Some Scottish News & Views #74

This little effort is for the period ending 5th February 2011.  Once again I’ve been able to include a small tongue-in-cheek article which I think you will enjoy. - Robin

Orkney Born Fiddle Orchestra Conductor Dies (This extract was taken from an obituary sent to me by a  friend in Scotland  - Robin)

A fiddler who became the conductor and musical director of one of Scotland's best-known orchestras has died. John Mason led the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra in entertaining crowds in the UK, Canada and Australia since its first performance at Aberdeen's Music Hall in March 1980.  He died after battling a long illness, just a day after celebrating his 71st birthday.  Mr Mason's efforts to promote Scottish traditional music and his services to charity were recognised in 1987 when he was made an MBE.  Mr Mason was born in Kirkwall, Orkney, into a family of musicians and, from a young age, was encouraged to play the fiddle and the piano.  He quickly developed an interest in traditional music.

After the family moved to Wigtown in south-west Scotland, Mr Mason's love of music was encouraged by teachers at Douglas Ewart High School in Newton Stewart, and he took part in many school musical activities and formed a band with friends. After graduating in law, he moved back to Wigtown and eventually became senior partner in a firm of Solicitors in Troon, Ayrshire.  He then met old schoolmate Hiliary and the couple wed, moving to a cottage in Tron in 1967. The couple had three sons, Peter, Rognvald and Jamie.  In the 1970s, Mr Mason joined the Kilmarnock Strathspey and Reel Society and later helped form the Ayr and Prestwick Strathspey and Reel Society. The society was the first to produce massed fiddle music on record and hosted many concerts in theatres and halls throughout south-west Scotland and also in London's Royal Albert Hall. This sowed the seeds for the formation of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra.

The acclaimed orchestra plays six annual concerts in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and London. It also performs a range of special concerts, which has seen it tour Canada, New Zealand and Australia, where it played two sell-out nights at the Sydney Opera House.  Mr Mason was once told by an orchestra member he had created a "wonderful family", which its 120 members say they hope to continue in his memory.

This Piece on John Mason, is Taken From Robbie Shepherd’s Doric Column (hope you can understand it - Robin) With a great working of elbows The fiddlers ranted  – George Brown
We gaed back a thirty eer, John an masel - freens throwe music, an it’s hard tae tak that nae mair will that charismatic conductor tak tae the stage electrifeein baith players an aadiences alike. John Mason MBE, Musical Director o The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra will be laid tae rest neist Setterday in Troon efter losin a sair fecht aginst cancer, a fecht borne wi sic dignity, humility an gweed humour tae the verra eyn.  There he wis, determin’t tae front his beloved orchestra for the antrin selection back in April last eer at the 30th Anniversary Concert in the Music Hall an only us that kent o the sair tyauve wid o notic’t the odds. The verra same venue hid the inaugural concert back in 1980 an efterwards, tape recorder an mike at the ready, we sat in a neuk o the Northern Hotel tae pit thegither a bittie for ma radio programme. That the wecht o the man cowpit a cheer intae crockaneeshin fin he sat doon is anither story bit haein haard rummblins fae some aucht-day fiddlers, I pit it till him that he micht be in danger o extendin ower muckle the players - tap draaer musicians tho they were fae aa ower the country – an tynin a bit o the true tradition in the byguan.

Damn the fear for wi his backgrun o the aal time Orkney fiddlin tradition an’s association wi the Strathspey and Reel Societies, John wid o been hurt at sic a thocht, an we hae tae gie him great credit for his major contribution in bringin the verra tradition mair tae the fore usin aa his great talents o leadership, inspiration, composin an arrangin.  He his seen the Orchestra raise the reefs o the biggest venues aa ower wi the annual concerts includin the Royal Albert Hall in London - een o ma proodest moments as compère introducin them on stage there - an Australia, far they played in the famous Sydney Opera Hoose.  Neen o the Orchestra gets pey’d - it is a privilege tae be pairt o’t - and ower these thirty eer they hae rais’t the feck o a million poun for major charities.

His vision on his composin brocht us sic classic tunes as “The Wild Rose of the Mountain’ an his arrangin o his fella Orkney musician, Ronnie Aim’s “Heroes o Longhope” is a masterpiece. On a “Roads o Summer” series I did a feow eer seen he took me back tae Orkney an we spak aneth the monument o these brave men o the lifeboat, the hale eicht o them droon’t at sea comin tae the aid o a Liberian ship in 1969.  Bi the silence, the reverance, I cwid see there an then that the inspiration cam fae the hairt.

The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra allied tae traditional Scottish Music wis John’s passion, strict at rehearsals till aabody got it richt bit then there wis that humour richt tae the eyn that endear’t him tae aa.  

John Mason MBE, Maestro, Bandmaister par Excellence. He’ll be sairly missed.  

Orkney Fiddler Kristan Calls the Tune to Take Title As Young Musician
All ten previous winners of the annual BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition are continuing to forge successful professional careers in music, many of them featuring prominently on this year's Celtic Connections bill. Such is the contest's calibre that even winning through to the final is now a major badge of honour, and one richly deserved by each of the six hopefuls. With the show broadcast live on Radio Scotland (and televised highlights available to view on the BBC's Celtic Connections website), each performer had 15 minutes to make their bid for the title all presenting a different musical specialism.

By all accounts the competition's judges always have a fiendishly difficult task. This time few will have envied them making a decision from the contrasting array of talent, also including Alistair Ogilvy's wonderfully characterful, minutely nuanced Scots singing, Lorne MacDougall's brilliantly authoritative piping and lyrical whistle work, pianist Tina Rees's vibrant, soulful renderings of traditional and original material, and Skye teenager Mairi Chaimbeul's adventurous, quicksilver clarsach playing and sweet Gaelic vocals. In the end, though, it was 22-year-old Orcadian fiddler Kristan Harvey who carried off the prize, with her lusciously full-toned, deeply felt version of a Paul Anderson slow air, and some thrillingly fiery dance tunes, further fuelled by touches of bluegrass and jazz.

Chill Wind Blows on Highland Rail Line
Passengers on Scotland's best-loved railway who are already enduring long delays at stations and trees obscuring the views have been hit with a new discomfort - freezing carriages. Long-suffering travellers on the world-famous West Highland lines are being left shivering on journeys of up to five hours after the trains' internal doors were removed. Campaigners claim carriages have been turned into wind tunnels, making rail travel between Glasgow, Oban and Mallaig almost unbearable.  The routes have twice been voted the most scenic in the world by travel magazine Wanderlust and will this week be the focus of Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys series on BBC2.  However, regular passengers have complained about lengthy stops in stations because of antiquated signalling.  They say the latest discomfort is the final straw and want the trains replaced.  Train operator ScotRail took out the manually- operated sliding doors after a carriage crashed on to its side when it hit fallen boulders on the Oban branch of the line at Cruachan last summer.  John McCormick, chairman of the Scottish Association for Public Transport, and another regular passenger, said: "Trains are now freezing on cold days. Staff are also unhappy." ScotRail said the doors had posed a potential risk and it was seeking to improve the trains' heating.

Isle in Shock As Councillor’s Name is Linked to Text Shame By Iain Maciver    
Your image is often defined by the best-known person with your surname. See Obama and you think Barack; Cruise and you think Tom; Miliband and you think, er, let me think . . . oh yeah, David.  Now, to his delight, a certain island councillor has found out his surname is not as rare as he once thought it was.  While the name Manford has been known in island local-government circles for many years, now another young buck has come up to take forward the name of the clan.

Donald of that ilk is the councillor on Barra, of course. As chairman of the transportation committee, the Manford patronymic is synonymous with all ferry, road and aviation matters. So busy is the crofter-fisher with all these transport affairs he has little time to keep up with who’s who in the world of stand-up comedy or TV entertainment, for example. So there was Donald, a couple of months ago, wandering down the high street of a Scottish town when he noticed a newspaper billboard.  “Manford in sex text shame,” it roared.   A shiver coursed through the beard of the man from Northbay. Quickly thrusting his hand into his pocket, he checked his phone. What was all this about? He had only recently worked out how to make phone calls with his new-fangled Orange thingummybob, never mind send texts.

Crofters’ hands are far too big, anyway, for tiny keypads to punch out ROTFL when he is talking about some of the speeches by certain Lewis councillors. And he could never be bothered when they send back messages saying he is a SOAB. Donald doesn’t have a clue what that means. And neither do I.  Had he been so unwell he’d texted his colleague, Annie Macdonald, and forgotten? If so, what had he texted? Oh no.   What was in his sent queue? No, nothing much. Just more stuff raging about Scottish Natural Heritage’s ludicrous planned no-fishing zone round Barra. Couldn’t see anything dodgy there. No, hadn’t even misspelt that bit about cockles and mussels.

As the nervous tremors rose, he had to phone a colleague. But who? Must have been Philip McLean; after all, there aren’t many members who are switched on enough to know what happens in the real world outside the White House. The shock melted away as Donald learned the yarn was actually about comedian Jason Manford, of The One Show.  Donald had no idea what was going on as he had never come across the nimble-fingered comic. “You know, The One Show is one show I don’t watch,” he said, while admitting he still shivers when he ponders what the locals thought when they saw that headline on Barra.

Now that Jason has taken the rap, Donald can venture out of doors again. Anyway, others from the island are now becoming superstars in the media. After just two episodes, Island Parish (Fridays on BBC2) is making real TV stars of the priests down there.  Seeing Father Calum McLellan, who helpfully warned Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, at the opening of the Eriskay causeway that there were newspaper people all the way from the Isle of Lewis around and she should have nothing to do with any of them, was a joy to watch as he nipped out for a fly fag. He was absolutely right to warn her about that Donnie Macinnes fellow, though.

In another distant holiday destination, there has been mounting tension and outrage. No, not just Andy Murray’s trouncing yesterday in Australia by Novak Djokovic.  There is continuing unrest in Egypt, an unlikely but popular holiday hotspot for Outer Hebrideans recently. Hosni Mubarak’s reign is finally crashing to an end.  Just why places like Cairo are proving so popular to some islanders is still a mystery to me. A couple from Stornoway were there a few months ago and they enjoyed it tremendously – as far as countries with crippled economies run by tinpot dictators go.  The husband, let’s just call him Malcolm, did tell me there were one or two cringeworthy moments during their break. His wife’s fault, you see. Nothing to do with him, he insists. Best not name her, then.  On the Friday, they heard an almighty racket outside the hotel. It was a bit like the vuvuzelas at the World Cup, he told me.  It went on and on. Mrs Malcolm was not happy. Considering how much they forked out for their hol, she wanted peace and quiet.  She caused a stooshie, ordering the manager to get the rowdy lot outside to pipe down.

“Pipe down? What does madam mean?” asked the manager. “That is the call to prayer to all believers.”  Oops. Trying to explain the mistake to an irate manager with an increasingly-bristling beard that no such summons was necessary at the Free Church in Kenneth Street wasn’t easy for Malcolm. Ushering his missus away, he tried to explain that the church bells atop the High Church were the nearest things Stornoway had to a call to prayer.  “No sir, we have no minarets where I come from. Just bells, No, not balls. Bells. You know, ding-dong. No, not Leslie Phillips. Is he a minister? It’s Willie Black’s church on Matheson Road. You know? Every Sunday morning. Ding-dong.”

It didn’t help. For the rest of the holiday, Mr and Mrs Malcolm were eyed as suspiciously as the rest of us look at the Free Church (Continuing).  And Mrs Malcolm did little better with asking for directions one lunchtime.  She had meant to ask where was the delicatessen. But the writing in the English-to-Arabic phrasebook was tiny. She got it a bit wrong. She just about caused an international incident when she tried to make herself heard over the traffic by shouting not where is the delicatessen but: “Where is the democracy?”  That was a very good question. But maybe the diplomatic corps are not quite ready for Mrs Malcolm just yet.

Climber Walks Away After 1,000ft Mountain Plunge
A climber who plunged 1,000ft down a Highland mountain admitted he thought he was going to die.  Adam Potter, 35, tumbled down the steep slope after slipping near the top of 3,589ft (1,094m) Sgurr Choinnich Mor, about five miles (8km) east of Ben Nevis.  Rescuers in a Royal Navy helicopter found him standing up reading a map when they arrived on the scene on Saturday afternoon.  Mr Potter broke his back in three places but was able to walk and is now recovering in the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.  Rescuers said he was lucky to be alive after tumbling that distance. They had expected to be attending a “worst-case scenario”.

The Royal Navy Sea King helicopter from HMS Gannet at Prestwick, Ayrshire, was already airborne for training and arrived at the scene 35 minutes after Mr Potter fell.  Mr Potter was winched on board and flown to hospital, where he is being treated for whiplash, shoulder, chest and back injuries.  Meanwhile, Stornoway Coastguard search-and-rescue helicopter picked up a female climber who had broken her leg on Saturday.  She was in a party of four climbing the 3,278ft Sgurr Choinneach, near Lochcarron, Wester Ross.  The woman was taken to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.

Green Light for Upgrade of Glasgow Underground
Work to overhaul Glasgow’s ageing Subway system could start as early as summer after planning permission was given for improvements to Hillhead Station in the west end of the city. Despite doubts about a £300 million modernisation programme, owner Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) has pressed ahead with plans to improve the appearance of three stations in the network.  SPT has now obtained planning permission for a programme of works at Hillhead, on Byres Road, which is popular with students and commuters who stay in the affluent west end, and it is expected to be finished by spring next year.  The scheme will include improvements to the lighting and appearance of the station, redesigning the entrance hall to make it more accessible to blind and impartially-sighted passengers, and renovating the exterior.  SPT is also aiming to upgrade Kelvinhall and Ibrox stations ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, with £20m of reserve funding.  

Dating back to 1896, Glasgow’s Subway is the world’s third-oldest such system but has been suffering from increased maintenance costs and poor reliability. The modernisation, if approved, will see new track and tunnel upgrades, station improvements and new hi-tech driverless trains introduced.  SPT sought approval after it admitted the long-term costs of maintaining and repairing an ageing system were not sustainable.

Bid to Halt Invasive Weeds Threat to Riverbank
A multi-million-pound project was launched on Tuesday to tackle invasive plant species on Scotland’s waterways.  The project aims to control invasive plants, such as the giant hogweed and Japanese knotweed, which are taking over river banks, limiting their use for angling and recreation, destroying ecosystems, and causing health problems for those who come into contact with the aggressive plants.  The £2.6 million project, which will focus on 12 Scottish waterways, is also looking at waterways in areas of Ireland.  The Scottish rivers involved in the project are in Ayrshire (Rivers Garnock, Irvine, Ayr and Girvan); Argyll (River Awe); Galloway (Water of App, River Luce, River Bladnoch, Water of Fleet, Kirkcudbrightshire River Dee, River Urr); Borders (River Tweed).

Experts have estimated the economic impact of these aggressive plants, which can also cause health problems for those who come into contact with them, is more than £10 billion across Europe per year, and about £7.5m in Britain alone.  A European Union-funded initiative led by scientists at Queen’s University, Belfast is now aiming to fight back.  The CIRB project (Controlling Priority Invasive Species and Restoring Native Bio- diversity) will control rogue plants such as the giant hogweed, rhododendron, Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam.
In Ireland it will focus on the River Faughan in County Londonderry, the Newry Canal/Clanrye River, and the River Dee/River Glyde in Co Louth.

Dr Cathy Maguire from Queen’s University, Belfast, who is leading the project, said: “As well as damaging natural biodiversity, invasive species can cause serious problems for local communities. They take over river banks, preventing their use for angling and recreation. The giant hogweed also contains toxic sap that can cause painful blisters on anyone who comes into contact with it.”  The invasive species identified are plants that have been introduced to a place where they do not naturally occur. They can be bigger, faster growing or more aggressive than native plants, therefore upsetting the balance of the ecosystem.  They may also have fewer natural predators to control numbers, meaning that native plants are often unable to compete and the invasive species quickly take over.

Fresh Trouble for Delayed Borders Rail Link
Plans for a rail link through the Scottish Borders are facing further delays after the local council said it will miss its five-year deadline for securing the necessary land. Scottish Borders Council has been forced to ask ministers for more time to obtain access rights to land it needs to build the 35-mile Waverley Line – connecting the capital to Tweedbank via Midlothian – which has been blighted by delays and cost over-runs. As a result, the government has agreed to extend the council’s compulsory purchase powers to 2016 to let it secure access to a group of plots along the route, the maximum period allowed by law. Supposed to cost £130 million and open in 2011, the project is currently priced at around £300m and is due to open to trains in 2014.

Government ‘Failing to Protect Wild Salmon’ (I thought I had heard everything-but no-Robin)
Angling interests have made an official complaint to the European Commission over what they claim is the Scottish Government’s failure to protect wild salmon from fish farming. Solicitor Guy Linley-Adams, acting for the owners of the Ullapool River in Wester Ross, yesterday submitted a formal complaint, running to more than 80 pages. It details alleged Government failures to designate an appropriate number of west-coast Scottish rivers as Special Areas for Conservation for the protection of wild Atlantic salmon under the EC Habitats Directive.  The complaint also details the threats posed by salmon farming to the two existing Special Areas: Little Gruinard, in north-west Ross-shire, and Langavat, on Lewis.

Mr Linley-Adams, engaged last year by the Salmon and Trout Association, said: “The problems of the salmon farming industry are not new to anyone and have been known about for the best part of 20 years. The failure of the Scottish Government to get to grips with the industry and to ensure that it does not damage the iconic wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout of the west coast and western isles is nothing short of a disgrace. European law requires member states including the UK, acting through the Scottish Government, to protect wild Atlantic salmon.”

Man Arrested After 14 Crew Had to Be Rescued From Fishing Boat That Ran Aground
A man has been arrested in connection with the grounding of a French fishing boat from which 14 people were rescued.  The crew of the Jack Abry II, which was sailing off the west coast of Scotland, were airlifted to safety by a Stornoway Coastguard helicopter on Monday night after the vessel ran aground on rocks. A distress signal was picked up just after 11:30pm and the 151ft boat was located on rocks near the Isle of Rum.  A crew from Mallaig lifeboat went to the scene, but strong winds and a heavy swell prevented a sea rescue. The fishermen were eventually winched up and taken to Stornoway.  Northern Constabulary said that a man was in custody in connection with the grounding of the vessel. He is due to appear at Stornoway Sheriff Court.  The Maritime and Coastguard Agency's counter-pollution branch will assess whether there was any fuel leakage from the boat, which will later be towed from the island.

The Power Behind Bulging Muscles
Popeye the sailor man has the remarkable attributes of the nitrates in spinach to thank for his strength. Scientists have dismissed iron in the green leaves as the source of the power behind his bulging muscles in favour of the chemical which helps fuel cell activity and growth.  This is still not good news for parents, though. It does not matter whether it is nitrates or iron, it still takes feats of superhuman patience to get children to down a plate of the so-called superfood.

Risks of Losing Coastguard Stations ‘Not Assessed’
The UK Government was accused on Monday of planning to slash the number of coastguard stations in Scotland operating 24/7 without formally assessing the risks involved in the closure proposals. Western Isles SNP MP Angus MacNeil claimed ministers had pursued a “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” process.   The row will continue today during a Commons debate on the future of the Coastguard Agency.  It involves expanding the role of Aberdeen’s around the clock Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre, but axeing either Lerwick or Stornoway stations and limiting the surviving centre to opening only during the day. The proposals accompany the government’s attempt to privatise the helicopter air-sea rescue service, which is stalled while Military Police investigate an allegation that a military officer at the Ministry of Defence had leaked sensitive material.

Mr MacNeil raised the issue of a risk assessment a week ago amid concern that one centre would not be sufficient to cover Scotland’s northern and western coasts. He was told in the Commons by Transport Secretary Philip Hammond: “The proposals have been risk-assessed. They have been around for more than two years, since before the general election, and there is a long slow-burning fuse behind them.”  But earlier yesterday, Mr MacNeil said he was told by coastguard chief Sir Allan Massey at a Westminster meeting “that no formal written agreement had been done.”  He raised a point of order in the Commons to demand clarification from Mr Hammond. He said: “We need clarity from the government in what is fast becoming a burach surrounding these proposals.”  Statements from the Department for Transport and the Marine and Coastguard Agency claimed the proposals to modernise the service “have been risk-assessed at every stage” but added: “A formal risk-assessment will be published soon.”  And the agency admitted: “No separate risk assessment has been carried out in respect of each coastguard location, although a range of factors was considered in determining our proposed closures or conversion to daytime operation.”  The debate follows one in the Scottish Parliament last week when politicians joined forces to urge the UK Government to abandon its “flawed and dangerous” plans. At the close of the debate the Shipping Minister announced that a Risk Assessment Document for the Coastguard closure proposals will be published next week.

Staff Take to Streets Over School Job Cuts
Protests over plans to axe all teaching assistants from local primary schools are gathering momentum with threatened staff taking to the streets to win support from parents. Unison has condemned the move by Highland Council to scrap the region's 344 mostly part-time classroom assistant posts - the equivalent of 158 full-time jobs - saving £2.45 million.  The union, plans to stage a protest outside the authority's headquarters in Inverness on Thursday ahead of a meeting where councillors will be asked to agree the cost-cutting measure.  It is part of the latest round of budget proposals which include £17.5 million of spending cuts and will see the equivalent of 337 full-time jobs lost. In December the council agreed to axe 300 jobs, including 80 secondary teaching posts.

The council points out that classroom assistants will be replaced by up to 150 additional part-time learning support auxiliary posts at a cost of £980,000. "We intend to remove the existing posts and replace them, in part, with additional more focused support posts for pupils with additional, support needs," said councillor Bill Fernie, chairman of the education committee.  "As a result of this proposal, pupils with additional needs will have access to a greater level of staff support than has been available to date."

Scotland's Newest University 'Will Help Reverse Brain Drain'
After a 20-year battle, Scotland's newest educational institution has finally been granted university status - and its first move will be a massive recruitment drive. The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) passed the final hurdle to becoming a university when consent was granted from the Privy Council this week.  It is now hoped an international and domestic marketing drive will see demand for places grow.  In particular, it is thought degrees in Scottish history and Gaelic culture will be an attraction to the Scottish diaspora. James Fraser, principal, said he hoped the university would see overseas student numbers rise from 250 currently to up to 800, a tenth of the total student body of about 8,000.  He said: "We particularly expect that the United States, Canada, Australia and places like that would be interested. Part of our mission is to ensure we reflect our cultural heritage."

Mr Fraser also believes other overseas students, outwith the Scottish emigration diaspora, will also be keen to gain their degrees in the Highlands and Islands.  He said: "We expect to attract many Indian and Chinese students with our renewable energy degree. Many have already expressed a great deal of interest."  It is also hoped the move will help Scots who wish to remain in the Highlands to study, and stall the drain of young people to the cities.  The idea of a university of the Highlands was first mooted 20 years ago and the UHI Millennium Institute was formed more than a decade ago. It is made up of 13 colleges, specialist institutions and research centres spread across the region.  Similar rural universities in England, such as the University of Cumbria, used UHI as a template and gained the coveted status years ago. The delay for UHI has been the legal requirement for all universities in Scotland to have a research element. England has teaching-only universities which are relatively quick to set up. - research departments can take years to fully establish.

Government Steps in to Get Trams Moving
The Scottish Government's Transport Scotland agency is to play an "active" role in the mediation process that will seek to end the bitter dispute that has brought Edinburgh's beleaguered tram project to a virtual halt.  Sources close to the project said Transport Scotland would now have to agree to any changes that formed part of a peace deal between Edinburgh City Council-owned tram developer Tie (the former Transport Initiatives Edinburgh) and the construction consortium led by German firm Bilfinger Berger.

These could include plans to build the 11.5-mile Edinburgh airport-Newhaven line initially only as far east as the city centre, which could affect Transport Scotland's £500 million funding for the £545m project.  The public spending watchdog said the Scottish Government should "consider whether Transport Scotland should use its expertise in managing major transport projects to be more actively involved and assist the project in avoiding possible further delays and cost overruns".  The two-year-old dispute, over the cost of project changes and delays caused by other late-running work, has put back completion until at least 2013.  The council now expects the scheme to cost at least £600m, which could require it to find £100m.  A total of £402m has been spent so far, with just 28 per cent of construction finished, although other work, such as moving underground pipes from the route and manufacturing the trams, is nearly finished.

Islands Battered by 80mph Gales
The public were urged to stay indoors on Friday as the west Highlands and islands were battered by 80mph gales. Weather forecasters warned that there would be little let-up. In the Western Isles all schools were closed as the conditions worsened.  Public buildings such as libraries and sports facilities also shut early and evening bus services were disrupted. The police advised people in the islands to stay at home and not drive unless their journeys were essential.  There was added concern on Lewis when some parts lost the 999 phone service. Nearly 1,000 lines at Shawbost, Borve and Carloway were affected for several hours yesterday morning.  Virtually all island ferries were cancelled, including about two-thirds of the CalMac boats.  

Elsewhere in the north, there were several road accidents as the snow and ice returned. The southbound carriageway of the A9 Inverness-Perth road was closed at Dalwhinnie after a minor accident. Meanwhile, a jack-knifed lorry at Tomatin caused traffic on the northbound carriageway to be restricted. Last night, drivers on the A9 were experiencing white-out conditions at Drumossie Brae, south of Inverness. The A835 Ullapool-Dingwall road was affected by drifting snow and gale-force winds but was passable.  Fallen trees affected minor routes at Beauly and Strontian, and thunderstorms accompanied the gales throughout the region.  Floodwatch warnings have been issued by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for Argyll rivers and Loch Lomond, across the Western Isles, Skye and Lochaber and the Shetland coast. Boat owners and people living on west coast properties near the sea are braced for exceptionally high waters.

Fort Workers Hit the Jackpot!
A syndicate of staff from a filling station in Fort William have scooped £146,658 from the Lotto draw by matching five numbers and the bonus ball. The staff from the Road to the Isles garage and some of their close friends bought the winning ticket from the town's Tesco store.

From Spin to Skirl As Campbell Joins Fight to Save Music School
He was renowned for piping up for the New Labour cause. But now Alastair Campbell, the bagpipe-playing former spin doctor to Tony Blair, has become the latest high-profile figure to join the growing chorus of condemnation against the threatened closure of a traditional school of music in the Highlands.  The National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High School is facing the axe following the announcement that Highland Council plans to withdraw its funding of £317,000 for the facility as part of a package of spending cuts.  The centre opened in 2000 after receiving £650,000 from the Scottish Executive and has produced many award-winning musicians over the last decade.

The former director of communications at Downing Street, whose father is a Scot, said: "I wanted to support this because I think it is important. It looks to me like an easy target in a way.  And it's one of those things that, unless enough people raise their voices in support of it, it could just go without a fight and I think that would be wrong."  He said he also did not accept the view that the school only benefited a small number of people. Mr Campbell declared: "When talking about traditional music and the desire to maintain excellence in it, I don't think that is elitist at all. I think it benefits everybody and the culture of the entire country."

Renowned Scottish accordian player Phil Cunningham has also pledged his support for the campaign to retain the school.  He said: "I think it started about ten years ago and I was totally dumbstruck with how far thinking the Highland Council were in getting behind this. And I would ask them to cast their mind back to what we had before and to look at the value of what we have now.Our music and our culture are flourishing and Plockton High School has played a huge part in that." He added: "Any institution that teaches traditional music at a grass-roots level to young people has to be important. When I was in my teens I hadn't any peers at all that I could play music with - I was a kind of isolated in an otherwise barren world. To see young people embracing traditional music nowadays is a wonderful thing. It is instilled at an early age as something to enjoy and not be embarrassed about."

A petition, opposing the threatened funding cut, has already attracted more than 6,000 signatures. And today former pupils from the school and a host of musicians are planning a "protest session" in Glasgow's George Square to highlight the plight of the Plockton school. The protest is being organised by Suzanne Houston, from Golspie, who is now a student at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance.

Workers Taken Off Stricken North Sea Oil Platform
More than 70 people had to be evacuated from a North Sea oil installation on Friday as it broke loose from its anchorage during severe winds.  Aberdeen Coastguard was monitoring the Maersk Oil-owned Gryphon Alpha yesterday as the bad weather hit the North Sea. The floating production, storage and off-loading platform, which is based 175 miles north-east of Aberdeen, had 114 people on board but last night only 40 staff remained.  The unit was shut down after four of its 10 anchor chains failed and two workers were slightly injured. Aberdeen Coastguard co-ordinated the removal of 74 workers from the Gryphon installation to other nearby platforms, assisted by a helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth.

A coastguard spokesman said three tugs had been sent to the area to help stabilise the situation and a fourth vessel was on standby. He said: “Non-essential personnel had to be evacuated for safety reasons due to the weather.  “Winds were 53 knots from the north-west and the platform was recording a 12 degree roll earlier yesterday morning. “ Nine-metre (29.5ft) seas were also being recorded.” The Maritime and Coastguard Agency's counter-pollution team was alerted to the developments, but no gas was detected following the shutdown.  The gale-force winds caused havoc throughout Scotland yesterday as flights and ferries were delayed or cancelled, boats broke free of their moorings and slates blew off buildings. Shetland and Orkney were worst hit but the conditions improved in Grampian yesterday.