Friday, 12 October 2007

Flourishing festivals give us something to celebrate

Published: 12 October, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

IT'S a shame that Gordon Brown didn't decide to go for an election this November (not least because the SNP is riding high in the polls).

However, another reason would have been to see how a Scottish Prime Minister and his Chancellor would defend this week's decision to increase Scotland's budget by (when taking inflation into account) 1.4 per cent for the next three years, starting with a 0.5 per cent increase for the next financial year.

The SNP's treasury spokesman Stewart Hosie described this as a "lousy deal" and said that Scotland had been "short-changed".

Labour has denied this, but what is undeniable is that it is the smallest increase in the Scottish budget since devolution and it comes at a time when oil prices are strong and are forecast to increase.

However, that is the nature of devolution and the SNP Government will work within the settlement.

THE pleasant Indian summer can't disguise the fact that for livestock farmers in Scotland it has been anything but. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, Richard Lochhead, announced that there is to be a cull of 250,000 light lambs which should have been sent to market in continental Europe but, due to foot-and-mouth restrictions, couldn't be exported.

The lambs are set to starve on the hillside this winter. It is regrettable situation and very much an action of last resort. Farmers are to be compensated at £15 per lamb, which from what I hear is more than they are selling for at market. However, it is a situation that no-one wanted.

BETTER news came last week when the Petitions Committee unanimously agreed that the Association of Caithness Community Councils' petition on rail improvements to the Far North rail line (including a Dornoch rail link) should be put forward for consideration by the Transport Committee.

The case for the petition is attracting cross-party support and will be a great help when it comes to committee. I spoke in favour of the petition last week, as did Highland Committee members Rhoda Grant and John Farquhar Munro. There was consensus that a reduced rail journey time to the Far North is crucial to the development of a post-Dounreay local economy. I will be doing all I can to make it a reality. I am sure a cross-party approach can make it happen.

FOOT-and-mouth caused the cancellation of many "Gates Open" farm events last month. But two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Living Food festival at Cawdor Castle. Most of the produce came from Morayshire. However, Caithness and other parts of the Highlands and Islands have much to offer in terms of prime quality meat, vegetables and fruit. Hundreds of people attended the feast, showing that there is a growing public demand for tasty, local, fairly-priced foodstuffs. Producers in Caithness can capitalise on this.

IN the Education Committee we have been delving into the SNP Government proposals for a six-month pilot scheme in five local authority areas (alas not Highland) to offer free school meals to all pupils. The committee is composed of a majority of opposition MSPs and they have been at pains to find fault with the plans.

After all the humming and hawing, the committee agreed by seven votes to nil, with one Tory abstention, that the order to set up the pilot should be approved; and indeed Parliamentary approval was given on Wednesday, October 3, at decision time.

What it heralds is a food culture change for all families with school-age children or younger. But we will need £80 million a year to achieve this – so health comes at a price. I hope the public at large will applaud the SNP Government for its commitment to making a start.

AS all organisers of festivals know, it's an act of faith when you stand there waiting for the first customers to arrive. Even with electronic ticketing it can be nail-biting, especially for smaller events. It is equally true of the 40 events in the recent Caithness Arts Festival and the even more recent John Lennon Northern Lights Festival at which the eclectic programme was matched only by the unseasonably sunny weather in Durness.

I am very keen to see how the Scottish Arts Council and other bodies offer support to artists. I have been lodging a series of questions in Parliament and I'm also seeking evidence from North festival organisers to weigh up the treatment they receive from the SAC.

It was a pleasure to see so many friends from Wick, Thurso and the Back Coast among the thousand people who gathered to celebrate the John Lennon connection in the last week in September.

Mike Merritt pulled the idea together earlier this year. Despite the difficulties of funding being closed for Scotland's Year of Highland Culture he assembled a wide range of talent. John Lennon's close family were supportive from the start, as the late pop star had spent youthful holidays with relatives at Sangomore. I met his sister, Julia Baird, in Durness and was delighted to talk to someone who knew the ex-Beatle both before and during his fame.

May the celebrations develop and flourish next year in Durness. It's great to see new artistic efforts prosper in the Far North.

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