Friday, 31 July 2009


Highland Council has registered a planning application to create a Waste Transfer Station in Invergordon at the location of the former British Aluminium plant. In addition to that application a private company Combined Power and Heat Highland Ltd has registered an application to build a Waste to Energy Incinerator at the former British Aluminium Plant Car Park. This incinerator will run 24/7 and process waste from all over the Highlands.
INVERGORDON COMMUNITY COUNCIL has objected to both these planning applications and created an electronic petition which they are urging the public to sign and support. Follow this link or click on the title above to register your support: INVERGORDON INCINERATOR - NO TO WASTE!

The Future is Electric

FOR many years now I have been making a pilgrimage to the town of Quimper on the south-west coast of Brittany in July to meet up with old friends and take in as much as I can of the excellent music at the Celtic Festival de Cornouaille.

Brittany has much in common with Caithness and the wider Highlands and Islands – a unique place with a largely rural community with a way of life very much bound to the land and sea. It is France's main agricultural area and plays a significant role in its fishing industry.

As you might imagine, the local produce is of great quality with an emphasis on natural production methods.

One morning, while venturing out to buy the croissants and local newspaper, I passed the van of the local charcuterie, which had emblazoned on the side a slogan which read, "Chicken raised the natural way – out of doors!" A salient point.

I thought about natural farming practices which are so successful in Caithness via the Mey Selection brand, as well as the Scottish Government's food-and-drink policy which is geared towards local and sustainable production.

The natural, local way to do things – there must be something in it. That is why I was perturbed to read a press release from the National Farmers' Union of Scotland.

In it they effectively called for a relaxing of the laws on the importation of GM soya and maize into the European Union. That is playing with fire. Less scrutiny of GM feed which comes into Scotland, or any other part of the EU for that matter, could play havoc with our precious biodiversity. What is needed is increased scrutiny of GM feed, not less.

Indeed a better course of action is to look at what is being trialled in our own country.

The Scottish Agricultural College has developed high-protein feed from home-grown legumes, which avoids the need to import soya from around the globe, while the Scottish Crop Research Institute has developed non-GM blight-resistant potatoes. Surely local research and development is the way ahead as opposed to a reliance on untested soya and maize from around the world?


LAST week the new French industry minister Christian Estrosi visited Bolloré d'Ergué Gabéric battery factory near Quimper. He was there to tour the plant which will help revolutionise electric-powered travel.

As from September, the factory will produce lithium-metal-polymer batteries for the BlueCar, which is produced by the distinguished Italian car designers Pininfarina. Five thousand of these have already been pre-ordered and are expected to be on the road by June 2010. The plant expects to produce 100,000 batteries a year. At the end of the visit the minister also announced that the French government had ordered 100,000 of these vehicles for local governments to use around the country.

The batteries have also been trialled on trams in Paris as well as Germany. The results showed a 15 to 30 per cent saving in energy consumption. It is a stark message that the future of electric transport is becoming a reality in these parts of Europe.

Electric transport is exactly the route we need to take in Scotland and the UK and, yet again, Caithness could take the lead. The advanced ABSL battery factory comes to mind as it has similarities with the one in Brittany.

Like its Breton counterpart, the factory is a distance from the car producer but it is exactly the climate-change-busting activity that will be needed.

The Scottish transport minister Stewart Stevenson has urged motorists to make fewer journeys.

The next step is to prepare for all-electric vehicles. The year 2050 could see the end of carbonised transport on the roads in Scotland. The Far North should seek an early stake in that new market and help lead the way.

Friday, 24 July 2009

New report makes Nigg more vital than ever

A FULLY functioning Nigg yard in which to build and service offshore structures and vessel is all the more important with the publication of the The Power of Scotland Renewed report compiled by energy analyst Garard Hassan.

This says that by 2030 Scotland could be powered solely by renewable energy (with energy left over to export).

I am delighted that Enterprise Minister Jim Mather has been drafted in to help end the deadlock. Jim's energy and ability to identify problems and come up with solutions has marked him out as an outstanding minister.

A renewables revolution would undoubtedly shift the focus of Scotland (even the rest of Europe) northwards. However that revolution needs to be backed up by serious funding which would help put the infrastructure in place and support the burgeoning industry.

Yet that simple common sense approach is finding no favour with the Labour UK Government. Their recent action in blocking Scotland from accessing additional funding to drive forward the renewables programme is nothing short of scandalous.

Last week the UK treasury forbade the Scottish Government access to a £150 million fossil fuel fund which can only be accessed by Scottish Ministers for the purpose of renewable energy promotion.

It is a frustrating situation as their action put at risk a dynamic and prosperous future for the Highlands and Islands.

This action will do nothing to help Ross-shire or others areas of the north and west.


A LOCAL hotelier contacted me recently with an idea on how to boost tourism numbers and improve environmental management.

From November to February tourists numbers are down and the main business is from those who shoot and fish. Red deer and salmon are a natural resource yet access to them is limited.

However the introduction of a universal gaming licence could help remedy that.

A licence could work along these lines. For example the licence could cost £150. A limit could be set on the amount of game/fish taken in a day. The hunter\fisher would be accompanied and instructed by a trained gamekeeper and the landowner would receive a bounty, say £50 for a deer, or £10 for a salmon.

This could result in more tourism, boosting local trade, and ensuring better land and game management.

A radical, revolutionary and original idea? No. It happens in Canada and most of our European neighbours.


THE incident of the Marco Polo has raised a number of questions. I am sure that better co-ordination of public agencies will accrue following the outbreak of the winter vomiting bug.

However, that said, it is incumbent upon the owners of the ship to act in a responsible manner. Unless health services and other interested parties are aware of the full facts then it is difficult for them to act in an appropriate way with appropriate speed.


LAST week I wrote to Patrick Harvie MSP (convenor of Holyrood's transport committee) asking the committee to make a submission on the consultation to the National Express rail services' franchise calling for the safeguarding of the Highland Chieftain service from Inverness to London.

UK Government Ministers have failed to give cast iron guarantees that no service will be cut or downgraded on the line. However, there is to be a public consultation on the future of the franchise.

Therefore I would urge business users and commuters who use and value this direct route to make their voices heard and make a submission to the consultation for the continuation of this excellent service.

Any further loss of direct routes to the Highlands would be a blow to the accessibility and connectivity of the area.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Confident Scotland is leading the way

THE latest session of parliament drew to an end in a blaze of publicity with the unanimous backing of Scotland's world-leading Climate Change Bill.

This legislation was praised by the "Terminator", and now governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said: "Scotland's ambitious and comprehensive targets encourage other nations to step up to the plate as we look toward an international agreement in Copenhagen, and it sends a message to the world that we must act now and must act swiftly."

I was also contacted by my former Breton intern Anne-Flore (who is now in Brussels) saying that at an EU climate change conference the day after our legislation was passed, the closing remarks centred on the world-leading targets being made in Scotland. Scotland was praised as an example to other nations of what should be aimed for.

Scotland leading the world in a positive direction... it's a great thing to think when you are in the chamber waiting for the ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of devolution to start.

My thoughts turned to the past, present and future. I suppose only a historian from the future could fully quantify what effect the restoration of some power to Scotland has meant for the people of the ancient nation. However, there does seem to be a sense of confidence and a better attitude – less downtrodden, more aspirational.

A few years ago it was very fashionable to talk about the Scottish Cringe. It's hard to define what this concept is exactly, but it effectively boils down to a lack of national self confidence. A culture of negativity and pessimism which pervaded Scottish society. It even led to Jack McConnell opening a centre to promote Scottish self confidence in 2004.

Did it work? Not too sure, but three years later the people of Scotland ignored the tired, old, relentlessly negative and pessimistic Labour, Lib Dem and Tory arguments against electing the SNP.

So perhaps the Scottish Self Confidence Centre had a part to play.

I suspect, however, that growing confidence and aspirations were organic, and the parliament has had a huge part to play in that. People saw what could be achieved and wanted more.

Ten years on, devolution has began to change mind-sets, both publicly and politically. More people in Scotland are supporting Scottish independence (the ultimate confident step). Even other parties, including the Tories, who fought hard to stop devolution in the past, now think that Scotland should have more powers.

There are very few people out there who have no faith in the competence of Scotland to run some or all of its affairs.

The Scottish Parliament, whether it be an independent or devolved institution, will continue to be the main focus in the country.

A while ago I remember hearing (from someone who had experienced both parliaments) that many back-bench Scottish MPs were beginning to think that the only show in town was the Scottish Parliament. I suspect this is more the case than ever.

We are in a process which is seeing Scotland becoming more comfortable with itself, more confident. The cringe, while not gone, is receding from the national psyche. Future generations will scratch their heads when hearing of the Scottish Cringe – devolution started that process of transformation, and I find it hard to believe that it will stop.

Be under no illusion, the passing of the world-leading Climate Change Bill is a sign of the country growing up. We are a positive example to the world.

Not bad going in 10 years.

Now we need to show that we can meet our aspirations.

The potential that lies off the grey coast will transform the fortunes of the county. As the 19th century saw populations flocking to the cities where the latest opportunity and energy were, I believe that the 21st will see a migration back to places like Caithness.

In the near future, Caithness will be at the cutting edge of energy production. The people of Caithness will help lead the world, backed up by new developments across the board including UHI.

World companies are already seeing the potential offered by such developments. Where the energy is the people will go. Caithness is ideally placed to reap a rich reward from such happenings.

However, for success to be more tangible and arrive faster there needs to be a repositioning of mind-sets throughout the nation towards the North.


A CLEAR purpose and strategy in the crucible of war is a must. However, as fighting intensifies and casualties mount in Afghanistan it seems that there is a lack of that. This is a worrying situation for all but especially for the brave troops and their families and loved ones at home waiting.

Recently my colleague, SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson, said that the elections in Afghanistan later on in the year should serve as a chance for a serious review into the strategy. The right strategy is the least that our troops, families at home and Afghan families deserve.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Events an anchor for community life

WICK HarbourFest brought out the sun and the smiles in a relaxed and welcome celebration to make an important Caithness Homecoming.

While the crowning of the herring queen harked back to the fishing of the past, the brand new marina development looks like it should have been there for years and indicates the ambitions of the harbour authority for the future.

I was delighted to join in the Friday celebrations and meet so many happy folk. My friends Andrew Anderson and family from Keiss made their homecoming like many others.

Among those I met was Gordon Gunn, the famous Wick fiddler, on Saturday evening further down the A9. His suntan was gained during a Saturday on the quays.

I hope that harbour plans will develop the numbers of sailing craft involved at future events as it's such a natural setting and anchor for community life. Well done Liz and David Richard-Jones and the whole team.


TWO decisions last week in Holyrood lead Europe and the world. Firstly, the Climate Change Bill has passed all stages and been amended into the strongest of its kind. We will have action plans on every aspect of its measures to pass as secondary laws.

For example, an action plan will increase the total output of renewable heat to 11 per cent of demand by 2020. It's one per cent this year so that's a tough challenge.

So a successful scheme in Wick would contribute. Remember we have the wood and other biomass in Scotland and it isn't new technology on the continent.

The agreed Scottish target of 42 per cent cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 relies on the Climate Summit in Copenhagen adopting much tougher targets. It will all change the way we live and I will chronicle these in detail in the coming months. That's because, as my colleague Brian Adam said, public engagement is as important as rules made in Holyrood if we are to succeed.

Secondly, on Tuesday this week, the outcome of the year-long Energy Enquiry by the economy, energy and tourism committee was published. It shows that an action plan for Scotland should play to our biggest strengths. These lie in renewables whose potential is of European significance.

On Monday, Scottish and Southern Energy announced that more large hydro power schemes like Glendoe on Loch Ness are now in the planning. This provides the chance to complement offshore wind and tidal power sources as they develop with clean power from the waters of our lochs and rivers. That's an elegant symmetry. For Scotland leads in these developments as France leads in nuclear.

Scotland can supply secure power to England as well as our North Sea neighbours on top of home needs. So there are three cheers for that route to secure, clean power which communities and businesses here can surely profits from.


THE message from a record-breaking Royal