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  1. On Saturday, I visited a friend who has just had major open-heart surgery at the Royal National Jubilee Hospital at Clydebank, the national centre of excellence for heart surgery in Scotland. The operation involved sawing open the rib cage, pulling it apart, removing veins from the arms and stitching them into the heart in place of weakened arteries. There, that just rolled off the tongue. The operation, although 'routine' in that hospital, is simply miraculous and a superb example of NHS professionalism at its very best - and many operations like that are carried out daily. To put this operation into perspective, wounds like that sustained on the battlefield would be fatal.

    Therefore, it pains me to hear almost nightly on the BBC TV News that the NHS is about to collapse because elderly folk in need of care have to wait on trolleys in Accident & Emergency units etc. The BBC seems to specialise in picking out flaws in the crust of an enormous NHS pie and can always find a victim to support their case. Balanced reporting is required but '10,000 successful operations today' does not make a headline. 'Old lady wets pants while left in trolley,' does (distressing though that is).

    So, how good is our NHS? Who knows? How long is a piece of string? The NHS, along with the military, is one of the few remaining nationalised industries. It is mind-blowingly enormous, has a budget greater than many countries and has the  inescapable problems of any state-run monopoly. It is a political sacred cow so large and sensitive that no political party dare attack it. Three of its greatest problems are over-expectation by the public, abuse of the system and the endemic instinct to cover up mistakes. Heaven help an NHS whistleblower. (I know. I once blew the whistle).

    So is privatisation the answer? This week we learned of a surgeon in private practice who was conducting on an industrial scale, unnecessary mastectomies on cancer-free women, his motive apparently being to make money. That could not have happened in the NHS, one hopes. But the offending surgeon had worked in the NHS and had been under some sort of scrutiny there for his medical peformance. His escape route was private practice where scrutiny seems to be less rigorous.

     

     

     

  2. 'Quintessentially' is a hugely over-used word, a veritable adverbial cliché, but yesterday I had a quintessentially Scottish day: a train journey from Helensburgh to the fair city of Perth via Stirling and Gleneagles; Queen Street station in Glasgow flooded with rival Aberdeen and Hibernian football fans heading for the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden (Aberdeen won); a convocation of the Scottish Association of Writers in Perth, a sort of gathering of the writing clans from as far apart as Elgin and Ayr; and on return to Glasgow, the annual concert of the Caledonian Fiddle Orchestra.

    The fiddle orchestra is uniquely Scottish but remains below the tourist's radar (another cliché). It is the orchestral version of a Scottish country dance band. Forty fiddlers from all over Scotland had assembled plus twenty other musicians. The music ranged from wonderful Scottish slow airs through waltzes and hornpipes to marches; all strict tempo, foot-tapping, hand-clapping stuff. The fascinating thing is that much of this popular music is very old. Neil Gow, fiddler to the Dukes of Atholl, wrote his slow airs in the middle of the eighteenth century - such was his fame that Robert Burns, also a fiddler, journeyed to meet him. Pipe Major Willie Ross joined the Scots Guards in the late nineteenth century and fought in the First World War. Yet, one of the most moving slow airs of the evening was written to commemorate the Panam 103 aircraft disaster at Lockerbie in 1988. This is truly ancient and modern music to a common recipe.

    A particularly uplifting moment was the guest appearance of the virtuoso young traditional fiddler, Ryan Young, from Cardross. As compere for the Helensburgh and Lomond Fiddle Orchestra, I have introduced Ryan as a soloist since he was eleven. He is now in his early twenties, has graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, has twice been a finalist in the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year awards and is now carving out a successful career in the traditional music world. He is the Nicola Benedetti of trad music. If you want to hear traditional Scottish fiddle music at its best, you can contact him at www.ryanyoung.scot

  3. Visited Breac Macdui nam Beann, the Collie pictured in my Welcome section. I'm his 'uncle' so to speak, and we play wild games together with a chew bone. The fascinating thing is that not only does he park his natural instinct to attack anyone trying to steal his bone but he also recognises a game and sets his own rules. When he wins the bone, he trots off to his basket to score a goal. Having done that, he returns with the bone and drops it in front of me ready for the next kick-off. His big problem is that he can't count how many goals he has scored; so I always win. Don't tell me that animals don't have similar emotions to humans; we are just more complex.

    Working dogs are so keen to be involved. I love them. My first dog was forty kilos of Alsatian called Parahandy. Standing on his hind legs, he could put his paws on my shoulders and look me straight in the eye. We played ferocious games together and he would really crank up the growls, terrifying if you didn't know he was playing. It was Parahandy who taught me to speak Doggerel - I have his whole vocabulary. I acquired him to provide security for Kate and the boys when I was away at sea. One night when there was water hammer in the pipes, he was so scared that he sprinted upstairs and jumped on to Kate's bed for protection. But be in no doubt, he would have attacked any intruder coming into the house.

    Parahandy

    My second Alsatian, Raffles, was similar in temperament. He came running with me when I was training for the Glasgow marathon (2hrs 55). When I saw he was slowing up, I examined his paws and found that he had worn holes in all his pads but he was still bravely trying to keep up with me, no doubt in agony. They are so utterly faithful.

    Running with Raffles

    Do I prefer dogs to cats? My first cat, Purdy, came as a kitten when Raffles was a puppy and they grew up together. They even slept in the same dog basket, Purdy curled up inside Raffles' legs and enjoying the free central heating. They must have been a like a husband and wife when they shifted position during the night. But the cat was the boss. They are such arrogant little creatures. They assume that everything is there purely for their benefit - and they are definitive control freaks. It was from Purdy that I learned to speak fluent Catteral. You may laugh but it is an international cat language. I once spoke to a feral cat in the Azores and she brought her kittens across to meet me. How's that for communication?

    One has entirely different relationships with dogs and cats. Both are so rewarding but cats are easier to manage; one can leave them to their own devices. One feels flattered when a cat can be bothered to come to you. A dog, on the other hand, willl sit begging to be taken walkies, and dogs have to be put in kennels when you are away or else taken with you, which is not always possible. A cat on the bed is pure pleasure; an Alsatian requires a bed to himself.

    Currently, I have no pets and, boy, do I miss them.

    View from cottage

     

     

     

  4. Today was Scotland at its best. The Clyde was acting like a ginagerous mirror. It's like having two sources of light, one from the sun and one from the sea. In front of my kitchen window there is a sea, at least a patch, of golden daffodils. Whilst having lunch, I looked out of the kitchen window and there behind the daffodils, a lamb was being born. It was only five minutes old when I took this photo, my newest neighbour. Oh yes, life re-affirming. 

    Daffodils

    Newborn lamb

  5. Saturday 15th April 2017: This week America bombarded a Syrian air base with 59 cruise missiles and dropped 'the mother of all bombs' in an IS occupied cave/tunnel complex in Afghanistan. It also moved a carrier battle group to patrol off the coast of North Korea to let the North Koreans know that the USA would not tolerate their acquisition of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting mainland America; sabre-rattling stuff and a clear indication that President Trump has departed from ex-President Obama's more diplomatic approach.

    This morning, the North Koreans staged their annual anniversary parade, displaying their military might to the world. They also announced that if America carried out a pre-emptive strike, they would launch a nuclear counter-strike, presumably against South Korea and possibly Japan as their missiles can't yet reach America. Today, the media are fulminating over the prospect of nuclear war. Should we be worried?

    Let's go back in time. The Cuba missile crisis in 1962 did bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. The Soviet Union had secretly provided President Castro's Communist regime, similar to that in North Korea, with intermediate range nuclear missiles capable of striking most of the USA; and Castro declared that he would launch a nuclear strike if America invaded Cuba, an intolerable situation for President Kennedy. The situation was saved by President Kruschev backing down and withdrawing his missiles. The difference now is that North Korea has built its own nuclear weapons; no one can withdraw them.

    In 1968, all countries signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, which limited nuclear weapons to the USA, USSR, China, Britain and France, but there were four abstentions: Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Of the latter, the first three acquired nuclear weapons some time ago and have now been joined by North Korea. All four countries sought nuclear weapons because they considered themselves to be under threat; North Korea is technically still at war, the Korean War ending only in a ceasefire (1953).

    So what's new? During the forty-five years of the Cold War, both sides had nuclear weapons but they were never used because of the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction. If North Korea were to use its nuclear weapons, its destruction would be guaranteed, and that is the last thing the Kim Jong-un regime wants. Even if they fill their streets with nuclear weapons, it won't change the price of fish - except in Pyongyang. They have simply entered the world of Mutually Assured Destruction. Possession of nuclear weapons offers them the national security they crave, not military victory. Can't fault them for that.

    The Cold War ended because the economy of the Soviet Union collapsed, not because nuclear weapons were used. The economy of North Korea is in dire straits; just look at the vast economic gulf between free South Korea and the one-party, Communist dictatorhsip in the North. If Pyongyang continues to invest in massively expensive nuclear weaponry, sooner or later something will give. Let them stew in their own juice.

    However, if President Trump were to authorise a pre-emptive strike, then the world would face nuclear war. North Korea is not a cave system in Afghanistan.