since he’s been justice secretary. He declared his “enormous confidence” in Mr MacAskill. As well he might, since Kenny MacAskill has been a firebrand member of the SNP since the beginning of nationalist time.

He rose through the ranks of the party while working as a lawyer. He has the craggy good looks and speech delivery of an evangelical preacher but off-stage he’s amusing and surprisingly laid-back. His hobbies include writing books on SNP theology and following the Tartan Army wherever they go. One football match he missed, however, was Scotland against England at Wembley in the Euro 2000 competition when he spent the entire game in a police cell due to “a misunderstanding” on his way to the match.

Alex Salmond has kept a stable team

Alex Salmond has kept a stable team

It’s inconceivable that Alex Salmond would ever sack Kenny MacAskill, however accident-prone he might be. It’s not the sort of thing Mr Salmond does. In fact the SNP front row have been remarkable in how well they’ve play together and remained loyal to each other despite the ideological differences there must be between them. The fight for independence is a strong unifying force.

No amount of the flag-waving south of the border on Wednesday, St George’s Day, could deter Alex Salmond going to Carlisle to declare that an independent Scotland would be good for business in the North of England. He even made a cheeky offer to start building the new high-speed rail line from Scotland, without waiting for the Westminster government to get going from its end.

Kenny MacAskill wasn’t the only one to stumble this week. The business organisation the CBI thought it would be a good idea to register as an official supporter of the “Better Together” campaign, presumably because it could then hold a few fund-raising dinners without falling foul of the referendum spending rules. But that prompted a rush of resignations by organisations I didn’t even realise were in the CBI, like the universities and the broadcasters, government quangos and the Law Society, all of whom said they must remain neutral in the independence debate.

Russian Bomber (MoD)

Russian Bomber

With the Russians pouncing on Crimea and clanking along their border with Ukraine, we’ve all become a little sensitive about Russian military manoeuvres. So when a couple of bombers appeared off the North East coast of Scotland on Wednesday afternoon, the RAF was sent to investigate. Two Typhoons were sent up from Leuchars and confirmed that the bombers were indeed Russian “Bears”, Tupolev-95s. The RAF chaps warned the Russians they were coming dangerously close to Scottish – or rather British -air space and they’d better turn back.

It then transpired that there had been a similar incident at sea a few days before when a Type 45 destroyer had to be sent out to shadow a Russian warship, The Kulakov, on manoeuvres off the north coast of Scotland. Apparently, we’re not to panic. Such incidents happen all the time – there were eight last year – and they are all part of routine operations to test our defences. But, right now, they certainly test our nerve. What would happen, I wonder, if there is one of those “misunderstandings.”

David Moyes Sacked after 10 months

David Moyes
Sacked after 10 months

I certainly misunderstand the decision by Manchester United to sack that fine Clydesider David Moyes after only 10 months as manager. OK, he’s had a bad run of 11 defeats but his illustrious predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson took time to find his form. Clubs rise and fall, that’s what football is all about thesdays. Paying a reputed £10m severance fee to a man who’s hardly started the job seems to me crazy. But apparently it’s pleased the shareholders, such is the bizarre world of high finance. Moyes will probably walk into another job next week, a richer and wiser man, so my tears are less for him than for the fallen state of professional football.

Another man who’s been shedding tears this week is Andy Murray, but this time tears of joy. He was overcome by emotion when he was given the Freedom of Stirling at a ceremony in his old school in Dunblane. He left the town as a promising young player, 15 years old, to train to be a world champion in Spain. He too has experienced the ups and downs of sport but he said the people of Dunblane have always supported him. It’s a lesson that could well be learned in Manchester.

Has the CBI in Scotland shot itself in the foot? For months, it has been posing dozens of awkward questions about the implications of independence. That is exactly what one would have expected any self-respecting business lobbying group to have done. They were intelligent questions that needed answering, the sort that many people and organisations were themselves asking.

Decision taken nationally

Decision taken nationally

However, its decision nationally to register with the Electoral Commission as a supporter of the “No” campaign has meant that it has lost its impartiality. It seems that this was a UK rather than a Scottish decision. It’s perhaps no surprise that it should have done so – its name, the Confederation of BRITISH Industry, rather gives the game away. But the fact that a growing number of members has now resigned suggests that it hasn’t taken at least some of them with it.

It’s understandable that some bodies funded from the public purse in Scotland should have wanted to distance themselves. Scottish Enterprise and Visit Scotland, for instance, were amongst the first to go. In a statement, Scottish Enterprise described CBI Scotland’s move as a “political decision”, leaving it with “no choice but to immediately resign”. VisitScotland also insisted that it was “appropriate to withdraw from the organisation”.

Scottish Enterprise logoOthers have now followed. Highlands and Islands Enterprise stated that its own position of the issue was impartial which led it to conclude that it was “inappropriate” for the organisation to remain a member of the CBI. And now, Skills Development Scotland has followed suit. At the weekend, three universities (Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen) and resigned they have now been by Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian. This could prove uncomfortable for CBI Scotland’s director, Iain McMillan, who sits on the advisory board of Strathclyde.

The Law Society of Scotland said it could not retain impartiality as a CBI member. Its chief executive, Lorna Jack, explained that “we do not believe we could credibly retain our impartiality whilst being a member of and actively contributing to another organisation which is formally registered with the Electoral Commission to campaign for a no vote.”

STV - one of the first to resign

STV – one of the first to resign

At the time of writing, three private sector companies – STV, Scottish firms Aquamarine Power and the Balhousie Care Group, confirmed they were quitting CBI and others may follow. Nonetheless, a spokesman for the organisation insisted that it remained “confident we have a mandate from the vast majority of our membership on the question of Scottish independence”

The trouble is that there’s no evidence of such a mandate. The organisation has not produced any supporting material to confirm that an anti-independence resolution was ever passed. It’s one reason that those members in the public and private sectors are considering the positions. And this is damaging the credibility of the CBI as a whole.

The decision has surprised even some of those who do not support the CBI’s views in general. Business for Scotland is avowedly a pro-independence body. In a column in its newsletter, it expressed its astonishment, pointing out that the CBI “did NOT have to take a view against independence.

Surprised at the CBI's decision

Surprised at the CBI’s decision

“It could have raised concerns about particular policy issues or perhaps, more constructively, have given a view on how the powers of independence could be used to grow the private sector, without expressing a definitive view on Yes or No. It could have also questioned the No campaign’s ridiculous scare stories in order to represent a balanced view. But instead, officials couldn’t help themselves. They decided to go one step further by making clear they were against independence.”

There is more than one voice speaking for business in Scotland. The Federation of Small Business and the Institute of Directors have made it clear from the start that they would remain impartial, despite being accused by some of sitting on the fence. But what that does allow them to do is ask the awkward questions of both sides. It means they can be trusted to reflect the doubts expressed by their members. It’s something the CBI can no longer do.

By Kirsty Gunn, University of Dundee

Kolkata may seem a long way from the Scottish independence referendum, but on a recent journey to the subcontinent the author and creative writing professor Kirsty Gunn found inspiration to consider the links between identity and nationality. Here she pulls at the layers of Scottishness and Britishness to ask who the Scots really are.

I am in Kolkata with the writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri, reading his book about the city while seeing it for the first time. It’s a fascinating thing to be doing, coming here, straight off the back of the independence discussion that is revving up back in Scotland.

I heard James Naughtie’s piece on the Today show before I left – interviewing people on the streets of Auchterarder and Perth, asking them which way they were inclined come September. There’s an election looming here too, but what fascinates me, emerging out of a Scottish spring into a Calcutta summer, is the writers’ and artists’ takes on those issues of identity and national determinism that are starting to preoccupy the media.

The writer, as Amit reminds me both in person and in his terrific book Calcutta – Two Years in the City, looks for answers to the questions “Who am I?”, “Of what parts am I constituted?” not so much in terms of political vocabulary as in other words, other sentences that are to do with aesthetics, culture, intellectual life and imagined notions of home. The place around us, what Amit calls “the this”, and how it plays upon our thinking, dreaming lives.

Questions in transit

This is the place we writers care about, not some politician’s utopia, or global economic model of an ideal society. Travelling as I do all the time, between London and Scotland, forever on the train either going up or going down, coming up or coming down (the verb travels as much as I do), I make a point of asking whoever I’m sitting next to what they think of the forthcoming referendum.

I do this not out of curiosity but as part of a sort of creative project. It is a way of helping me understand different ways of thinking about Scotland and what it means to be Scottish; and what it means to be me – a writer who has lived all her life between places, born in New Zealand but brought up to call Scotland home; who has a job in Dundee and a house in Sutherland but with daughters at school in Hammersmith in London; who has all kinds of different, shifting definitions of “the this”.

Being in transit is a perfect context in which to ask fellow passengers the question, as vast tracts of England or Scotland rush along the tracks below our feet. Whether north or south, the response so far has always been the same: “I think we belong together, don’t we?”

In transit: the ideal time for referendum discussion
D1v1d, CC BY-SA

There’s a gap then, sometimes an awkward pause (no one feels easy about embarking on such subject on a train with a stranger – who is she anyway? I can see some of my interviewees thinking, what business is it of her’s what I think?)

But then the story comes out – the unravelling of some intricate family tale – a mother in Kircaldy with a daughter in Peckham; or a father who was born in Glasgow but has lived in Manchester all his life, his three children now all grown up and in Scotland keeping an eye on his elderly parents but he will never move.

“I mean it’s complicated, isn’t it?” one woman told me. She sounded like she was from the east end of London but had been born in Inverness and had been living in Dundee for 20 years or so.

“Because my daughter and grandchildren, they’re in London, aren’t they? Where they were born. So what will that mean if all this independence goes ahead? Suddenly my daughter is living in a separate country?”

All this information is rich pickings for the writer, of course. People and their lives, what they love about the place they live in, their town, their village, their country, what they long to embrace or run from, yearn for or fear … All of our rich complexity as individuals is celebrated in those individual stories of individual lives.

“A separate country?” as the woman from Inverness – or is it London, or Dundee – said?

As Calcutta is separate from Kolkata? Separate, really? Place carries divisions within it, of course: boundaries, territories, fiefdoms. Yet split between different ways of doing things, different ways of describing things, all places are riven but nevertheless also conjoined by differences.

Here’s old Calcutta with its crumbling mansions and narrow chaotic streets; there’s new Kolkata with its plans for massive investment, development and glitzy globalisation. Both live in the mind as ideas, as experience, as reality … But one is the “this”, the other a notion, a plan, a “that”.

Hunting for hideaways

In the meantime I haven’t seen a single Prada or Starbucks since I’ve been here, though I’ll have to ask. Maybe there’s a plate glass window advertising some global brand or other on some corner somewhere – secreted behind the hectic press of street vendors and hawkers and grand old colonial buildings that are half broken down and half built up.

Old Calcutta bustles with life.
Suvodeb Banerjee, CC BY-SA

Maybe it’s there, like the Scotland the nationalists say is there, behind the towns and villages and cities we all live in or have left from or are going back to, or not, just waiting for the moment to show itself, reinvented and fully articulated as somehow other from that worn through, familiar country we already know. The new Scotland. An independent Scotland.

Maybe it’s there. But as I go through the streets of this city I see how the past is with us in all its layers, all its stories.

“I wouldn’t want to be pushed into being one or the other,” the woman on the train says.

And her words echo around me in these faraway streets in another continent, another world that is also, strangely, the same world … As I see, as though walking out of the past to meet me, a very old man leading two tiny monkeys on a silken string.

He makes his way slowly, delicately through the darkened streets with his small companions at his side, and disappears around the corner, into the Kolkata night.

“I wouldn’t want to be pushed into anything,” the woman on the train reminds me. “I wouldn’t want that at all.”

The Conversation

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

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

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

John Muir Photographed in 1912

John Muir
Photographed in 1912

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

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

Red Road flats No longer part of the opening ceremony

Red Road flats
No longer part of the opening ceremony

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

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

Trident - part of the negotiations

Trident – part of the negotiations

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

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

Scotland's islands - looking for more autonomy

Scotland’s islands – looking for more autonomy

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

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

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

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

David Grevemberg Chief Executive, Glasgow 2014

David Grevemberg
Chief Executive, Glasgow 2014

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

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

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

Must Glasgow be better than the Olympic spectaculars

Must Glasgow be better than the Olympic spectaculars

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

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

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

Margo MacDonald  A doughty fighter

Margo MacDonald
A doughty fighter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden

Louisa Rodriguez and Simon Buckden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The once stereotypical image of men in tweed conjured up by the words ‘whisky drinker’ is long gone in the drink’s spiritual home.

Lauren (left) and Steph Murray

Lauren (left) and Steph Murray

There is nothing new about the number of Scottish women who enjoy sipping our national drink, and in recent years there has been a sharp rise in the number of females breaking into a traditionally male-dominated industry by taking on key production and management roles.

But sisters Steph and Lauren Murray have taken their passion for the amber nectar to a whole new level. Along with their parents Michael and Marie, they have turned their backs on the bright lights of Glasgow to buy a hotel in rural Speyside with the aim of turning it into one of the country’s leading destinations for whisky lovers.

Steph (28) and Lauren (23) took over at the helm of The Dowans Hotel in Aberlour last year after being won over by its location in the heart of Scotland’s most famous whisky producing region. Speyside is home to more whisky distilleries than any other part of the country, including internationally renowned brands such as Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan.

Steph found herself working in the hospitality sector while studying for a degree in international politics and human rights at the University of Glasgow. Unable to find work after completing her studies, she stayed on at the city’s prestigious One Devonshire Gardens and was offered a role as a supervisor.

The gardens at the Dowans Hotel

The gardens at the Dowans Hotel

“Working in a hotel was never something I thought about as a career option, but I really enjoyed it – even more so when I became part of the management team,” explains Steph.

“It’s probably fair to say that a lot of young people think about jobs in the hospitality industry as something to do to get by while at university. But as time went on I realised how much potential there was to develop professionally and to go beyond traditional student roles like working behind the bar.

“Things changed when my dad took early retirement three years ago. He could see how many hours I was working and while the experience I was getting was invaluable, the monetary benefit didn’t match. He also knew that Lauren, who was studying international hospitality and event management at Edinburgh, was also going to face difficulties getting work when she finished her degree.

“That’s when, as a family, we came up with the idea of buying a hotel that Lauren and I would run together, operating to the high standards that we had both set for ourselves.”

Lauren adds, “We had always enjoyed family holidays in the Highlands when we were young, so we were naturally drawn here in our search. We wanted to own somewhere we had a real passion for, and which we could share with the local community.

Bistro and bedrooms have been refurbished

Bistro and bedrooms have been refurbished

“We fell in love with The Dowans from the moment we saw it. It had a good reputation as being a country sports hotel, but we could see the potential straight away to develop something really special for whisky tourism. We made it our aim from day one to build relationships with the local distilleries.”

Over the past 10 months the family has been carrying out an ambitious refurbishment programme. Many bedrooms and the bistro have been overhauled – a second fine dining restaurant called Spé was opened in February – but one key change is yet to happen.

They plan to remove the bar from its current location in a snug lounge, and move it to another part of the hotel where the already huge collection of single malt and blended whisky from Speyside – and beyond – will be expanded even further.

Spirit of Speyside Festival

Spirit of Speyside Festival

Visitors and locals alike have been raising a glass to the investment and of their commitment to supporting the whisky industry: the hotel is fully booked during the region’s biggest celebration of all things malt – the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival.

The Festival, which takes place this year from May 1-5, is largely regarded as one of the world’s must-do whisky events. Last year it had 32,000 visits to events and generated £1.65m for the local economy – a figure which could be smashed this year as ticket sales look on course to break records.

The Dowans will be hosting five events during the Festival. A venison and whisky pairing has already sold out, while only a few tickets remain for its two luxury whisky dinners and two whisky tasting sessions, where there will also be a discussion on collectible malts.

“Whisky is huge here, and on top of developing our skills in hospitality we’ve also had to learn about the industry so that we can share it and educate our visitors,” says Lauren.

“We are so excited about the Festival – we couldn’t believe it when one of our events sold out within hours of tickets going on sale. We’ll be welcoming lots of people who are really passionate and enthusiastic about whisky, so it will be an excellent opportunity for us to test our own knowledge.

“I didn’t think I would have to learn a whole new topic so soon after my degree, but it shows that there is always scope to grow and learn new things in every career.

“We’ve currently got 150 malts in our collection and Steph has been preparing her own tasting notes to share with guests. We’ll be expanding the range when we move the bar into its new location, so there will be a whole new set of malts to discover.”

Steph adds, “I think people are genuinely quite intrigued by the changes that are going on at The Dowans. People are always a surprised when they find out that a hotel built on the country sports and whisky tourism is being run by two relatively young girls.

“We’ve never been daunted by the scale of what we’ve taken on, just very excited. I think aiming to achieve more, being ambitious and never being afraid of a challenge are key pieces of career advice, regardless of the industry you work in.”

Tickets for all events in the 2014 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival – a key event in Homecoming 2014 which will kick off Whisky Month in May – can be bought via the website www.spiritofspeyside.com The Festival is also active on social media – facebook.com/WhiskyFestival and @spirit_speyside on Twitter.

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

Keane Wallis-Bennett Died when a wall collapsed on her

Keane Wallis-Bennett
Died when a wall collapsed on her

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Hughes A new geological age

Jonathan Hughes
A new geological age

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

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

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

Questions about the opening ceremony

Questions about the opening ceremony

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

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