Thursday, 24 July 2008

We have much to learn from Siberian links

Published in the John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier
-Extended version

A summer reshuffle? Just what the journalists want, but sorry it's merely the repositioning of various backbenchers in the Parliament committees. This includes me moving from Education Committee to Economy, Energy and Tourism as vice-convener. It gives us all a wider range of experience. Their tourism enquiry report has just been published, but they are just about to start on energy - a subject close to our hearts in Caithness.

Since it is holiday time I'm in the mood to find as many ways to make it work for us with the Year of Homecoming arriving for 2009. My own travels this July throw some shafts of light on the possibilities we can exploit. The mixture of village galas, Highland Games and shows dot the fixture list. Meanwhile those lucky enough to be on holiday bring back stories and photographs to bore their relatives and friends. I'm no different.

This July was a mix of work and a much anticipated rest. The first in faraway Siberia, the second in Brittany. So what's that got to do with being a Highlands and Islands MSP? Quite a lot, as so many things are connected.

Thanks to my intervention last August, Historic Scotland finally agreed - after a long - campaign to carve a stone block in the timeline at Skara Brae to mark the first man in space, a Russian. It was celebrated in style last April 12th, Yuri Gagarin Day, and was attended by the Russian Consul General in Scotland, one of Gagarin's comrades Cosmonaut Grechko and the deputy governor of Yugra, Oleg Goncharov - not forgetting lots of Orkney folk and five Russian TV stations.

Oleg invited me to visit Yugra to discuss tourist links, oil and other business partnerships between the north of Scotland and the premier oil province of Russia. So on 31st June I ventured over, accompanied by Bob and Helen Miller who had campaigned for the Gagarin Stone, and with Alexander Korobko whose TV film on his Orkney DNA links won him a documentary prize in Yugra. A film is being made of our adventure to be screened on Russian Hour TV in September.

What a contrast between our seagirt Pentland Firth and the endless forests and marshland of the West Siberian Plains where one and a half million people live in an area the size of France. But for forty years their vast oil wealth has powered the Russian economy. In Khanty-Mansiysk, the Yugran capital, and in other oil towns they are reinvesting their share of Russia's oil revenues that they have produced into new housing, hi-tech education and health services, sports and cultural centres of excellence.

Just like Norway they are planning in Yugra for a future beyond oil, as we should be. But like Norway and Scotland, Khanty-Mansyisk has as much oil to recover as has already been extracted.

When you look at Caithness and Orkney we have that promise too just as soon as Scots demand the independence we require to make our own decisions. Yugra is not seeking independence from the Russian Federation but it is carving a distinctive place for itself in their system. Unlike the vast bulk of Russia their population is rising as it is a good place to live. These are lessons we need to learn here in Scotland and I was pleased to see the news that we actuaaly have more people living here for the first time in decades. But HIE is still agonising over the numbers of 16 to 30 year old who move south. We surely have much to learn from our northern neighbours.

If links between the north of Scotland and Russian Siberia are to develop then direct air flights would cut the hassle, even once a week flights. My Siberian journey involved a train to Edinburgh, sleeper to London, flights to Moscow and thence to Surgut, east of Khanty Mansiysk. Grueling, to say the least.

Sailing across the Channel the morning after fights from Siberia via Moscow was a bit surreal, but we made it. All the connections worked and it was the first time we had travelled by a catamaran, the Vitesse, from Poole to Cherbourg. Over 100 cars and their passengers made a reasonably calm sail in three hours. If Andrew Banks' new vessel is like the Vitesse it will be a big hit on the Pentland Firth betwen Gills and St Margaret's Hope.

When we arrived at our rented house near Quimper it was no surprise to find the newspapers Le Telegramme and Ouest-France discussing the price of petrol, food, prison overcrowding and young people drinking alcopops! So we are very European indeed. Also there were concerns that not enough tourists might arrive but the big pop festival in Cairhaix reached record numbers and the beaches look as busy as ever.

One of the biggest festivals is the sailing celebration that fills the harbour at Brest every four years. It is not like the tall ships race for which ports are bidding to host each year. Instead all sorts of sailing ships gather from many countries and several days of events on the water and on the quays allow many cultures to mingle in celebration of the sea and sailing ships. It attracts the biggest full rigged ships and small local fishing skiffs and Dundees that have been renovated by amateurs.

It benefits the local economy considerably and after four days in Brest the whole flottila goes across the bay to Douarnenez in a day's mass sail. And what a sight they make, along with thousands of others on cliff and beach vantage points we witnessed this shipping migration of over a thousand vessels in a mass of sails, sizes and styles. It is quite unforgettable to see the second largest sailing ship in the world up close. The four masted, square rigged, Russian sail training ship Kruzenshtern was inevitably the star. Indeed its current captain came to Brittany on that ship as a cadet many years ago. Such links between people of like minds are great to develop.

While it would take a huge leap to build the thousand plus ships under sail in a few years in our waters, making a start should be seriously considered. Imagine such sights as the Kruzenshtern sailing into Scrabster or Wick! If they are not invited we'll never know.

Last year during the Year of Highland Culture I was most impressed by the Moray Firth Flottila. The scenes in Wick harbour showed how popular celebrations of sail can be. Also earlier this year the adoption by Europe of an annual Maritime Heritage Day in May could lead to bigger events being organised in Scotland in future.

I certainly hope that Caithness and Orkney could get together and attract some of the great ships we witnessed at the Bay of Douarnenez in Brittany. If we don't ask the likes of the Russians we'll never know what we are missing.

The stunning victory for voters in Glasgow East means they must be listened to by the Labour government. If the Prime Minister fails to heed this shockwave, the days of all Scottish Labour MPs are numbered.

"The SNP will be demanding action on fuel duty, jobs and food prices. We will be campaigning with increased vigour across all constituencies for Scotland to have an oil fund from our share of Scottish oil revenues to pay for major investment projects in Scotland. This astonishing victory is a final deathknell for Labour. On a swing of this magnitude, almost no Labour seat in Scotland is safe. But this result is more than just a protest at Labour's increasingly out-of-touch administration, it is a positive endorsement of Alex Salmond's SNP government.

"The voters have shown their trust in the SNP to deliver the policies that are needed to reverse decades of Labour neglect and complacency. Here in the Far North we can too can benefit enormously from the SNP surge.

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