Monthly Archives: May 2017

Sailing into the Blue Yonder

Tommorrow is the final day’s racing at Tarbert in the Scottish Series, a regatta which evolved out of the ‘Tomatin Race’ of the early 70s. I have done five series and made damn well sure I was booked on for the final overnight, on a good ol’ clyde stalwart of days gone by – a hunter Impala, Llamergaya I think she was called.

I am really rather lucky to have not only sailed on the upper and lower clyde, but also on the Forth, the Tay and out of Oban. Of  course I have also sailed in Bergen, Oslo and the South Coast here , but my formative years were sailed on the East Patch.

Apprenticeship Duly Served at the Auld School

I served a rather late apprenticeship in sailing, being an adult new comer to the less subtle arts of racing. Firstly a season and a half on the infamous bene FC Europe ‘ Defiance II’ and then a rather more easy going pace on the Sigma 33 ‘Rajah’ with Roy Summers and Co, who are still going strong and competing this week I see over in Tarbert Loch Fyne.

In between the two boats I actually did the old school RYA course in dinghy sailing at the original Tighnabruaich sailing school ,where Derek who now has his own school down the sound, was senior instructor. It was a good grounding in seamanship as much as helming skills in there hotch potch of different dinghies.It blew old boots most of the time and we had an eclecitc bunch of folk, with Manchester school for girls in attendance and the Kirk’s minister from the isle of Barra.

My visit to the famous school was actually the same time as Scottish Series, I wasnt on the short list or the long list for Defiance (luckily, they had a bit of a mutiny I heard) and I was darn well going sailing that holiday weekend to make the most of the bank holiday. I think it was five days saturday to thursday or the like. Anyway I learned a lot of really good techniques, knots and so on. Derek was a hard task master and was looking after other sailors on the last couple of days so passed me only to RYA 2, which was a dissappointment, and there were mumbles back home that this was part of their marketing strategy! I got the rarer level 4 (surpassing three) over at Minorca sailing five years later.  I still teach some of the wee tricks and general attitude to seamanship in my own instructing, which begins tommorrow night incidentally with adults this time in day sailer keel boats. I put May 1995 as a big milestone in my sailing logbook though. An hour in a dinghy is worth eight in a racing yacht has been my motto ever since!

I signed up with Rajah a month later and was thrown into the deep end so to speak with the classic Tobermory race, a Port Bannatyne start line to Ardrishaig, with Ivanhoe leading our flottila with the scurl o’ the pipes from her foredeck through the Crinan Canal. A 5 am breakfast at Crinan to catch the tidal gate at the Doris Mor was followed by some hard spinnaker work, and a long day up towards the Lorne as the wind died south of Oban. Eventually a sea breeze to the top of 4 came in and we were all in by 4pm at Tob’. As a racing chap, I do sometimes think of how we are rushing past places of my family folklore likePuilladobhrain,. meaning Pool of the Otter, and in later years places which had mythical status to me as a nipper, far away holiday snaps and log book recitals, and reminicing between the crew and my father. Small keep sakes like tiles from abandoned buildings on the Treshnish islands, and much talk of Tinkers hole with the rings in the cliff faces to tie up to.  However coming up Fyne or the Sound of Mull in a fleet eager to hold their time or win their one design, with a full crew and three sheets to the wind,  just beats crusing around on white sails hands down every time. What a privelidge to have raced here often!

I was starting to feel I really had some skills under the belt, afer the baptism of fire on Defiance, the old school basics at Tigh’ and now one of the longest running events in the calender behind me. A delivery cruise through both Easdale and Cuan in blustery, Scotch mist conditions cemented my feeling of having waters past my own keel.

Rajah was a very good apprenticeship with some good sailors on board, and we had the luck of Neil McGregor coaching us for Cork Week 96 when we lighted the boat to class legal minimum, and she lifted her skirts with some whipping of us all by big Neil! 96 was a great year with warm weather and wind most days, and the whole event was a spectalce. Clyde boats dominated the sigma 33 class, with St Joan winning and Vendeval, Phoenix and Pepsi all being in the top ten. We scored a firth and a tenth I believe, having been third boat around the first mark one day when we punched through on the start line and got away with clean air up the beat. That was quite astonishing, a mid fleet gentleman’s boat often accused of being ‘social sailors’ down the Northern, showing a clean pair of heels to over seventy other sigmas!

Moving On Up the Ranks

Now Rajah didn’t sail wednesday nights, so I got the chance to sail with Harold Hood on Odyssey, and that was an eye opener because Harold was a former GP14 champion and veteran of several nationals. He came new into the fleet, having sailed Etchells and some other boats, but managed to be in the top three upper clyde Sigmas within a few outings. It was interesting to sail with them, and fun to win races, and I learned just how much of any regatta is decided on the start line, where Harold was a deamon with no fear what-so-ever, which got him in trouble with Charlie Frize on more than one occaision when the sig’s were thrown into class 1.

Work took me to Manchester for almost three years, and I of course met some sailors in the most likely setting of the Church Inn at Uppermill, about as inland as you can possibly get wothout being up Scafell Pike in England. Dave Cummaford was a regulat and invited me to do some irish sea racing, ISORA, and being young free and single I could spend my late youth bashing around all weekend in the Irish Sea, and then doing half of Celtic Week out of Pwhelli. That was interesting again, because they were a bunch of glamour-pusses in matching jackets on a Corby 35 with a deamon CHS rating. It was a fast, cleanly laid out boat with some really good sailors on board, but nearly all the time was spent sailing in our own wind, quite far from the faster Sigma 400s, and then sitting over a hot laptop waiting to see how we might place. Not that it put me off handicap racing, nor offshore. It was very good experience.

I was ‘booked’ for Converting Machine again for Scottish Series 1998 but got on board another boat who needed me all week, and kind of ignored Dave’s protestations later and got flicked from the crew list no dounbt for this misdemeanor. We were able to stay at someone’s hoose, Uncle Willy, who was an old retired fisherman with a big front room to his house with extra beds for about five of us. John from Ardershier was in two with Rob Inglis and some others, and we had a rather jolly time, us being commandeered onto the Irish IMX 38 ‘Braveheart’. I remember meeting them in the pub on the friday night after the delivery, and they were looking dejected, after a poor result and a lack of crew for the event. Me and john and perhaps another punter were as delighted to offer our services as they were to welcome us to the team.They were all called Brian if I remember rightly. Brian Matthews, a veritable legionnaire of Scottish Series and the Irish cicuit, was their coach and gave mes some of the best advice and tips on trimming I have ever had. I kind of forgot to sail with conveting machine which was running an odd mainsail in dacron to go trophy hunting in  a CYCA class of all places, I mean Tarbert was the annual shake down for IRC craft and their new sets of sails!

I think I will have to blog again from this point forward, but basically with this and then 2000 at Minorca Sailing in performance dinghies for a week, cemented my skills and knowledge and made me a useful guy on any boat, be that front, back or the middle bit where the boxing matches happen. I am far from a master dinghy sailor, nor I am Sir Ben on the stick of bigger boats, but i feel a certain road to mastery was taken by my route and Minorca honed my skills for boats of all sizes.

Coasts Apart

I moved to Edinburgh from my stint in Manchester and ended up working for what was then quite a high profile internet design and programming agency as a project manager. The pay was mediocre but it came with wheels, so I was able to shoot around the place. This meant I could sail at Port Edgar and Dalgety bay, keel boats and my own Tasar and other dinghies respectively. Also I decided to do some more west highland weeks, on my own terms, with a share of the helm.

Oban replaced Rhu as my ‘home port’ for two very enjoyable seasons sailing with Twig Olsen and Peter Duggan, with various crew including Gill Reavley, one of the Thomas brothers, Sandy Loynd from Tob’ and Alistair Olsen. It was a rather illustrious time for the boat ‘Fly’  and my helming too with wins at West Highland Week and Round Mull, and Peter and Sandy won of course the Scottish Two Handed on the clyde.

Like my father before me, I felt that the ‘real stuff’ begins once you’re over the top of the Crinan canal summit and venturing westward, so this move was cutting out the middle man. Also I got to sail on one of my favourite designs of all time, the Hunter Impala, called Fly. Much nicer than the Sonata to live in and far more sporty in feel and response than the Smeg when you consider David Thomas’s other two big UK successes.

Round Mull must surely be one of the best stage races in the world as far as scenery and craic goes, and I see it has grown in popularity and hull length ever since, with a move I believe to a week later in the calender coming more into holiday sweet spot. It is done by quite a select band of sailors who commit to having their boat up there for the season.

We were also lucky in competing in feeder races to both WHW and Round Shuna, the latter necessatating sailing under spinnaker through the Cuan sound, although we avoided Easdale. Round Shuna is another wee peach of a race and social, which anyone who happens to have sailed WHW should consider keepng their boat on God’s side of Kintyre just to do this event, once in a lifetime at least.

WHW 2000 was wonderful weather by in large, with the Hunts winning the event overall having eaked a fine tune out of their laser 28 ( relatively it didnt have a bandit handicap like say a comfort 30, and they could have won on IRC I dare say!) We had a support boat , Twig’s Nelson and we did Ken Grant’s after party at the light house at Corran ferry, with a final, peaceful late evening cruise back to N. Ballachuilish.

After WHW 2001 we also enjoyed some interesting crusiing in some bloody aweful weather. Jackie Stewart of motor racing fame was celebrating his 60th or 70th birthday and had hired I beleive the entire Hebridean Princess, with Sir Sscchean on board. We saw her steaming north as we made it to either Arisaig or Coll. We were ‘storm bound’ in both ports, with a dash in better weather made from Arisaig to Coll with a really big beam sea on the go, great mountains of green would suddenly rise and I had to turn the bow up on more than one occaision to bob over rather than risk being rolled (that extra lead on the keel is only a wee bitty bit on an Impala actually!!)

We had two nights on the tourist moorings there, each time walking the rubber dinghy the half mile up to the hotel, and then drifiting on the strong north westerly down the creek of a loch, aiming the dinghy as best we could at the impala and hope to hell we did not overshoot or loose grip on Fly ! It would be a long trip to Bunessan or Staffa in that wind with a half skinful in you.

Finally it came time to travel back home and we did a fairly ambitious Coll to Ballachullish three up wi’ the then wee man, Alistair Olsen. On the way up the firth of Lorne, there lay the Hebridean princess in that sandy bay on the Morvern side, we had heard there were a good few sea sick from the tour and I can remember why – force 8 two days and top of 6 several other days, with temperatures as low as 8 ‘c at night!  The temperature picked up too that evening, and we slept off a long day on the mooring at the little pool there which I cant remember the bloody name of, but is a kind of cosey little Caladh type place. With itinerant midges of course, but we slept pretty well in the dead calm of the bay.

That actually marked the end of my love affair with sailing the west coast at that point in time. I knew you cannot really go back and expect things to be the same, and Fly was due an inboard and so on. In truth I wanted to do more helming as i felt that I had come as far as I possibly could with crewing, and Pete was of course most interested in helming most of the time, especially when I pulled out Fly’s first and rather illustrious win on the Oban-Tob leg of WHW in 2001, in the old sea dogs class 5 as it was then, against all the bandit handicappers and all the local back eddy knowledge, and three other impalas in class!

I regret losing touch for a few years with Pete and Twig but hope we can get a sail together next year.

East is East

At the same point in time I was also sailing on a 707 over in the east coast, and got my company to sponsor East Coast Week. This was run at Dundee out of the Royal Tay, and I was able to sail a few times with the once infamous west coast boat Rhett Butler, then passing to the sober hands it has to be said of Dave Suttie. The DB2 was a proper old race boat, a little tired but still able to impress up wind. I got to sail a couple of days at the ‘week’ and was on runners when we hit the shelf at Broughty castle. Bump. It was a falling tide and we did not really know about the shelf. The boat developed a slow leak and needed repairs, Silvers taking on the job that winter.

The 707 was a good experience too, because before I had done a winter series on a lone FC 8m, whcih was fun but often a little hairy. We had the sail maker Simon Jackson on boat ‘ Activ8or’ and I learned a good few more tricks it has to be said, plus more fine details on use of the rules from a fantastic sailor. The 707 was also hairy, we often sailed just three up which made upwind a struggle and off wind a blast. However after a decent broach at 12 knts I got used to the feeling of not quite trusting the helm, another Dave IIRC, and enjoyed the wee machine. Once we were going so fast under the forth bridges that the displacement boats literally looked like they were sailing backwards!

Never Quite Fitting In

It was really high time to concentrate on my own boat, but a year of part time work and a mediocre salary in my new job at Inchinnan meant that Ididnt have budget. I tried sailing with a couple of other boats on the clyde but I was  a bit of a spent force if truth be told in terms of social network there.

On the Clyde I never felt I quite fitted in, or was accepted into the core of crew around my own age. They had all been dinghy and day boat sailors in their teens, most had crewed on Drum in her day, and really I was an outsider who also got labelled as pretty rubbish from my early days out as a virtual novice to keel boat racing, and then sailing with the rather unfarily branded ‘ social sailor’ boat Rajah. The trouble there was that they were all older on board and the usual crew bonding and beer swilling in the throbbing crowd in the beer and bands tent was lacking. Being with other crew was ok, but it would have been better to be in a team and bond with folk around my own age then I can see that in retrospect.

I don’t regret a god-darned minute though, and my social awkwardness is something I just have to live with.
Mera Norvegicus
The  east coast followed including East Coast Week out of Royal Tay, on the now no longer infamous ‘Rhett Butler’ and planing under the Forth bridges on a 707. Three more Tarberts and a total of four West Highland Weeks and I had my spurs and some scars to show.

Where now though?
Well it has to be a new blog that one too I am afraid! I need my kip and my berth awaits.

Scotland Ltd – The Difficulty with Turn Over

In my last post I looked to criticise the SNP’s approach to economic figures. They have a kind of default position which is ‘ we won’t know how much tax revenue we will get until we go independent and we will make decisions based on the realities of oil price and the global economy at that time’. Well that is not good enough ! They should really be challenging the GERS figures and not allowing them to be a stick they beat  themselves with.

In particular in my last blog I came amazingly, and suspiciously close to GERS figures for tax revenue by using UKGov and GERS statistics, oft quoted by Better Together. Suspicisoulsy because I allocated pro rata to the 8.6% of total UK population  and made only a minor tweek to income tax revenue, due to the surpisingly higher average wages which Scots can now boast over rUK average. With the deficit accredited by GERS, I was within a couple of billion either way, and I didn’t have the entire tax picture, there was more to come.

Hard to Get A Handle on Scotland Ltd’s Top Line ?

The trouble is with GERS is that it is very difficult to disaggregate Scotland Ltd from United Kingdom PLC on the balance book. The over riding reason for this is that companies are not forced to have a legal accounting entity north of the Border and even when they do, goods and services may well be accounted for by their southern offices or depots.

This applies to every part of the (private sector and VAT’ed) economy, apart from of course North Sea oil & gas which has a fortuitous geographically defined, by oil field reporting method due to the royalties excised per barrell. (Or not when tax right offs exceed income or what ever other fiendish mechanisms big oil corporates are using. They do invest hugely and have decommissioning costs too it has to be said. )  However the GERS figures and UKGov publications reveal discussion and disagreement about these figures, and make some estimates about on shore and supply chain contributions to Scotland Ltd.  If for example, the majority of 200,000 odd oil workers were taxed and payed NI in Scotland, or this was equated into GERS today, with their famous wage packets, how much smaller would the deficit be?

It should be easier for the GERS figures to come up with an income tax and NI figure based on statistical analysis of average wages and size of the work force. So I took a fag-packet figure on this. However higher wages and lower house prices mean that people are spending more on life’s luxuries, which are VATable, and it doesn’t look like GERS revenue factors in this or the Scot’s liking for a bevvy, or that commuting distances can be longer for our motorists. After my minor adjustment for higher revenues from income tax and NI, adding on arbitrary per capita basis, x 8.6% that is, we get amazingly within +/- £2bn of the GERS budget deficit of between £11-15bn depending on the year in the period 2012-2016.

What the SNP Need to Prove to Themselves and the Electorate- GERS Are Wrong

Now the SNP cannot go into a new referendum without being able to say that Alec Salmond’s lower than Westminster Corporation tax would work, and the rest of the country would pay much the same income taxes and VAT without a far better handle on what Scotland Ltd’s actual turn over is ( ScoGDP) .  Depending on the year GERS varies between 7.4% and 8% allocation of  ScoGDP to UkGDP. Yet we have higher average wages and we have the lion’s share of the North Sea industty off – and on- shore.  However GERS manage to allocate as high as 15.7% of the national UK budget deficit to Scotland, mainly by how they allocate expenditure above Barnett block grant. Or are they missing somethign else out from their revenue equations such as local authority taxes AND incomes ?

I didn’t complete my tax summary for Scotland because I got bored and am neither a tax accountant nor an economist. I stopped when revenues tied with the balance sheet and a deficit or around £13-15bn. Niether did I scrutinise that allocation of Westminster public spending which ends up in Scottish hands directly and not via Holyrood. Nor did I enter the agruments about what Scotland would have to pay for itself in terms of defence, pensions, social security and so on. This is because I am a bit thick and lazy. But also because it gets rather complicated in terms of horse trading between money which is locked into the Scottish economy, or so what if public spending rises as a proportion of GDP if those are jobs in the new armed forces and governmental departments.

Let us keep it simple, stupid. The balance sheet. What does Scotland Ltd turn over, how much does it tax of this turn over, and how much must it borrow or pay off in debt each year?  That is what my last blog was about. This blog is about what could be wrong with GERS.

Exports Are the Fly in the GERS Ointment, The Smoking Gun for  a Bigger ScoGDP

Where have they come up then with this figure of £50bn exports to rUK versus £12.3 bn to EU and why is ROW not in that BBC and other media report for exports from Scotland Ltd?  This is important because the balance of trade is a major economic indicator. Arbitrarily, Rest of World (ROW) exports should be around £13 bn on a per capita basis, meaning that Scotland Ltd exports exactly twice to rUK than it does to anywhere else. Not a surprise, we are an island group of nations with a common language. It is difficult then to disaggregate what these exports are then? How many get sold on and shipped further   out of the UK? How many become major economic components or ingredients of items or services exported outside the UK? I played dirty, I took it as bible BBC figures and then added up the same sources quote on exports to the EU, and then took 8.6% of total UK exports to RoW.

However how was this figure, £50bn, a third of the Scottish economy, deduced and how accurate is this as a figure in itself? Now you can give the estbalishment a stick to beat themselves with as I pointed out, because Scotland has a propensity to export goods. If would take the position that far more than half of this fifty billion rUK ‘export’ goes further in the world to reduce Scotland Ltd to the same proportional balance of trade as UK PLC, which is 30% import as GDP, 20% export for 2015 and as a trend around those figures for some years going back.

If you use exports as a proportional index to work back to total GDP then the worse the balance of trade for Scotland, the more innaccurate the GERS figures for ScoGDP are, and the better the balance of trade for Scotland, the more unlikely the GERS  tax revenue are correct because there is more economic activity in the private sector than the arbitrary allocation of taxes builds up.

Saying this is a proposterous index to take, then means that Scotland Ltd is a very, very different beast from rUK ltd. Firstly it looks like Scotland has a net positive balance of trade, which is extremely healthy for any economy. In turn that is an admission that Macro economic policy for  the financial capital London, and the SE in particular is far out of line with that which will work in Scotland. Or Manchester for that matter.  Secondly it means that Scotland has a higher productivity per worker but this is hidden somehow. Why is this the case though? Because a balance of trade negative means that the country is borrowing more money, and some of that has to be done by the national, central bank to hold up the credit in other banks. This then means that per capita, each worker has reduced productivity because they are working off debt.

That is a kind of a tautology you may say. Yet in reality as we know, a poor balance of trade and high consumer and national borrowing almost brought down modern capitalism in 2008 and it had to go to the tax payer and public pocket to bail it out.

The GDP to taxation ratio is the real over riding key indicator of an economies health in terms of what investors and creditors are looking for. Too high and the country looks like a communist run state, too low and the country is not spending enough on the societal welfare, defence, education and infrastructure. The next related pair of economic indicators are the public sector borrowing requirement, ie the budget deficit and the amount of national debt. These two are inter-related closely but it is not entirely the case that we have a mortgage which just gets bigger, nor the case that the PSBR is a temporary overdraught and national debt is longer term. I am nowhere near to understanding that equation. I like arithmetic. I like sums.

The SNP Are Not Finding the Devil, When It Is There in the Detail

The SNP do not have their sums right then. They cannot go in on a wing and a prayer that all will reveal itself to be shiny and we will balance the books based on current spending and borrowing, while maintaining public spending. However I consider them to be lucky in that the GERS figures are not giving the whole picture. It is true to say that like in the chemical baths of an olden days dark room the picture will develope once the jump is taken. However that will be the economic vagiaries of that period of time in change over.  The SNP have to come with better figures on ScoGDP and real tax revenues, or a fiscal strategy more people can believe in before they go further.

Brexit is More Predictable as a Playing Park than Indy or Not?

Brexit in some ways is less risky than ScotXit fro UK PLC. This is because we know the ‘no deal’  position is WTO, whcih is not the end of the world by any means, and also we have the Swiss- EU , the Turkish to EU and the EEA – EU trade agreements as models for something better than ‘no deal / WTO Default’. However this is then only telling us the costs of trading, not the actual impact on trading, which for Turkey for example has been a positive. It could well be very negative for the UK.

Scotland will be a prize for the EU as post Macron, it starts to reassert its’ raison d’etre and economic security, but only if an independent Scotland is has a robust balance sheet, or can sustain a few years with borrowing to get to a better position. The SNP have not settled this issue of the balance sheet, nor has GERS in my opinion, which should in theory put independence into the category of much higher tax for Scots and lower welfare.

Why is Scotland So Much Smaller An Economy than Comparitive European and Former Colonial Countries? -Because the GERS are Wrong?

I do not believe that scenario of a basket case Scotland Ltd as in the paragraph above. If you take Norway, as Alex Salmond likes to, it has just under twice the Oil production of Scotland, and you could therefore say that GERS are roughtly right because Norwegian GDP is around twice that of Scotland – but 80% of their taxation comes from oil related activities. ( That figure could include a raid on the “oil fund ” by the Norsk chancellor the few last years, I would need to check)

In fact I believe that the Scottish economy is more like 2/3rds the size of the Norwegian economy at around £200bn, placing it around 9 to 12% of UK total GDP. This is because Norway has few other major economic activities outside oil,  apart from fishing and aquaculture, which are net cash earners.

Denmark for example has run with a GDP averaging around about £244 BN for the last decade or so. Why is Scotland with its diversified economy not nearer a figure like this, since it has a much larger oil field than Denmark? Why is it down at £140-£162 bn depending on the year in the GERS figures ?

What about a more recent country which went independent from West Minster and has many similarities to Scotland – New Zealand.  Oddly enough this nation of 4.6 million people had a GDP last year more than GERS allocates to Scotland in most of the last six years, at £155bn.  Yet it has a tiny oil industry and is reliant on agricultural exports and tourism.

So I do not believe in the GERS GDP figures for Scotland Ltd, they are under estimating the size of the economy, and therefore they paint a bleak picture on tax returns, debt and public services. We have that unusually high level of exporting, which paradoxically betters the position for independence which ever way you slice it up with rUK, either in favour of a larger GDP or a much higher productivity per worker. You have other westernised countries  of 4-5 million citizens with bigger GDPs, even without large natural resource deposits. Then you have that me, a motley fool, can recreate the GERS tax revenue estimates on the back of a cyber fag packet, suggesting much of it is allocated arbitrarily per capita, 8.6%.   The SNP have failed to tackle this with real facts or lines of arguments which will point to a more secure future.




Scottish Independence ? Stop Getting GERS Right

When I left Scotland over a decade ago, both Scottish Independence and any notion of  Auld Blighty really leaving the EU / EEA were far from my thoughts, and seemed both to be rather extreme notions on the fringes of politics.

Having lived in Norway all those years in blissful exile I would now say that I have gone well over the threshold for Scottish independence post Brexit vote, yet I believe the SNP are doing a terrible job at making the economic case for it. The GERS figures have become their own stick to beat themselves with.

Norway by the way,  celebrated 100 years of independence in 2005 and has never looked back from becoming a state in its own right after over 300 years of unions with its’ respective  neighbours. There is something about national pride through thick and thin there, but of course post oil discovery it has become the wealthiest western country per capita.

Comparisons to Norway – Valid? Certainly Illuminating.

Alec Salmond likes to bang on about Norway and he is both right and wrong in that respect. The facts are that Norway has an economy approximately twice the size of Scotalnd – if you compare according to the GERS figures in 2015. With oil revenues being hit hard in both sectors, Norway’s GDP was around £320bn 2015 vs the highest GERS estimate including oil for Scotland at £162bn for 2015.  There is maybe no conincidence then that average wages in Norway are approximnately twice as high at around £52 -55,000.

Which means a pint at around £8 or £9 quid is more affordable than one at a fiver in most London pubs these days. Income tax is not that high for average earners, with MIRAS still in place on in fact all loans, and local authority taxes seem to be a little less than the UK. I pay around about 30-34% of my income and usually have a wage at least half as much again as the UK, withou housing outside the main cities being much more afordable than the UK.

Balance of Trade – The First Smoking Gun in My Detective Story

Norway has a large export surplus that is to say a positive balance of trade. However here we hit an interesting set of figures which I can’t explain when comparing Norway to Scotland using GERS and other BBC/ Better Together sources of statistics.

It is famously reported – in a neutral BBC tone but firmly in the ‘better together’ camp – that Scotland enjoys just under £50bn ‘exports’ with rUK,  with exports from Sco’ to  EU in comparison a paltry £12bn from the same source.

Of course this is misleading because many rUK exports from Scotland include  raw materials and goods and services, which get sold to the EU and ROW. But let us say carry on in that BBC tone of voice and aggregate it all rather than adjust that £50bn downwards.

We then have an economic figure of £62bn if we ignore further exporting and just take it on reciepts. Let’s add tourism, governments own figures, £6.2bn, and because it is importing net cash therefore a “qausi” export- it is foreign consumers and foreign monies in return for something Caledonia does very well by nature.

What about exports ROW though? Let us use some GERS presumed methodology, based on an arbitrary population share of 8.6%,  when extracted from UK Gov’s figures for the whole UK x 8.6%  we get £13.5Bn ROW exports from Scotland.  That guestimate is as valid as very much of the GERS figures which use per capita and oddly enough, ‘geographical’ criteria for arbitrary allocation of worth when it is not glaringly obvious in tax returns or published data. What about Whisky, Salmon and Oil? Do they not move the ROW figures up over too. Does Scotland not export proportionally more produce than rUK? Hmm the plot thickens….

So here is some simple macro economic arithmetic by yours truly- £50bn + £12.3 bn + £6.4bn + £13.5bn  = £82bn, or over half of GDP,  and incidentally more than Norway exports – what is going on then?

A country for which exports account for half (or more) of the GERS stated GDP i.e. its’ whole turnover , its economy-as-we-know-it, and so by default having a positive balance of trade?  ALL of this is based on government and sound economic figures used by UK gov and Better Together. 

Scotland’s Curse of Oil and Gas

Let us look then at Oil – ( and gas, which I will come back to). The figures are astounding in fact, and explain very well why even through the ‘$30 barrel’ shock of 2014-15, fields survived and are still open and (while of course exploration is virtually zero but someone got lucky it seems ). The UK sector still produces around a million barrels of pertoleums a day!

At even three year guesstimated average of $45USD pb over time, that is $16.4 bn per annum, over 95% from Scottish territorial waters. My calculation with today’s exchange rate is £13bn a year, but that is not just any old £13bn, that is primary production, value added supply chain, high wage and mostly exported. It is not money circulating around in cycles or crypto-keynsian private sector stimulus via personal and business credit (debt).

We then have also gas, which it is hard to extract out from the figures on ‘petroleum’   yet Gas in terms of the UK as a whole, is now the single largest source of energy for electricity generation and domestic energy. ( Don’t tell the bloody jocks!). Almost a  third of UK electricity is from gas, and of course lots of folk have gas at home. Now rUK waters produce some gas, but most comes from the N sea and imports from elsewhere, including Russia. It is complicated then to extract this, but if we start pumping CO2 down old oil wells ( Once global warming heats up, no ice age in the next hundred thousand years, sorry boys) then this combined with renewables and nuclear makes Scotland self sufficient and a net exporter of power it is proposed. You go do the sums on gas and ‘leccie, they won’t suit Better Together, especially not when Scottish consumers are being charged more per unit for delivery.

The Trouble With GERS….

GERS figures are a based on estimates, that is stated in every official and public document you will find on them. Estimates. And that is by  Sco Gov and the UK Statistical Authority’s own very clear admission.   They emphasise throughout their literature the apportion of public spending in Scotland and taxation from inhabitants ie per capita,  and ‘ identifiable and attributable activity’ which makes adjustments up and down for known cases, such as N.Sea economics. How much of  ‘ScoGDP’ is arbitrarially calculated and how much is done using more accurate build up methods or other boffin like stats? I can’t find information on this. It is in the realms of the ‘impartial experts’ perhaps, or maybe I am being lazy today.

Tax revenues  are perhaps a hell of a lot easier to calculate accurately for ScoGov and the Scottish Office and the UK Statistical Authority, and who ever esle in UKGov who is involved in the cauldron of statistics. More accurate because ScoGov and UKGov own the figures, they have a census of the populace of tax payers-  but are these tax revenues   based on arbitary allocations per capita or are they not?  Is there not perhaps a bias in reality caused by higher wages north of the border?  –  the North Sea oil industry seems to produce a result where the  average salary is four thousand pounds higher for Scots than rUK. But is that included? That means also a bell curve capturing more higher tax bracket employees? There were in 2013-14 225,000 Oil workers on- and off- shore,

Have they taken this into account with that nasty deficit per capita they like to share, higher per person than rUK? We have then 8.6% of the population, 9.7% of UK tax revenue (inc petroleums) yet 15.7% of the budget deficit? All GERS’ figures not the SNPs’, not John Robertson’s.

Ah but you can wheel out the Barnett Formula. Scots are pampered.  Well in fact Londoners are more pampered, with a higher proportion of total public spending per capita. You have then about £51bn (per capita x 5 million estimate) ‘identifiable’ public spending allocated by the last barnett formula to Scotland, and about £75 bn for London in 2013 figures at 8 million people from the same calculations and sources.  Now look at GERS, which state that Scotland has a deficit in relation to this 51bn of identifiable public spending or 15bn a year. Actual total GERS figures of public spending in Scotland for 2015 were £68.6bn.

Now in Scotland there are an estimated 2.8 million in work, with an average wage of £26k and given a little over a  third goes in income tax and NI from this figure, we get a simple,’  idiotic me ‘ tax income for Scotland of  £25bn , we then can add rates, council tax and council incomes at appx £10bn. So we get to £35bn vs £69bn expenditure before corporation tax, VAT and excise duty.

VAT now, the UK HMRC give a figure to financial year 2017 just ended of £119bn. Now let us be purely fair and arbitrary and allocate 8.6% to Scotland: we get appx. £10bn. So now we are income £45bn versus expenditure of £69bn. We are though, almost covering our tails for the Barnett formula on central funding at that £51bn oh-so-generous figure.

UK Motorists paid in a whopping £28Bn in 2009 in taxes excluding VAT , so we can claim that 8.6% of that, and excise duty on domestic consumption of booze and fags at about £500 million for Scotland, so coming to another £3bn income on our arbitrary round up.  There are other silly wee taxes, airport and so on, let us just ignore them.

What about corporation taxes then?  Well in 2015 they were $44bn which seems a very low figure in comparison to VAT returns, but it is tax on declared profits after all. So we can say that was £4bn for Scotland in a purely arbitrary way. Now we come to £52bn , we have surpassed Barnett but have a deficit to total spending of £17bn. If we take those silly wee taxes then perhaps we have a deficit of £15bn or the high point of GERS figure deficits.

Income Vs Expenditure Then- What is Going On?

Now this was a real back of cyber-fag packet ‘build up’ model and does not take in to account the vagiaries of what Scotland actually gets up to as an economy. Remarkably to me, it comes within a whisker of the GERS figures for that nasty deficit and whole balance sheet on the tax revenue side.

I adjusted only in one area, that being a little for the higher average wages – it could be argued that these are skewed by smaller higher income workers, or conversley perhaps we get a few more % income because more people fall into the higher tax bracket and pay proportionally more due to the high standing of personal tax allowance and lowest rate on the first part of income. I could have missed out some significant portion of employers NI contributions, or taxes in investments, pensions.

Either way we probably get to the arbitrary deficit in the region of 11-15Bn per year over the last five years or so. How much is now being addressed by the new local taxation powers taken up by the SNP and if we had a labour majority in Holyrood you can bet they would do the same,  in the face of central cuts which have the aim of alleviating the deficit for the whole UK.  However is this a true revenue picture or are this there effectively higher productivity in Scotland ?

It comes down more then to that extra attributed £9bn or so monies which are general central government expenditure, allocated to Scotland. This may seem a very small sum, but in terms of what GERS allocated, £69bn, it is in fact 13% of expenditure.  So one in eight pounds spent North of the Border are direct from Westminster not via Holyrood. This includes then defence, international embassies and affaires, EU membership fees, pensions and benefits, pay off national debt –  Wow !! what a super, super deal you may say!

Stop Getting GERS Right!

So playing the idiot savant, with only one minor adjustment for average income, and using figures roundly quoted by Better Together from government sources, I have replicated the GERS figures for revenue within +/- 5%, and I am a motley fool.  This isn’t pure luck though, because I have been through the Lion’s share of UK statistics from UK Gov and the GERS figures and by in large used that 8.6% arbitrary population attribution.

Here comes the rub. The statisticians involved in both Whitehall and Scotland cannot even agree on the allocation of revenue from the North Sea, which industry sources would seem to contradict in that this should be quite definable geographically. We know the amount of and oil and gas per year  and that over 90% is produced in what by any definition currently pre Brexit, would be Scottish continental shelf.  So what chance the rest of that they are getting the rest of the economy right?

In 2016 the UK budget deficit was 3% of GDP.  This would equate to a deficit in Scotland based on the highest Gers figure for ScoGDP,  at £4.86 Bn for 2016, based on the ‘high’ estimate,  including oil income ,  with ScoGDP of £162 bn. However what we are reminded constantly is that per capita deficit is much higher than rUK as shown by GERS. In fact if you look at the figures for 2014-15 then we have been allocated 15.7% of the deficit with only 8.6% of the population. In that year the UK deficit as a percent of GDP was 5.7%.  We see that Scotland has been allocated a formidable 11-15 bn deficit while it is predicted for this year, 2017, to be in the UK as a whole has £51.7bn, which on the lowest allocation for 2017 based on that £11Bn,  means that Scotland has to take 21% of this deficit, on that 8.6% but with that extra Barnet money of £7bn (on a per capita basis vs average for the UK) !

What in fact is going to happen is that the Conservatives have reduced the deficit by good means and foul by £20bn for the budget year 2017, but don’t tell the bloody jocks that their deficit might also be just 5% of ScoGDP therefore being under £10bn for 2017 or 2018.

GERS in A Bubble Show a Heddy Truth Even By Their Own Figures

UK GDP as a whole was estimated at £472 bn ( that is £471, 939 millions) for Q1 2017.   This is seasonally adjusted thus we can say that in a growing economy this year, Annual calendar year GDP will be around £2,000bn. Why has Scotland then not 8.6% of this ?

Instead the GERS figures show we have £20bn less on a purely per capita basis, yet we have a higher average wage than the UK,  and excluding the south east of England, similar unemployment – in employment rates to rUK? Our economy purely based on arbitary per capita is then £172bn this year, which is substantial growth from the low GERS figure for 2015, unlikely to actually be realised if those GERS figures were correct. In other words the economy would need to have grown to meet this arbitrary figure of £172bn from £162 ‘high on oil and gas’ GERS figure for 2016, it would be economic growth of around 6% p.a.

Rather we have had a larger economy than even this £172 arbitrary allocation in my opinion, and this is the key issue with the Gers figures for me- they don’t show ScoGDP in reality and their methodologies are selling us short by using a per capita basis with a minor adjustment for oil. A Scottish economy two thirds the size of Norway’s would seem to make some sense, so I would bet at around £200bn in fact. Let me go away and compare oil production in Norway.

So what is so tragically inconsistent  with Scotland is that the country makes £10-30Bn less in the actual GERS figures than this £172bn  over the last three years on average, calculated from a per capita basis in GDP, while Scotland has a share of the budget deficit at 15.7% of the whole UK.

Is it then the case that the City of London is so very much bigger in the English economy and eclipses us? In which cases surely City figures should be extracted to show true rUK figures, in the same way Oil is often extracted from the Scottish economic figures?  What deficit then has Manchester ? Yorkshire?  Devon?

Scotland – Wealthy And A Primary Producer Par Excellence

Scotland has a high level of primary production and value added manufacturing- there is oil  & Gas and its’ global supply chain here ; there is fishing and aquaculture being the vast majority of UK harvest; theres is a proportionally large agriculture and forrestry industry; a value added food manufacturing industry;  that £6.4bn tourist industry; there is not only whisky but other spirits and brewing, theres biotech and pharma; there is chemicals and there is too petrochemicals like Grangemouth. Then there are less export oriented service industries and construction, but they all count in the GDP, Scotland Ltd’s turn over. The financial sector is an interesting one to say the least.

On expenditure vs revenue then, we can say there is the Barnett block grant plus a net £10bn of local council income, and now a net increase in taxes, the next GERS figures are yet to be fully assessed.  Now we can’t actually spend more than we get, even though some is ‘deficit’ ie public sector borrowed monies. What the £9 bn , over and above Barnett and council taxes and revenue is through central government not via Holyrood as we discussed.

However what is very odd is the governments own figures on exports, which puts Scotland as a net positive balance of trade country versus this not being the picture for the UK as a whole,  thus making the balance of trade case for rUK worse when Sco is extracted. The UK as a whole had a balance of trade in 2015 to the tune of approximately -£200bn, with exports being around about 20% of GDP and imports representing 30% roughly. 

Back to productivity, this means Scotland is less reliant on consumer activity – ie the tertiary economy which was so much of the cause of the financial crisis in 2008 and recessionary conditions after, and low growth and stagnation in many western economies when the national credit card bills just had to be paid down., in both public and private finances.

The fact is that Scotland possibly exports even more of its produce and it is therefore an even larger part of the economy because there is so much primary production, ok, biased by North Sea Oil & Gas as it is at about a third of exports. Now this is good, honest, profitable private business, it isn’t funny money and it isnt retail buying in cheap from China to sell at a margin. Even with the governments own figures and an arbitratry allocation it is half of ScoGDP. I would say that it is more than this, and thus a higher figure due to there being so much primary production and secondary value adding going on, which may then in turn push the entire GDP up and reduce the deficit.

The SNP Have To Get Better Figures

To summarise then, I believe GERS to be potentially flawed in terms of total Scottish GDP and what actual tax revenues can be allocated to the nation, and what the real level of direct central government spending is. It could well be a bleaker, worst case scenario in fact if you want to be a pint half empty person!  GERS may be allocating far too little of general public expenditure from central Westminster /Whitehall sources.

However I just don’t believe in the figures for on the one hand ScoGDP and on the other the level of the deficit, which is kind of a locked cause-effect .  The reality is though there is a deficit and a monster UK national debt which has doubled in a decade and only now may show signs of abating, just in time for the turmoil of real Brexit. Capitalism and the stregnth of the pound are a week to week, quarter to quarter phenomenom looking at results and indicators on the ‘event horizon’ and concentrating on making money rather than sooth saying and doom predicting. International capitalism and trading floors ‘ carry on regardless’ making a quick buck until the roof falls in, as we saw in 2008.

The SNP are making a big mistake by broadly accepting the GERS figures as the most trustworthy source and asking the Scottish public to trust them on the basis that ‘ No one really knows how much money we will get in from tax and what price North Sea Oil will command’ until the time we go independent. In reality they should be arguing for a comparison to rUK excluding the City of London, and arguing that with oil vs city trading in fact Scotland has at least its per capita share with the city and oil in the picture, and a higher per capita if both those are extracted. They should be assuring that in fact, GERS fall short of what ScoGDP really is.

My own wet finger in the air would be that if oil continues to be £55USD pb then Scotland makes for 9-12% of the whole UK economy, and is by far the most productive region outside London in terms of exports per capita. That is wishful thinking more than even opinion you may say.  But given we have North Sea oil & gas in our GDP then surely we are more than 8.6% of UK GDP, and not as low as just under 8% as GERS indicate?

Pro independence folk or those who are just on the fence and  a little concerned, the floating Labour voter who knows they are getting 10 years more of conservatives in Westminster, should be asking the questions about GERS. It seems that they are ‘accurate and impartial’ in that the tax revenue is based on hard figures and per capita arbitrary allocation, as how else would I come so close in a ‘build up methodology’ to their revenue figures? However how are they calculating or building up GDP for Scotland? The clues that it is potentially higher are – employment rates, higher average wages, exports amounting to half the GERS figure GDP.

Exports are a good index to smoke out the ‘impartially didn’t see that’  in GERS allocation of ScoGDP because as a whole the UK economy exports between 25 and 30% of GDP in any given year.  Now of course some of Sco-rUK “exports” , remember that £47bn – £50Bn we should be so grateful for,  are re-exported or have value added to them and are then exported from rUK.  Including tourism we have in fact exactly 50% of our economy as exports – £81bn exports and GERS top figure ScoGDP £162bn. So it is very, very odd that Scotland has so much higher a % exports, given that rUK plus EU plus ROW (the last one being my estimate, it could be higher than arbitrary % share of UK per capita,  and IMHO probably is) . In 2015 the UK as a whole exported £425 bn, which was about 25-30% of GDP. However it imported £606 Bn

We could then use this indicator index of exporting and say that in fact Scotland is not so weird and exports more in line with rUK. We can then tramp it down to exports at 40% GDP because oil, gas and electricity are so large. We can then exclude tourism for the sake of complying.  Then we can back calculate ScoGDP as being £187bn for 2015, as against GERS ate £162bn. The figure if I remember right was that Scotland tax revenues were at 34% GDP, so we get a third of this back in taxes this being £8.3bn, and reducing the deficit, the national bridging loan on the mortgage, by more than half.  Now if exports are taken at the same level as UK as a whole, 30%, then this makes ScoGDP higher because those hard figure exports are a smaller proportion of ScoGDP.

1705 -1707 All Over Again?

This is a major line of argument for Brexit and against ScoIndy- does Scotland want to risk those £47bn-£50bn rUK exports? Does Germany want to risk those BMW sales? Italy those Gucci sales?

This is a simplistic, childish argument which appeals to unfortunately, the Brexit -Leave voter demographic. In reality it is rUK and UK Ltd who are dependent on imports to make their economy go round. The exchequer gets more margin out of those Gucci shoes in VAT and more in life cycle from those highly taxed, full-service-history BMWs than they do in Bayern!

In terms of fresh scottish food produce, oil&gas, chemicals and not least electricity, rUK are dependent on these for their supply chains and to be able to add value for export further a- field or just do retail and services domestically.

However this is being dressed up now as a 1705 proposition, with a near ‘bankrupted’ new state being held over a barrel once again with its’ beef exports being denied a market. That is currently exactly how spiteful the Tories are in fact, but any independence will be after Brexit and the shock to supply chains in Brexit will mean a possibly gentler negotiation with a new, pre-EU state as a major supplier and business partner.

The folly of going with a ‘no deal’ or obstreporous Brexit deal with the EU will be more apparent as soon as supply chains are disrupted and many of those cause celebres, the farmers and the fishers, find that the EU was their easiest and most important export market. Trade deals with China and India are the great white hope, but these will be done behind close doors and full details may be withheld from the public until they are signed. So much for more democracy.  Brexit is the real cause of IndyRef II, and I hope the timing is right such that the effects of Brexit and the arrogance of the Tories become fully apparent to the Scottish public.


Prions, just what the….? 

It has been a good decade since I worked  in biotech and back then there was still a great deal of concern about BSE and CJD as fatal diseases with serious epidemiological consequences and many unanswered questions as to the mode of infection and replication. 

Thirteen years on from BSE gels at Invitrogen being the big thing, Prions remain a bit of a mystery and pose questions about the very origin of life as we know it- invasive, replicating and diversifying!

What Do We Seem to Know About Prions? 

Prions are very odd, they are an enigma to molecular biologists and may prove to be a factor in more disease aetology than we currently know through the more severe and easy to diagnose brain and CNS diseases we know today. In theory a single abbertant protein can precipitate many other proteins in a kind of chain reaction where they then semi crystalise in a new, stable state. This can be described as abberrant and altered protein folding, rather like a slinky *TM spring you are playing with which suddenly gets a little damaged and forms a new shape. 

. As the cell perhaps make more proteins to replace those which lose function, then the chain reaction continues until enough of the cell machinery is either overloaded or the cell is full of prion material and is subject to cell death and lysis. Thus prions are released to infect, or you could say damage other cells, in what many argue is a purely chemical way.

Protein folding is something which happens usually within cells as the peptides are being built on or through the Ribosomes, a nano 3D printer nature happened to fall upon over a billion years ago, or they are meddled with by other entities in the cell,  including  ions and importantly for Prion mechanistics, other proteins with which they form useful big proteins with, like haemoglobin or enzymes. Where as on sister or cousin protein will guide a newly made ‘wobbly’ string of amino acids, a peptide, into being a useful part of the cellular machinery, a Prion will cosey on up to it, and make it fold differently, into long beta sheet folds, which become like fibres in the cell once they start to precipitate. It is theorised that a prions could cause pre-made proteins to fall into a new state, by sliding on up beside them and coaxing them into spreading out and lieing beside them.A chain reaction may then ensue from protein to protein, within fairly specific classes of proteins, which for some reason are usually found in central nervous tissue so far at least,.. These ‘prionised’ proteins become far more stable than other forms, and difficult to get rid of, blocking up the cell and leading to misfunction and eventually cell death.

Ye Cannae Defy the Laws of Physics Jim….

 There is a fundamental bit of philosophy and physics here, that molecules will find a most stable state and persist.  Biological enxymes are inn contrast rather dynamic molecules, where often parts of the molecule act like hinges, or even become temporarily covalently bound to the ‘ligand’ which they are acting upon. Some complex proteins like Haemoglobin, harness both other organic molecules (porphyrins) and metals, iron of course in the case of most higher organisms. These complex proteins then are often not verry stable in terms of structure   or become a little ‘poisoned’ as catalysts. Hence our excrement is brown, as the unstable haemoglobin protein aggregates burn out so-to-speak,  and the more toxic break down product from their catabolism, bilirubin, gets secreted in our guts. 

Plaques they are called then  these aggregates of duff, structurally stabilised  protein, or fibrils to be more precise to mol’biologists. An analogy would be a seed crystal in a salty solution which creates a large, branching crysal, or for example a spec of dust which allows super cooled water in clouds to crystalise and become snow flakes. There is a natural, entropic tendency to assume certain structures and a single, small entity precipitaes out the bigger structure, which may be non homologous or semi homologous in the case of the proteins in animal cells. Without that seeding entity, there is no crystalisation. 

Molecular Intelligence or Pure Chance Entropic Effect ?

One of the main lines of thought is that Prions are a purely chance phenomenom which has arisen through a classic of evolution: perpetuation by surviving, accumulating and replicating. In that though there is a fundamental dileman or even oxymoron. Do Prions really replicate via a protein to protein route or is there as many suspect a viral type of nucleic acid vector? 

In theory though we could be looking at something which occurs by pure chance and is related to some fundamentals of the thermodynamics and entropy of protein folding. It could be that there is a weird chain reaction which is purely physical in nature, and propagates purely by re-release of ‘prionised’ proteins into the infected creature and then out into other  creatures. This is no bad stance to take on the theory, because it is known that CJD is spread from cattle to humans via consumption or exposure to body fluids and materials at work. 

However that stance is equally as enticing for an infectiious agent which uses a nucleic acid. Or as was propsed by some headline grabbers at the time, that there was a new route to replication of proteins outside the central dogma of DNA-RNA-Peptides. That a single protein agent could instruct the cell’s DNA , or mRNA to do something odd and cause proteins to build up and kill the cell, thus perpetuating the ‘species’.

. At one point it was believed that the Prion acted like a virus, devoid of nucleic acid code, but with a kind of proxy message – it could perhaps turn on genes which favoured certain protein production which then lead to more prionisation and inevitably, some proteolysis would create new prions. Or even more sinister, that the seediing Prion could both kill the cell having made more of itself by directly controlling the nucleic acid pathways. This would point to a most uncomfortable ideom for geneticists, the instructive method of gene control, where proteins tell the cell how to change, and the cell line alters, rather than the mechanism of natural selection being at work. There are though some special cases where this happens, in immunogenetics at least as far as I know, perhaps elsewhere, but that is for very specific purposes. Is there then a dastardly signal and almost alien life form mechanism behind Prion replication? 

No Signs of Message So Far?

More than a decade on from the BSE -CJD – Scrapie Pie scare in the UK and around the world, researchers have not found any nucleic acid or other set of instructions encoded in protein or anything else which would point to a little mastermind of an infectios agent behind the Prions. It could be though on the one hand that they just havent been looking in the right places or something has been taken for granted. 

On the other hand it could just be that we have that grain of sand in the mother of pearl, which makes a pearl in the one cell that is, which then bursts down to a million new grains of sand and is infective and replicative that way. Furthermore, if this latter be the case, it could be purely the fortuity of probability,  that these fibril bodies are proteolysed by cellular immune systems or post cell death, and a very few become ‘ seed prions’ as a matter of due course, given enough of them. .

Prions Are Perhaps a Clue to the Origins of Life 

We get back into the concept of the very origins of life, especially when the space ship Cassini finds liquid water and organic compounds on a moon of Saturn, and Mars , well is NASA holding back on us a bit here?  

Prions exist and propagate because they can exist and propagate. This is very much the kind of concept of very early life, when it has been hypothetised that peptides predated nucleic acids as the means of firstly ‘precipitating’ enough material so as to be able to replicate, and then to do this replication accurately enough to spread the proto organism. Proteins (peptides) very often naturally ligate metal ions, which then create a lot of useful and immensely powerful chemistry – the power to split water, carbon dioxide, oxygen dimolecules and nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur compounds. to other thermodynamically useful ends. More replication, more accumulation of building blocks, more interesting things being built, chance  events. 

The ‘primeval soup’ then gets lumpier and lumpier as a string of chance events favoured by thermodynamics snow ball into ‘species’ of proto-organisms, which then either compete with each other, perhaps eating each other, or cooperate with each other. It is theorised now due to the deep hot volcanic vents of the ocean floor, that life could have evolved in many places on earth to the single celled forms. The idea of the miracle, the genesis event only once in the universe, is really put up against the possibility that carbon /nitrogen/phosophorous life is an inevitability if you have the right chemical buiolding blocks and environment. 

Prions – Does Nothing Direct Them, Other Than Thermodynamic Fate?

Personally I am kind of on the fence, just in case because they may well find an infective agent when and where they least expected  it. If Prion ‘seed’ proteins are only needed in small qauntities for the disease to progress, and there is then an advantage to the dark knight infective agent behind the scenes to use this, then it may be that the little nasty thing is a real lurker, or in fact nothing described by science so far – a protein only virus perhaps? On the other side of the fence, there is the pure entropic beauty of a self propagating protein system, which has no forward looking ambition, there is no design in its madness, it purely is a phenomenom because it can be one due to the laws of physics and chemistry. 

Here then we get back to the origins of life and how a ‘soup’ of what ever nutrients and metal ions, could kind of simmer for a while and start to do interesting, large molecule based chemistry which replicated itself. If you replicate something by chance, you get more of it, it accumulates, it propagates. In a more complex way, but yes you can say like a nuclear chain reaction in a fission neutron reactor. Over time we see that which persists, that which thrives, that which adapts. Most of all we see the mechanisms of the universe and life are fundamental and undeniable.

Perhaps indeed Prions are either a very old hang over from the earliest forms of life, which nature never quite managed to kill off. Or perhaps prions are an example of  co-evolution, a secondary meta-genesis event fortuitated by some vagiaries of proteins in brain tissues in particular.  These particular protein systems which were not present in earlier evolution when DNA based systems were kind a pressure to select against Prion type activity as being dangerous and competitive to the new, robust and ‘blindly intelligent’DNA driven core of life to come. Hence perhaps prions can do their dirty work and spread purely because they damn well can, it is an inevitability given the right set of factors.. 

Taking Back the Mountains! 

     Finally some descending for It’s been a very long time for me since I went up a decent mountain, which always comes as a surprise to old pals in Scotland in the wake of my emigration to Norway.  Spoilt for choice I would be! Well having kids and everywhere being a long drive put that in its’ place.  ​

The View Roughly NW from Trongedalsnuten at 1630 odd.

In good ol’ Scotchlandshire we had of course a kind of descending order of mountains to get to the top of and see the view. First and foremost for me, it was the known ones in the west- Ben Lomond, The Cobbler, The Brack and the ones above Loch Goil which you could see looming over the skyline above the Gareloch, and often snow capped half the year it seemed to me as a kid. Our school boasted a mountaineering or rather hill walking club now that I remember, run by a certain Mr. Urqhuart who was still very spritely last time I saw him. That took us to various mountains like Ben Venue and so on, with a badge for those who completed a few walks and proved they could set a map to a compass.​

Start Point/ OBS!! NB!! There is a concrete ford river crossing here, which in flash flood conditions you may not get back over having driven to the car park. The foot bridge is long since fallen to bits

Next in order came the hills we set out to do as scouts. That included a crazy ascent of Ben Lawyers in a blizzard and about minus ten, with Peter ‘Pickle’ Nichol as our determined and fearless mountain leader. He had an aire of confidence about him with a compass in his hand, and got us on and off the summit (and I presume it was the summit) in about 10m visibility for the top 200m.

After this there came doing the big, impressive ones we saw from family tours in the Heelan’s and knew from general modern day folklore. Nevis, Cruachan. Lui. The big lumps beside the cobbler, Narnian and Ime. With a taste of this in your mouth, then it was Munro bagging ahead, with many a tough slog, and many a euphoric summitting very often with the sun already casting long shadows to the east. We werent too good at ‘Alpine Starts’ and to be frank, were rarely at the foot of a hill before 1 pm in summer.

It is really the tour of Ben Nevis with my mate Andy in 1990, post my final exams in that warm June time, which came to mind most on yesterdays tour to Trongedalsnuten. It ended up being a fantastic 10 hour or so trip with plenty of distractions on the way. After camping in the tiny mozzie tent inside the massive family tent he had aquired or borrowed, we awoke in Glen Etive under the old shepheard to then shoot round to the Glen south of Ben Nevis. The one with all the signs at the top saying it is a bad idea to ascend from there due to ice and flash floods. It is about 2000 ft in fact of friction scrambling with the odd waterfall area to clamber around. Near the top of that stretch of ice polished, mossy rock there is a pool at the foot of a small fall, which is deep enough to swim a stroke and a half in, and gives a horizon miniscus over to the mamores ridge, really quite a magic place. Especially when the day is 25’C ! We went further to find a welly and a potnoodle stuffed in rabbit hole near the first of the shoulder summits, pondering on what ‘big yellow’ taxi rescue may have ensued with a broken leg extracted from said unsuitable rubber footwear and in what weather. I think we eat that pot noodle later.

So yesterday was a very similar approach, up a twisting valley with ice scoured sides and the common or garden glacial river bed on the floor, and tracks of Red Dear and Elg to be seen. Gjovdal, one of three or four of the valleys which run westward from the main road from Southland to Telemark in Amli kommune. I had heard of some of the tours here before having slippy, polished rock and fixed ropes. We climbed eagerly and found the ropes were really of minor assistance, good for those of wobbly age, but they eliminated no real danger to life and only minor to limb. We soon had 700 m climb in about an hour and a half, meeting our first snow field before finding the sign post for the circular ring route to and from the summit. I was warned, The top was the other end of the ‘vidde’, a kind of high plateau with a collection of false tops, rifts, escarpments and lochans.​

sign marking the circular route to and from the summit

We had both elected to go for terrain training shoes, which you will see a large majority of Norwegians using on any casual tour and some quite more demanding tours. It seems all that ankle protection stuff is out, and I proved to myself this is true where at least, there aren’t many stone boot traps. My italian cross breed trad’ brown boot, with goretex liner have lasted years now, being used mainly in snowy conditions, but they have endured in part due to a hard compound sole which is dodgey on wet rock. My winter season low leverl Reebok goretex trainers were sure as fire on the steep rock and over all the terrain. Only issue being those snow fields, which went from being flecks here and there to engulfing 90% of the bottom of gulleys and small glens over the ‘vidda’.​

looking towards the reservoir at Fyresdal, with the obvious beach line

We had only about 150 m total ascent left at the sign post, as the crow might like to fly its’ way from stump to trig point….that however was not to be with a couple of major downs and ups, and a long dog leg traverse on the easy side of the escarpment. We chose to go along the ridge line on the cliff tops and I could understand why they had taken leeway with the path. Oh, as you saw from the sign post Noggies are very keen on marking the paths with paint marks and the odd sign at junctions. THis makes some routes more easily accessible, and you here of relatively less mountain rescues of natives than you do of Scots. Winter is forboding, and the last people there who bothered to sign the book had been in March, just two of the, presumbaly on skis or with snow shoes. Those trainers became a bit of a torment!​

The highest point of the big escarpment which runs across the plateau or ‘vidda’

The painted path system has its challenges but also makes routes manageable and repairable which they do as voluntary or sometimes the coonty cooncil will take it on. This was a council initiative, the highest of the 20 peaks they have included in a pamplet you can stamp a la orienteering for a free t shirt and name in a book somewhere. However in such pathcy snow conditions they make it hard to follow a path, and in such already tough terrain, you can guess that the path markers had a good idea of where it should go, from detailed mapping and time to explore the place. So we half used our old instinct, following collecting features like that ridge, and hald followed the path, while also avoiding big snow patches. That became soon impossible and we had a long floor to cross with only one safe route between lochans which looked slushy and dodgey to try and walk over.​

The last two undulations and crests were really bothersome. Had there been any more snow, even a foot, we would have probably had to either turn back or crawl to the top to avoid being stuck in boot traps. Also any loose snow on the descent from the escarpment or old ice would have meant another 1km detour. At best then we were making 1km an hour odd on that side of the ring route, although we were ferreting around like cocker spaniels in the heather , scrub and rocks. We probably covered 6km on what the map showed to be 4, and it took us three and a half hours odd. ​

Finally though, we came to the top of one more crest and the summit revealed itself just 50m ahead and not as I had dreaded, a few hundred meters of snow field in front of us again. Iain, who had done the trip twice before, had forgotten the detail and was equally glad to see the oddly urban looking metal pyramid trig point at the top, with the name and height in laser cut steel plates. Well I suppose it is the highest in the county, and at aboutu 12 ft high, makes it obvious from quite a distance that this is the real summit, and yes, it is as far over the vidda as you care to hope not.

Iain, man Friday for the day, produced an ‘energy drink’ which turned out to be a local brand of pils, and very nice and extra frothy it was too at 929m. I had been lead to believe it was a thousand meter hill, but in fact as you will see, it was quite impressive being the highest top for many miles and having a 360 panorama where you really could not see the impact of humans what so ever. Only the barren steep shores of a reservoir revealed that you were anywhere where people had ever existed.      ​

It was kind of Alpine that vista as you can see from the shots above, with the mountains generally topping out around 1200 m in many directions formng a ring on the horizon to the west, north and east. I reckon you could see to the south of Norway’s highest peak in darkest telemark, Guastatoppen (which is a darn site easier to reach, with a 1000m high car park and even a former secret Nato furnicular railway tunnel now in use for tourists).( Update – according to google earth the line of sight just to the east of North has truly only one big lump which is beyond the Seljord valley area, and this is the biggest mountain in the SE of Norway, Gaustatoppen with its’ destinctive ridge being a little compressed from this view point. I would say that there was a bit of atmospheric lensing because it kind of stood out and you could see some features of shadow and snow on it. It stands to reason that if you can see a third of the south of Norway from its top, then you can see the summit itself from a third of the country here if you only get a high or clear enough vantage point)

The way off on the anti clockwise route we chose, was a lot easier for the first three K, The snow was shallow and often firm. Howevver as we neared the lake it became waste deep in places where it was soft enough to refuse to bear our weight. An hour slog ensued not then helped by a multiple crossing of a burn for some reason, I couldnt quite see why ehy had it like this.      ​
           I reckoned that the sting in the tail now would be the steep descent, but oh no, the hard part was a reascent before this over an peak at 872 m and back to the signpost. Hard biting scrub and random snow patches made this a real test of metal. It was 630 by the time we started this final little ascent, having left the summit around two hours before. 

At the sign we needed a break and luckily Iain had a thermos of coffee, somethign I usually avoid on any tours now because it makes me thirsty and a bit grumpy after its lift has worn off. Once earlier in the day, near the highest point of the escarpment, I had felt weary and a little dizzy, I did not want to admit this to Iain, thinking I would rather drop dead here having chosen to persist and prevail towards the top, rather than dropping back. Both times the caffiene and choccie chaser lifted my spirits and concentration and the descent proved more troublesome for Iains five years junior knees and feet than mine, in fact I almost revelled in it. roping up a bit so to speak just for the hell of it and to make quicker progress. Beer sales were gpoing to be shut , as we got back to the car at 8.45, the tour being just over 10 hours long with not too many breaks really, just a lot of zig zagging for the best route and hauling legs out of snow to hinder a more usual 8 hour round trip for trained folk.                  ​
                      So Trongedalsnuten was conquered and I understand why there had only been two other names in the book so far this year, it is best perhaps with snow shoes in April or skis earlier in the year. I was glad for the many hours of yomping aroudn the woods and coastal paths I have put in this spring and look forward to my next Amli top 20 adventure, knowing the toughest of all is behind me now. 

The fixed ropes today were just for fun, friction being good, but the lack of footholds on the polished rock could be a challenge in snow, or especially the typical thunder weather which develops up these valleys due to the sea breeze and humid air coming from the Skagerak