Thursday, 31 December 2009

Carbon routes to Copenhagen – and beyond

Reflections as an observer of the missed chances at COP15.

Glenn Campbell on BBC Newsnight tried to belittle any part Scots participants might play in Copenhagen ahead of the UN Climate Change Summit. I retorted that if it brought the biggest polluters the USA, China, India and Brazil to the table that would be a first. I also pointed out that Scotland’s world leading targets gave us every incentive to develop our huge renewable energy potential without delay despite Scotland’s pitch at Copenhagen being sidelined by UK Labour for petty parochial reasons.

Scottish media coverage took the same disparaging tone of the Scottish government presence. Sour comments in the press followed the pledge by Green co-leader MSP Patrick Harvie to pay out of pocket extra costs to take the train the Danish capital. In the event he was accompanied by Graeme Cook, chief environment researcher for SPICe at Holyrood. I was a late sub for my colleague Shirley Anne Somerville. So Cathy Peattie and I along with our Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change TICC committee clerk Alastair Macfie used more CO2 to fly on Sunday 13 December from Edinburgh to Amsterdam thence to Copenhagen as that was ‘cheaper’. Of course a direct flight would have saved some more GHG emissions. In the time it took to gain parliamentary approval sleepers on trains were booked up requiring an overnight stop in Cologne for Patrick and Graeme. Also Cathie and I did have the party whips awaiting our return unlike Patrick.

The transport system in Denmark is a joy. A 20 minute journey by comfortable electric trains runs every 25 minutes between Copenhagen airport and Malmö in Sweden where our hotel was booked. The UN had block-booked five night stays for all accommodation. We could only stay three, but the Parliament still had to pay for five!

Monday 14 December

Malmö centre is a haven of pedestrian and cycle friendly old streets with old Swedish gothic kirks next to swish shops. Bicycle parking is huge. The rail station packed with frequent trains hugely well used in this university town.

On retracing our rail trip to Ǿrestad and one Metro stop to the Bella Centre the scale of our problems emerged seen from high above the surrounding streets. Near stationary crowds queued all day in the hope of accreditation. It soon emerged that the queue for entry to the UN summit premises was even longer! We took our place and stuck it for 20 freezing minutes while engaging with would-be observers. Graeme Cook decided to queue on.

Richard Dixon of WWF Scotland approached us and described the near impossibility of access. We decided to walk back to Ǿrestad and cut our losses by Metro to Islands Brygge where the Scottish Low Carbon Mission events were held in a bright and cheery gallery complex or Koncersal named after a living Danish artist Mogens Dahl.

Friends asked me before we left Edinburgh what we might hope to achieve. In my view whatever international contacts I could make in Copenhagen would strengthen understanding of Scotland’s world-leading climate busting law. In tandem I would seek as much direct communication with activists from other lands to cement ways to cooperate whatever the outcome of the UN summit talks.

The Scottish Mission Day proved an inspiration. We rubbed shoulders and ideas with dozens of British Council climate champions from a slew of countries, with the Edinburgh University Climate Masters, students from a another dozen lands. Stand out moments included these student speakers’ abilities and enthusiasm. Each of them dispelled our ifs and buts. Above all Mary Robinson, former Irish President and UN human rights commissioner cut to the quick.

The painstaking document building of the past two years had just been trashed in the Bella Centre. Her theme of climate justice: engaging wider society was heart rending. Some 39 references to gender issues had been painfully negotiated into the first draft. After all 70% of small farmers in developing countries are women. How could they cope if Africa is allowed to fry? Prof Alan Miller chairing the session apologized that no other women appeared on the panel!

At the snack lunch and pre-dinner reception I talked with a young Uzbek climate champion Guzal Sultankhodjayeva. Her mission was education with a sustainable edge. A Swedish professional Kaj Wôgdahl works in climate-proofing buildings and he shared some thoughts on the complacency of the Swedish government. It could consult the Scots Government to refresh its targets. I made domestic contacts too and considered it profitable start. A key stunt [according to The Guardian later in the week] was the 20-20 Malt Whisky brought from Scotland. At 42° proof it neatly set out our reduction target. Also present wearing a kilt was Michael Marra of Stop Climate Change Chaos Scotland. We were both determined to highlight the Scottish ambitions as visually as possible.

During the evening reception a frozen Graeme Cook arrived after seven frustrating food and drink-free hours in the queue to get in touching distance of accreditation. He determined to get up at 5 next morning and try again. Indeed he was to succeed. Patrick did the same later in the day and he too got his burgundy lanyard and yellow Non-Governmental pass.

Tuesday 15 December

Alastair, Cathie and I visited the Klima Forum in downtown København. Patrick and Graeme had been there two days before as they arrived ahead of us. I was peeved at missing José Bové the French anti GM activist. They complained there was no French translation that night. Hopefully I could have got the gist.

We hoped to enter auditorium for the Climate Leaders Summit 2009 as sub-national governments around the world made their pitch to aid a global climate deal through highlighting their own work. Scotland, Ontario, North Rhine-Westphalia, Victoria, São Paulo, Quebec and California were on the bill. All we heard from Scots media was that Gov Schwarzenegger had pulled out and snubbed Alex Salmond. The event was chaired by Helen Clark, former New Zealand premier and UN Development Administrator. Bulky brochures from ‘The Office of Tony Blair’ littered the press area.... However these governments are world leaders and the official UN agreements in future will follow their lead. Check their website:

Around twenty demonstrators were ejected by a big police presence just before we arrived. Otherwise security was relaxed. We watched a couple of speeches on monitors and chatted to BBC Scotland radio journalist David Miller who tried throughout the week to reflect what was actually being discussed at the UN Summit and in satellite meetings. We then wandered through the people’s summit stalls and events. The green, blue, orange and purple halls beckoned. Resisting the wiles of the orange hall I found gold dust among the NGO displays in the purple hall.

There I spied a huge poster with a picture of two dozen combine harvesters reaping, or raping the broad pampas lands; captioned ‘Chemical no-till agriculture can never be a carbon sink! – Change the System – not the Climate – Rural Reflection Group of Argentina. Rapidly I had found out that they were the contacts used by GM Freeze. I met Jorge Eduardo Rulli and Stella Maris Semino. Pictures were taken and a quick exchange of mutual understanding gained. What a chance to set up a meeting between the NFUS and these concerned farmers from Argentina whose land is trashed to grow GM soya that feeds our pigs at home. I blogged my intentions for such an encounter that same lunchtime in a Danish version of Costa Coffee.

News that Graeme had got accredited cheered us. We still awaited Patrick’s progress but ‘radio silence’ continued. He had apologised in advance for missing our planned meetings with Dansk Cyklist Forbund DCF and the City of Copenhagen traffic department. Our TICC committee enquiry on healthy travel was much enhanced by the NGO and Council officers we met. Lise Bjørg Pedersen the DCF political officer outlined the campaigns that had boosted cycling facilities and attitudes to reach the 37% of journeys to work and school in the city by bike.

Niels Tørsløv director of the traffic department of the city council’s technical and environmental administration revealed how over seventy years the cycling city had evolved. Wet snow was falling as we walked to these meetings but he assured us that an average 80% of normal cycle journeys were taken in winter conditions. The city cleared snow and ice from cycle lanes ahead of the roads!

The Scottish five were re-united at nearby Sam’s Bar with news that Patrick had also gained entry to the Bella Centre under our Global NGO grouping [Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment]. We had to skip the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association reception and he and I headed for an inaugural meeting of the Climate Parliament in an old seaman’s bar in Christianshavn.

Parliamentarians from Iceland to India, Italia to Escocia shared ideas about a huge network of energy grids across Europe and other world regions. Our host was LibDem MEP Graham Watson and his team. Among those I met were the Liberal deputy mayor of Ixelles in Brussels, a Norwegian Conservative MP and the illusive Rafael our GLOBE phone contact in the pyrrhic accreditation process at the UN summit. I had the longest discussion with Italian MEP Vittorio Prodi from Bologna. His great hope was to harness solar energy from the Sahara and pipe electricity to southern Europe. In return he wants biomass to green the former bread basket of the Roman Empire in Tunisia and Algeria.

Over a typical Danish dinner of fish courses and meat we debated in a small wood lined room whose walls were covered in photo mementos of Danish sail training cadets who hold regular reunions on the premises.

All too soon we departed with two female Flemish and Swedish MPs for Malmö. I had a hair’s breadth chase to catch the 11.48pm train as Patrick chatted to the guard as I bought a ticket. Had we all been accredited, travel passes would have been received.

Wednesday 15 December

We all agreed that no early morning heroics were in order. We all checked out and headed to Copenhagen. Patrick and Graeme, who was leaving by sleeper that night aimed for the Bella Centre again. I returned to the Klima Forum. After lunch we headed to the airport to take the aerial sausage machine back to Edinburgh. Earlier Alastair met Patrick and Graeme photographing the Little Mermaid – unable to gain access to the Bella Centre.

Politically it became clear that the summit was in deep crisis. Those of us who did not gain access to the hallowed UN summit knew as much as those who were accredited. Watching TV in the Danish capital pictures of small demos corralled by increasingly tetchy riot police gave a depressing confirmation that global gatherings follow a pattern no matter how well-intentioned the negotiators.


As the ‘Copenhagen Accord’ was cobbled together all the hopes of 40,000 folk from across the planet who had converged on Copenhagen were severely dashed. The UN plenary session that crashed the gavel on a stitch up between the USA, China, India, South Africa and Brazil gained grudging, dog-tired assent from the EU and others.

The Bella Centre could only hold 10,000, a number that was reduced for observers to 90 on Friday 18 December. The frustrations of activists were palpable and totally justified. President Obama, as the FT pointed out on Wednesday 15 is US president, not world leader. The opaque refusal of China to accept targets never mind verification of emission reductions has been highlighted. However villages, towns, regions and countries across the globe are set to show the way.

From Scotland’s perspective the EU targets of 30% reductions by 2020 must be adhered to. Our green renewables revolution can transform our economy and can provide a platform for exporting technologies as well as power. Our contacts with like-minded legislators and activists must underpin a legally binding World Climate Change Treaty as soon in 2010 as practicable, most likely in Mexico next December.

There can be no back sliding to accommodate the benighted attitudes found among US legislators and employers who see only unnecessary cost in a shift from ‘business as usual’. Yet the BBC Scotland poll 61% of respondents agreed or tended to agree that they believe their behaviour and everyday lifestyle contributes to climate change.

That gives encouragement to stick to our SNP Government position. With unanimity the Scottish Parliament passed our world leading climate law. By signing a partnership with the President of the Maldives Alex Salmond indicated that Scotland intends to work at home and with those abroad for whom climate change is a life or death matter.

There’s much to do to make a start. But the haunting words of Louisiana ‘swamp rocker’ Tony Joe White linger in my mind after the Copenhagen climate trip. His 1991 album contained the title track that concludes:

Who’s going to tell the children?
How the rivers used to flow crystal blue
We keep leaving scars on mother earth
And move in closer to the truth.

Scottish solution to Scotland's needs

A DECADE ends and another begins. We look back and peer forward, so what can we divine from our recent past and what resolutions should we make in the New Year?

For all Scots the metaphor is rightly that of the glass half empty or the glass half full. Physically for many of us the issues of obesity and alcoholism have come to dominate this decade in our well-off land. This neatly contrasts with starvation and want in much of the poor world, particularly Africa and Asia where deserts grow and oceans rise - the galloping horsemen of climate change apocalypse which add a searing threat to self-inflicted ill-health here at home.

As ever I see positives for our future. It came as no surprise that the trade cycle would end in slump around now. Each eighteen years the same issues arise. What came as the greatest surprise was the extent that globalised banking was up past its neck in so much bad debt. To learn from experience we need different forms of tax in future at local, national and international levels to capture the unearned wealth we lost through under-regulated and socially useless banking practices.

Property speculation is usually at the root of such ill-advised investment; this time sub-prime entered the global vocabulary. Land value taxes could even out the financial peaks and troughs. Also a transaction tax, or Tobin Tax – named after a Nobel Prize winning American Economist in 1981 - on international bank deals could fund the £300 billion the poor world needs now to tackle their urgent climate issues. Will David Cameron back Gordon Brown and other EU leaders to press the issue at the G20?

A UK age of austerity is certain. What a pity the Church of Scotland minister’s son Gordon Brown forgot that the biblical seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine. Thanks to my friend Prof. James Mitchell of Strathclyde University for spotting that useful analogy. Whoever governs the UK after the General Election next spring has to slash the huge borrowings incurred by the London Government to bail out the bankers. Why should we have to suffer?

Readers should have experienced how aspirations in various parts of a very different UK that has developed in the past ten years. That’s why TV debates between three Westminster political leaders do not fit the diverse nature of these islands today. Scotland, Wales, the north of Ireland and London have legitimate and growing confidence as distinct law making nations, provinces and world city. Failing to reflect that growing diversity in Westminster politicking and media coverage is deliberately blinkered, arrogant and tries to ignore these diverse realities.

Remember in 2007 how the Scottish Government instigated a Broadcasting Commission that exposed the glaring bias against coverage of Scotland from London and confirmed the vast under-funding of Scots TV production by Scots in Scotland. If the UK is to mean anything by 2020 it has to give each devolved area its head to be all they can be. There is scant evidence that the broadcasting bosses have changed their metropolitan mindset.

Looking out from our snowbound land I am so proud of Scotland’s participation in the Climate Leaders Summit in the Klima Forum at Copenhagen. What a stark contrast to the shambles I witnessed at the Bella Centre in Copenhagen in the United Nations attempts to create a worldwide climate treaty. Note the title Climate Leaders, that’s where Alex Salmond was welcomed. Among his commitments such as 50% of Scotland’s electricity from clean renewables by 2020 he also made a pact to work with the Maldives, that island nation which clings on to land no more than two metres above sea level. He joined leaders from Ontario, North Rhine-Westphalia, Victoria, Sao Paulo, Quebec and California to strike a global deal between sub-national governments. Each of their targets show what we are doing and where we lead the nations at the UN top table will need to follow.

Earlier I talked of appropriate taxes for this climate change age. May I say we need carrots as well as sticks. But first, when you have energy for sale, be it oil or electricity there must be benefits to the producers and those whose resource is utilised. Recent TV shows have highlighted the deliberate downplay of Scotland’s oil resources since the 1971 discoveries in the North Sea. Their revenues have fed London’s policies which have never put Scotland’s sustainability first.

Just this week the Secretary of State for Scotland with a propaganda office based in Whitehall tells us again we could not make a go as a country with full tax powers because oil revenues won’t bridge the gap in current spending. Creative arithmetic can tell you anything, just like the bankers and their collateralised debt obligations.

London’s proud record is such that Scotland has always lagged behind the UK average in growing our economy. They have proved to this day that Scotland having discovered oil is the first nation to get poorer as a result.

That need not be so in future. We can complete the powers of the Scottish Parliament. We can vote for a Scottish solution to Scotland’s needs. So getting out and voting in the British General election this spring is essential; voting in our proposed independence referendum in the autumn even better. It is not a wasted vote for SNP whose target isn’t No.10 Downing Street. All other parties refuse to allow Scotland to flourish for it is an inconvenience to their selfish interests.

There’s much to do in the New Year. Enjoy the festivities and turn the good feelings of 2009, the Year of Homecoming, into 2010 the year to bring home full powers to the Scottish Parliament and let all parts of Scotland flourish in a climate savvy world. Bliadhna Mhath Ur! A Guid New Year tae you and yours.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Getting our ducks in a row

Pictured with fellow CC Committee Member Cathy Peattie, visiting with Politisk Chef (Chief Political Officer) Lise Bjorn Pedersen of the Danish Cyclists Forum viewing the modern attractive bikes on sale in Copenhagen

This week I was privileged to attend the Copenhagen Conference as a Climate Change Committee Member from the Scottish Parliament. Be it noted that my colleague Shirley Anne Somerville was slotted in but had to call off. The huge task for this planet is to measure how we in Scotland can contribute to the international debate and also make progress in this country to achieve the goals that we set ourselves in the world leading Climate Change Act passed in June.

As I said in Parliament last week, the phrase "getting our ducks in a row" comes to mind. In the 1980s, Dr Salter was developing wave power. Had he been given the go-ahead, wave and tidal power might have been developed at a much earlier stage. The science has been talked about for several decades but is only now being developed. London-based Government agencies scuppered Salter’s ducks so it is important that we get our ducks in a row now.

We have a fantastic opportunity. As Jim Mather, the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism said in welcoming the Wood Mackenzie study backing renewable energy development: "We enjoy a vast array of potentially cheap renewable energy sources and harnessing that potential will create thousands of long-term jobs while reducing emissions." I wholeheartedly agree.

Where powers over the development of those energy sources lie is a crucial issue that can act as a drag on development. Remember that we are working at a competitive disadvantage in relation to energy distribution in rules made in the Thatcher period and which is unfit for purpose. The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets OfGEM proposals with which we have had to deal are costing us millions a year more to produce power here compared to south-east England. This makes it difficult to help Scotland, let alone Britain, to reduce its emissions as quickly as we might do. We need to change those conditions. Sustainability is at last being built into UK law. I hope that that will change the form of regulation in our favour.

The body that the London Parliament hardly ever seems to hold to account is the Crown Estate, the tax collectors of the seas who make a lot of money for the London Treasury. Meanwhile they are taking far too long to put in place the licences that will help us to develop tidal and wave power and offshore wind farms in areas such as the Pentland and Moray Firths. The processes are complex—the Crown Estate has to see that licensees can deliver. However, the fact is that the Crown Estate is not within the control of the Scottish Parliament, we need to get that control.

I am full of praise for the work of the North Scotland Industries group. Its chief executive, Ian Couper, told its annual general meeting this week:

"By 2013, I want the North of Scotland and the Islands to be recognised as the renewable energy centre for Scotland and the UK ... This is where the majority of activity will be happening for the UK and we need to blow our trumpet a bit more, to make more people aware of our strengths in this sector."

We should not only blow our trumpet but make the case that we must have the powers over the development of the sector that will aid the process. It is up to members of the Scottish Parliament to confront some of the issues that are holding back development. It is for that reason that I mentioned UK bodies that are guilty.

Additionally, an issue raised in the energy section of The Press and Journal last week criticises the failure of some of our well-known high street banks to put up money for the energy development. Some banks like HSBC are investing, but we must ensure that banks that are based in Scotland such as RBS and HBOS and which take deposits from Scotland are seen to be using that money for developments in offshore renewables. After all, renewables pose far less risk than the way in which the banks gambled our money in the past. It is important that that focus is kept on the banks.

Despite the mixture of powers currently shared between London and Edinburgh, the EU's policy for renewables development— a possible 30% reduction in GHG by 2020—provides us with a lot of opportunities. It is up to Scots to ensure that North Sea grids are eventually laid at a later stage after the overland grid is upgraded and carry the precious endless clean electricity to our markets.

Imagine a city of half a million people saving 90,000 tonnes of CO2 every year due to cycling instead of car and bus journeys. That's what Copenhagen achieves through a staggering 37% of journeys to school and work being done in the saddle.

I've learned so much of practical benefit to us back home at the Climate Change Summit, or more precisely on the fringes and through arranged meetings in the city. So why can't we do such ground breaking health promoting travel here? No reason why not. The Holyrood Committee enquiry into cycling and walking has to be practical for our climate. So its a sobering thought that 80% of normal cycle journeys continue in winters in Denmark. They just clear the snow from cycle lanes before they do the roads.

Much more from me and the Copenhagen experience next time. Merry Christmas when it comes.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Blogging from Copenhagen 5

(Photo: One stop from Bella Centre where the Queues stretched to all day.)

Tuesday afternoon meetings with cycling federation and city adminstration in Copenhagen were fruitful.

Imagine a city of half a million people saving 90,000 tonnes of CO2 every year due to cycling instead of car and bus journeys. That's what Copenhagen achieves through a staggering 37% of journeys to school and work being done in the saddle.

I've learned so much of practical benefit to us back home at the Climate Change Summit, or more precisely on the fringes and through arranged meetings in the city. So why can't we do such ground breaking health promoting travel here? No reason why not. The Holyrood Committee enquiry into cycling and walking has to be practical for our climate. So its a sobering thought that 80% of normal cycle journeys continue in winters in Denmark. They just clear the snow from cycle lanes before they do the roads.

Also the Climate Parliament gathering in Christianhaven brought elected parliamentarians from Iceland to India and from Scotland to Sweden in a discussion on huge energy grids to serve all of Europe. There's so much to discuss on this it will require a longer note.

Meantime Patrick managed to hold the train for 1 minute to let me get a ticket and sprint down the ramp to catch the 11.48pm train to Malmo. Now I can say I've been to Sweden and Denmark three times each, on subsequent day. A frequent visitor on a superlative electric train service.

More on snowflakes and Klimaa Forum later. Can't see the big talks making substantial money available to make this accord on Friday a truly historic event. We'll see...


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Blogging from Copenhagen 4

Patrick waited 3 hours in queue to get into Bella centre today. Cathy, Alastair and I went to Klimaa Forum instead, mixed with press, chatted to David Miller of BBC Scotland.

Climate Leaders Summit is in full swing. No entry for many, but saw speeches on screen in press area, then visited huge expo with worldwide groups. Very ecclectic.

Among stalls in the purple hall I met Argentinian Grupo de Reflexion Rural. Many pictures taken. They are the source of our GMO info from Argentina. Delighted to meet Scots MSP - they feed Anthony Jackson with info for GM Freeze and also into SNP.

We can arrange a meeting for Stella Semino who lives in Denmark but travels to UK. The big issue is GM soya fed to pigs in Scotland and across Europe. A meetng between Argentinia rural group and NFUS would be most interesting indeed.

Have been able to collect a bagful of materials on many subjects for Xmas reading.


Blogging from Copenhagen 3

Our day in the outskirts of Copenhagen at Morgens Dahl Konceral had big highlights. In particular, Mary Robinson 2030 Project Catalyst - if Cop15 isn't a success for developing countries then it's not a success for the developed countries! A multi-sectoral approach to climate change is essential.

Also the Climate Masters from Edinburgh Uni brought youthful rigour to the scene. Later a young South African woman from their group told me that it was great for young people to be heard and influence grey haired deciders.

News from Bella Centre bad as Graeme spent 6 hours queuing for accreditation and failed. Organisers have been unprepared for such numbers. Exhibitors, speakers, even ministers can't get in! A radical rethink on organisation needed and later in the week it's likely to be even tighter. So we will aim at events downtown including activist Klimaa Forum if time.

Already good contacts have been made and Climate Parliament tomorrow will focus on electric grid issues. Right up my street. Skip o snow outside. Speak again soon, promise of some 20 20 whisky that is 42 proof to toast our guests.


Monday, 14 December 2009

Blogging from Copenhagen 2

Queues for Bella Centre impossible. 25,000 registered for 15,000 places. Rationing delegates will happen. Looks very difficult from here. We left Graham Cook to get himself registered. We shall see.

The Scottish Government do is well attended, with 150 from countries across the globe. All are sporting 42% Saltire badges. Hopng the 20-20 whisky makes an appearance. Now expecting snow.

Blogging from Copenhagen

Got in last night as part of the Climate Change Committee delegation of the Scottish Parliament - here with Convener Patrick Harvie as well as Cathy Peattie.

There was a slight skiff of powder snow at the station on arrival. They added 6 extra cars to accommodate half the planet en route for climate central in Bella Centre, Copenhagen.

Last night was beatiful and central Malmo is quality - pedestrianised and swish.

Graham and Patrick were able to hear Jose Bove at Klimaa Forum a big activist hangout near main station in the Danish capital.

Expect queues for registration but already conversations overheard of delegates and observers earnestly attempting to address the biggest chance of global action ever.

Keep you posted from Scottish Mission today.


Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Much needed boost for broadband announced

Today the Scottish Government announced an upgrade of 71 telephone exchanges to improve online services. This is a timely announcement and one I will welcome in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament when 'Broadband for Rural Scotland' is debated this evening.

Due to high broadband take-up, a number of telephone exchanges in rural areas of Scotland have not been able to accommodate new users because of capacity constraints and today's announcement will go a long way in relieving that strain.

I am extremely pleased to see a number of small settlements throughout the Highlands, in particular Durness, the Craigs, Gillock, Lyth, Tongue, Berriedale, Kinbrace, Rosehall, Scourie, Westerdale, Achiltibuie and North Erradale, as well as many throughout the Islands, have been identified for upgrade.

At the beginning of this year I issued an report on the findings of a broadband consultation I conducted throughout my constituency. The numbers of hard pressed families and businesses operating with inadequate speeds and provisions, or even no internet at all, is simply insufferable in today's modern age.

Upgrades in these acutely identified areas will go some way in improving the situation, though the job of increasing capacity, reach and speed in Scotland's rural areas is still far from finished and requires BT to offer equal access as enjoyed by city dwellers.
Full details of the 71 exchanges to be upgraded follows:

Argyll and the Islands - Coll, Colonsay, Gigha, Jura, Pirnmill, Kilchattan Bay, Kilfinan, Machrie, Pennyghael, Sliddery, Whitehouse

Ayrshire - Craigie, Straiton

Caithness and Sutherland - The Craigs, Durness, Gillock, Lyth, Tongue, Berriedale, Kinbrace, Rosehall, Scourie, Westerdale

Dumfries and Galloway - Bargrennan, Durisdeer, Marrburn

Forth Valley - Inversnaid, Trossachs

Inverness and East Highland - Advie, Glenferness, Laggan, Scatwell

Lanarkshire - Elvanfoot

Lochaber - Ardgour, Glenborrodale

Lothian - Garvald

Moray - Drummuir, Mulben

Orkney - Birsay, Hoy, Papa Westray

Renfrewshire - Loganswell

Scottish Borders - Grantshouse, Longformacus, Abbey St Bathans, Borthwickbrae, Lempitlaw, Stobo

Shetland - Burravoe, Fetlar, Gutcher, Fair Isle, Out Skerries

Skye and Wester Ross - Achiltibuie, Duntulm, Kinlochewe, Staffin, Uig, Killilan, Loch Scavaig, North Erradale, Tarskavaig

Tayside - Strathardle, Amulree, Bridge of Balgie, Bridge of Gaur, Butterstone, Trochry, Tummelbridge, Fern and Menmuir

Friday, 4 December 2009

It's time to put a positive slant on Scottish history

PROMOTING pride in Scots at home and abroad was one of four key aims of the Year of Homecoming, which was enthusiastically celebrated in Caithness and across the land.

Many have commented on its general success among a Scots tourist industry facing the depths of world recession. Alas this has not silenced politically motivated critics who see conspiracy and mismanagement in every SNP Government action.

The successful Homecoming campaign culminated in the final fling around St Andrew's Day. There were well-attended events all over, making this the best celebrated patron saint's day so far. Simultaneously, Your Scotland, Your Vote was published to offer analysis and a road map to increased powers for the Scottish Parliament allied to a referendum late next year on the choices.

It would be remiss of an SNP Government to ignore the route to independence. Also it is inevitable that unionist parties seek to kill the bill. However, 2010 will see the fallout from the British General Election by June. Then Scotland's unmet need to build a sustainable future will be centre stage.

My job in the Scottish Parliament is to seek the most practical ways to promote a lead role for the Far North in this new Scotland. To succeed we need tax-raising powers, borrowing powers and a tax office based in Scotland to collect these. Otherwise Scotland will remain a puppet on the London Treasury strings.

What's best in your mind - Treasury diktat or to cut the strings of remote Treasury manipulation to take normal national decisions like normal nations?


BEING comfortable with your history is about as important as teaching it.

As I discovered in a recent debate in the Scottish Parliament on Scottish history in schools, some are more comfortable and aware of it than others. Emotions ran high; some perceptive and eloquent things were said along with some reactionary statements and downright misinformation.

I won't re-run the whole debate but a couple of crackers stick in my mind. Labour's Des McNulty said that he didn't like referring to Scottish history as "our" history. One wonder's whose history it is then? He also said of the Enlightenment that it was the European Enlightenment and not the Scottish. If you follow Mr McNulty's rationale then the Italians should actively down play their role in the Renaissance.

The French philosopher Voltaire declared (in the 18th century), "we look to Scotland for all our ideas on civilization". Is that not something that should be known, investigated, understood (and yes celebrated)? Only a curmudgeon with a chip on their shoulder would want to down play that!

Lib Dem Margaret Smith made the cardinal sin of calling the battle of Culloden a Scotland versus England affair (although to be fair she did correct herself later); but said that funded visits to Culloden would give the perception that the Government was funding visits to a battlefield where the English fought the Scots. All the more reason, I would say, to get children to Culloden so that they learn that it wasn't.

One concern constantly raised by members was that Scottish history shouldn't be an exercise in painting England in a bad light. I couldn't agree more! But it got me thinking about the how other countries are portrayed through history in their schools.

Here the only times in history that we learn of other countries, especially in Europe, is in terms of opposition - Norman invasion, Napoleon, World Wars, for example.

Yet we co-operated with bodies like the Hanseatic League, and France in the Auld Alliance, had treaties with Norway and took part in the Scots/European Enlightenment (and Renaissance for that matter). The Scots that built St Petersburg and the Scots diasporas which inhabited Warsaw in the 17th century get little airing.

Scottish history surely should show the good and bad of our past, our glories and disasters. We are not perfect, but which country is? The trick is to know the story, and to move on from it to learn and be relaxed with it.

I am glad that the Scottish Government has decided that our history is something worthy of retention in the curriculum. I doubt there are many countries where a debate on these lines would be needed.

A TV debate last Monday explored the adequacy and presentation of the BBC TV Scotland's History series that culminates this coming Sunday evening. Heavyweight academics have been involved in unseemly spats over Neil Oliver, the presenter, his style and the script.

I was so pleased to watch the balanced panel discussion led by Sally Magnusson on St Andrew's Night. The studio audience joined in a reasoned and hopeful debate, echoing the need for more history in our schools. Why not watch it on the BBC iPlayer if your broadband can support it.


I ATTENDED two of the bigger events in the Final Fling - last Friday Ceol nam Feis in Eden Court and last Saturday Hands Up for Trad in Dumfries. The supportive atmosphere in traditional music was showcased at its best. Scots, Gaelic and English languages blend and mix the versions of old music now played by cool young players and singers.

BBC Alba broadcast the event for the second year of a contract. Who will do it in Perth next time? Ceol nam Feis is not seen on the TV screen. If either were at peak time like the X Factor, a whole new audience would demand more.

Over half the prizes came to the Highlands and Islands, over half the performance slots were from North musicians. Yet these parts of Scotland only make up around 10 per cent of her population.

Over 900 people packed into the DG1 centre in Dumfries. Next year Perth has been chosen. Should Caithness now be considering a bid soon afterwards?

Let's make a legacy of the Mod another musical extravaganza based, naturally, on the talent playing our native traditions in a new century in this carrying stream.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Charter of Rights for People with Dementia

Earlier in October I and my other Parliamentary colleagues helped to launch Scotland’s first ever Charter of Rights for people with dementia and their carers in the Scottish Parliament.

There are currently more than 69,500 people living in Scotland who have been diagnosed with dementia. Alzheimer Scotland has projected this to increase to 127,000 by 2031.

The Charter was developed by the Scottish Parliament's Cross Party Group on Alzheimer’s, which brought together MSPs and external organisations, including Alzheimer Scotland, the Mental Welfare Commission, the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Crossreach and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

The final document is the culmination of over half a year’s work, including a series of roadshows throughout Scotland which brought together service users, medical professionals and care home staff.

People with dementia and their carers, family members and friends, have the same human rights as every other citizen. However, it is widely recognised that, in addition to the impact of the illness, they face cultural, social and economic barriers to fulfilling these. This Charter aims to empower people with dementia, those who support them and the community as a whole to ensure their rights are recognised and respected.

During a debate on the Charter in the Scottish Parliament in October, the Scottish Government confirmed that they would accept the document in its entirety.

I want people in the local area to give their support to the Charter by signing up online at

The publication of a Charter of Rights for people with dementia and their carers is long overdue. In recent years numerous reports have demonstrated that levels of care for people with dementia are simply not at a high enough standard.

This Charter should be used both as an empowering tool for service users, and also serve as a framework for care homes, hospitals and other organisations when developing services for people with dementia.

I would ask that readers visit and pass the message along to their friends and family to help back this Charter.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Celebration of musical talent

AS St Andrew's Day approaches, the SNP's National Conversation has kept its pledge to produce exciting proposals for an independent Scotland in all policy areas.

There's a gulf between the SNP's trust in the Scottish people through a referendum and the hypocrisy of Unionists who refuse to allow the people a vote. Talk of future referendums is a fudge with LibDems the deepest puzzle, pledging, as they do, a UK-wide poll on EU membership but none on full powers for Scots.

Of course we need to feel confident to grasp the opportunities. Two sides of that coin inspire us here.

First the young musical spirit of our nation is on display in the Ceol nam Fèis concert in Eden Court today (Friday). Our young talented traditional musicians exemplify that national spirit in its best cultural light. Well done Rita Hunter for producing this magic showcase for Fèisean nan Gaidheal.

Many of these youngsters, having found out more of their roots through our Fèisean, want to get trained and educated then come and live in their native area in future. That's a key reason for me to champion the Scottish Green Energy Revolution that can create many lifelong jobs and income for communities across the north.

St Andrew's Day could herald an early liberation of Nigg for renewable equipment production if Highland Council sticks to its policy of compulsory purchase for the yard.

Additionally the Crown Estate Commission CEC is poised to announce which leases will be granted for Pentland Firth marine energy projects. Ross-shire businesses like Isleburn can be in the hunt for the fabrication work and counter redundancies in the area. Also the CEC should do us the courtesy of making their announcement of the winners here in the north, not in London.


MSP'S Gut Feelings is a collection of recipes from members of the Scottish Parliament in aid of Marie Curie.

It was launched earlier this month at £9.99 with support from the Bank of Scotland - for copies contact me. Many of us contributed to support this key cancer charity. My original idea is called Penne and Puddings. It features slices of haggis and black pudding - naturally I recommend Cockburn's of Dingwall - on a bed of penne pasta and sautéed leeks. Very "Scot Nat", quipped one Labour colleague. Support excellent local produce I say. I'm glad to add that the Scottish Parliament Burns Supper has chosen Cockburn's haggis for the third successive year for next January's event by popular request.


DOOR to door calls and questionnaires by the Energy Saving Trust in Alness have asked all householders needing advice to contact 0800 512 012. The lines have been red hot. In the last few months Caithness has had similar treatment from this Scottish Government backed schemes. Houses are being treated and advice as to grants made available.

I caught up with Alan Grant the EST outreach engagement officer for Highlands and Islands at the Taste of Tain event which I had the pleasure of opening. He was delighted by the public response so far. It shows what every household can do to cut fuel bills, stop drafts and cease to "heat the sky". Let's make St Andrew's Day a modern celebration of our emerging national self-confidence. Although climate change knows no national boundaries each nation must take responsibility.

Let's take our place among the nations as responsible citizens.

The Copenhagen Conference needs to replicate the pioneering Scottish Climate Change Act.

Coming to terms with the consequences if our planet is allowed to overheat also can usefully cut our fuel bills.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Paying the price of cheap drink

SERIOUS alcohol abuse was highlighted at the regular face-to-face MSP briefing by NHS Highland last Friday.

At a minimum price of 40p per unit of alcohol, "own brand" whiskies and vodkas, gins and cheap ciders, excluding the likes of Bulmers Original and Magners Irish Cider, would be considerably dearer. Moderate drinkers of well-known brands would not have to pay more.

Other experts have backed the Scottish Government in seeking a minimum price for popular low-cost drinks. We know that wines, beer, cider and spirits are 30 per cent cheaper now than 10 years ago. Also that liver disease and ill-health statistics due to excess consumption are rocketing here in Scotland. So what is to be done?

Dr Emilia Crighton, convener of the Faculty of Public Health in Scotland, insisted that there was an "overwhelming case" that cheap drink was damaging Scotland's health.

As the evidence stacks up week after week, those politicians who oppose minimum pricing look increasingly irresponsible. The issue here is ending a situation where three-litre bottles of chemical cider are sold for £3, or 700ml bottles of industrial vodka for less than £7. These are the products favoured by problem drinkers and are exactly the ones that will be targeted by minimum pricing.

Minimum pricing of alcohol has a broad support base among medical experts, the police and the pub trade. Even the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in England, the UK Government's expert advisory body on medical treatment, strongly backed minimum pricing as a way of reducing consumption among harmful and hazardous drinkers.

I very much welcome the intervention by a senior Liberal Democrat MP and front bencher at Westminster, in which he fully supports minimum pricing of alcohol. Speaking at a "business in sport and leisure" conference in London (reported in The Publican on November 12) Don Foster, the Lib Dems' shadow culture spokesperson, said: "I truly believe the time has now come to be looking at a scheme for minimum pricing." This directly contradicts the stance of the Liberal Democrat leadership in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr Foster's comments echo remarks by the Liberal Westminster business spokesperson, Lorely Burt, who branded cheap supermarket booze the biggest problem and reiterated her party's support for minimum pricing.

In October last year, the UK Lib Dems produced a report on the UK's relationship with alcohol, which called for minimum pricing to be introduced. I hope that Mr Foster can come to meet with MSPs, including his own Lib Dem colleagues, in order to explain the importance of minimum pricing in tackling alcohol misuse. What do our Highland Lib Dem MSPs believe?

The coalition in support of minimum pricing is broad and growing, involving the police, health professionals, the licensed trade, the British Liver Trust and the four chief medical officers across the UK. Regrettably, the Lib Dems in Scotland are on the outside of this process.

Yet the scale of Scotland's alcohol misuse problem is shocking: 42,500 alcohol-related hospital discharges; 1500 deaths per year; soaring rates of liver cirrhosis; the eighth highest consumption in the world; and a 2.25 billion annual cost in public services and lost productivity.

Those MSPs in the Scottish Parliament who are not yet persuaded of the case for minimum pricing would benefit from hearing Don Foster's advice.


A RECENT debate on the built heritage was mentioned in the local papers. In the debate I made a plea to preserve and interpret numerous pre-Clearances villages scattered across the North. Then Tory grandee Sir Jamie McGrigor waxed lyrical about the French-renaissance-meets-Scots-baronial splendour of Dunrobin Castle.

I remarked that Dunrobin Castle is well preserved by the family that owns it. Did he think that the Clearances villages that were created by the policies of such people's ancestors should be preserved?

He replied: "My colleague Jamie Stone mentioned Tain museum, which I believe is a museum to the Clearances." Although not entirely true the chamber was thoroughly amused to hear Jamie McGrigor continue, "of course, that (the Clearances) was one of the Lib Dems' original social engineering experiments." He was referring to the Dukes of Sutherland being Whigs, not Tories, the ancestors of today's Lib Dems.


LET me update you on a very positive social engineering experiment welcomed wholeheartedly by people in this area today. A couple of weeks ago, door-to-door calls by the Energy Saving Trust in Thurso asked all householders needing advice to contact 0800 512 012. The lines have been red hot.

Back in August, Lybster and its surrounding area had similar treatment from Powerdown Scotland, organised by the local co-ordinator Anne Sutherland. Both are Scottish Government-backed schemes. Already 20 houses in Lybster are being treated and advice as to grants made available.

I caught up with Alan Grant, the EST outreach engagement officer for Highlands and Islands, at the Taste of Tain event last Saturday, which I had the pleasure of opening. He was delighted with the public response. It shows what every household can do to cut fuel bills, stop draughts and cease to "heat the sky".

Alness is now getting the chance to have help assessing the best way to climate-proof each home, as Thurso did.

As our national day, November 30, draws near, let's make St Andrew's Day a modern celebration of our emerging national self-confidence. Although climate change knows no national boundaries, each nation must take responsibility.

Let's take our place among the nations as responsible citizens who have come to terms with the consequences if our planet is allowed to overheat, and do some useful work to cut our fuel bills.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

TICC Visit to Glencorse

See photos below of myself and fellow MSP Patrick Harvey at the site of the Glencorse Water Treatment Centre in Midlothian. We visited as members of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee to view the construction, due to be completed in 2011, and here about the centre's plans and capacity.

Scottish Water is building the new water treatment works , as part of the Edinburgh Drinking Water Project - a strategic programme of capital investment to build a new water treatment works and replace ageing mains and storage tanks providing water to Edinburgh and surrounding areas.

Friday, 6 November 2009

It's the Constitution Stupid

While most MSPs return to their constituencies on a Thursday night, I had three reasons to remain in Edinburgh last Friday. The first involved a seminar in the Chamber and Committee Room breakout sessions of Parliament. The subject was a report on mainstreaming equalities issues in our Holyrood work.

Keynote speaker Prof Ailsa McKay of Glasgow Caledonian University argued that the recession is no time to ditch fair treatment. Indeed women suffer low pay and more chances of redundancy in hard times yet they tend to spend money on family needs - not selfish wants - when they have it.

In the group chaired by Malcolm Chisholm on the work of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee I had the task to report back to the full chamber. Very trenchant debate took place in our group and uncovered big question marks about drop-out rates in the modern apprenticeship scheme which is a big Scottish Government investment in the economic recovery package.

A tourism executive explained how the disabled are being better catered for. The loss of the ‘walk away’ pound is not due to difficult access. It rests on attitudes among providers of services.

Also we need to recognise that paid and unpaid work adds to well-being. I suggested that the time is ripe to measure more than Gross Domestic Product. The SNP Government has introduced one of the first carbon audits in any nation, as previously reported. So we need measures of progress in equality, carbon reduction, happiness as well as income. There is never a better time to start.

Privately, at lunchtime that day, I told my stories about the drovers and their links to the cattle trade of America at the Storytelling Festival just up the Royal Mile. That evening I had great pleasure in joining the fund raiser in the Queens Hall for the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland TMSA. Their patrons Archie Fisher, Barbara Dixon and Sheen Wellington all sang, but the young trad musicians of the past few years are so skilled and sensitive. Great to hear their mixture of tunes, Scots and Gaelic songs sung and played in new forms.

Our young people embrace a confident blend of many strands of our national culture. I hope and believe that Caithness folk do the same despite the trench warfare over bilingual road signs in the columns of the Groat...


Critical fire power directed at the SNP Government this week by the CBI and other parts of the ‘bosses unions’ have been alleged that the SNP recovery plans and our Budget proposals are against business interests. The devolved government can’t borrow so its first duty is to protect education and health services and local government from the blizzard of cuts caused by Labour’s recession.

If sustainable growth is to be kick started then London has to give a hand. Our block grant is cut for the first time since 1999. The Unionist parties have at least realised that, as we have to pay back this coming year the accelerated capital spending that the SNP Government speedily adopted last autumn, we need more of the same next year to make modest investments in apprenticeships, home insulation, affordable house building, etc. But above all the kind of borrowing powers that even councils have is denied to Holyrood.
I say to those who call on the SNP to forget independence during a recession, it is even more important to get full powers to equal and better the woeful performance of the UK as the last country coming out of recession. Indeed I would say the economy will only improve when we get full powers of a normal nation. In short, it’s the constitution, stupid!


Meanwhile with limited powers we are helping small and medium sized businesses with a new scheme. ScotAction and is the Scottish Government's skills support package for providing real financial support to businesses and individuals through the recession.

Many small firms have had to balance the need to keep their heads above water with the desire to continue to develop staff skills for the future. So those in the construction, engineering and manufacturing sectors, including renewables, who think that they may have to let their apprentices go should contact Skills Development Scotland for more information. The Scottish Government, with European Social Fund support, want to provide employers with £75 a week to help towards the wage costs of these apprentices so that they can continue in their training.

'Safeguard an Apprentice' demonstrates that the Scottish Government can deliver practical help to support businesses and individuals through the recession.


The Banking Enquiry in Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee resumed this week. We took evidence from the Office of Fair Trading whose evidence was damning as far as personal current accounts in British banks are concerned. The market has not been working well for customers as they pay high bank fees and receive poor service. The feeling is that beleaguered banks are charging way above previous rates to recoup losses caused by their speculative old ways. Rebuilding consumer confidence is our aim but when you see the way Messrs Brown and Darling overrode the OFT report against the Lloyds HBOS merger last autumn you have to ask key questions once again.

If Labour saved the banks from total collapse, why did they let them get into that state in the first place? When you see Government ignoring advice on drugs from its scientists, is there a culture in London Government that needs to change?

In its way the EU single market begins to offer some relief. In return for huge bail outs to Lloyds and RBS Commissioner Neelie Kroes has ordered them to break up sections of these ‘too big to fail’ conglomerates. Thanks to EC competition rules Mr Darling must comply to give more choices for customers in High Streets from Thurso to Truro. And about time too.

Migdale Confirmed

The Scottish Government has given the go-ahead for a new hospital in Migdale.

The SNP Government is delivering as opposed to scaremongering, the tactic of choice by the opposition parties unable to find any other way of operating. Indeed, I was bemused by recent reports suggesting the hospital would not be replaced and this unfounded scaremongering has of course caused subsequent concern in the local community. It's time for more circumspect opposition in the future.

The SNP Government has delivered for the people of Sutherland whilst our opponents can only spread scare stories. There was no danger to the hospital whatsoever.

I am glad that I can end this nonsense over claims surrounding Migdale hospital. Elderly people have been genuinely concerned regarding what they have been reading and hearing in recent weeks. In the end it was for nothing and I look forward to a new hospital which will deliver for the people of Central Sutherland.

Direct action from the SNP Government will deliver this hospital for the people. Years of prevarication and delay which marked the Liberal Democrat and Labour years of Government in Scotland delivered nothing..

I can reassure the people who have intimated their concerns regarding the future of the hospital that it will be built. I thank the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Nicola Sturgeon for her longstanding and consistent support for this project.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Tyres' dual function

It's time to seriously consider using recycled tyres in engineering projects. On Monday I had the chance to meet with Dennis Scott at the Northern Tyre recycling centre, an Evanton-based outfit that takes tyres from across the region and compresses them (around a hundred forty at a time) into bales which can then be used in flood defences as well as foundations for roads, buildings, embankments and dams.

The recent flooding was a portent of things to come and Councils are going to have to become more adept and innovative at dealing with the problem. Using tyre bales which are produced at Evanton would be a way to help shore up flood defences and stabalise embankments which could slip in heavy rain.

What we have seen over the weekend and in recent months is unfortunately the future. Increased rains will lead to increases in flooding coupled with destabilasttion of cliffs and embankments. Erosion is going to be a real problem as the climate change era intensifies. That is why councils and other organisations need to heed this sustainable low tech solution.

From what I have seen in Evanton there is no doubt that this is a simple device which works. It also has the benefit of making use of old tyres, lessing the need for landfill and also reducing the amount of fly tipping.

Indeed this is already proven technology - as the road from Syre to Kinbrace proves. The tyres act as a foundation for the road making sure that it doesn't sink into the peat. There must be many miles of roads in the Highlands, Islands and Scotland which have that problem. So a simple solution such as recycled tyres is welcome.

I would encourage Highlands and Islands Councils, and others across Scotland, to seriously consider using recycled tyres in engineering projects.

"I was greatly encouraged by my meeting with Dennis, his enthusiasm and drive is making sure that the technology and ideas are spread far and wide. The enterprise has a dual function of making use of waste whilst providing good quality and long lasting materials to make a real difference to engineering projects that save cash and recycle unwanted tyres.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Questions HIE over land unit

I've gained assurances from HIE that it remains strongly committed to both its Community Land Unit and community land buy outs.

On Wednesday morning (during Scottish Government budget scrutiny) the Holyrood Economy energy and Tourism Committee, of which I am Deputy-Convener, heard from acting CEO Sandy Brady that community land buy outs can contribute to regional competitiveness and that HIE has flexible funding available should major new buy outs arise - even though HIE meets only a fraction of the total cost which has been paid by the National Lottery since the land fund was created.

The Big Lottery has indicated that there have been fewer buy out applications since 2006 (11 from the HIE area to date) compared to the 82 funded for land and buildings from 2001 to 2006 at £12.4 million.

When I asked Sandy Brady about the number of supporting applications that had been lodged, he denied that there was any loss of momentum.

There is an urgent need for the Big Lottery to deliver support for the Embo football team in their bid to turn Skelbo forest into forest crofts.

When I quizzed HIE they did not agree that the Community Land Unit was acting as a gate keeper for the Big Lottery but is doing its best to promote sound applications it receives.

Statistically in this phase of land buy outs it is important to note that 32 of 91 grants made by the Big Lottery involved applicants who had previously received a grant under the Scottish Land Fund (before 2006).

I have previously sought clarification from the Big Lottery as to their attitude to community land buy outs from their Scottish chair Alison Magee.

She assured me in a conversation at the Sutherland Summit six weeks ago that there was no change of emphasis from the approaches of the Scottish Land fund into the era of Growing Community Assets (GCA) post 2006. Community activists were quoted recently as saying the there was a 'lack of momentum' due to Scottish Government disinterest. My analysis of this phase of land buy outs and development suggests that these criticisms are inaccurate.

I will be monitoring progress with great care. If communities feel aggrieved then I need to know. However the availability of £18 million still to be allocated from the GCA Fund before mid 2010 suggests that land buy out applications should be stepped up to test the system.

Monday, 26 October 2009

We need greater recognition of clearance villages

Following reports of lack of interest by Historic Scotland in better listing and interpreting pre clearances villages I've written to the Culture Minister Mike Russell seeking clarification on Historic Scotland's policy toward categorization and promotion of these clearance village sites.

The issue was raised during debates on the reasons for the Diaspora at the Highland Homecoming Festival last weekend and whilst I was attending the final performance of Highland Homecoming's 'Flight of the Arctic Tern' (which in itself was a commemoration of the clearance emigrant Alexander Gunn), I was approached by the Mackay Country Group, (who themselves have pioneered a clearance trail around the Ceannabeinne Township near Durness) regarding the issue.

Having written myself 'The Highland Clearances Trail' which documented villages like Ceannabeinne in order to attract visitors to the sites directly associated with the Clearance it's an important issue that deserves more consideration.

There are many such sites which deserve to be listed, interpreted and remembered as part of our national story. In every part of Scotland and particularly the Highlands and Islands there are dozens of such sites. Historic Scotland has done much good work to celebrate pre-historic sites such as World Heritage Orkney. But villages inhabited for centuries before the Clearances forced their people to scatter need action. I have visited many of these. Good examples include Lorgill near Glendale in Skye; Rosal and the dozens of other settlements in Strathnaver; Badbea on the Ord of Caithness; and Crakaig near Calgary in Mull.

I look forward to renewed efforts by Historic Scotland to safeguard such sites from inappropriate development and prepare appropriate interpretation of a key parts of our history.

It would be a great legacy to leave from the Year of Homecoming to have more information on where people's homes used to be. It is also important to let people know that the wild landscapes that they travel around in the North and West are in fact often man made. The piles of stones strewn across the landscape bear testament to the fact that many people used to live here and were it not for greed and ignorance still would.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Stakes are high for Scotland

THE SNP annual conference returned to Eden Court Theatre in Inverness for the first time in several years.

Overspill space for those unable to get seats in the main auditorium had to be provided when Alex Salmond made a statesman's address on Saturday afternoon.

The fight to carve a sustainable future for Scotland is focused on two events next year – the looming UK election before June and the SNP's proposed referendum on the Scottish constitution planned for later in the year.

Like others, I was vox pop fodder on the BBC Politics Show. Asked who I preferred as next UK prime minister, I answered that I disliked both choices, so a strong wedge of SNP MPs will be needed to extract support for Scotland. In any case, a hung parliament would be most useful and in Scotland we should be the drivers towards the independence referendum while unionists of all colours will be passengers.

It is no idle jest. The stakes are high for Scotland; will we be a member in waiting in Europe or a backward region of an ailing middle-sized country with a near worthless currency?

Efforts in Inverness and across the land, from the Far North to the Borders, are set to educate and inform voters of the stark choices before them. The SNP does so from a steady and improving voter base, even compared to our score in 2007. Having won the Euro election this year cements the growing support for far more self-government for our nation.


THE conference kicked off with a ringing endorsement of our world-leading climate change law.

We deplore the London Government's refusal to allow a Scottish minister into the UK delegation to the vital Copenhagen conference this December. But many themes on tackling greenhouse gas emissions peppered the debates, speeches and fringe meetings. The vexing truth is that organs of London Government have been slow to back the renewable development which can transform the seas around Caithness and mitigate climate change though a green-energy revolution.

Firstly, the transmission charging regime of OFGEM is now subject to EU competition scrutiny. That's because it discriminates against producers the further from London that you go. My colleague Alyn Smith MEP has backed Scottish Government, HIE and local demands to slash the access tariffs to the grid. Does Gordon Brown care?

Secondly we are appalled that the Crown Estate Commission has announced it will delay till February the decisions as to who gains project licences in the Pentland Firth.

My colleague Mike Weir MP tells me even Westminster has no leverage. John Thurso has protested and I must make two points – one, what expertise does the CEC bring to decide who is best to let loose tidal and wave machines on the rip tides and eddies of the Firth? Two, it is dawning on many others what I have long believed, that the Crown Estate should be taken under democratic Scottish control and transformed to suit Scottish needs.

I detect a groundswell of support here as the CEC effectively delays vital decisions that could reduce our natural advantage for marine energy development – in whose interest? We need to campaign hard for a speedy solution.

Far North MSP Rob Gibson addressing the SNP annual conference, held at Eden Court in Inverness.


HERE'S an update on the greening of the Gibson home. Previously I won a prize from Friends of the Earth in an MSP competition for future planning to climate-proof our house.

This month the work started on a climate-friendly extension with a green sedum roof. Also a solar water system is being installed to cut our water-heating bills. The garden is like a battle zone, with a seven-tonne digger, piles of breeze blocks, sand, cement and huge heaps of top soil near engulfing the hazel and gean trees beside our rickety compost bin. I'm hoping my new study cum ceilidh lounge will emerge a fine wooden structure with top-grade insulated glass panels before Christmas.


OUR SNP conference breaks out in the evening to ceilidhs and Young Scot Nats Karaoke. But also those who like to sing found a friendly hotel lounge and 50 of us indulged in a range of songs from Scotland and far beyond.

We were joined by folk from a' the airts, from Barra to Buchan and Orkney to Ayrshire. Among them was Fiona J. MacKenzie from Dingwall, a Mod gold medallist four years ago. She also closed our conference in a packed auditorium in Highland Homecoming style with an emigration song from Assynt, in Gaelic, and "Scots Wha Hae", in Scots of course.

The combination goes so well wherever you hear it. So let me recommend Fiona's most recent project. Her daughter, clarsach playing singer Katie has teamed up with Shona Donaldson to record the songs of Robert Burns in Scots and English.

It's called The Lassies Reply and uses the Gaelic title for sisters, Púr.

Christmas stockings from Thurso to Tayvallich would be graced by receiving this modern take on our national bard in our national languages by two such talented lassies.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Let's debate Highland Hospice's financial loss

Pictured: Myself with Maria McGill, Chief Executive of Highland Hospice

I've lodged a motion for debate in the Scottish Parliament urging action from the Scottish and UK Government to help compensate Highland Hospice after it lost £658,832 following the collapse of an Icelandic bank.

Due to the nature of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme criteria some wealthy individuals have been repaid after the UK subsidiary of Icelandic bank Kaupthing, Singer and Friedlander went into administration last year. It's also important to note that despite a Westminster Treasury Committee recommendation that all charities be compensated, it still has not happened.

Paying over £25,000 in interest along since the September 2008 collapse, Highland Hospice has only managed to recover £132,294, leaving a black hole of £526,538 in its accounts in contrast to the Christie Hospital in Manchester, a situation in which the Prime Minster directly intervened, resulting in their full compensation. I understand that the reason why the Highland Hospice it has not being bailed out by the UK Government is that the new Third Sector Resilience Fund (introduced by the Scottish Government) would count against it. However I also understands that Highland Hospice does not qualify for the fund.

Therefore the Scottish Government must re-asses the criteria for the resilience fund and I call on the UK Government to fairly recompense all charities including Highland Hospice.

I hope that this motion attracts enough cross party support to allow it to be debated in Parliament. The palliative care carried out by the Hospice is invaluable and unique. It delivers great dignity to those in their final moments of life. And acts as a great comfort to their families and friends. It is important that it is not allowed to end. I hope that both the Scottish and UK Government can take action that makes sure that the excellent care provided by the Hospice throughout the Highlands and Islands can continue.

Further, I have lodged a series of written questions with the Scottish Government asking if the resilience fund can be restructured to allow applications to be made by organisations which were affected by the collapse of the Kaupthing, Singer and Friedlander bank. I will report back on those answers when they are recevied.

A copy of my motion for debate follows for reader interest and comment:

Fair Treatment for all Investors in Kaupthing, Singer and Friedlander

That the Parliament recognises that many charities lost large amounts of money when the UK-based subsidiary of Icelandic bank Kaupthing, Singer and Friedlander was placed in administration by the UK Government in 2008; notes that the Highland Hospice, the only hospice serving adults with incurable life-limiting disease in the Highlands and acknowledged as the centre of specialist palliative care expertise in the region, was one of these depositors; considers that, due to the arbitrary Financial Services Compensation Scheme criteria, some wealthy individuals have been compensated for their loss in full and that, due to a direct intervention by the Prime Minister, the Christie Hospital in Manchester, a registered charity, was fully compensated but that Highland Hospice has not been compensated for its loss, despite a Treasury Committee recommendation for charities to be recompensed, and understands that this is because the UK Government has stated that this would affect the general help provided to the third sector by the Resilience Fund launched earlier this month by the Scottish Government; understands however that Highland Hospice does not meet the criteria of the Resilience Fund, and would therefore welcome both a review of the Resilience Fund's criteria and that the Scottish Government make representations to the UK Government to fairly recompense all charities and enable Highland Hospice to continue to provide invaluable palliative and end-of-life care throughout the Highlands of Scotland.

Copy of my written questions to Scottish Government also follow below:

To ask the Scottish Executive what the criteria are for charities to receive funds from the £1.7 million Third Sector Resilience Fund.

To ask the Scottish Executive who will be responsible for the dispersal of funds from the Third Sector Resilience Fund.

To ask the Scottish Executive whether applications to the Third Sector Resilience Fund from organisations that have been affected by the collapse of the Kaupthing Bank will be given special consideration.