Friday, 31 December 2010

Looking back over 2010

John O'Groat Journal

31 December 2010

2010 came in with a wintry blast and it is going out with more snow and ice warnings in the coldest December we’ve seen in decades. Our public services and neighbourly behaviour in the North is coping as ever but we don’t have transport systems that can really cope at below 10 degrees Celsius. Deep snow drifts and salt that doesn’t work at minus 15 requires a rethink along Scandinavian lines. On Holyrood’s Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee I have asked for urgent reviews as a key legacy paper for our Parliament’s new team. We close this session in late March before the May election. Meanwhile my advice is - we'll keep our heads as long as we can keep our feet!

Some extra challenges have been set us. After years of Labour hostility to Scotland experienced by us from Chancellor and then PM Gordon Brown it was followed by the LibDem and Tory Coalition Government elected to Westminster last May which promised to show Scotland respect but also to balance the books.

Respect came in very strange forms. The proposed Scotland Bill could potentially cut the Scottish budget even more than the cuts we suffer this year unless the Scots Parliament Unionist majority wakes up. A specialist committee in Holyrood is led by the Calman creator, Wendy Alexander MSP. The key question is - will Scotland be allowed to invest in our abundant assets if we are to have so few borrowing powers in three or four years time? Meanwhile how are we to fill the gap in funding the renewables industry that is straining at the leash when the Fossil Fuel Levy was denied us?

Meanwhile Westminster cuts could see Stornoway and Shetland coastguards go the way of many previously cut from the Pentland Firth area. Rescue tugs including the Stornoway based ‘Anglian Prince’ is under threat. It was funded by Westminster after learning the lessons of the Braer tanker disaster off Shetland in the 90s. With the Nimrods gone from RAF Kinloss our sea areas are being exposed to greater dangers when oil, marine renewables are in full swing and fishing is still very important here. We also know that the north-west and north-east passages round Canada and Russia will soon be ice free long enough for Arctic voyages by our merchant fleets. Why should north Scotland be so ill equipped to benefit, by remote London diktat?

A hesitant end to recession and the long list of job losses in construction don't make a happy tale this year. However a rise in manufacturing is beginning to get Scotland moving. We hope that the success of Global at Invergordon and worldwide can be added to by the frustrating end to the Nigg yard stalemate.

We can also see with our own eyes that packages of cash are building up for the Scrabster harbour project with the allocation of wave and tidal leases making new demands on harbours. Nothing should be done to undermine delicate and ongoing negotiations.

That’s why the Fossil Fuel Levy denied to the Scots Government by the London Coalition is such a miss. I attended the Green Energy Awards earlier this month in Edinburgh. What a breath of youthful vigour and grit for our economy. From Scottish Government to local developers, from offshore wind farm lessees to skilled workers working in oil and gas abroad who want to come home, it's a big hope that 2011 will see the breakthrough a healthy Scots economy requires.

At Scottish level the SNP Government received deep cuts in funds from the London Tories and LibDems like Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander have cut government spending with an unwelcome passion. Student fees as in England will rocket and a Scottish solution will not bring in tuition fees like English universities. Benefit cuts hit the poorest. The privatisation of the Royal Mail threatens small post offices and the universal service obligation are hanging by a thread. My colleagues in Westminster join other MPs to demand that the London Department of Work and Pensions keep its contract to pay benefits and pensions through the trusted local post offices.

Throughout the year the Scottish Government has continued the Council Tax freeze, maintained the small business bonus and scrapped prescription charges to aid families and businesses.

A couple of sporting high spots included the impressive run of Wick Academy in the Highland League and the story of Ross County's Scottish football cup run to the final at Hampden Park. Local pride was only dented at the last moment but the dream of a wee team getting in about the big boys is the stuff of legends and a friendly confirmation that football is best when rooted in communities that care. In Caithness the start of the Halkirk sports and countryside complex is a most welcome initiative in the same community vein.

2010 saw not just the first and very successful Caithness National Mod but a vast leap in self-belief in our native music and languages which the SNP Government has backed to the hilt. The census in March 2011 will include a question on Scots, to which Caithness dialect speakers can place their ticks.

The North Highland Initiative set up by the Duke of Rothesay five years ago hopes to create more jobs. Our local food producers are well served by its expansion. I hosted the awards to the Young Highland Chef of the Year in the Burghfield House Hotel School Dornoch. Back then in autumn we could see the promise of local talent judged the cream by Albert Roux and his team of top chefs. In my village Evanton the local staff of the Coop Foodstore showed that Highland pride could beat 3,000 other stores for customer service across the UK. It was the year of food and drink and our part of Scotland played a big part.

Let's spare a thought for our troops who are at war in Afghanistan and hope for their safe return as soon as possible. And to all of you I hope you are having a Happy Christmas and will enjoy a healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year. In 2011 together we can make Scotland better.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010


From Rob Gibson SNP MSP highlands and Islands
It came in with a blast of winter and its going out with another whiteout. Our public services and neighbourly behaviour in the North can cope. We'll keep our heads as long as we can keep our feet!

The hesitant end to recession and the long list of job losses in construction don't make a happy tale. However a rise in manufacturing is beginning to get Scotland moving. We hope that the success of Global at Invergordon and worldwide can be added to by the frustrating end to the Nigg yard stalemate. From Scottish Government to local developers, from offshore wind farm lessees to skilled workers working in oil and gas who want to come home it's a big hope that 2011 will see the breakthrough.

At Scottish level the SNP Government received deep cuts in funds by the London coalition of Tories and LibDems who have attacked government spending with an unwelcome passion. Student fees in England, benefit cuts that hit the poorest, the privatisation of the Royal Mail, a paltry Scotland bill that is more set to keep Holyrood accountable than to give the Scots Parliament the powers to invest in our huge natural assets.

Throughout the year the Scottish Government has continued the Council Ta freeze, maintained the small business bonus and scrapped prescription charges to aid families.

Other high spots included Ross-shire and Scotland warming to the story of County's Scottish football cup run up to the final at Hampden Park. Local pride was only dented at the last moment but the dream of a wee team getting in about the big boys is the stuff of legends and a friendly confirmation that football is best when rooted in a community that cares.

 2011 to see not just the 25th anniversary celebrated by our home grown Feis Rois but a vast leap in self-belief in our native music and languages which the SNP Government has backed to the hilt. Also in my village home the local staff of the Coop Foodstore Evanton showed that Highland pride could beat 3,000 other stores for customer service across the UK.

Let's spare a thought for our troops who are having to wage war in Afghanistan and hope for their safe return will be as soon as possible. And to all of you have a Happy Christmas and a healthy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Rob Gibson SNP MSP for Highlands and Islands

Friday, 17 December 2010

Severe Weather

Severe weather, deep snow, ice, disrupted roads, rail cancellations, schools closed, concerns for the old and infirm. In the North and North East of Scotland they happen nearly every year and occasionally more than once a year.

Mostly we can cope, however we do wish to know that the Council, Stagecoach, Scotrail and Bear are keeping as closely to their contracts as we can expect. So the unexpectedly high snow dump on thirty miles round central Scotland may have a useful outcome.

When I last wrote to you a fortnight ago I listed four events I’d hope to reach that weekend. Two were cancelled due to the dangers posed for people trying to travel. So a visit to Kirkcudbright will have to wait. As for Perth, I did get there in the evening for the Scots Trad Music Awards along with many others but the SNP’s quarterly National Council earlier in the day had to be abandoned. Things did improve markedly during the day to allow bus and rail travel to return to approximately normal.

Notwithstanding our individual calculations as to what was possible, the central belt snows led to the resignation of Transport and Climate Change minister Stewart Stevenson for his unfortunate presentation on TV. Forget decency and hard work. Forget a winter resilience report published last September that lists lessons from last winter’s excesses. Forget the world-renowned Climate Change legislation. On screen Stewart misused the phrase ‘first class response’ and questioned the accuracy of the weather forecast. Unreal.

Keith Brown MSP for Ochil, whose family have Brora connections, takes over the Transport berth. And another report will be gathered on lessons to learn whilst making doubly sure existing communications between agencies and the public are tip top.

As a member of the Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee I am asking a number of key questions. Does it take an impending election for opposition leaders to take an interest in severe weather when it hit Central Scotland? What would make them interested in the much more frequent weather issues in north and north east Scotland? And is it because of our Green Party committee convener has an anti- road transport agenda that he did not make a committee spot to debate the Winter Report from last year. It was published last August, after all.

I welcome the Scottish Government commitment for the next year to preserve the number of core college and university student places. The SNP will also protect the main research excellence grant budget in cash terms. Despite deep cuts ushered in by London Tory/LibDem coalition, no existing student in Scotland will see grants decrease in the next academic year.

Meanwhile in England universities and students see deep cuts and soaring tuition fees. We saw that seven Scots LibDems backed the Tories, while Far North member Viscount Thurso abstained from supporting Nick Clegg’s backing for the tuition tax.

Tripling of fees will have serious consequences for higher education north and south of the border. Scottish students studying in England will be saddled with mammoth debts and there will be a knock on effect for Scottish spending as Barnett consequentials are cut.

Again Labour in London certainly can't protect Scotland - only the SNP in Scotland can do it: if we have the powers. People in Scotland will have an early opportunity to pass judgment on the LibDems at the elections next year and this betrayal will haunt them at Holyrood.

The Tories introduced loans, Labour brought in fees and the LibDems have now helped the Tories increase them. Only the SNP is left as the party for students in Scotland offering them the opportunity to be part of something better.

The Scottish Government has published a Green Paper on Thursday December 16, 2010 on finding a uniquely Scottish Solution to sustainable funding of higher education. This will allow a wide and mature debate in which all sensible ideas will be considered apart from one - tuition fees.

I was appalled last weekend to hear a commentator on London TV say that the Scottish Government had cut student and university support. Far from it, the Scottish Funding Council is carrying out a Scottish policy to maintain free education at colleges and universities here. It is part of the Scottish intent to grow our economy and build sustainable jobs and communities.


Contrary to opposition taunts in Holyrood, a TNS opinion poll shows a surge in support for Scottish independence.

The poll shows a record 40% of Scots want to see the Scottish Parliament have the powers of independence. The TNS poll conducted over St Andrews Day shows 40% support the Scottish Parliament having the powers and responsibilities to enable independence, with only 44% opposed.

The TNS poll follows findings by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey which shows that support for Scottish independence rises to almost half (45 per cent) if taxes were to go down by £500 – with 62 per cent also saying that the Scottish Parliament should take the most important decisions about welfare benefits, while 57 per cent say thesame about taxes.

The Holyrood scrutiny of the Scotland Bill published by the UK Government is a huge opportunity for Scotland to gain the financial responsibility it needs to prosper – but as currently drafted it falls far short of what is needed.

This poll shows that people across Scotland see the need for this country to gain the powers other countries take for granted, so we can compete on a level playing field, attract business, grow the economy and create a wealthier nation – the only alternative to the savage Westminster cuts agenda.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Energy, traditional music and the Scotland Bill

Amidst the snowdrifts and black ice the beating heart of Scotland was on display last weekend. I was privileged to attend the Green Energy Awards and the Scottish Trad Music Awards - two vibrant strands of Scottish life in rude health.

There were eighty-eight tables at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre last Thursday night, although some two hundred guests called off due to weather. This display of a young and thrusting industry has huge import for us. Many have a Highland interest. Among the award winners of the Best New Business was SeaEnergy Renewables which not only pioneered the Beatrice demonstrator turbines in the Moray Firth but also have made strategic partnerships in Taiwan. Their local partners will deliver the Moray Firth offshore wind farm in the next ten years.

In passing I must applaud the first issue of Energy North a supplement published by Scottish Provincial Press. If proof were needed on and offshore renewables will provide skilled jobs at all levels in our Highland future.

For me the annual celebration of Scotland’s rich musical traditions is a must see event. This year Perth was the host and for the third year BBC Alba screened the edited highlights. The riches of local talent were on display and won awards. Our own Julie Fowlis won album of the year for Uam. Matheu Watson from the Heights of Strathpeffer won up and coming artist of the year and Eilidh MacKenzie, Gaelic singer of the year. I could list so many from the north who won. But let’s celebrate the key role of the Feisean movement as acknowledged by many of these winners. Our own Feis Rois has been pivotal over the decades in delivery a carrying stream of talent to the wider Scottish river of sound.

Announcements by the Minister for Culture, Fiona Hyslop MSP have underlined the support of the SNP Government for parity of esteem of our traditional music alongside other art forms. She found cash for the Youth Music Initiative to continue till 2012. This employs many tutors of traditional music based here. Also the new website of 130 traditional Scots and Gaelic songs for use by teachers and student in the Curriculum for Excellence has been unveiled. And Fiona announced in Perth a sum of £250,000 for Creative Scotland to develop its support for traditional music in its overall scheme of development.

These are testament to a Government that values the traditions of Scotland that are both a source of pride and identity and create many jobs in far flung parts of the land, not least in Ross-shire.


This week in Holyrood we have debated the new Scotland Bill proposed by the LibDem and Tory London Government. The dominant issue is cuts ordered by London government that most Scots think are too far, too fast, yet we have no immediate way to change our lot. But there is another way. We can have home rule instead of LibDem/Tory rule.

A stronger Scottish Parliament won’t magic away the cuts but it can make them more manageable. With more powers we could help our economy grow and protect the things that matter.

With full independence we can go further still, creating jobs and prosperity here in Scotland. The SNP trusts the Scottish people to decide the right path for our nation. That’s why we want a referendum on independence. Instead we are offered a referendum next May on a voting system that isn’t more democratic.

Our families and our future together with independence can make Scotland much better. Now that would be something to sing about, even in the snow!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Article for Independence 5 by Highlands and Islands MSP Rob Gibson

As a candidate and MSP you can get into some campaigns that po-faced journalists love to ridicule. Back in 2002 I worked with a volunteer at the Strathnaver Museum to show that JRR Tolkien had pictured the Lonely Mountain and Middle Earth in NW Sutherland.

History shows that New Zealand got the honours, the work and the tourists when the Lord of the Rings trilogy became blockbusters. However, nothing daunted this summer’s labour relations and cash issues clouded the setting for the new Hobbit movie in NZ. For a while.

Reports that the filming might be moved because of contractual disputes led me to relaunch my bid for Sutherland as a good place to film Middle Earth. According to legend the writer of the Hobbit had actually visited the area. JRR Tolkien is said to have visited Sutherland despite denying he had ever been further north in Scotland than Dundee. Perhaps he should have been asked how far north west he travelled.

My informant said that Tolkien’s name was written in a guest book in the Duke of Westminster’s hunting lodge at Achfary but proof has not been forthcoming. Nevertheless NW Sutherland would be an excellent location for filming the Hobbit. The spectacular lochs like Loch Stack and mountains like Arkle and Foinaven lend themselves to the story.

Indeed Ben Stack, pictured, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lonely Mountain in the Tolkien book. And Celtic and Norse mythology referred to the areas around nearby Strathnaver as the Middle land. Sutherland and Scotland deserve to be the home of the Hobbit where the scenery matches the grandeur of the book and also would undoubtedly boost tourism and the film industry in Scotland.


Another early set of questions in Parliament got me stick. I questioned the light pollution from badly designed and unnecessary street lamps in Shetland. What a waste of money answering such a fancy railed one Sunday paper. Yet climate change debates view all this in a new light, so to speak.

This year the London-inspired cuts loom for our councils which propose to switch off every second street lamp. Why is inappropriate street lighting de rigueur for remote villages as well as city centres? Because it’s another asinine power reserved by law to Westminster! All over Brittany which I often visit and no doubt much wider, they switch the lights off at midnight in the villages.


However, the most persistent nonsense we north members are called to answer is the southern English obsession with synchronising their clocks, in winter, with continental time, whether we in Scotland like it or not. With shorter hours of light the further north you go nothing can alter going to school or work in the dark, or in the depths of winter lightening the return journey in the evening.

So avoiding the obvious attempts by hacks to make a Scotland v England rematch I responded to the latest Tory private member’s bill in Westminster. If they are so keen to change the clocks, as the Daily Mail reported I said, they should get up an hour earlier and see the light.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Budget, Scotland Act and Winter Arrives

John O'Groat Journal Column 3rd December 2010

Last week a new IPSOS MORI poll gave overwhelming backing to key SNP policies set out in the SNP Government’s budget including freezing the council tax, supporting the NHS, abolishing prescription charges and freezing pay for those earning over £21,000 as the party maintained its polling position from before the 2007 election.

The poll conducted immediately after the budget also gave positive approval rating for Alex Salmond, the only leader to reach over 50% is over three times that for Iain Gray and more than double all the opposition leaders combined with Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott receiving a negative rating of -4 as the party continues to do the Tories dirty work in Scotland.

On the back of a tough budget caused by Tory/Lib Dem Westminster cuts, Alex Salmond’s leadership ratings are rising to near record levels, and our core policies of a Council Tax freeze as part of our social contract with the people to sustain measures such as pay restraint, support for front line services and economic recovery receive overwhelming backing.

The SNP is delivering popular measures of substance, while Labour has no coherent stance on either the Council Tax freeze or pay freeze. Three-and-a-half years into office SNP support is at the same high levels as when we won in 2007 – which is a remarkable achievement for any administration. Support rises for governments in the run-up to an election, and as Labour come under increased scrutiny their inexperience and inconsistency will be exposed as they seek to push up taxes for every Scottish household and back LibDem/ Tory tax plans that will slash Scotland’s budget.


On St Andrew’s Day this year the LibDem and Tory Coalition Government published the

Scotland Bill which is set to devolve a few more powers to the Scottish Parliament the most important being greater tax varying powers by 2015. Significantly already we know that the important Aggregates Tax and Airline tax won’t be part of it.

Signatories to a letter from concerned business leaders and economists were also published and it shows a wider Scotland wants greater debate about the bill that will only focus on the recommendations of the Calman Commission. When the bill goes through its stages in Westminster, the Commons and Lords must discuss and agree a greater level of fiscal responsibility for the Scottish Parliament.

The North is well represented on the distinguished list of signatories by Dan Macdonald property developer of Macdonald Estates and mining millionaire Dennis Macleod from Helmsdale.

They argue that the best way forward would be to devolve most current taxes to the Scottish Parliament since this would make politicians more accountable for the financial decisions they take, while giving them both the incentive and the fiscal tools necessary to achieve improved public services and faster economic growth.

Further, it would help to foster a healthy relationship between Westminster and Holyrood.

All of the main Scottish and UK parties agree that the Scottish Parliament should have greater financial powers. The debate is now about which powers should be devolved and when. We hope that the publication of this bill will lead to an open-minded discussion about what is in the best interests of Scotland and the UK as a whole.

The opportunity now exists to fashion a new, sustainable financial settlement to underpin the devolution settlement. We believe that ultimately the Scotland Bill should be measured by the economic levers and responsibility it transfers.

The political scientist Prof John Curtice of Strathclyde University made an important comment on the proposed Scotland bill. On BBC Newsnight Scotland on Monday evening he said, “The truth is – that bill that is published tomorrow – is in fact the true legacy of the Nationalist victory in 2007. The nationalists haven’t been able to get that referendum bill through, but their victory in 2007 forced the Labour Party in particular to re-think its attitude towards devolution, to work together with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to produce this proposal that the Coalition is now putting forward. So, the SNP will undoubtedly put out a lot of criticism about this, but the truth is, they are probably principally responsible for this proposal at least getting as far as the statute book.”

That suggests that unless a strong vote is made by people for the SNP no other party will make any meaningful change in Scotland’s government.


Much more urgently on most minds have been the deep freeze from the polar winds that have paralysed so many communities. My own week began on Monday digging out the car at home in Evanton. My first steps to get to Parliament to get to Inverness station. Train left slightly late and reached Perth on time, however, rail disruption further south left no driver and conductor available. Half an hour went by and a relief crew were ready.

Rob digging out the car on Monday Morning
In Edinburgh I trudged through the slush to the flat with the roller bag as I needed the contents later this week for the Green Energy Awards in Edinburgh on Thursday night. Two committee meetings some questions and a speech followed at Holyrood.

I am returning the favour to Dr Aileen McLeod’s whose adoption meeting takes place in Kirkcudbright on Friday. Aileen came to support me at my adoption as SNP candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross in the middle of last month. On Saturday I’ve to get to Perth for the SNP quarterly national council meeting and then join friends at a table for the Scottish Traditional Music Awards which is also in town that evening.

But above all I have nothing but praise for the train and bus crews that keep us moving and the health workers and social work staff who tend the old and inform in such difficult weather conditions.