Friday 31 December 2010

New Year in Scotland

Scotland in winter. The snow has melted, leaving dead, saturated grass, brown leaves turning to mush, tree branches bare sketches in a dull sky. Stained concrete and grey harl of housing weeps with water. Roads are lined with crusty piles of old snow dirtied by salt and grit. Brown rivers dash down gorges, too dark to photograph easily even at midday. In the city, a white-haired drunk sits in the Rose Street gutter amongst the stag parties and bargain hunters, singing to himself "if you hate the fucking English clap your hands."

Beautiful Scotland:

The way through the ever-present reminders at this time of year in Scotland of death, decay and mental illness is to do something colourful or fun. In Edinburgh on the 30th, a torchlit parade snakes its way down the Mound, bound for Calton Hill:

This is all part of Edinburgh's commercialised New Year festival. Not so long ago, a crowd of perhaps a couple of thousand gathered spontaneously at the Tron kirk on the Royal Mile for the bells. Today, around eighty thousand buy tickets for a concert and fireworks show held on Princes St, which is pedestrianised for the night and accessible only to ticket holders. It is so successful - and more exciting than the old, organic celebrations - that people come from all round the world to experience it. Other cities across the country host more modest events. Glasgow's 2003 George Square show with the Proclaimers was a personal highlight, especially as Edinburgh's Franz Ferdinand show the same year was cancelled due to high winds. Shadenfreude is not an exclusively German emotion.

Wherever you spent your Hogmanay, I hope it was a good one. For me, another year closer to death, it is a time of reflection rather than celebration. It is a time to quietly assess the last year and ponder the coming one.

Here's to a good 2011.

Friday 24 December 2010

You're Not Alone - a Christmas Song

This song, from my forthcoming album, is for those who have lost someone they love recently - or who have never loved at all. For those alone tomorrow. For those who need uplifted by a good tune. Comfort and peace to you all.

You're Not Alone

Friday 17 December 2010

Grangemouth and the CIA

Ask an American tourist what the main sights in Britain are and they might reply: Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Dove Cottage, the Loch Ness Monster. It is unlikely that Grangemouth petroleum refinery would be high on their list of priorities.

Beautiful Grangemouth:

Which is why the CIA World Factbook is so illuminating.

The CIA, historically, has furthered US interests abroad - sometimes, in unfortunate cases like Iran or Chile, against the democratically expressed will of the populations. They have a particular interest in strategic assets. And a look at their map reveals the sites they have their eyes on in Britain. There is no place for Stratford-Upon-Avon or Stonehenge: not even a largeish city like Leeds. On the map instead: major ports like Felixstowe or Dover, and otherwise obscure places like Grangemouth, Peterhead, Scapa, Sullom Voe. International trade and the oil industry.

Map of UK courtesy of CIA World Factbook:

"Oh wad the power the giftie gie us," wrote Burns, "to see ourselves as others see us." Much maligned Grangemouth, it turns out, is one of the UK's most important places...

Friday 10 December 2010

Winter Walking in the Ochils

This weekend just gone, a bothy trip up north was cancelled due to bad weather conditions on the roads. But carpe diem! We took the opportunity of a fine Saturday to stretch our legs and get some fresh air and scenery in the modest braes of the Ochils.

Ochil escarpment from Abbey Craig:

Although these Central Belt hills are low compared to the Highlands - 721m at their highest on Ben Cleuch - they form a steep escarpment above the Forth plain, and are more impressive in appearance than many larger hills. Rushing burns drop to the plain via steep-sided glens, these rivers providing power in the past to water mills - a contrast to today's power manifestations of Longannet and Grangemouth.

Grangemouth from Alva Glen:

The glens provide routes up on to the bald, smooth summits. With the snow down so low, these rocky sided glens provide good sport, and we had the ice axes out barely 200m above sea level, as we crossed the gorge of Alva Glen at its confluence with the Glenwinnel burn.

In Alva Glen:

Once established on the other side, we couldn't avoid noticing several slab avalanches. We contoured high up on the Nebit to avoid falling victim to one ourselves...

Ochil Avalanches:

The snow was deep, and it was hard work, especially as I am out of shape since damaging my knee in May! Skiers on the slopes of Ben Ever seemed to have the better idea, with miles of cross-country skiing possible - though as this is all off-piste, any elegant descents had to be paid for in sweat.

Looking down on the Nebit and the Forth:

Once on the plateau, views opened up. Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh looked tiny, and the air was clear to the south and west. Tinto and the highest peaks on Arran were visible. However clouds had formed to the north, so only part of the Highlands were on show.

Looking west from Ben Ever towards the Trossachs, Ben Lomond and Ben Ledi prominent:

It was a relief to finally reach the summit. Days are short in winter, and the sun was already setting, giving us memorable light.

On the summit:

Viewpoint indicator:

Fenceposts at the top of Ben Cleuch:

Heading for home - Pentlands visible across the Forth:

On the edge of the Ochil escarpment, knee-jarring descent ahead!

All that remained was to descend from our high perch, into the post-sunset gloom of Mill Glen and a walk back along the road to Alva. However a kind trio of youngsters gave us a two-mile lift back from Tillicoultry to Alva - much appreciated :)

Ben Cleuch at sunset:

Saturday 4 December 2010

A tour of the Scottish Parliament Building

In 1707, the long-chreished dream of Stuart royalty - a United Kingdom - was formed, when the Scottish Parliament voted to disband itself. Its members were absorbed into the English Parliament under the Act of Union. In 1999, due to popular pressure and a sucessful referendum, the Parliament was reconvened. Five years later it got its own new building. The building was delivered over time and well over budget, and the unfortunate saga of its construction dominated coverage of the first few years of the new devolved Parliament. Its powers are limited, with the juicy stuff - war, the economy, tax rates, foreign policy, broadcasting - remaining under the control of Westminster; but its ability to engender negative headlines in the unsympathetic local press seems limitless.

Parliament from Regent Road, Arthur's Seat behind:

The building splits opinion. I like it for its boldness, complexity and difference, though I acknowledge it has flaws. All that concrete will surely not weather well.

The wall of quotations is fun:

For such a bold and radical building, all jutting angles, it sits modestly in its surrounding landscape.

Parliament from Radical Road, Calton Hill behind:

Its site with rising hills all around - Arthur's Seat, Calton Hill, the Royal Mile - means that unlike, say St Andrews House, boldly situated on a cliff on Calton Hill, it is dominated rather than dominating.

1930s St Andrews House above Waverley Station:

Shall we go inside?

The heart of the Parliament is the debating chamber, where legislation is debated, amended, and passed into law:

You might be wondering where all your money went in the construction of this building. Look closely at the quality of the workmanship in the details of this bracket holding up a beam in the debating chamber:

Although over budget at £418 million, there is no way you would get this quality throughout from the original estimate of £40 million. A construction company would laugh in your face if you tried to get a building like this for £40 million. The original estimate was, I think, set deliberately low so as to be politically acceptable to the electorate - but as we now know, this move backfired as the construction cost inexorably rose.

Now the chamber may be the main space in the Parliament, but I think my favourite spaces are the committee rooms:

This looks to me like Dr Evil's lair. Do you think perhaps that underneath the table's central recess is a scale model of Fort Knox?

Lets take a closer look at the building. The parliament is formed of three main buildings around a central square that is open to the south. To the north is 17th century Queensberry House (the white building in the middle of the picture below) with the Presiding Officer's offices; to the east, the towers with committee rooms and debating chamber; and to the west, the block of MSP offices. Connecting these three spaces is the garden lobby with its unusual roof lights.

Here's the view from beneath the unusual roof lights:

All good buildings have their own myths. The one associated with the Scottish Parliament pertains to its construction. Apparently when the builders came across a right angle in the plans, they halted construction briefly for a celebratory dram...

Another part of the parliament with its own myth is Queensberry House. This was the Edinburgh pad of the Duke of Queensberry in the 17th century, and it is steeped in the history of the Act of Union. When he was out at the old Scottish Parliament in 1706 attempting to pass the Union through Parliament, a mob surrounded his house, preventing him from returning home. When the mob dispersed and he got back, he discovered that his disturbed son had roasted an unfortunate kitchen boy to death on a spit meant for roasting hogs.

Bricked-up vault in Queensberry House - the old kitchen?

Queensberry House was restored and incorporated in the new Parliament, and the modern buildings were built around it. For traditionalists who visit Scotland to see the old castles and quaint countryside, Queensberry House is the only part of the parliament to recommend itself.

From the towers, you can also see the old Royal High School that was earmarked in the 1970s as the site of an anticipated Scottish Parliament. However the referendum in 1979 failed on a controversial clause, and it was to be 1999 before devolution happened. The site also changed to its more modest location at the foot of the Royal Mile.

Classical profile of the old Royal High School on Calton Hill beyond Queensberry House:

There's not much more of the Parliament to see. The first part to be constructed was the MSP block, and its unusual windows became the symbol of the Parliament building:

From the MSP block, you get a good view back over the garden lobby rooflights, Queensberry House, the towers, and the odd decorations around their windows:

Well that's it. I hope you have enjoyed the special tour!

One last look back in the fading light: