View across the Outer Harbour of Stornoway

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


Crofting. It's a way of life in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and I have the greatest respect for all those men and women who seek to, and succeed to make a livelihood with crofting. That immediately points out the in-built, purposefully designed problem with the concept.

Crofting was conceived, early in the 19th century, to give tenants sufficient land not to starve, but also insufficient to make a full livelihood. As a result, they had to supplement their income from crofting by other means. The Napier Report (1883) tells us that bonded labour to the landlord was a widespread phenomenon in the 19th century. This meant that the landlord could compel tenants to perform labour for him, whether they liked it or not.

Much has changed, but crofting remains a flawed concept. Since 2002, it has become legal to feu off infinite numbers of plots from the croft land. That completely defeats the object of the exercise. The acreage of the croft is diminished, which was a major complaint in the Napier Report - insufficient acreage.

The flawedness of crofting is also demonstrated by the large amounts of grants and subsidies that crofters are entitled to. You get a grant to build an improvement (usually a home, sometimes an agricultural building) on the croft. If the croft yielded sufficient income, this would not be necessary.

As I said, I have great respect for the crofters. They work their socks off, not just on the croft but in other areas of employment as well, to make ends meet. However, I think the current movement towards community ownership offers an opportunity for revolution. I'm not advocating abolishing crofts and crofting. I'm advocating using community ownership to make it possible to make a full livelihood out of crofting.

Average speed cameras

In Scotland, the A9 trunk road links Stirling with the cities of Perth and Inverness, extending further to Thurso on the far north coast. The distance is some 260 miles, 420 km. Between Perth and Inverness, 110 miles / 180 km, the road switches between dual- and single-carriageway at irregular intervals. The landscape tends to be monotonous mountain scenery, and lapses of attention are unavoidable. The speedlimit is 70 mph / 110 kph on the dual-carriageway sections, and 60 mph / 100 kph on the single carriageway parts.

Over the years, single- and multi-vehicle accidents have claimed dozens of lives, and speeding, driver frustration (being stuck behind that slow lorry or caravan) and just plain bad driving have been contributory factors. The Scottish Government have finally agreed to convert the Perth to Inverness stretch to dual carriageway all the way by 2030. In the meantime, a system of average-speed cameras has been installed to monitor and reduce speeds.

I have been appalled by the reactions to this scheme prior to it going live on Monday. A senior government minister (of the UK administration) has led the campaign against it, which to my mind is tantamount to condoning the breaking of the law. If implementing the cameras leads to longer journey times, the only conclusion I can draw is that people have been breaking the speed limits for years. To alleviate the problem of 'slow lorries', the speed limit for HGVs has been raised to 50 mph for the dual carriage way sections.

The A9 is a challenging route at the best of time, and any scheme to improve safety should be welcomed. Not slated just because people are forced to obey the law. I think I prefer to be ten minutes late rather than be one minute early going into hospital out of a car crash - or worse. And you can factor in the longer journeytimes - it's called: planning.

Thomas - repost

Reposted from 13 May 2011

Let me tell you the story of this black cat.

Thomas was in my life for 15 years, between 1973 and 1988. He had all his gear, and made no bones about asserting that. Fights were common between Thomas and the other tomcats in the neighbourhood, particularly in the months of March and November, when the females were in season. His wounds were nasty, because tomcats grasp each other round the neck and dig their claws in – leaving infections behind. If we could not find Thomas in the house, we only had to go after the smell.

Thomas was also a proficient catcher of mice, birds and rabbits. One rabbit was consumed under my parents’ bed at 3 am, from live. Ear piercing screams were replaced by bones being crunched. And a bloated cat lying prostrate on the floor, being unable to move. Thomas ate what we ate. We would give him balls of minced meat, and he would bolt after them into the garden, where we threw them. He was mad for butter, ate runner beans and cheese.

Thomas always had varying numbers of fleas. Consorting with other cats, particularly feral females, ensured that his quota remained topped up. On returning from holiday one year, the fleas jumped for joy. So, out came the fleapowder. I had to powder Thomas. Both cat and myself were quite ill as a result of the insecticide powder.

Thomas grew weaker through the first months of 1988, and we finally took him to the vet. His kidneys were failing and he was dehydrated. Returning from the vet, he was presented with a meal of boiled fish, which he wolfed down. Over the next seven days, he wasted away at a breathtaking pace, from muscular tom to almost kitten size. One Sunday morning at the end of May, he was so weak that he had been unable to jump onto a chair. He had spent the night on the floor, but on hearing us stir, he made his presence known. By 9 o’clock that evening, he left us and passed over the Rainbow Bridge. The next morning, his fleas had also left him. All 400 of them.