Some Scottish News & Views Issue # 594

Issue # 594                                                  Week ending Saturday 6th   March  2021

To Make Robots Useful, They Must Be Efficient. To Make Them Realistic, They Must Also Nag Men
by Iain MacIver Courtesy of the Press & Journal

Someone was pulling my chain, I thought. People who had a certain brand of remote-controlled vacuum cleaner were reported to be complaining it was acting oddly. Oddly? It just so happens I knew someone with one of these devices after her husband thought her big birthday was the time to give her practical help with the hoovering. Oh, you old romantic, Murdo.

Their marriage somehow survived the gift of a battery-powered floor cleaner. Rhoda had explained it was “useful”. She made sure it was charged and let it loose. “It goes around sucking and brushing and by the time it’s finished there is very little left for me to do.” So, after seeing the news on Monday, I called her and asked if she’d had problems with her iRobot Roomba after the latest problematic software update. She would tell me when she found it because it had shot out the door half an hour before and hadn’t been seen since.

The supposedly smart sucker-up was rescued by the postie. He’d spotted it in a drain after it whirred out the gate. Like a Dalek, if an iRobot cleaner falls on its side it can do nothing but screech. Maybe it was saying “ex-ter-min-ate” or “rev-erb-e-rate” - because it did. The postie thought the mini-Dalek was going “ur-i-nate” but that was because of water from the plant pot it knocked over. Not so smart now, sucker.

Our kids are getting smarter, though. They are getting better at reading - and it’s all because of lockdown. Apparently, more kids’ TV programmes are using subtitles these days and they are improving literary skills. Tests and surveys prove it every time. Even if we find subtitles annoying, we can’t help but read them and the word formations stick in our grey matter - at any age, apparently.

Sometimes we need subtitles. So many actors mumble. Marlon Brando was the worst and tried to claim it as his trademark. Sylvester Stallone in every Rocky film, Tom Hardy, and everyone in that series Broadchurch. Mumble, mutter, whisper. Project to the back of the room, dahlings. Who taught you lot to act? Standards are obviously going down the Swanee River at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and RADA.

Subtitles can be hilarious on live interviews - like Question Time. Live subtitling is by the best in the business but they make a hash of it too. One news programme claimed “US President Obama shot by US Navy Seals”. Think that may have been Osama bin Laden. In another, visitors to a farm complained of pigs chewing their footwear, specifically a word similar to wellies, and the poor old Archbishop of Canterbury came up as the arch-something which began with the letters bi ... How embarrassing.

Rhoda’s runaway robot hoover is one more salutary reminder that machines are taking over. We got this car six months ago but only now am I learning to work it. Having just got round to reading the manual, there are amazing features that I had no idea were available. Now our Nissan switches things on and off for me and tells me what to do. It turns the wipers on if it rains and dips the headlights if it sees a car coming.

It almost tells me what to think. It announces my tyres need air without me going out in the rain at the filling station. It notifies me if I go too near the car in front, it beeps if I reverse close to a wall, it beep-beeps me to slow down if I go too fast. Constant nagging, basically. Beep. Beep-beep yourself, you stupid metal box on wheels. Just kidding. You’re only trying to keep me safe.

Our car does nag a lot but not so much as someone else I could name. When we’ve been on a journey with me driving, it’s always been beeping this and beeping that. No, not the Nissan. I mean Mrs X. Now the poor damsel can’t get a word in edgeways. Love it.

That’s given me a wee idea. I heard Nicola Sturgeon saying a while back that Scots should be free to marry anyone they wish. What about any “thing” they wish?

Just imagine: “Do you, Iain Maciver, take Miss Qashqai to be your lawful wedded vehicle from this day forth, to have and to beep, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in garage ...” Oh yes.

Covid in Scotland: Tighter Rules Will Be Used to Decide on Levels
New rules are set to make it harder for areas to drop down to lower tiers of Covid restrictions after lockdown is eased in Scotland.  The Scottish government hopes to return to the levels system from late April.  But if an area is to see restrictions lifted, the number of positive cases will need to be far lower than when the system operated last year.  The government said the more stringent approach was needed because of the new faster-spreading variant of the virus.  On Tuesday afternoon, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is due to update the Scottish Parliament on the state of the pandemic. She has already indicated that on 26 April - when non-essential shops, hairdressers and gyms can open again - the levels system will become operational once more.  The whole of mainland Scotland went into lockdown on 26 December which resulted in a stay-at-home order. Only essential shops are allowed to open and all hospitality is closed except for takeaway services.  The Scottish government's updated approach is outlined in the its latest strategic framework.  Under the new system, local authorities which have a case rate of more than 150 cases per 100,000 are likely to end up in level four - when only essential shops can open and hospitality must close.  The previous threshold for level four was 300 cases per 100,000.  Cases will also need to drop to below 50 per 100,000 in a local authority before it will be considered for level two, much lower than the previous rate of 150 per 100,000. That is the level where non-essential journeys outside the authority boundary are allowed and pubs can serve alcohol.  The government says the changes have been informed by World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance, which indicates that some thresholds should be tightened.  The document says this "will have the effect of keeping some areas in higher levels than they would previously have been for the same level of incidence, which we see as a necessary response to increased transmission of the new variant".  There will also be some changes to the positivity rate thresholds from the levels which were originally set out in October, but the threshold for level two remains 5%. The positivity rate is the percentage of all tests that come back positive and is a key measure in judging the level of community transmission within a country or local area. The rate is calculated by adding up all the cases over the previous seven days and then dividing by the population of the local authority. This number is then multiplied by 100,000. The Scottish government has decided to align its tiers with the WHO's "situational levels", which range from level nought - with no known cases in the past 28 days - up to level four, which is defined as an "uncontrolled epidemic". The strategic framework document says that the weekly case rates and percentage of positive tests will remain "core indicators" when deciding which level a local authority is placed in.  The number of positive cases in each local authority is published daily by Public Health Scotland.  The most recent data often underestimates the number of positive tests as there are sometimes delays before results are recorded, so this chart uses figures from a few days ago.   Currently there are three local authorities above the level four threshold: Falkirk, West Dunbartonshire and Stirling. The strategic framework document, published on 23 February, says there is a need for a "more stringent approach to the levels" when the system returns.  The more cautious approach is necessary to protect against further variants of Covid-19, the Scottish government argues. "Our experience over the last few months and the changed landscape brought about by the new, more transmissible variant, in particular has shown that we cannot assume that the protective measures applied within the original levels approach will have the same effectiveness as when first implemented," the document says. "However, it is also likely that the roll-out of the vaccine programme will reduce the transmissibility of the virus for any given level of restriction.  To address this issue, we have decided to adjust our levels approach primarily by rebasing the indicators that we use to guide decisions on the allocation of levels on those recommended by the WHO in their most up-to-date interim guidance." The WHO's latest guidance was published in November 2020, before Covid vaccines were approved.  The Scottish government's document also says that the "content of restrictions" within each level will also be kept under review.  This means that changes could be made to the existing rules in the levels system around travel, retail and hospitality.

Scotland's Reputation Ranked in International Survey

Scotland is included in a survey of 50 countries, measuring how their reputations compare. Improvement is one of the targets for Scottish government ministers.  The measures have held steady, but slipped one place on the league table, while the UK has improved to second place, and the US's reputation has slumped.  The survey results, published by the Scottish government last week, also measure what Scots think of their own country. There's only one count on which Scots rate themselves badly.  Events at Holyrood have sparked some discussion of whether Scotland's reputation is at risk, or merely that of some of its politicians. It's impossible to know. Brands and reputation are intangible assets, and notoriously hard to pin down. In the law of defamation, a reputation is judged against the "estimation of a right-thinking member of society generally".  Some claim to be able to put a value on reputation. Brand consultants make a good living out of doing so. While Apple sits atop global brands, followed by Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Samsung, Scotland's strongest commercial contender is Johnnie Walker, making it just inside Interbrand's world top 100. What about nations, though? Whose nation is best? Many places have their own way of voicing the Scottish brag: 'wha's like us?' (The traditional response: 'Damn few, and they're a' deid.')  We learned this week that 16 nations can claim to answer that question: 'We are - only better, and we have survey evidence to prove it'. This is the Anholt-Ipsos survey of 50 nations, asking how they rate on a number of metrics. The Scottish government takes a close interest to find out how it's faring, as the nation's international reputation is one of the outcomes on which Scottish ministers measure themselves.  For six pulses of the survey over the past decade, it seems that Scotland's reputation as the place for tourism, investment mixed with immigration, culture, governance, people and exports is holding up, but not quite keeping pace with others. The survey results released last week show it slipping one place, to number 17 out 50. The survey showed Scotland scored best as a tourist destination, and was in the top 20 for five of the six categories of reputation. That at least suggests consistency is one of its strengths. It fell into a lower ranking only for its exports.  How is this measured? A weighted survey of more than 20,000 people across 18 nations. Neither knowledge nor expertise seem to be required.  It's probably harder to get firm opinions about Panama, Botswana, Qatar or Taiwan, so they start with that disadvantage.  For its size, Scotland punches well above its weight simply for being known, even if it's often for stereotypes, its scenery, whisky, Nessie and Auld Lang Syne.  It is larger nations which do better in this reckoning. Last year's survey found Germany came top for the fourth time in a row. We're told that "global citizens have positive feelings about buying German products, the employability of the German people, and the appeal of investing in German businesses, placing Germany first in all three categories for 2020".  The UK moved up from fourth to second place, while Canada remained in third. Japan moved up to fourth, France dropped to fifth, its lowest ranking so far. Italy and Switzerland moved up one place each to sixth and seventh positions. Australia moved from 10th to 8th slot, the highest position it has reached, and Sweden remained at number nine.  Being big and well-known, with desirable consumer products, is no guarantee of a strong reputation: the US last year dropped, on this count, from number six to 10.  Americans previously held the top spot on seven occasions since 2009, but they have taken a dive in their global reputation. Maybe it was just coincidence that this followed the 2016 presidential election.  China also suffered a decline down the rankings last year, from 23rd to 35th place.  What was going right for the UK, for it to move up to second position behind Germany?  After being third or fourth for several years, it scored strongly for its exports, attitudes to immigration and investment, and it enjoyed an improved perceptions of its governance, culture, people, and tourism. (Please don't complain to me if you disagree: instead, take your evidence to the 20,000 people questioned. This is, you'll note, about their perceptions rather than evidenced reality.)  The survey, carried out every two years, also tracks Scots' view of themselves.  Over a decade and six surveys, Scots view of their country fell below number one only in 2016, when it was beaten by the UK and Canada.  Hmm... what might have been happening between 2014 and 2016 to explain that? Answer that one according to your political taste.  Regaining that top spot in 2018, it was confirmed in the most recent, 2020 survey.  The one area in which Scots take a particularly dim view of themselves and their country is that of 'excellence in sport'.

Plans for 1,800 Home Development on West Lothian Farmland

A new community with 1,800 homes is being planned for farmland in West Lothian. The £275m Drumshoreland Garden Community development is proposed for the site of the current Clapperton poultry farm east of Livingston.  Under the application, submitted to West Lothian Council, the farm would be relocated elsewhere in Scotland.  Developers claim it would be a low carbon development across 108 hectares with 450 affordable homes. Amber REI (Agriculture), which owns the Clapperton site, said the money raised from the project could help fund a £150m investment in Scottish food and agriculture.  It plans to relocate the poultry farm to a new site in West Lothian, upgrade its processing plant at Couper Angus, build a new chicken feed mill in the central belt and upgrade another feed mill on the edge of Edinburgh.  The figure also includes a new Ibis hotel, which is already being built on land near Edinburgh Airport.  Sister company Elan Homes (Scotland) would build the homes if planning permission was granted.  Under the plans there would also be a new park with 19.9 hectares of woodland.  An Amber REI (Agriculture) spokesman said: "This could deliver significant investment not only in West Lothian but across Scotland as a whole. As an exemplar low carbon community Drumshoreland will not only deliver much-needed housing, including affordable housing, but employment, education and community facilities in a unique parkland setting. "

Covid: West Dunbartonshire Care Residents Get Second Vaccine
Every eligible elderly care home resident in West Dunbartonshire has received their second Covid-19 vaccination, according to health and social care officials.  Vaccinations begun in care homes on December 8 and it now means that more than 6,000 residents in 143 care homes in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area have received the final dose of the jag.  The numbers represent 90 per cent of all elderly care home residents in West Dunbartonshire, East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, Inverclyde and Glasgow City - with the exception of 10 per cent who were unable to be vaccinated initially due to ill health. It has also been revealed that all frontline, health and social care workers eligible for the Covid vaccine have now had their first dose.  Clinics remain open for any staff in the area who still require a vaccine.  Jo Gibson, head of health and community care, told a meeting of the West Dunbartonshire health and social care partnership’s board: “We have been in a very challenging period, but the roll out of the vaccination programme is our route out of this challenge and the light at the end of the tunnel.”  It was also confirmed that residents over the age of 80 have who were inoculated at their local GP practice have been fully vaccinated.  In January, health officials opened up three mass vaccination centres in the area - the Concord Centre in Dumbarton, Alexandria’s Community Centre, and the Hub in Clydebank – which are open seven days a week, with extended hours available and can accommodate up to 12 vaccination stations every day.  Ms Gibson added: “We have made great progress so far and now have begun vaccinating over 65s.  We are now working all individuals with underlying health conditions.  It is a change for the population in understanding we are no longer going down in descending age groups, but we continue to communicate with the public.  There has been some turbulence in the UK about the supply of the vaccine.  The number of days we have been opening has not been as high as previous weeks, but we continue to be open and we continue to work to ensure that we understand what the supply will be in future days and weeks.”  

£1.3 Million Dock Repairs Commence After Water Barricade Gets Completed

A water barricade has been constructed allowing for repair work to commence on a damaged north-east harbour.  The £1.3 million project to repair parts of Banff Harbour began last month, nearly four years after parts of a wall crumbled into the sea.  Now with the completion of a v-shaped barricade that prevents entry to and from the dock, long awaited repairs can take that next step forward.  Having been appointed by Aberdeenshire Council to reinstate the railway jetty, workers from Lochshell Ltd in Wick hope to have the project finished by August.  Work undertaken by the firm will also strengthen the east pier as part of the deal.  Following freak storms back in June 2017, sections of the quayside collapsed into the sea – temporary repairs were carried out at the time but workers at the small port couldn’t help feeling that the incident was a disaster for their community.  Council bosses have since been looking to use repairs as a way of improving the port and have called on expert advice as well as a number of studies to inform their planning process.  Chairman of the Banff Harbour Advisory Committee, councillor John Cox, who hopes work can reshape the image of the port was pleased with the progress made.  He said: “A significant amount of material has been taken down to the harbour to create the dam, which has allowed for all the yellow cones along the road to have been taken away – which just shows how much progress has been made. It has taken a while for this to come together but I’m pleased with the approach that has been taken to get the job done as quickly and smoothly as possible.”  In a bid to ensure the more lasting upgrades are delivered to the area as soon as possible, longer working days have been deemed a necessity by the firm.  He added: “There has been an agreement to extend working hours so they can maximise the daylight to get the job done in as short a period as possible.” Decisions to extend working periods have also been made to minimise disruption felt by local residents.

FM Promises Not to Delay Ministerial Code Report

Nicola Sturgeon has promised to release a report into whether she breached the ministerial code on the same day that she receives it.  Irish lawyer James Hamilton is examining whether Ms Sturgeon lied to the Scottish Parliament over the Alex Salmond saga.  He is expected to have finalised his report within the next three weeks.  The first minister has repeatedly refused to say whether she will quit if Mr Hamilton finds against her.  But the code states that any government minister who is found to have knowingly misled parliament will be expected to resign.  At First Minister's Questions, Ms Sturgeon was asked by new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar whether she would give a "cast-iron guarantee" that Mr Hamilton's report into whether she lied to parliament would be released by the government "without delay or obstruction on the day it is handed over."  The first minister gave the one-word reply: "Yes". Mr Sarwar said he welcomed the first minister's answer, and pledged to hold her to that commitment.  He added: "We need to remove party and personality from this.  "A minister - any minister - who is found in breach of the Ministerial Code should resign." In her foreword to the ministerial code, Ms Sturgeon describes it as "guidelines for living up to the seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership." She goes on to say: "All Scottish ministers, including myself, are bound by its terms.  I will lead by example in following the letter and spirit of this code, and I expect that ministers and civil servants will do likewise."  Mr Salmond has accused Ms Sturgeon of committing multiple breaches of the code - all of which she denies.  There have been claims that Ms Sturgeon misled parliament over when she first knew of the allegations against her predecessor, and that the name of a woman who made a complaint against Mr Salmond was disclosed to his former chief of staff.  There have also been accusations that Ms Sturgeon wasted more than £500,000 of public money by continuing a doomed legal fight with Mr Salmond over a judicial review into its handling of the complaints against him.  The government's legal counsel warned that it was likely to lose the case several weeks before it conceded defeat.  The legal advice was only released on Tuesday evening after opposition parties threatened to hold a vote of no confidence in Deputy First Minister John Swinney. Some additional documents were published by the government on Thursday after opposition parties questioned why they were missing from the original batch - with Mr Swinney suggesting more could be released on Friday. Mr Swinney said the new documents showed that there had not been an attempt to delay the judicial review so that it would overtaken by criminal proceedings against Mr Salmond, as the former first minister has claimed.  "I have instructed officials to consider whether further documents should be released, subject to essential statutory checks and notifications, and to do so as a matter of urgency," he said.  But Mr Salmond later said the documents confirmed that postponing the judicial review was "under active consideration" by the Scottish government in September 2018.  He added: "John Swinney must now be the only person in Scotland who believes that the piecemeal release of these extraordinary legal documents have done anything other than demolish the government's pretence that they were not warned months in advance that they were on course to lose the judicial review."  Mr Salmond was cleared of all of the allegations against him after a trial at the High Court in March of last year.  Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the "limited" release fell "far short" of the demands of parliament, which has voted on two previous occasions for the legal advice ahead of the judicial review case to be published in full.  Mr Ross said there were still no documents from November 2018 - two months before the government admitted it had acted unlawfully - and he called on it to "end the secrecy and release all the legal advice". The investigation by Mr Hamilton is separate to the inquiry by a committee of MSPs into the government's unlawful handling of sexual harassment complaints against Mr Salmond.  Ms Sturgeon gave evidence to the committee in a marathon eight-hour session on Wednesday, with Mr Salmond appearing last Friday.  The Scottish Conservatives have already called on Ms Sturgeon to resign, despite neither of the inquiries having published their conclusions yet, and have threatened to hold a no confidence vote in the first minister.  There were angry exchanges over the affair at First Minister's Questions, with Conservative group leader Ruth Davidson claiming: "There is no argument if Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code - the argument is only about how badly she broke it."  Ms Sturgeon responded by saying she would wait for the inquiries to do their job, adding: "I've not prejudged them - Ruth Davidson clearly has." Mr Sarwar said the row between Ms Sturgeon and Ms Davidson showed "the worst of Scottish politics".

Robbers Jailed for Edinburgh Stun Gun and Stabbing Attack
A man and woman who repeatedly fired a stun gun at a man and stabbed him near a cashpoint machine in Edinburgh have been jailed.  Dawn Cullen, 36, and Keith McCreadie, 36, attacked Christopher McLeod in Morvenside Close, Wester Hailes, on 7 October 2019. Cullen was sentenced to five years in prison and McCreadie seven years.  The pair had denied assaulting and robbing Mr McLeod but were found guilty at the High Court in Edinburgh.  Mr McLeod was knocked to the ground, to his severe injury and permanent disfigurement, as the stun gun was fired at him before the robbers demanded money, his bank card and its PIN number.  Mr McLeod, then aged 26, had stab wounds in his back closed with staples in hospital.  The court heard last month that DNA from Cullen was found on a knife recovered by police from a nearby garden.  Sentence had been deferred for background reports.  Judge Lord Beckett said: "This was a serious example of an offence of assault to injury to robbery.  For such a serious offence and to deter any other person from committing such egregious crimes, I must pass an appropriate sentence.  There is no suitable alternative to custody."  The pair were accused of assaulting Mr McLeod while acting with another. Cullen was also convicted of illegally possessing the stun gun and assaulting Heather Hughes, 30, at Morvenside Close on 7 October in 2019 by chasing her and brandishing the prohibited weapon.  On Thursday, Lord Beckett told McCreadie that his previous conviction meant that a seven-year sentence was appropriate in this case. He also ordered that McCreadie be monitored for two years following his release from custody.

Alex Salmond Inquiry: New Scottish Government Legal Files Appear to Debunk Former First Minister’s Conspiracy Plot Claim
Legal advice released by the Scottish Government on Thursday appears to debunk Alex Salmond’s claim about a plot to delay a civil case in the hope it would be overtaken by criminal proceedings he faced.  But the Scottish Conservatives said the four documents released on Thursday fall far short of what the Scottish Parliament and Salmond inquiry demanded, and called on the Scottish Government to “end the secrecy” and release all the advice.  The documents relate to the botched investigation into allegations of sexual harassment by Mr Salmond.  A successful judicial review by Mr Salmond resulted in the investigation being ruled unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”, with a £512,250 payout being awarded to him for legal fees in 2019.  Mr Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges following a criminal trial last year.  Giving evidence to a Holyrood inquiry into the government’s handling of complaints last Friday, Mr Salmond claimed the Scottish Government hoped a criminal trial would “ride to the rescue” and prevent its unlawful investigation of him suffering a “cataclysmic” civil court defeat.  Explaining his belief that a looming criminal trial was the reason the government did not admit defeat in the case sooner, Mr Salmond said: “Conceding in October [2018] would be embarrassing, it would be difficult, but it wouldn’t be as cataclysmic as an open court case in January [2019]. What other motivation could there possibly have been than the belief that something might happen and intervene which meant that the judicial review never came to court?” He added: “If the criminal case had been advanced, then the civil case wouldn’t have gone ahead pending the outcome of the criminal case.  Many people seemed to invest a great deal of hope that the criminal case would ride to the rescue, like the cavalry over the hill, and the civil case would never be heard.”  In a document dated September 4 2018, Roddy Dunlop QC and Solicitor Advocate Christine O’Neill, counsel for the Scottish Government, said they could see strength in the argument that the criminal investigation may “make the entire petition pointless”.  He wrote: “If there is a criminal conviction then surely this case will not proceed; and if there is a trial and an acquittal then the Ministers would be faced with a very different situation than that which presently obtains.” Deputy First Minister John Swinney released a first batch of legal advice on Tuesday under threat of a no-confidence vote and further documents were published on Thursday evening.  However Mr Swinney said the newly released documents make clear that delaying the case – known as sisting – was only considered as an option in order to minimise the impact of the case on the ongoing police investigation.  In a letter dated September 17 2018, the Lord Advocate said that the other option would be reporting restrictions and that this would be preferable.  He said: “I am satisfied that, if reporting restrictions are competent, these would adequately protect the public interest in any future criminal proceedings.  On that basis, that would clearly be the preferable and appropriate route, since it would enable the issues raised by the petition to be addressed whilst protecting any future criminal process.”

US Suspends Tariffs on Single Malt Scotch Whisky

The US has agreed to suspend tariffs on UK goods including single malt whiskies that were imposed in retaliation over subsidies to the aircraft maker Airbus.  Tariffs will also be lifted on UK cheese, cashmere and machinery.  The duties will be suspended for four months while the two sides seek a long-term settlement.  On 1 January, the UK dropped its own tariffs on some US goods, put in place over a related dispute about US subsidies to Boeing.  It is the latest twist in a decades-old trade row that has seen the EU and the US target billions of dollars worth of each other's exports with taxes.  The UK is part of the dispute as a former EU member. Airbus makes wings and other parts in the UK, but assembles its commercial aircraft in the EU.  It has hit Scotch whisky producers particularly hard as the US is a key export market. Distilleries have reported £500m of losses since 2019 due to the tariffs. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the trade truce, due to come into force on Monday, would boost British business.  "From Scotch whisky distillers to Stilton-makers, the US decision to suspend tariffs on some UK exports today will benefit businesses right across the UK," he tweeted.  "Fantastic news as we strengthen the UK-US trading relationship and work to build back better from the pandemic."  Simon Cotton, boss of Speyside-based textiles firm Johnston's of Elgin, says he's "absolutely delighted" the tariffs have been suspended.  The company, which employs 850 people, has been taking a "25% hit" on every knitwear product it exports to the US - "a significant cost" at a time when Covid and Brexit also pose challenges.  In Speyside many other businesses have felt the impact of the US tariffs, including whisky distilleries and shortbread makers. This has been a particularly difficult tax for the businesses here, so it's a huge relief for the region," says Mr Cotton. "We're hoping this paves the way for a permanent removal of these tariffs."  Karen Betts, head of the Scotch Whisky Association, called the suspension "fabulous news".  "The tariff on single malt Scotch whisky exports to the US has been doing real damage to Scotch whisky in the 16 months it has been in place, with exports to the US falling by 35%," she said.  "So today, everyone in our industry - from small companies to large - is breathing a sigh of relief." For more than a decade, the EU and US accused each other of propping up their home aviation markets with tax breaks, research grants and other aid.  But tensions flared in 2019, when former US president Donald Trump retaliated by putting tariffs on $7.5bn (£5.4bn) of EU goods, including UK products such as whisky.  Last November, the EU hit back by targeting $4bn of American goods with duties as punishment for US subsidies for Boeing.  Since it left the EU, the UK has been lobbying Washington to drop the duties on its goods as it seeks a wide-ranging trade deal with the US. Talks with Washington abruptly broke off in January but resumed after Joe Biden became US president.  Mr Biden's top trade nominee, Katherine Tai, has said she will make it a priority to resolve the row with the EU and Britain - although for now US tariffs continue to apply to EU goods.  In a joint statement on Thursday, the UK and the US said that the suspension would "ease the burden on industry and take a bold, joint step towards resolving the longest-running disputes at the World Trade Organization".

Drones Could Help Find Tidal Energy Sites

Drones could help cut costs of finding suitable sites for marine renewable energy projects. Unmanned aerial vehicles are to be used in trials in Scotland and Wales and led by the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).  Drones will be used to film the movement of water at selected offshore sites.  Scientists will apply algorithms to the footage to determine the speed of underwater tidal currents.  UHI said current methods for measuring tidal streams rely on using survey vessels or installing seabed sensors which can be time consuming and expensive.  Dr Benjamin Williamson, of North Highlands College UHI's Environmental Research Institute in Thurso, is leading the 12-month project along with colleagues from Swansea University and Bangor University in Wales.  The team will run tests in the Pentland Firth between the north Highland mainland coast and Orkney, and Pembrokeshire's Ramsey Sound.  Dr Williamson said: "Measuring the flow speed and movement of water is vital for developing offshore renewable energy.  These measurements are needed to predict the performance and inform the placement of underwater tidal stream turbines or to optimise the moorings and design of floating turbines.  However, gathering these measurements is typically high-cost and high-risk."  Meanwhile, a team from North Highland College UHI's Environmental Research Institute are helping to develop a new way of spotting marine plastic pollution from space. The research also involves the use of drones.  The waste has been detected using satellites before, but the researchers said this work had to be carried out in daylight.  The new study looks at how thermal imaging cameras could be used to find the pollution at day or night.  Tests using drones are to be held in the sea around Thurso in Caithness.

Dumfries and Galloway Council Agrees Tax Freeze

Dumfries and Galloway Council has agreed to freeze council tax levels for the next financial year.  Both the ruling Labour-SNP coalition and opposition Conservatives had proposed spending plans which left levels unchanged.  The local authority agreed the administration's proposals on the basis that it will allow an extra £2.3m to be drawn in from the Scottish government.  Neighbouring Scottish Borders Council has already agreed a freeze.  The ruling group said its spending plans would protect jobs and services, while targeting investment to create employment, tackle climate change, repair roads and lay the foundation for the region's Covid recovery.  The opposition insisted its financial proposals would also deliver on all those points but go further in meeting the needs of the local population.  The full details of the agreed budget are available online.

Spring Exhibition Opens Online At Kirkcudbright Gallery

The Whitehouse Gallery in Kirkcudbright starts its official exhibition calendar for 2021 this weekend with an uplifting mix of paintings, collage, ceramics, textiles and sculpture. The exhibition will be available online only until such times as the gallery is able to reopen in line with Government advise, which it is hoped will happen at some point during the run. New artist Nicola Ross is welcomed to the gallery, with some of her biro work depicting iconic Scottish and retro imagery in a hyper realistic style.  Still life and flower studies will be in abundance, with zingy, vibrant paintings by Jane Blair and Jemma Derbyshire. Jennie Ashmore will also be exhibiting some of her original framed works featuring pressed flowers and leaves.  Alongside still life works, Jackie Henderson will be submitting some of her instantly recognisable female figures, with Fiona Millar also providing still life and landscapes in her unmistakable style.  Landscapes will also be on show from Morag Lloyds and Sara Bor.  There will also be new work by Moy Mackay, a new collection of her sought after works, ‘painted’ with a rich selection of vivid merino fibres. Karen Stamper will exhibit some of her semi abstract paintings, combining mixed media with collage, which were an instant hit when she first exhibited with us in 2020. Another popular choice last year, Giles Ward will be returning with some of his fish and sea-life paintings. New makers being welcomed to the gallery include Zoe Stainton with her felted creatures, Katy Taylor (Cider Tree Copper Works) with some of her copper sculpture, Michelle Lowe with some ceramic tableware and Therese Johnson with handmade silk scarves. There are also new collections of ceramics from Chris Taylor and Denise Brown, sculpture from Lynn Muir, glass by Amanda Simmons, cushions by Jo Gallant, jewellery from Melissa James and laser cut wooden artworks by Martha Ellis.


Bundanoon Highland Gathering Cancelled for 2021
The general committee of the Bundanoon Highland Gathering Committee Inc. met last night (Thurs)  to decide on the future of Brigadoon for this year. The Committee has been in communication with NSW Public Health (Mass Gatherings Team) over the past month seeking guidance on how best to run Brigadoon given the challenging times that we all face. As we all know, Brigadoon is a very unique event in that we encourage social interaction throughout a day of celebration of all things Scottish. NSW Health were very supportive of the event and offered a range of options for the Committee to consider.

However, due to the nature of the event, the demographic of those who attend, and with the restriction of 3000 attending (which included the committee and all performers) we would incur a significant financial loss which would be irresponsible to the future of the gathering we would also need to ensure public safety and the only sensible decision was to cancel the event for 2021 and to focus our energy and finances on returning in 2022 with the biggest and best Brigadoon of all.

The Committee feel a great responsibility to Brigadoon, and with the restriction of 3000 attending  we would incur a significant financial loss which would be irresponsible to the future of the gathering and to the community finances that we raise each year to support local services, and to the health and safety of the residents of Bundanoon and the greater Southern Highlands area. As a small group of volunteers, the Committee puts in a lot of effort and time throughout the year to put on the Games and we are frustrated once again that Brigadoon has to be postponed.

The Committee understands that there will be many in the community who are disappointed at this decision however we also know that the residents of Bundanoon and the wider community of friends of Brigadoon will understand that the only appropriate and sensible decision to keep our community safe was to cancel for 2021.

The Grand Raffle that has been running over the past few months is continuing and the draw for the raffle will still take place on the 17th of April at the Oval. There will be further announcements in relation to this over the next few days. The Committee is planning to have a small get together at the Oval on the 17th so watch this space for details