Calm before the storms?

A spell of good weather heralds the start of Spring and a sudden burst of activity in the gardens of

A miraculous spell of dry, calm weather has been lingering over Fair Isle for the past couple of weeks. Already the land is beginning to dry out and there is even a hint of new, green grass starting to emerge.

Gardens, virtually abandoned throughout the long winter, have suddenly become hives of activity. All around the island the sound of forks and spades turning soil has been heard. It feels, finally, as if the winter hibernation is over. The cold, wet months, when the only thing to do outside is to try and get back in as quickly as possible, are coming to an end.

During the winter it can sometimes be hard to remember the positive aspects of living so far north. The long hours of darkness, the rain, the wind, the cold, more wind; it can get, well, just a little depressing. But when the light finally does return it is like a blanket being lifted, and the world feels suddenly bigger and brighter again; the days begin to lengthen rapidly, stretching themselves out towards mid-summer when the sun will hardly set at all.

When it happens, as it seems to this past week, the garden becomes the immediate focus.

Seeds, which have also lain dormant for months, suddenly seem filled with potential, and the first trays of compost are filled with things that, hopefully, will return to feed us in the autumn. Tentatively, some of these have been placed outside (under cover, of course) and the more delicate have been placed in windowsills around the house. Red cabbage, cauliflower, curly kale, lettuce, spring onions, rocket and broad beans, as well as herbs such as coriander, fennel, dill, parsley and thyme have all been entrusted to the soil. I hope we have not been too optimistic. Others have been more cautious and are holding back; there is still plenty of time for the weather to misbehave.

In the vegetable garden itself, which we share with two of our neighbours, there has been action also. In the past week we have spread muck over the ground, ploughed it, and planted potatoes, again in the confident assumption that things will go our way weather-wise. In five months or so, with any luck, each little potato will have multiplied into a dozen or more, hidden beneath the ground. It never ceases to amaze me, the great value of that deal; with just a little digging and weeding during the year, one magically becomes many.

But it’s not just people that are ready for change. The sheep too are looking increasingly eager to rid themselves of the great weights inside them. Our lambs are due to start arriving next Sunday, and all around the island the swollen mothers-to-be are looking just about ready to begin.

Gestation periods for sheep are fairly predictable (around 150 days) so it is possible to know with some accuracy when the lambs will appear. Occasionally an over-eager ewe will have jumped a fence to meet the ram before she is supposed to, and will therefore lamb early, but, for most, next weekend is the crucial time. Again, poor weather can be a serious problem when the lambs are first born, so it is vital to keep a close eye as the time approaches, and to make sure that the sheep are comfortable and have shelter available. Fingers and toes are all crossed in the hope that things stay as pleasant as they have been.

***

When I wrote the first part of this blog a few days ago, the isle was still enjoying the calm spell; now it is pouring with rain and blowing a gale. I hate weather!

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.