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26 September 2001

Abbey Bridge

In Ireland they have the 'Book of Kells'. In Buchan we have the 'Book of Deer'. Or rather we don't; it's in Cambridge, England. So while the 'Book of Kells' is a major attraction for tourists in Dublin, our own book makes little contribution to the local economy.

But if everyone could go rambling with George Smart as I did, at least they'd know much more of their locality and origins. He's a modern 'Book of Deer' on legs and an over modest encyclopaedia of local history.

About a thousand years ago the monks at Deer wrote down all they knew about the ownership of local land. They used any scrap of paper that was to hand. Mostly it was practice pieces from their time developing skills as artists. In those days all books were made by hand and the monks illustrations were a highlight in these precious tomes they produced.

So valued were the 'Books of Deer', books because there were once many while now only one survives, that the monks carried them with always and only showed the pictures to the dying as an insight to salvation. And as they took them around, they wrote their knowledge of local land ownership in the margins.

The books were written in Latin, the language of the Church then. But the notes were written in the vernacular, which then was Gaelic. And therein lies one of the most precious facets of the surviving 'Book of Deer', it is the earliest known book of Gaelic.

My walk with George took me around Aikey Brae, the sight of the old horse fair still just surviving as an annual funfair. And passed the Abbey Bridge. Here in our own area lies a reminder that conflict and misunderstanding is nothing new. And sometimes deliberate.

The Abbey Bridge was a joint venture by two of the local lairds, Pitfour and Aden. Such was their distrust of each other that although they agreed to share the cost of rebuilding the bridge across the Ugie, neither would pass their money to the other. In the end they agreed that each would build half from their side of the river to meet half way.

The result was a bridge wide enough on the Pitfour side to take that laird's fancy new carriage. But on the other side it's a good three feet narrower and only wide enough for Aden's more modest vehicle. Some although the stream was bridged and the lairds met halfway, Pitfour could not drive across to Kirk on Sunday and show off his new carriage.

In today's dangerous world we might have to settle for an Abbey Bridge but if we are to build a real partnership it will need understanding, co-operation and respect for each other's needs. Our bridge to the future needs more than a quick fix.

Parliament in Aberdeen

Next year, the Scottish Parliament will be in Aberdeen for a number of weeks. Hurrah! But have we thought about the opportunity that represents for us to 'showcase' the North-East.

It is not enough that our Parliament moves from one city to another. What we actually need is to use the opportunity to communicate rural needs to the wider community.

When Edinburgh moves to Aberdeen it is not just 129 MSPs who travel. The press, the officials and the cameras come with them. And they'll be hungry for stories to justify their time away. As I go around the constituency I've suggested to a number of groups that now is the time to be thinking about their plans to grab attention next year.

What are your thoughts?

19 September 2001

World Challenges

Just as this is a new column for me in the Gazette, the world faces new challenges in the wake of events in the USA. And it’s hard to start without a personal comment, a personal view, on recent events.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the West generally viewed an enemy of our enemies as a friend. And that’s why we supported the Mujahadeen against the Soviets during their ‘adventure’ in Afghanistan. Now we reap the harvest with Osama Bin Laden, whom we previously supported, emerging from there as our most virulent opponent.

But we must do more than deal with our immediate problem, enormous as it will undoubtedly prove to be, we must start to redefine how we relate to events inside other countries. And the first must be respect for those with faith, all faiths. Every faith has extremists who distort and abuse others beliefs. True faith stabilises society in an uncertain world.

Abuse (Scotland) Bill

And while the world focuses on great conflicts, our Parliament’s Justice Committee has been considering how we deal with smaller conflicts.

About twenty years ago the Matrimonial Homes Act introduced a legal basis for deciding how to proceed when there are disputes inside a house. And it’s generally thought to have worked well.

The Abuse Bill now addresses disputes outside the house. Firstly the definition of abuse is widely drawn. And it doesn’t just address disputes between neighbours. It covers behaviour by children and mental abuse. And would be a criminal offence to continue abuse after a court order.

So there should be new ways of dealing with problem members of families. I’m certainly supporting the principles in the Bill.

The Book of Deer

George Smart is a local sage who under-rates his knowledge. He recently took me on a ramble to Aden Country Park over a somewhat damp patch of Buchan. We met archaeologists from Reading who were excavating a stone circle. We saw fence posts made from re-cycled plastic bags.

But most interesting of all was what he had to say about the 'Book of Deer'. It seems that is defaced by scribblings, the earliest surviving written Gaelic, around the margins. And it’s the scribblings that we now value most, not the wonderful illustrations it also contains.

Unlike the ‘Book of Kells', a broadly equivalent Irish book which attracts many tourists to Dublin, our ‘Book of Deer’ languishes in Cambridge, England.

So how about an exhibition of the ‘Book of Deer’ in the North-East to coincide with and commemorate the visit of the Scots Parliament to Aberdeen next year? Now there’s a thought!

12 September 2001

A World Changed – A Democracy Short-changed – A Humanity Diminished

When thousands have died through the wilful and irrational acts of terrorists it is difficult to see around these acts to glimpse the future. But it is certain that the world’s agenda has been wrenched from the comparatively mundane to issues of civilisation’s survival.

It was entirely right that the Scottish Parliament abandoned normal business and that party leaders from across the political divide in Scotland joined together to reflect on events in the United States of America.

On the evening of the 11th people stood in disbelief on the concourse of Waverley Station in Edinburgh and openly wept. I felt a sense of lethargy, then anger and finally immobility.

The morning commuters stood unnaturally silent on the platforms. Each seemed captured by private thoughts.

But as the days go on we shall all – governments, citizens, businesses – have to reshape our world in defiance of those who oppose rational debate.

Defence

After the attacks in the States, the issue of national defence will be one which exercises many. SNP members will shortly be debating their attitude to membership of NATO for the first time in a number of years. Until now the argument has been between those who gave priority to entering a military alliance for improved defence and those who refused to join because NATO was armed with nuclear weapons which could kill large numbers of civilians.

I suspect that recent events indicate that the world faces threats against which the nuclear bomb is little deterrent. With many new nations queuing up to join NATO and the focus moving strongly to the fight against terrorism, I suspect that the old argument is dead and that we may see new thinking.

The Internet

The Internet has become a major source of news and information in recent times. At times of crisis I know of many people who now turn first to it. A distributed system that avoided the concentration of computer power in a few places that earlier systems required, it was designed to strongly resist physical attack. As far as I can see it has been unaffected by events over the Atlantic.

Parliament has been debating the provision of ‘broadband’ communications in rural areas in recent days. The technologies that deliver it are vital if we are not to be left behind in allowing our businesses easy access to promote and sell their goods internationally.

I wonder now whether we are witnessing the end of the city. Probably not, but just as the Internet is distributed and can survive attack, so concentration of activity and decision-making in cities creates large targets vulnerable to small numbers of determined attackers.

Provided we get modern communications, and a modern affordable transport infrastructure, we could see the start of a rural revival. And not one based on 'The Good Life’ model of opting out but rather of towns and villages becoming closer to the core of our 21st century society.

Neighbours

Leader of the House from Westminster, Robin Cook has been visiting the Scottish Parliament to see how it’s done when you start with a blank sheet of paper. And his comments certainly suggest that he thinks there are lessons to be learnt. One of these relates to the role of committees.

I joined two of committees this week and besides being impressed by the relatively consensual way in which they operate, I was concerned about the workload. Just how adequate scrutiny of the government’s business could be provided by a smaller parliament is hard to see. Every one of our 129 MSPs has a real job.

One of the most interesting things in the Justice Committee this week was discussion about the Protection from Abuse Bill. It became apparent that the term abuse is very widely drawn. In response to my question the Deputy Minister for Justice revealed that it could be applicable to neighbours, even relatively distant neighbours, who create problems through abuse. And furthermore any breach of an interdict granted under this bill can be treated through the criminal justice system.

Although it will be some time before this bill completes its progress through Parliament, it does illustrate the useful cross-party work being done.

Community Councils

I took part in a cleanup of some streets in Banff recently. Someone used to say to me that if the Parish pump is working, everything’s OK in the world. Our Community Councils come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very active and others seem all but moribund.

But sometimes it is simple ideas that energise. And Banff & Macduff Community Council organised the cleanup thus taking practical action in response to community concerns. Getting a Councillor and an MSP (me!) along to help on a very wet Sunday morning meant that other elected representatives can’t hide from what’s going on – or not!

Well done the Community Council.

Stewart Stevenson
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