Friday, 31 October 2008

Agreement and steps forward for Scotland's intangible cultural heritage

Excerpt from a supplementary question I asked Linda Fabiani, Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture:

Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): Does the minister agree that, given that the school of Scottish studies at the University of Edinburgh collected many of our traditions in music and story before the folk revival, the scoping and mapping of intangible culture heritage must include the many festivals and storytelling events that have taken place since the folk revival? Will that material be collected and made accessible to people round the country?

Linda Fabiani: That is an interesting point, and I will ensure that it is passed on to Museums Galleries Scotland and Napier University. I have often stated in the chamber that the Government is committed to the traditional arts and to recognition of them. I want very much to take on board those aspects in my discussions about how we preserve and promote our traditional arts. I have arranged cross-party meetings in the Parliament of representatives with an interest in this area. What Rob Gibson has raised will inform part of the discussion, which I look forward to very much.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Invergordon Nigg yard meeting

I was able to attend a brief meeting on the 13th of October in Invergodon where the future significance of the harbour facilities for oil rig services and the roadblock to using the Nigg yard for new uses were key topics. The Highland Council has to press the Compulsory Purchase Order to free the ransom stripp at Nigg as quickly as possible. RG

AWS Ocean Energy Conference

Myself and Dr. Aileen McLeod at the AWS Ocean Energy Conference after the SNP Conference fringe meeting in Perth. We arranged to visit the Alness-based marine renewable firm with Mr. Bibby pictured below.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Medals Plea for Convoy Heroes

Featured in the Ross-Shire Journal

Published: 17 October 2008

Image: The memorial gathering on the shores of Loch Ewe, by Colin Robertson

EASTER Ross-based MSP Rob Gibson has lodged a heartfelt appeal to the new Defence Secretary to honour veterans of the Arctic convoy with a medal.

His letter to John Hutton follows a speech made by the youngest survivor of the convoy, Jock Dempster, during a commemoration on the shores of Loch Ewe in which he expressed his sadness that the UK Government had decided not to mark their services with a medal.

Mr Gibson said, "Winston Churchill described their route as the 'worst journey in the world' with good reason. The convoy was of the utmost importance to the war effort. Those who took part not only had to contend with enemy fire but also vicious weather.

"The survivors deserve a medal which can be worn with pride on their chest. It is disappointing that all that has been given to them is a badge, which is no bigger than a five pence piece, and which can only be worn on the lapel. For me and the bulk of people that does not sum up the supreme efforts that those of the convoy made.

The memorial gathering on the shores of Loch Ewe. Colin Robertson

"The UK Government should take the lead from the Russian Government who has given a medal to all of the survivors of the convoy. Russia recognises the vital impact that the convoy made and the dangerous route it travelled, it is time that the UK does too."

Mr Gibson has also lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for a medal of recognition which follows:

S3M-02700 Rob Gibson (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish National Party): Award a UK Medal to Arctic Convoy Crews— That the Parliament backs calls for veterans of the World War II Arctic convoys to be given medals by the UK Government; recognises the supreme effort and sacrifice made by those who undertook what Winston Churchill described as "the worst journey in the world"; feels that the Arctic Star badge, which is no bigger than a five pence piece and is allowed to be worn only on the lapel, is not a sufficient award for the vastly important job that the crews of the convoys undertook, and calls on the powers that be in the United Kingdom to follow the lead of the Russian Government, which has awarded the National 40th Anniversary Commemorative Medal for the Patriotic War to all remaining survivors of these convoys.

Supported by: Kenneth Gibson, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Stuart McMillan, Keith Brown, Bob Doris, John Scott, Dr Bill Wilson, Dr Alasdair Allan, Bill Kidd, Brian Adam, Jamie Hepburn, Christina McKelvie, Michael Matheson, Robin Harper, Dave Thompson, Mike Pringle, Gil Paterson

Lodged on Friday, October 10, 2008; Current

Hosting a Parliamentary Event for Highland Hospice

Last night (28/10/08) I was pleased to host an event by Highland Hospice aimed at developing the field and raising awareness of the huge community support the organisation commands. Audit Scotland recently gave impressive reviews of the service and the development of the programme was supported last night by the Minster for Public Health Shona Robison.

Pictured below is me with Maria McGill, Chief Executive of Highland Hospice:

Tradition Arts first and foremost at the SNP Conference

I was grateful for the opportunity to be the principal speaker backing the first motion at the SNP's Conference in Perth on Thursday (16 October) which called for the consideration of a national company or agency for the traditional arts.

The Motion, which focuses on the traditional arts, was submitted by the Cromarty Firth Branch of which I serve as the convener.

The motion advocates that the Cultural Policy of the Scottish Government should guarantee fair treatment for Scotland's unique cultural inheritance. It regrets the decision of Scottish Arts Council to withdraw flexible funding from organistions which are key to promoting linguistic, musical and theatrical heritage. In order to address the problems that the withdrawal of funding has caused, the motion calls on Scottish Government and practitioners of Scottish traditional arts and culture to work together to support this important facet of Scotland's make up. It also welcomes the Scottish Government's audit on the Scots language.

The living and tradional arts in Scotland are part of the country's DNA. The music and language helps define us at home and to the rest of the world. It is important that those who keep them going receive the highest backing from our Government and the agencies which look after the culture in our country.

This is what the motion sets out. There needs to be an investigation into how best to support, preserve and progress the culture. The Removal by the Scottish Arts Council of flexible funding hit many traditional arts bodies hard. The previous Lib/Lab administration allowed traditional Arts to be chipped away. It is critical therefore that the Scottish Government and SAC work together with the people of Scotland to reverse this trend so that trad arts, and therefore the country, don't loose out in the long run.

One way to enshrine the living tradition is to create a new body which will deal specifically with the Traditional Arts. The trad arts needs to be seen in isolation and treated as such. In my opinion it is too important a part of Scotland not be given special attention. The Culture Minister and the rest of the Government are committed to trad arts with me. The audit of Scots will tell you that. But there needs to be more time and attention devoted to it to make sure that it lives on.

This motion can be that catalyst for that I was honoured to present it and speak in favour of it and that it was chosen as the motion to open the 2008 conference.

A copy of the motion follows:


Conference considers that the Scottish Government cultural policy, funding and support arrangements should guarantee fair treatment for Scotland’s unique cultural inheritance.

Conference regrets Scottish Arts Council decisions in 2008 to withdraw flexible funding from key organisations that have successfully promoted Scotland’s linguistic, musical and theatrical heritage.

To address problems that have resulted from these decisions, Conference encourages supporters and practitioners of Scotland’s traditional arts and culture and the Scottish Government to work together to investigate options for future support for this important facet of national life.

Conference considers that such investigations should include, but not be limited to: investigations into the benefits of direct funding of key organisations; the use of challenge funds; introducing statutory responsibilities for, or issuing guidance to local government; and the endowment of a national company or agency.

In particular, Conference welcomes the initiative taken by the Scottish Government to undertake an audit of Scots language provision, a key area very badly affected by SAC decisions and looks forward to the emergence of proposals that will secure the future of the language.

SNP Conference

Topical Resolution 5 - Climate Change:

"This Conference backs the tough action proposed by Scottish, UK and European Governments that sets an example to the rest of the world in tackling climate change.

Conference demands that the European Commission resists any and all pressures placed upon it to compromise the EU Carbon Trading Scheme [ETS], a policy that is absolutely vital if we are successfully to tackle climate change. In particular the EU institutions must stand firm in the face of pressure from industries faced with meeting the compliance costs of this policy and who wish to weaken prospective EU legislation in this crucial area.

Conference calls on our SNP Government and parliamentarians to campaign for an increased pace in the development of renewable energy delivery which is needed to make early progress towards a target of 80% reduction in [all six greenhouse gases*] CO2 by 2050 and introduce energy efficiency measures to climate proof Scottish homes whilst opposing the dilution of climate change plans that must be agreed in full by the European Union to maintain a world lead in tackling global warming."


*A wording-change suggested by Rob Gibson

Opening a sale at Seaforth House Care Home

A Sale of Work at Seaforth House Care Home recently raised an excellent £1,447.12. I had the pleasure of opening the event. Pictured here with me is care home manager Roddy MacSween.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Update on the digital switch over

During the party conference I made a point to stop by the Digital UK exhibition stand. Accompanying the coming digital switchover are some concerns concerns, such as the implications for BBC Alba, as well as opportunities. I wanted to voice those concerns to a representative of Digital UK - the company working with the Scottish Government and local authorities through to community councils and local voluntary organisations to make sure the switchover message reaches every household.

Photo: Rob with Digital UK's robot mascot Digit Al.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Young and old alike get the bug

John O'Groat Journal
By Rob Gibson MSP
Published: 24 October, 2008

IN recess weeks, regional and party activity never ceases.

During these "tattie holidays" I have been at engagements in the Far North as well as in Falkirk, Fife and the Fair City of Perth thus far. With all eyes focused on the world financial turmoil, our SNP conference in Perth last week had to address these big issues. And it did so successfully. As if our round of speeches, fringe meetings and socialising were not enough, many activists, including myself, took the bus to Glenrothes to put in a couple of hours' campaigning in the important by-election due on November 6.

A bit of history was played out on that trip. It concerns the man who led the student raiders on Westminster Abbey at Christmas 1950. Ian Hamilton drove the Stone of Destiny back to Scotland from London nearly sixty years ago. Last Thursday, now an octogenarian, he drove four of us from the campaign HQ in Markinch a couple of miles to Coaltown of Balgonie for our canvassing stint. Then he returned to his task of stuffing envelopes.

Yes, there's a Caithness link – he bought his current car in Halkirk and had much pleasure in describing his journey there to make the purchase. Ian appears in a cameo role in the new film about his exploits called Stone of Destiny which is now on general release.

Make no mistake, young and old alike get the bug for Scottish freedom. This was underlined by Professor James Mitchell, of Strathclyde University, who gave the annual Donaldson Lecture at the SNP conference. His research shows that the SNP attracts far more young people into politics than all other parties put together. That was evident at various events from the Young Scottish Nationalist Karaoke to the Conference Review and Ceilidh as well as the conference debates.

We even attracted a cross-party performance from the House of Commons rock band MP4. (Get it?) Our own Pete Wishart MP, the former Runrig keyboard player, has two Labour MPs on lead guitar, bass guitar and vocals and a Tory on drums. The dance floor filled up with all ages. Maybe in another world it could have been Tony Blair on lead guitar.


SERIOUS politics in the conference hall was dominated by constructing a Scottish response to banking woes and the sudden end to an all-party truce over the crisis. It had been all too tempting for Gordon Brown to display the gut unionist argument against small nations. Iceland's bank troubles provided the pitch and he tried to score a winning goal against the SNP.

Not only does London Labour continue to rubbish Scotland's ability, were we independent at this time, to manage such a financial crisis, they have taken to besmirching the record of our neighbours Ireland, Iceland and Norway as well.

This is the same Gordon Brown who has lectured other European leaders for the past decade on the need for deregulation. Now his tune has had to change. As my colleague Dr Aileen McLeod highlighted in the Europe debate, a European-wide financial regulatory agreement is much needed. We have to learn from Norway and Sweden, who sorted out their own banking crises a decade ago. How did they do it, and how can Scotland escape from the jaws of the City of London, the most unregulated financial centre of all? The Prime Minister coined the phrase "stronger together, weaker apart". As with many issues, such as agriculture, green energy and environmental concerns, Scots have more friends in France, Ireland, Austria and Denmark than does London Labour. So the European elections next June are a straight choice between co-operation with our neighbours to create a confederal Europe of free partners or continued thralldom to boom-and-bust thanks to bankrupt London.


FUEL, food and heating costs are hitting most families. Wherever you live, be it Glenrothes or Caithness, we await Chancellor Darling's undoubted demand for higher taxes to pay for unprecedented Government borrowing. Mr Brown says we need to spend our way out of this crisis. But the cost will hit high streets after the failures in Threadneedle Street where the Bank of England has its HQ.

That's why I seconded the topical resolution at the SNP conference on climate change. It argued that we must press ahead with marine renewables to create jobs and clean power; also home insulation will reduce heating costs and can employ construction workers who are caught in the house-building slump. Meanwhile in Europe, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), the continent's main means to curb the greenhouse-gas emissions of big industry, must not be watered down due to fears that big firms will take jobs elsewhere in this recession to avoid compulsory carbon-emission costs essential to the ETS.

The Scottish Government can use its limited powers to kick-start building affordable homes, helping create a shared equity scheme for first-time buyers – but we also look to Ed Miliband, London's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, to fight for a full ETS in Europe. Interconnectedness is inescapable but a seat at the top table is essential for Scots to have our say in such vital matters.

FALKIRK welcomed the Royal National Mod, the annual Gaelic festival, with open arms last week. Meanwhile, the last-ditch bid by Caithness councillors to stop the entry of Gaelic road signs to the county sends mixed messages for Mod 2010. A genuine Caithness welcome would underscore the regenerative powers of culture and languages that accompany the surge of interest in tidal power potential. Well done, Dounreay, for backing the Mod – let's hope our councillors do too.

-Rob Gibson MSP

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Congratulations to Julie Fowlis, Scotland's first Gaelic Ambassador

Press Release
12 October 2008:

Rob Gibson, SNP MSP for Highlands and Islands has congratulated Julie Fowlis on becoming Scotland's first Gaelic Ambassador.

In lodging a Scottish Parliamentary motion, he said,

"Julie Fowlis is among the best examples today of young musicians who have emerged from the Gaidhealtachd and trained in the Feisean movement. Julie has won many awards in her career so far. As Scotland's Gaelic Ambassador at the age of 29 I believe she is a positive upbeat role model. That's because she has determinedly stuck to performing in her own native tongue, North Uist Gaelic, and won the hearts of audiences in Scotland, England, America and the rest of Europe."

Rob, himself a seasoned singer and festival organiser continued,

"The importance of Julie's win comes at a time when Scotland is displaying a cultural vibrancy that can set a confident course for our unique linguistic inheritance as we approach the Year of Homecoming 2009. Even in troubled financial times we know as a nation how to sing."

"Well done Julie, you represent the very best of Scotland's outward-looking, traditionally-based musical culture which we invite all Scots and many others to enjoy."

Photo: Rob and Julie at Celtic Connections in Glasgow:

Draft motion submitted 11.10.08
The Parliament congratulates Julie Fowlis, traditional Gaelic singer and multi-instrumentalist, for gaining the accolade of first Gaelic Ambassador for Scotland; welcomes the Scottish Government's sponsorship of this new award announced at the National Mod in Falkirk; recalls that the First Minister, in opening the Mod itself, described Gaelic as a unique vehicle for passing Scottish understanding from one generation to the next; believes that the celebration of Gaelic raises the self-esteem of our national culture; and encourages all Scots to celebrate the contribution of Gaelic to our national fabric and praises the part Julie's warm personality and well-deserved public profile can play as a popular role model for all young singers and musicians.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Bank speculation behind every boom and bust

Column in the John O'Groat Journal

“Most stop-go problems that Britain has suffered in the last fifty years have been led or influenced by the more highly cyclical and often more volatile nature of our housing market.” With these words Gordon Brown as Chancellor for ten years put his finger on the core problem of each trade cycle. The quote appears in a book written by Fred Harrison published in 2005 entitled Boom Bust, house prices, banking and the depression of 2010.

Unfortunately our Prime Minister failed to heed the facts that every boom and bust since the eighteenth century has rested on bank speculation in land and property which has scythed through the savings of ordinary working people on each and every occasion. He was joined this week in failing to identify the roots of the problem by analysts as far apart politically as Will Hutton in The Observer and Eamon Butler of the Adam Smith Institute in Monday’s Scotsman who took a view of the current crisis starting in the 1890s and 1977 respectively.

As deputy convener of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee I and my colleagues are taking a series of soundings from banks and businesses as to the effects of the credit crunch and the liquidity crisis throughout the world.
The 18 year trade cycle has hit new highs in the widespread devastation across many countries that this present bust has triggered.

It has been noticeable that some commentators such as Alf Young in The Herald have quickly pounced on the problems of Ireland and Iceland. He dislikes the SNP emphasis on small northern European nations. We call them the Arc of Prosperity, he echoes Iain MacWhirter, also in The Herald who now says they are the Arc of Insolvency. However MacWhirter notes that Norway and Sweden, who the SNP would include in the Arc, are calm and weathering the storms having reformed their banks in previous crises.

What are we to make of the problems that rock financial institutions large and small, of nations large and small, too? Being large did not protect Lehman Brothers, failing to moderate the housing boom in Dublin did not protect the Irish economy and the Icelandic bank crash was caused by rash investments by Icelandic business in a wide range of consumer firms in Britain. Of course Ireland and Iceland are not clambering to return to rule by Britain and Denmark. We know that international rules will have to be developed to avoid the causes, not just the symptoms of this crisis in future.

All Holyrood committees will be picking elements of the Scottish government budget for next year and trying to suggest ways that the unprecedented world economic crash can be addressed by government-led investment here at home.

CHILD POVERTY indices have been published of late. Statistics that cover each Westminster constituency show that 44% of children in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross live in low income families. It is dreadful indictment of UK policies that condemn so many to the benefits trail. Campaigners say that low income means where no-one is working more than 16 hours a week or the family is receiving the full amount of Working Tax Credit. They say this is not a direct measure of exactly how many children are in poverty, but is a good indicator of which areas have the highest child poverty levels.

The Far North is in the upper half of the UK constituency figures for child poverty. Whilst Dounreay has underpinned a third of the family incomes over several decades the poverty of many others has steadily got worse when oil jobs disappeared, fishing and public service cuts reduced demand for shops and services. Now the world banking crisis and its knock on effect of likely increases in unemployment and consequent defaults on mortgages and deeper personal debt is in all our minds. But we need a determined effort to get low income families into real jobs that are not as part time as the campaigners identify as measures of poverty today.

The Scottish Parliament with limited spending powers has one hand tied behind our backs. But we will have to try and identify projects that the Government can back to rebuild shattered confidence and give young lives some much needed hope.

POST OFFICES that have survived closures and cuts are once again at the mercy of the Department of Work and Pensions in London. The DWP is largely responsible for the mess in which the Post Office network finds itself due to their decision to pressurise people to get pensions and benefits paid into bank accounts, slashing 40% of sub post office business.

Post Office card accounts were only introduced after fierce pressure and have proved to be a huge success, despite the obstacles put in its way by the UK government. It would be the ultimate act of vandalism if the DWP now compounded its original disastrous decision by removing the Card Account contract from the Post Office.

At a time of economic difficulty this would be a horrendous attack on the High Streets of towns and villages across Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and, indeed, the whole of Scotland.

So keeping Post Office branches going is just part of the job of getting our economy onto its feet after rounds of unwanted deregulation. We know that the wider economic crisis demands that all parties must work together to address this crisis and stabilise the economy.

Also the Chancellor must get ahead of events, act to protect people's savings and ensure proper liquidity in the banking system. Banks must also have the confidence to once again lend to each other and more importantly to individuals and businesses in the real economy. The Westminster Government has been on the back foot – reacting to events. The Scottish Government is seeking their help because we urgently need a more proactive approach with a comprehensive plan to bring stability back to the markets.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Hosting Slow Food Scotland

I entertained Catherine Gazzoli and Trevor Lathan of UK Slow Food on their visit to the Scottish Parliament. The prospects for setting up Slow Food Scotland are encouraged by their informal meeting with Richard Lochhead, Minister for Rural Affairs and Environment. Slow Food welcomed the innovation of the Scottish National Food and Drink Policy which is setting the pace in these islands.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

'Caithness will reap a tremendous harvest'

Article Published in the John O'Groat Journal
-By Iain Grant
Published: 01 October, 2008

FIRST Minister Alex Salmond has said nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of tapping the Pentland Firth's potential to become the energy powerhouse of Europe.

Speaking on Monday after the way was cleared for the first wave of full-sized demonstration tidal-powered generators in Scotland, Mr Salmond said the firth is at the epicentre of the country's green-energy drive.

He said the stretch of water off Caithness can generate "extraordinary, almost unimaginable" quantities of power.

He told delegates at a regeneration conference in Thurso that this can make the Far North to renewable energy what Saudi Arabia is to the oil industry.

Mr Salmond said that for a fully-fledged commercial operation to go ahead, a super-grid, serviced by a subsea cable, would be required.

This, he said, would be needed when the industry developed beyond the first phase, which is intended to produce more than 700 megawatts of energy.

This will include plans revealed on Monday by an offshoot of Scottish Power to go ahead with marine energy ventures in the firth, as well as in the Sound of Islay and off the North Antrim coast in Northern Ireland.

The firm's announcement came in the wake of the Crown Estate inviting interest for seabed leases for future wave and tidal energy devices.

Mr Salmond said: "This is a start but it's a big start.

"We're at the very beginning of this new frontier in tapping this huge new energy resource.

"This has been talked about for years but now its actually happening.

"It's not something for the next generation – it's something for the here and now."

He continued: "The potential of the Pentland Firth is quite staggering and the Crown Estate will play a crucial part in enabling developers to take the next step and turn tested, reliable technology into the next wave of generating stations, pumping out electricity for homes and business."

He said that as the technology advances, larger units would be installed and the power output would grow into the gigawatts.

The potential, he said, could comfortably exceed Scotland's electricity consumption, equating to the output of 20 conventional power stations.

"It's clear that this area is the epicentre of tidal resource and the opportunity it provides is extraordinary," he told delegates.

"The seas around Caithness are going to reap a tremendous harvest, to the benefit of us all.

"This is a hugely important day in terms of the dream of bringing marine energy in extraordinary, almost unimaginable quantities to reality in this part of Scotland – the Saudi Arabia of marine power."

Mr Salmond said that marine turbines are set to replace fast reactors as the driving energy force in the Far North.

He was clear that development would not be jeopardised by moves to create a new seabird nature reserve off Stroma.

Local community representatives and politicians have raised concerns that the fledgling industry could be killed off were the current seabird clifftop protection area extended two kilometres into the Inner Sound in the firth.

The Scottish Natural Heritage proposal is currently being considered by environment minister Mike Russell.

Mr Salmond said there is no way he would allow a conflict to arise.

"Government agencies have their statutory responsibilities and they have to be allowed to carry these out without interference," he explained. "But nothing is going to be allowed to stop or interrupt or destroy the potential Scotland has of harnessing the fantastic natural resources which exist in the firth.

"We cannot afford to strangle the gosling that may lay the golden egg."

Mr Salmond highlighted a headline in a recent article on marine energy in the US magazine Fortune, which read "Scotland rules the waves". He quipped: "One day I hope to see a Sunday Post headline that Caithness rules the waves."

"We're well ahead of the field in this area," he said.

"We're ahead of the world and we're determined to stay ahead in providing a fantastic new power source that can help save the planet.

"All of us – and certainly our environmental agencies – should be right behind this and working to ensure that there are no obstacles put in the way as this infant industry starts to develop."

Mr Salmond said it is vital that local companies get a big slice of the action in terms of manufacturing and servicing the seabed devices.

He also backed moves to seek to attract new energy-intensive industries to the area on the back of the developments earmarked for the firth.

Households and businesses bordering the subsea turbines should also benefit from cheaper energy bills, he claimed.

"We want to ensure that the area that produces the power gets the major benefits from the power," he explained. "The vast potential of the Pentland Firth will mean more investment, more jobs and more opportunities for Caithness."

Mr Salmond said his Government is continuing to press to get rid of the current surcharge on grid connection charges in the islands and outlying parts of the mainland.

The current regime, he said, needs to be radically overhauled given that it is the farthest flung parts of Scotland where the vast bulk of the new wave of renewable energy will be coming from.

In addition, he said a new subsea inter-connector or super-grid is essential before the larger-scale generating devices are installed in the firth.

He believed this should be linked up with the continent as well as to the national grid.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise has just commissioned consultants to look at options to secure this much-sought after new link.

The Crown Estate's control over the seabed had long been viewed as a deterrent to marine energy developments around the Scottish coast.

But this was removed on Monday when the agency set out details of leases it is to offer for wave and tidal energy projects.

In the first announcement of its kind, the agreements are geared to produce over 700 megawatts by 2020.

The deadline for applications is April next year with the first devices scheduled to be in the water by 2010.

The Crown Estate has made it clear that firms whose bids include clearly defined community benefits will be favoured.

Rob Hastings, of the Crown Estate, said: "Unlocking the potential in the Pentland Firth is crucial to meeting Scottish Government renewable energy targets, stimulating the north of Scotland economy and boosting the fledgling renewables industry.

"The Crown Estate is keen to play a central role in generating confidence among investors and the process we are announcing is an important step towards achieving just that.

"As well as the economic opportunities, the area could become a world-class centre of excellence in wave and tidal power development, research, testing and environmental monitoring."

Scottish Power, meanwhile, announced it intends to go ahead with between five and 20 tidal turbines in the firth and the same number in the other two sites.

It has invested £1 million to set up a new company, Hammerfest Strom AS, in a joint venture with two Norwegian energy companies to spearhead what would be the world's largest tidal stream venture.

The sites in the firth, off Islay and North Antrim will deploy Norwegian-designed tidal turbines, assuming final tests prove positive.

The two-bladed, 30-metre tall devices, which have been likened to underwater wind turbines, are connected to an electrical generator mounted on a steel tower which is fixed to the seabed.

The three sites have the potential to generate a total of 60 megawatts – enough green energy for over 40,000 homes The company, which expects to have planning applications lodged by next summer with the devices scheduled to be installed by 2011, is considering basing its manufacturing in the Far North.

Keith Anderson, director of ScottishPower Renewables, said: “This is a historic day for the development of marine energy.

“The rapid technological advancement of tidal power has enabled us to progress plans for this substantial project which has the real potential to deliver significant environmental and economic benefits.”

Mr Anderson said a lead Scotland once had in wind power was not capitalised upon, with Denmark and Germany taking the initiative in developing the technology.

He said: “Tidal power provides Scotland with another chance to become the global leader in a new renewable energy industry.”

Monday’s announcement by the Crown Estate was welcomed by Dutch company Tocardo, which was the first to firm up plans for a marine energy development in the firth.

Managing director Hans van Breugel, who attended the conference along with operations director Pieter de Haas, said it is now seeking to secure a lease to allow it to go ahead with a 10 megawatt prototype plant.

“We have leased land at Wick harbour where we are to build the plant and we have secured a grid connection,” he explained. “The missing part in the jigsaw had been the Crown Estate lease and we’re very pleased with this announcement today as we can move forward fairly quickly.

“We’d be looking to have a device in the water by early 2010.”

Looking to the future, Mr van Breugel warned that a full-scale commercial operation will not happen without a new subsea power cable.

“That is the only way we as an industry will invest in the long term,” he said. “Everyone agrees the firth is an unrivalled site for marine energy but if there’s no grid connection, you’re not going to get the jobs and benefits that will come from major developments.

“That is a major obstacle which needs to be addressed and solved in the next five to six years, then there is a fantastic future here.”

Mr van Breugel anticipated his company’s Wick operation growing to employ 50 to 60 in four years’ time.

But he warned: “For us to make a final investment decision, we must be confident that this grid connection will take place.”


Far North MSP Jamie Stone yesterday called for the supply of cheap electricity to local households and businesses on the back of marine energy ventures in the Pentland Firth.

He said: “I believe that business parks should be established in the land areas adjacent to where the energy is produced. They should be supplied with cheap electricity below the national price.

“The effect of this would be that many businesses would consider relocating to the Far North. In addition, there could be opportunities here for local households.”

The Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross Lib Dem MSP intends to raise the issue during First Minister’s question time tomorrow.

Highlands and Islands SNP MSP Rob Gibson said that the commitment shown by the SNP Government to renewable energy will pay great dividends to the economies of Caithness, Orkney and north Sutherland.

Commenting on the news that ScottishPower Renewables has identified the Pentland Firth as one of its sites for commercial tidal farms, and that the Crown Estate has decide to open the Pentland Firth seabed for commercial marine energy projects, Mr Gibson said: “This is extremely welcome news for Caithness, Orkney and beyond.

“The First Minister’s announcement marks the start of a new period in marine renewable development and it is clear that the Pentland Firth as well as the areas bordering it will the centre of that development.”

“The conference was a success and shows that the wide community of Caithness is focusing in on moving towards a new future.

“The organisers deserve huge credit for their work.”

“The enormous opportunities that the Pentland Firth offers mean increased investment, more jobs and new opportunities. I find that prospect exciting.”

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Diary in the Ross-Shire Journal

The huge fall-out from the credit crunch has dominated First Minister’s Questions for three weeks on the proposed merger of HBOS with Lloyds TSB. Obviously the two banks have branches here in Dingwall, for how long? Our EET committee questioned representatives of the financial services and house builders. Meanwhile various solutions to save HBOS jobs and indeed the very substance of our oldest Scottish bank fill the airwaves.

Poignantly I picked out a copy of the Bank of Scotland’s history in the new Dingwall library at the Academy. It celebrated three hundred years of service since 1695. The copy was inscribed by the members of staff in the Dingwall branch. How much longer will they serve us as a proud and independent high street bank?

Alex Salmond’s call for greater regulation of financial transactions is welcome. I note that these disappeared almost entirely during the reign of Gordon Brown as Chancellor and PM. I also note that the eighteen year trade cycle has once again brought misery to many without Brown or the USA addressing the issue. Yet many of our neighbours such as France and Germany have much tighter banking regulation and have no such huge crisis in their economies.

SCOTTISH Parliamentary business is brisk. I sit on two committees with overlapping remits that involves extra seminars on energy and climate change. We are pursuing a detailed energy enquiry and preparing for the Climate Change bill expected in December.

That’s the staple diet of committee work. Also a hectic series of chamber debates affect us in Ross-shire. I spoke on the Government Future Programme on our first day back citing the importance of the North in contributing to our clean energy targets. The following week it was our Ferry Enquiry. We scrutinised Less Favoured Areas to seek a way forward for our livestock sector and vibrant communities in tough financial times. The next day I had to sum up for the Economy, Energy and Tourism [EET] committee as to whether we can grow our tourism income by 50% in the next seven years. All go!

A FORTNIGHT ago I attended a Highland Health Summit in Inverness Townhouse. Ideas for our public health were debated. MSPs, NHS, the police, prisons and Highland Council officers pitched in. Staff credit unions were suggested, credit crunch well in mind. Other suggested that volunteering even for an hour a month would be health promoting. A strong lobby sought the targeting of families with lower health prospects who often came to the attention of schools, doctors, social work, the courts etc.

My suggestion was that everyone should be given the opportunity to grow some of their own food. We heard that prisoners take pride in the cabbages they grow in Porterfield. Medics were intrigued at the idea of families having a few square metres of deep beds or allotments. Then I was delighted to read in The Herald Magazine that Monty Don is back to health. The former presenter of BBC Gardener’s World believes that the Scottish Government first national food and drink plan is in stark contrast to the UK Government’s lack of concern for home production. He envisages a national network of local communities sharing seed, knowledge, time and elbow grease, and believes he has enough of the common touch to persuade people to do it.

When you drive north on the A9 from Alness neat rows of huts and plots at Milnafua are seen. Demand grows in Inverness. We heard that Highland Council agreed in August to promote allotments so local food is on the menu with every year that passes.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Far North is key to Scottish economy take off

Photo: Rob and Danny Miller display Mey Selections produce.

CONFERENCE season for political parties can be inspiring, or fretful. Following the gaffes of Lib Dem UK leader Nick Clegg where he promised tax cuts, MSPs asked last week in the Less Favoured Areas debate why Lib Dems wanted more spending on their favourite causes.

From what part of their planned £800 million cuts in the Scottish budget would they come? Can we expect Wick High School to be replaced? Can we really get fair fuel prices while London holds tight on the purse strings?

Meanwhile New Labour in Manchester this week reminds us of a tale of two governments. London Labour is on the way out while the SNP Government is getting on with the job of governing. Newly-elected Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray spoke of being born in the NHS, meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon was restoring fairness to the NHS with the launch of a legally enforceable 12-week waiting time for surgery, Scotland's police were recording record drug seizures and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond was continuing his fight to keep Bank of Scotland jobs in Scotland.

Iain Gray attracted a very poor turnout for his conference speech as he faced another electoral disaster for his party and for himself. That's what a huge UK-wide analysis of real elections shows – that he would lose his own seat at the next Scottish Parliament elections.

In recent real elections such as in Glasgow last Thursday, the SNP won with a seven per cent swing from Labour. And with another election coming up in Glenrothes, voters know the SNP is on their side over rising fuel and energy bills whilst a distant Labour party is out of touch. In contrast the SNP conference scheduled for Perth from 16 to 19 October will be well-attended and upbeat.

NEVERTHELESS the mood music behind today's politics is scored by a precarious economy. It is a sobering reminder that Gordon Brown's 10-year stint as chancellor charted no end to boom and bust as he promised. Indeed the 18-year trade cycle hit its last big bust in 1992. That was part of the substance of my questions to panels of bankers and house builders in the economy, energy and tourism committee.

The credit crunch was our subject, the local threats to banks in Thurso, Wick, Kirkwall and Tain where there are both HBOS and Lloyds TSB branches, was very much in mind. What has to be explained is the increasingly lax regulation of our financial system during the Gordon Brown years. Also the outrageous nationalisation of key firms such as AIG in the USA and Northern Rock in the UK merely keep the current flawed system limping on. But investors and shareholders in previously sound companies are big losers along with every family that seeks a bank loan or mortgage. As for bank employees, First Minister Alex Salmond is trying to save the Bank of Scotland's jobs and repute through a cross-party banking summit.

It remains to be seen how we maintain access to development funds for the likes of tidal power, for rebuilding schools and all other public sector-led projects. That's why the Scottish Future's Trust set up by the SNP Government is crucial. Local moves could also try prudent borrowing for repair projects such as the Wick High School swimming pool, and the setting-up of credit unions in each part of the country. The issue of credit able to be repaid is at the roots of our economic revival. I note with interest that the value of farm and estate land hasn't been affected by the global uncertainties.

We are told that borrowers on the strength of a piece of land have to put up a third of the value in cash before having loans approved. That clearly has not happened in the housing market. Also MSPs noted that the French and German economies are not as deeply affected as that of the UK. So the market in housing has to be transformed if we are to avoid another credit crunch.

Debating the problems facing Less Favoured Areas, such as Caithness and Orkney, MSPs agreed that the wise words of the report on our hills and islands produced by the Royal Society of Edinburgh quite correctly recognised that vibrant communities are the key to life in any part of the country.

AS we have just celebrated Scottish Food Fortnight I am deeply impressed that growing much more of our own food and seeing it on supermarket shelves is a top priority. My recent visit to Mey Selections is evidence that good food, local markets, wider supermarket sales and supporting local hotels with top grade produce all go hand in hand.

Here in Caithness we have a model that is the envy of others. Doing what we do best such as producing fine cattle and sheep for market must be supported. Also this week I was delighted to read that Monty Don, the recent presenter of the BBC's Gardener's World agrees. He backs the SNP Government and its national food policy which aims to feed the nation better from our resources.

But we can do much more, I do hope that the Caithness Regeneration Conference next week will see a burst of renewed confidence for the county.

Certainly the plans for tidal power schemes are developing, the much expanded Caithness Chamber of Commerce should be able to take an industry lead to expand our energy potential using the multi-layered skills of the Far North work force. When Alex Salmond addresses the delegates there should be no doubt left in anyone's mind, Caithness, north Sutherland and Orkney are key bases for take-off in the Scottish economy.

Photo: Rob conducted the transport workshop with thirty participants in a mind mapping exercise at the Caithness regeneration Conference in Thurso on 29th September