Some Scottish News & Views Issue # 433

Issue # 433                                     Week ending Saturday 30th  December 2017
Is Ebenezer Scrooge Alive and Well and Running Health Services in the Highlands? By Iain MacIver Courtesy of the Press & Journal

It is that time of year when we want to remember what has gone on before and gasp aloud at everything in the films that we have forgotten in the 20 years since we last saw them. Enough Carry On films already. There are so many of them on this Christmas that we decided we had enough of Barbara Windsor’s underthings being catapulted round a campsite and we went for some even older classics.

On Christmas night, there was Scrooge. Not the one with Patrick Stewart, nor the one with George C Scott nor even the one with The Muppets but the one from 1951 with the droopy-jowled old curmudgeon himself, Alasdair Sim. What a brilliant spine-tingling classic it is. And it is such a timely reminder that kindness and pleasantness is not just for Christmas. It is forever. Gosh, I should have been a poet. Er, unless someone else wrote that before me.

By Charles Dickens, the tale is rooted in the dark arts of embezzlement and fraud. It may have been written in 1843 but that could be just another tale of greed and heartbreak at many Scottish enterprises in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness or even Stornoway. Allegedly, he said quickly. It may be Yuletide but our news is sadly full of such tales of people taking advantage all year round.

On Christmas Eve, the miserable old businessman makes clerk Bob Cratchit work in a cold office. He refuses to go to his nephew’s party and gives nothing to charity collectors. Then he is visited by ghosts. The spooky Ghost of Christmas Past wakes Scrooge and shows him moments from his childhood, his apprenticeship and his failed engagement to a lass who was lovely she could easily have had Great Bernera connections.

At Cratchit's home, Scrooge is saddened by the sickly Tiny Tim. No way would Timothy have looked like that today - thanks to our wonderful caring NHS. Scrooge sees others celebrate with friends then the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come petrifies him with visions of his death. The miser awakes on Christmas Day and is delighted to find he has the chance to repent of his miserly ways. He buys a turkey for the Cratchits and attends his nephew’s party. He is completely changed. Whether he starts attending the Free Church (Continuing) is not recorded by Dickens, probably because it had not been invented then.

Even those who do not pocket cash for themselves can lose sight of what they should do. Take the appalling news that NHS Highland is the only health authority so messed up that it thinks it is fine to force expectant families to fork out for scans of their unborn babies. To me, that makes Elaine Mead, the chief executive of NHS Highland, the new latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge. What is the female version of Ebenezer? Ebenezerina? Like Murdo and Murdina? Yeah, that’s it.

Ebenezerina is a person well used to baby scanning, being a former radiographer. Yet her heart is cold when wannabe mums and dads ask for free images of their developing bundles of joy. How miserable? And how miserable is the statement from the NHS person who bleated that NHS Highland images are higher quality than those other hospitals use. They added “the monies received are used for the cost of the scanning equipment, maintaining this equipment and the cost of the photograph paper, envelopes and the printer ink.”

Ink, ink, pen and ink, something here doth really stink. Thankfully, Kate Forbes, the MSP, will not leave it. She says it is about mothers in the Highlands being the only ones facing a mandatory charge for scans. She added that equal access is at the very heart of the NHS. According to its own website, NHS Highland’s self-proclaimed values are “to listen, to treat people with respect, to treat people with dignity”. There is no mention of the importance of paper, envelopes and ink - yet in those Inverness offices where the modern-day Scrooges of the NHS do their sums, printer consumables are now more important than what the people they serve need from them - a bit of warmth and humanity.

Still. they may change their mind in the New Year. That’s next week, by the way. I am not going out at the bells. Last year, I came home by wire. If it wasn’t for the fence between us and Peggy’s house next door, who knows where I would have ended up? If you are going out, have a musical one. Sing songs and dance. But all you pipers, remember not to run with bagpipes. You could put an aye out. Or get kilt.

Haggis and Black Pudding Recalled Over Botulism Control Procedures Concern

A Scottish food producer has recalled batches of haggis, black pudding and white pudding over concerns about the company’s botulism control procedures.  The Farmer’s Son, in Auchtertool, Fife, recalled several products on Saturday and has advised customers not to eat them and to return them to the place from where they were bought.  A warning was issued by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which said: ” The Farmer’s Son is recalling various products because of concerns over the company’s procedures in place to control Clostridium botulinum.  The bacteria can produce botulinum toxin, which causes serious food poisoning and has the potential to be fatal.  A product recall notice issued by the firm said “no botulism has been found” and customers were being asked to return the products “as a precautionary measure”.  The company added: “We are very sorry for any inconvenience caused.”  Batches of haggis bungs and four-slice packs with use-by dates up to January 10 are affected. Black and white pudding packs with use-by dates up to January 11 are also being recalled. The Food Standards Agency said anyone who has bought the products should not eat them and return them to the shop where they were purchased.

Festive Swimmers Brave Irish Sea for Christmas Day Dip
Hundreds of festive swimmers braved the Irish Sea for the traditional Christmas Day dip in Dublin.  Heavy rainfall failed to dampen the mood at the popular Forty Foot swimming spot at Sandycove.  Santa hat and Speedo combos were extremely popular among the bathers, as were bikinis decorated with tinsel.  Cynthia Cowan had travelled all the way from Oregon in the United States to experience the ever-popular festive ritual.  Mrs Cowan, 64, took the plunge with her son David and family friend Jarrett Yount. “My son heard about the Forty Foot and we decided it would be exciting to do it,” she said.  I wasn’t going to do it at first but then I decided I needed to do something new, I had never done anything like this.” She said the cold was a bit of a shock. It was pins and needles the whole time, but it was great and everybody was so friendly and so nice – it was wonderful,” said Mrs Cowan. “I loved it, it was just so much fun.”  The sea temperature was nothing new to Patrick Corkery from Castleknock in north-west Dublin.  The 44-year-old swims every day and three months ago he completed a life-time ambition by swimming the English Channel.  His wife Alice and son Matthew went to the Forty Foot on Christmas Day to cheer him on as he entered the water in red and white shorts and a Santa hat and beard. “It was wet and raining but it wasn’t stopping anybody, they were all getting in anyway,” he said. “It was probably wetter out than it was in.  I’m doing this nearly 30 years. It gets me out of the kitchen and means I don’t have any chores at home.”

Nucleus Building Wins Architectural Awards

The Nucleus building which opened in Wick at the start of this year has won two major architectural awards.  The £20 million building, designed by Reiach and Hall and home to the national archive for the civil nuclear industry, won Public Building of the Year and the Editor’s Choice of the Year awards in the inaugural Architects’ Journal Architecture of the Year Awards. The awards celebrate design excellence in UK architecture across 23 different categories.  The centre, on the northern outskirts of the town, was built by Morrison Construction whose managing director Donald Mclachlan picked up the award at the awards ceremony in London.  He said: “We are delighted at the recognition this wonderful facility has achieved on a national stage. Our highly-skilled teams work extremely hard to deliver excellent facilities to benefit the communities they are built in many years into the future.” According to the judge, Nucleus is “an exceptional piece of architecture materially, aesthetically and functionally: it’s made well, looks stunning and fulfils, indeed, exceeds its brief – effectively re-imagining what an archive building can be in both form and function.” The building, which opened in February, accommodates 30 million digital records of records from nuclear sites across the UK, including Dounreay, stretching back more than 70 years. It also houses the Caithness Archives, a wealth of lcoal archive material dating back to the 16th century. Its storage area takes up 26 kilometres of shelving contained within six giant concrete pods with the building also including a large public area, reading room and community space.

SNP Group Walks Out of East Dunbartonshire Council After Stormy Meeting

The ruling SNP group of East Dunbartonshire Council quit in a row over cutting redundancy terms for staff.  The administration formed as a result of the SNP becoming the single biggest party after May’s local elections, with seven councillors.  But the LibDem and Tory groups, who have six councillors apiece, have consistently voted down the administration. This happened again last month when councillors voted to cut the maximum added years for pensionable employees from 10 to three, reduce the maximum discretionary payments from 66 weeks to 30, and introduce a maximum payback period of two years.  On November 9, Liberal Democrat and Tory councillors voted to defeat the SNP administration and Labour councillors to cut the terms of the council’s voluntary severance arrangements.  It instructs management to issue 90-day notices next March to all staff who do not agree to the changes voluntarily, terminating their current contracts and re-engaging them on the new terms and conditions.  Unions condemned the move, while the ruling minority SNP administration accused the Tories and Lib Dems of treating council employees with “abject contempt” by announcing the decision ahead of consulting the workforce.  The SNP made a last-ditch bid to have the decision taken by the LibDem and Conservative groups in November set aside. But this was rejected by 12 votes to nine - with one Labour councillor and Independabt voting with the SNP. One other Labour councillor is on paternity leave.  Now the SNP have resigned en masse in protest following a stormy meeting at council HQ last night and leaves East Dunbartonshire without a governing party.  In a resignation letter former SNP council leader Councillor Gordon Low, said: “With a majority of 12 out of 22 councillors, the two main opposition groups have always had it in their own hands to choose how to exercise that majority. Unfortunately, while not prepared to take on the responsibility of administration, they have nonetheless chosen to work hand in glove, acting as a coalition in all but name to obstruct the work of the Council and impose their own agenda.”

Dornoch Sports Centre Fiasco Could Cost Taxpayers Dearly
It could cost taxpayers and contractors “hundreds of thousands of pounds” not to go ahead with the long-awaited £3.5 million Dornoch Sports Centre project, it emerged this week. It is is understood that the recommended successful tender for the job is “significantly” below its nearest rival – and Highland Council admitted it has already spent £287,000 on the project. As revealed last week, a veteran Sutherland councillor has resigned from the ruling administration in protest after learning the sports centre has now virtually zero chance of going ahead.  East Sutherland and Edderton ward councillor Jim McGillivray is angry that a programme of new school builds in Inverness is likely to take precedence over the sports scheme, a project which dates back more than 25 years.  But this week Cllr McGillivray revealed that on November 29, the Sutherland county committee “unanimously” approved the recommended tender.  He said: “The committee decided to proceed with urgency to legally commit to the project before the closing date for acceptance on January 5. The fact is this was the only council capital project of any significance in Sutherland for a number of years and potentially for many years ahead.”  But when the tenders went before the last full council it was “kicked into the long grass” until the next meeting in February when a decision on it will be up against other projects competing for a stretched capital budget. Crucially council officers recommended that the successful tender for acceptance be “subject to the availability of adequate funding.” Cllr McGillivray said: ”The recommended tender is significantly lower than the others. In addition the amount of fees and time already spent on this is considerable.  If this sports centre does not go ahead it could cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands. If it does not go ahead next year, but at a later date, it will also cost the council a lot more money. Even a year on the tender price is unlikely to be as low as it is now, given inflation and other costs etc. This just doesn’t make sense.  The people of Sutherland are being failed, the contractor – who has acted with integrity – is being failed, but the council’s reputation is failing.  We have ended up with a costly phantom building project. I think Sutherland deserves better.”  Cllr McGillivray is accusing Highland council of being “Inverness-centric” and of failing to give Sutherland its fair share of the capital funding available.  He has now launched a campaign aiming to wrest more money for the county. He is calling it Six per cent for Sutherland and is urging local people and fellow councillors to support him.  He said: “Sutherland has six per cent of the Highland population and should, in a fair and equitable council system, get six per cent (£3.3 million) of the annual capital spend of £55 million. I haven’t even looked at the revenue spend for the county. But we should be getting six per cent of that too.”  The sports centre was in pole position in the council’s capital plan and a funding package had been provisionally put together – the authority was expected to provide £3 million along with £200,000 from SportScotland; £200,000 from a private donor; £100,000 from Dornoch Common Good and £75,000 from Leader.  However, it became abundantly clear last week that there was little chance of the centre, which was to be sited at the rear of Dornoch Academy, going ahead. Cllr McGillivray has seen an email from Cllr Matthew Reiss, one of the backroom budget team, which indicated that the authority will in February opt to commit its capital budget to new Inverness schools.  And, in a report before last week’s full council meeting, head of corporate finance Edward Foster warned that capital projects, including new schools and leisure centres, will need to be reduced, as the council can no longer afford to pay back the loans.  Also, SportScotland held a funding assessment meeting when it emerged it would not award its funding without Highland Council first committing the £3 million.  Cllr McGillivray said the council’s reputation for integrity was at stake. Meanwhile, his Six per cent for Sutherland campaign is receiving growing support as its message spreads across the community.  Joan Bishop, chairman of Dornoch Area Community Interest Company (DACIC), said: “Dornoch has been patient for decades waiting for this much-needed facility, urgently required by our young people in a busy and well regarded school that has embraced the council’s three to 18 campus and deserves better treatment than this.  We have been assured on numerous occasions that this project was in the capital plan and to be let down at this late stage is horrendous. The council seems to be taking an ever more Inverness-centric approach and failing all other communities.”  But the authority claims that the sports centre scheme has not been dropped and is still in the £55 million capital plan, which will be reviewed in February.  A Highland Council spokesperson said: “The Dornoch Sports Centre project has not been removed from the council’s capital plan. Decisions on capital funding, including Dornoch, will be taken at the February council meeting.”

Cromarty Bridge Works Progress Beyond Half Way Mark

The £1.5 million bridge improvement project on the A9 at Cromarty Bridge is making good progress with works beyond half way point.  The project began in August to carry out concrete repairs to the bridge deck and supports as well as the installation of protection measures to prevent future deterioration.  The bridge deck will then be waterproofed and resurfaced to ensure a smooth and safe journey for bridge users. Traffic management has been in place on the bridge for safety since construction began, however to minimise disruption over the festive period BEAR Scotland will remove all temporary traffic management and reopen the bridge to both lanes from Friday this week.  Work will resume on Monday 8 January, with the temporary traffic lights being reinstated for safety until the project is completed.  During this festive break there will be a reduced abnormal load capacity whereby abnormal loads heavier than 100 tonnes or 16.5T axle loads will not be allowed to cross the structure.  These restrictions will be lifted once teams and the traffic management are back on site in the New Year. Eddie Ross, BEAR Scotland’s North West Representative said: “Good progress has been made in the £1.5M project to repair four of the spans on Cromarty Bridge, and we’re pleased that we’re on programme to complete the project by spring next year.  Our teams have been working hard to prepare the bridge deck so that the traffic management can be lifted over the festive period to limit disruption to the travelling public.  Unfortunately this temporary arrangement means that abnormal loads over 100 tonnes will have to find alternative routes until the bridge can be fully strengthened, however we’ve been liaising with transport organisations to share this message. We’ll be back from Monday 8 January with the traffic management arrangements restored for safety so teams can complete the remaining phases of work. We will continue to do all we can to minimise disruption as much as possible during the remaining phases of this project, and we will continue to update all relevant stakeholders as required.”

The Lost and Sometimes Madcap Customs of A Scottish Hogmanay

From holly whipping to lucky cheese and a strange procession led by a man covered in cow hide, Hogmanay celebrations in Scotland have long been madcap affairs.  With the old feast of Christmas generally discouraged by the church following the Reformation, special focus was placed on the turning of the New Year with the period running up to Hogmanay, and its aftermath, always celebrated as a holiday period in Scotland  This whole period is known in Scotland as the ‘daft days’ which were given over to celebration, merriment and excess, with licence given for enjoyment during the often bleak midwinter.  This dedication to the good times, and bringing the light into the dark months, has led Scotland’s Hogmanay celebrations to become world famous.  Fantastic records exist on how Hogmanay was celebrated during the late 18th and earl 19th Century in the Highlands and Islands where the seven days from Christmas to the New Year were called Nollaig.  During the “easy-going olden times” no work was done during the period but men gave themselves up “to friendly festivities and expressions of goodwill,” according to John Gregorson Campbell’s The Gaelic Otherworld. A common saying of the festive period was often shared: “The man whom Christmas does not make cheerful/Easter will leave sad and tearful.”  Hogmanay was referred to as either ‘night of the candle’ or ‘night of blows’ given the popularity of one ritual which involved a man having a dry cow hide placed over his head before being beaten like a drum as he and his friends moved around their village.  Usually led by a bagpiper, the group would move around each house, turning anti-clockwise, striking the walls and reciting rhymes to raise the householders.  As doors opened, the group would pile into each home to receive refreshments, such as oatmeal bread, cheese, flesh and a dram of whisky, according to Campbell.  The leader would then give the man of the house the ‘caisein uchd’ or a shinty stick wrapped in the breast stripe of a sheep or tail of a deer. This was then singed in the fire, put three times anti-clockwise around the family and then held to the noses of all in the room, Campbell said. “In this style, the villages, men and boys, went from house to house - preceded in many cases by a piper, and drowning the animosities of the past year in hilarity and merriment, according to Campbell.  Holly and cheese were other elements of Hogmanay in the Gaeldom. Holly was hung in the belief it would keep the fairies away with boys whipped with a branch of the greenery. Every drop of blood spilled counted the years the boy would live.  Although it sounds fairly grim, it was reportedly a ritual practised in good jest among friends.  A slice of cheese cut at this feast was considered to have a “special virtue” if the piece contained a hole. “A person losing his way during the ensuing year, in a mist of otherwise, has only to look through the hole and he will see his way clearly,” according to Campbell’s account. Sometimes the owner of the lucky cheese would place it under their pillow for good luck.  Hogmanay night was sometimes referred to as New Year’s Night with the fire in the home playing a central part in the superstitions during the countdown to midnight,  It was feared that letting the fire go out would invite bad luck into the home with only householders - or a friend - allowed to tend it. Candles were usually lit as back up to ensure a flame remained in the house with December 31 often referred to as Candle Night as a result. If the fire went out, no one was allowed to ask a neighbour for kindling to start another.  New Year’s Day, like the first of every quarter of the year, was a great ‘saining’ day across the Highlands and Islands when rituals were at their most intense to protect cattle and houses from evil.  Juniper was burnt in the byre, animals were marked with tar, the houses were decked with mountain ash and the door-posts and walls and even the cattle were sprinkled with wine.  Campbell said: “Nothing was allowed to be put out of the house this day, neither the ashes of the fire nor the sweepings of the house, nor dirty water, nor anything else, however useless or however much in the way. It was a very serious matter to give fire out of the house to a neighbour whose hearth had become cold, as the doing so gave power to the evil-minded to take away the produce from the cattle.  Indeed it was ominous that death would occur in the household within the year. .”  The morning of January 1 started with a dram poured by the head of the household with a spoon of half-boiled sowens, or oatmeal husks, which were considered the poorest of all the foods, given for luck.  This tradition was still followed in central highlands, Lorn, Mull, Morvern and the Western Isles during the early 19th Century.  It was unlucky for a woman to enter the house, or anyone to come in empty handed. A young man entering with a armful of corn was considered a joyful omen but a “decrepit old woman asking for kindling of her fire was a most deplorable omen,” Campbell’s account said.  Today, thankfully, the ritual of first footing after the midnight bells of Hogmanay feels a little less risky. First footing: the quality of the guest and the first gift brought over the threshold after midnight was thought to determine the luck of the household during the year ahead.

Golfers Boost North Economy by £500,000

The number of golf tourists visiting the Highlands is higher than ever – generating more than £500,000 in off-peak season income for the area.  For the sixth successive year there has been a rise in sales of ‘Play and Stay’ deals to boost business during the shoulder months of April, October and November – and advance sales for next year will continue the upward trend. During 2017, the number of deals rose by more than three per cent on last year and, with bookings for 2018 up 25 per cent, it means there will be more than 3,000 rounds played in the off-season months.  Partner group Highland Golf Links (HGL) offers rounds at three of Scotland’s most renowned links courses – Castle Stuart Golf Links, Royal Dornoch Golf Club and The Nairn Golf Club – as well as accommodation at leading hotels, the Kingsmills and Culloden House in Inverness and the Royal Golf Hotel in Dornoch.  Castle Stuart has hosted the European Tour’s Scottish Open four times in the last seven years. Nairn, which hosted the Walker Cup in 1999 and the Curtis Cup in 2012, staged this year’s Boys Amateur Championship, while Royal Dornoch was home to last year’s Northern Open.  All three courses feature in the annual Highland Golf Links (HGL) 54 hole Pro-Am, which this year attracted a record entry of 80 teams.  Fraser Cromarty, chairman of HGL and chief executive of The Nairn Golf Club, said: “The increasing numbers of golfers who are coming to the Highlands during off-peak months is extremely encouraging.  This area has a lot to offer as a golfing destination and HGL has been extremely successful in attracting visitors through the Play and Stay packages and the income generated gives everyone a boost at a quieter time of year.”  Craig Ewan, general manager at the Kingsmills Hotel, added: “We are seeing more and more golf business every year and we have a huge number of golfers who book these packages year after year. When we are staying away from home and playing some of the best golf courses in the country you want to be staying in a luxury hotel which provides quality service, great bedrooms and fantastic food and beverage to match the golf.”

Scottish Speakers’ Corner Takes Shape At Foot of Leith Walk
Scotland is set to get its own equivalent to Speakers’ Corner in London – in the shadow of a statue of Queen Victoria.  The foot of Leith Walk would become home to regular public speeches and debates under plans to breathe new life into the area.  The idea has emerged during talks between politicians, arts organisations and community groups about reviving the fortunes of the historic Kirkgate.  It has its roots in the late 15th century, when South Leith Parish Church was created, and has been a focal point for political speeches and demonstrations since the 1950s.  It is hoped the creation of a Speakers’ Corner will also tackle concerns from Leithers that they feel locked out of decision-making on the future of the area.  Leith Walk in particular has been transformed by a wave of gentrification over the last decade, although the “Foot of the Walk” has been plagued by antisocial behaviour issues. Along with the idea of a Speakers’ Corner, a complete “redesign” of the Kirkgate area was put forward during the recent talks to try to turn it into “a vibrant centre for Leith, a meeting space, performance space and destination”. New farmers’ markets and the staging of cultural events and festivals in the Kirkgate were also suggested in the final Leith Blueprint report. More than 3000 Leithers were consulted as part of a £46,000 research project, which has recommended the creation of a new community development trust to spearhead change. The proposal has the backing of locals.  The study said: “Across the board there is a feeling that the community are not in control of the choices that affect the area and there is often little transparency surrounding decision-making. This has led to disempowerment.  Respondents called for better management and investment in public spaces, including the Kirkgate, providing more places for people to sit. There was acknowledgement that the various communities need to integrate better, as well as increasing links to cultural activities. An appeal for civic spaces for people to mix more meaningfully was made.”

Two Wildlife Rangers Get Posting to Remote Scottish Island

Scottish Wildlife Trust of wildlife rangers Craig Nisbet and Francesca Clair have been made seasonal rangers at the Handa Island Wildlife Reserve off the west coast of Sutherland. The remote island in the Inner Hebrides is internationally important for seabirds including guillemots with an estimated 100,000 birds visiting every year.  The pair will live and work on the island from March to September 2018 and be joined by up to six long term and 50 weekly volunteers over the season.  Mr Nisbet has spent the last 10 years with Scottish Natural Heritage including four continuous seasons as reserve manager of Noss National Nature Reserve in Shetland and worked in Arctic Norway identifying and filming orcas and humpback whales.  He said: “Francesca and I are passionate about conservation. We’re both looking forward to working and living with volunteers, meeting the visitors, and making a connection with the land, the sea and the local community.”  Ms Clair has worked for several environmental organisations, including the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, focusing on education, community development and practical conservation, both in the UK and abroad.  The couple will help to manage co-ordinated counts of breeding seabirds and chicks, oversee repair work taking places on Handa’s path network and ensure thousands of people are able to enjoy a safe visit to the island. Handa Island is owned by Scourie Estate and managed with help from the Scottish Wildlife Trust. A small ferry sails between Handa and Tarbet on the mainland in addition to boat trips operating to the island from Fanagmore.  During the summer, the island attracts tens of thousands of birds including guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars. Dolphins, whales and basking sharks are often seen from the coast. Sven Rasmussen, reserves manager, Scottish Wildlife Trust, said: “Handa is an extraordinarily beautiful place and is one of Europe’s most important seabird colonies.  However, it is rather remote, which means our rangers have to be resourceful and resilient.  Craig and Francesca are both experienced conservationists and I’m sure they have the skills needed to make 2018 a successful season for our volunteers, visitors and wildlife.”  The Scottish Wildlife Trust offers opportunities to volunteer on Handa Island for a week or for long-term placements from two weeks to five months.

Revolutionary Pump to Cut ScotRail Diesel Use on Trains

ScotRail stands to save more than a million litres of fuel a year from a technological breakthrough that could be copied worldwide.  A new computer-controlled pump on trains promises to cut the amount of diesel used following an industry-first trial in Scotland. It has been developed by Edinburgh firm Artemis Intelligent Power, which has calculated the device could reduce fuel consumption by 1.5 million litres a year on one of ScotRail’s fleets alone.  That’s the equivalent of 6 per cent of the 24.5 million litres a year used by its Class 170 trains on routes such as the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line and between the two cities and Aberdeen and Inverness.  A single carriage of one of the three-coach trains was used for the trial. Tom Smith, project engineer for the ScotRail Alliance with Network Rail, said: “The installation of this new hydraulic pump is a great milestone in the development of sustainable technology, and a rail industry first. The Artemis pump has re-imagined the traditional mechanical control of pistons and has the potential to save over 9,000 litres of fuel per train carriage each year.  Using technology to digitally control the pistons means we are able to consume fuel much more efficiently by only using it when needed, similar to turning the lights in the house off when they’re not being used.”  Artemis said it hoped the technology would be used in trains across Scotland, and potentially worldwide. Managing director Dr Niall Caldwell said: “It is enormously expensive to electrify our train lines and it is just not practical in many rural locations in Scotland and globally. Diesel will be with us for many decades, so we have focussed on a technology which can be readily adopted and make a big impact now. Most modern diesel trains rely on a hydraulic unit to power each carriage’s cooling fans and generate electricity, which together use up around 10-15 per cent of the engine’s fuel.  We have made a new type of digital hydraulic pump, which uses computer-controlled valves to switch the pump’s cylinders off when not needed.  This means the pump is much more controllable and efficient, and can give significant fuel savings.”

It May Not Feel Like it But We've Never Had it So Good
by Iain Macwhirter
Journalists are often criticised for accentuating the negative and failing to inspire readers with messages of hope. Mea Culpa. But journalism is the language of priorities. We have enough cat videos on the internet. Nor is there any shortage of heart warming tales, such as Andy Murray donating his Aegon Tennis winnings to victims of the Grenfell fire, or the woman who brought cushions for rough sleepers so they could lie on those cruel pavement spikes. Great. All credit to them.  However, the real stories in both cases were the appalling circumstances of a deadly fire that should never have happened and the scandal of homelessness doubling since 2010 in the fifth richest country in the world. When column inches are short, the priority has to be the big issues.

However some very big good news stories somehow fail to get much attention. Last year I pointed out that the objectives of the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, (remember Edinburgh surrounded by people dressed in white) were met years ahead of schedule. Extreme poverty has fallen by 70%. In 2017, the UN announced that extreme poverty should be eradicated within the next decade. That’s an astonishing forecast, any way you look at it. Relative poverty will still be around, of course, and there will be famines in war zones and failed states. But for the first time, probably in human history, everyone will actually be fed. And contrary to almost everything you read, the world is actually becoming more peaceful. The number of conflicts resulting in over 1000 deaths-per-year has fallen by over 70% since 1991, according to Ohio State University. In 2017, Islamic State, which recently controlled one third of Iraq was defeated there and in Syria, closing down the most murderous and nihilistic movement since the Nazis. We had terrorist atrocities in Manchester and Westminster Bridge, but the number of terrorist deaths in Western countries has fallen massively since the 1970s, and is in decline across the world. According to the Royal Statistical Society’s statistic of the year, more Americans are killed by toddlers with guns (21) than terrorists (16). We’re so used to falling crime figures, that it’s no longer news. Rebus may be back from the dead but murder is going out of business. Overall, recorded crime in Scotland fell again last year by 3% and has dropped by nearly 40% in the last decade. This is despite a dramatic increase or “epidemic” as we in the media like to call it, of sex crimes such as rape, paedophilia, sexual assault. But even this is good news because it shows that many more rape and sexual assaults are no longer going unrecorded.

Donald Trump's nuclear stand off with the North Korean dictator Kin Jong Un shocked the planet, but 2017 may go down in history as the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons. In July, the United Nations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a great result for the Nobel-prize winning ICAN campaign. There’s a real chance now that sustained legal action by non-nuclear countries will succeed in outlawing these weapons in the coming years in much the same way that chemical and biological weapons have already been banned. No one ever thought they could be outlawed, but they were. Weapons of mass destruction that target civilians have always been illegal, but it is only recently that the majority of non-nuclear nations, horrified at Trump and Kim, have started getting their act together to apply the law. A lorry was arguably the biggest environmental story of the year. Elon Musk's all-electric Tesla company unveiled an articulated vehicle which is capable of hauling 80,000 lbs at motorway speeds for 500 miles on a single charge. And it works. This is far more significant than the hype about self-driving cars. Transport is the second largest source of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions after industry, and emissions have been rising fast since 1990. In the UK, 70% of the nearly 2 billion tons of goods transported last year went by road against 9% by rail. Tesla trucks won't be self-driving, at least not yet, but can move in digitally-governed convoys which mean their efficiency could rival that of rail.

Diesel was the source of that other great environmental issue of 2017: air pollution in cities from particulates and nitrogen dioxide. Gasses from vehicles are more toxic and far more difficult to deal with than emissions from homes and factories. Attempts to limit diesel car use in towns are really rather pointless unless you also deal with lorries, buses and taxis. There’s been a reluctance to address this because no one ever thought electric lorries could actually work. Well, Tesla's do work and they are faster, safer, cheaper to run than conventional road haulage.  In 2017 we probably saw the beginning of the end of the private car. A sad moment for those of us who grew up on car culture and enjoyed the freedom they brought. But we all knew it couldn't last, and I think there was a breakthrough in public consciousness this year. The ban on diesel vehicles in Scottish and English cities will be followed by similar restrictions on petrol vehicles. Eventually the private car will become too costly and will pass into history. Only enthusiasts and collectors will still posses these vehicles, as the rest of us turn to self-driving taxis, electric bikes, public transport. Of course, the energy for electrification of transport has to come from somewhere, if every lamp-post is to become an electric charging point. Fortunately Scotland is making real progress in the drive to replace fossil fuels. Last year was a another milestone in that for the first time the equivalent of 54% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption was produced by renewable energy, not just for the odd day, but across the entire year. Of course, climate change and plastic pollution remain massive problems. But we must always remember that some things can change, and that despair is the enemy of hope.