Lews Castle College open day

college 5

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Freedom of speech

I probably needn’t add anything else.

Mhairi Black

I have a problem – what is now called ‘an issue’ – with freedom of speech. I have never been able to accept what all right-on readers of the Guardian take for granted: that it must be absolute. It is a pity, for example, that the repellent Glaswegian, Frankie Boyle, gets away with his ‘jokes’ about ill and disabled people (though how satisfying that he has been exposed out of his own mouth in the new film about poor Amy Winehouse).

Even the Guardian, despite its protestations to the contrary, is not an unqualified believer. You bet that its editor rejects pieces which depart in some way from the required orthodoxy. In my own experience with this little magazine over the last 20 years, my repression of freedom of speech always leads to trouble with the wounded contributors. One told me to ‘**** off, Kenneth’; another didn’t speak to me again for 10 years. Not all the rejected pieces were misogynist, homophobic or religiously bigoted; some just weren’t very good. But I am always conscious that these editorial decisions inhibit in a small way the apparently inalienable right to free speech. It would be hypocritical to pretend otherwise.

Conversely, when I think I am encouraging freedom of expression, and taking a certain professional pride in doing so, that can lead to trouble too. Bigger trouble, usually. Here is a tiny example of what I mean. One November week in 2002, some of the most powerful and/or influential people in Scottish public life – about two dozen of them – drew up at a hotel in the Gorbals ill-prepared for the grilling they were about to receive from the young delegates to a conference I was organising.

At the first session, James (Beta-blocker) Black and Ian Hamilton QC were treated with respect, maybe also a little deference, but after that it was no-holds-barred. They managed to extract from the then first minister, Jack McConnell, an admission that he was a socialist. A socialist in Tony Blair’s Labour Party? Heck. That made headlines the next morning. Roseanna Cunningham, the nationalist tribune for Perth, claimed one evening that there was not a problem of homelessness in her town, only to be corrected by two young people who happened to be homeless in Perth. Nobody got away with anything that week. It was glorious. It was free speech at its challenging best.

Not everybody enjoyed the experience. The distinguished Free Kirk theologian, Donald Macleod, whose writing I had always admired, was invited to discuss deep questions of faith. It was an uncomfortable session. The young people poked and prodded, though not in any personally objectionable way (or so I thought), but by the end the speaker was hot under the dog collar. (Not that he was wearing a dog collar. Rather a smart suit, I seem to remember.) He made it clear to me as soon as it was over that he had been humiliated, suggesting that I should have intervened in some way. He then stormed out of the hotel. It was an impressive sight.

We have not spoken since. That’s freedom of expression for you. But I was more than a little intrigued by the recent discovery that my old friend Brian Wilson, founder of the West Highland Free Press, had gone to the barricades for the same Donald Macleod over an article the latter had written about the possibility that our ‘friendly Muslim shopkeepers’ might soon feel compelled to march behind the Islamist fundies. Apart from the condescending reference to Muslim shopkeepers, there wasn’t much wrong with the piece – another expression of free speech; there’s a lot of it about – which nevertheless prompted the constructive dismissal of the distinguished Free Kirk theologian and the subsequent firing of Brian Wilson.

Would I have gone to the barricades for Professor Macleod? Maybe not. The person I felt sorry for was Brian Wilson, who created the best newspaper to have been set up in Scotland in my lifetime and has suffered the fate of so many creators.

Just as I was contemplating in a detached way the many difficulties of defending, or failing to defend, free speech, I was faced with a case closer to home. Jill Stephenson, former professor of German history at Edinburgh University, had been a valued contributor to the Scottish Review, mostly on education, though more recently – as recently as the July edition – on her experiences as a hospital patient. During the referendum campaign she was an effective campaigner for the No side. Since then she has continued to use social media to propagade the unionist cause or attack the nationalist one.

But then Professor Stephenson went too far: she sent out a Tweet describing Mhairi Black, the young SNP MP, as an appalling harridan and a foul-mouthed little slut. There was no justification for either of these potentially actionable slurs and the language was in any case deplorable. I emailed the professor to express shock and disapproval, suggesting that she should apologise. I don’t know if she ever did, but I doubt it. She has put it on record that she doesn’t give a flying **** – I’ve censored that bit of free speech too – what her critics think. A few days later, her folly was exposed by Mhairi Black’s thoughtful and dignified maiden speech, which has earned widespread admiration.

I might as well repeat another thing I said to Jill Stephenson: that if Scotland is to be characterised by this level of abuse on both sides of the constitutional question then I fear for my country and despair of its future. Would I defend to the death the right of these people to say what they want to say, no matter how foul? I wouldn’t. There are limits. And the sooner we start respecting and observing them in a spirit of decent self-regulation, the sooner we will protect freedom of speech from the next big thing: a bad beast known as state censorship.

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Port authority calls stakeholder meeting

spaAfter years of failing to consult the public on anything very much at all, Stornoway Port Authority may finally be moving towards openness and transparency by holding a Stakeholder Public Meeting.

It will be on Thursday 10th September in An Lanntair, Kenneth Street, Stornoway at 7.30 pm. The announcement was made by Alex D Macleod, the new Chief Executive of the SPA.

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Have you been let down by Citylink buses?

Passengers speak of “atrocious attitude” of bosses at Citylink buses

Bus passengers have been getting in touch again alleging they have been let down by Citylink buses. Many say that the company simply refuses to put on more buses between Ullapool and Inverness even though it is peak traffic season.

Have you had this kind of experience? What did the company say to you? Who did you complain to? Was anything constructive done? How did you eventually travel? How professional were the Citylink staff who dealt with you? I would like to hear from you at [email protected]

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First gyrocopter across the Atlantic reaches Stornoway

Cancer survivor is first to cross Atlantic in gyrocopter

Record-breaker Norman leaves Stornoway and heads west over the own before heading home to Larne.

Record-breaker Norman leaves Stornoway and heads west over the town before heading home to Larne.

When cancer survivor Norman Surplus touched down at Stornoway Airport today (TUE), he went straight into the history books for piloting the first gyrocopter to ever cross the Atlantic.

Norman, 52, from Larne in Northern Ireland, set off in 2010 but had to postpone his crossing from Japan to Alaska for three years when the Russian authorities refused him permission to enter their airspace.

I asked Norman why it had taken him five years …

While recovering from bowel cancer and having no flying experience, he learned no one had ever succeeded in flying a gyrocopter from the USA to Europe and made it his life goal.

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Gyrocopter is on the way to Stornoway

Gyrocopter due in Stornoway after midday

The round-the-world gyrocopter man Norman Surplus is on the way and took off from the Faroes after 8am today. He should be in Stornoway before lunch, depending on weather conditions.

Photo: Belfast Telegraph

Photo: Belfast Telegraph

The live Satellite Tracker will show his actual progress at any time.

Planned timetable today (subject to change at short notice)

Departed Vagar, Faroe Islands 08.30
ETA Stornoway, Hebrides, Scotland 12.30
ETD Stornoway 13.30
ETA Gigha Island, Scotland 15.30
ETD Gigha 16.00
ETA Larne, N Ireland 17.00
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Gyrocopter seems to be fogbound in Faroes

Although he hoped to reach Stornoway today (Monday) record-breaking gyrocopter pilot Norman Surplus appears to be fogbound at an airport in the Faroe Islands.

Here is the link to the webcam showing the current conditions at Vága Floghavn, the airport where he is waiting to go.

Vága Floghavn webcam

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Gyrocopter latest – 3pm Monday (maybe)

Following delays due to weather, the gyrocopter man hopes to reach Stornoway before 3pm on Monday.

Ideally, record-breaking pilot Norman Surplus will have time to fly on to Oban before the final hop to Belfast but that depends on leaving the Faroe Islands by 10am on Monday morning.  Norman initially left Larne, where he lives in 2010 but was dogged by delays and a refusal by the Russians to let him into their airspace.

Norman leaving Larne in 2010

Norman leaving Larne in 2010

If he is delayed departing from Vagar in the Faroes due to possible misty weather in the morning then the chance of getting as far as Oban during daylight hours becomes less likely.

No gyrocopter has ever successfully crossed the Atlantic before. The Satellite Tracker (below) will show his actual progress at any given time.

Satellite Tracker

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Gyrocopter unlikely to come today

Winds may delay arrival of the gyrocopter

This is an update on the progress of the gyrocopter flight around the world piloted by Norman Surplus.

The wind forecast for today and tomorrow (Sat. / Sun.) are giving a very strong southerly headwind to the north of the Outer Hebrides. As a result it is most likely that he will only be able to arrive in Stornoway on Monday (Aug. 10) when the wind forecast is much better.

Norman arrives in US state Custer County.  Pic: Custer County News.

Norman arrives in US state Custer County.

He will then either stay Stornoway or move on down to Oban on Monday evening, ready to join up with some other gyro aircraft in Oban on Tuesday. On that day he make the final flight home to Larne in County Antrim via the Mull of Kintyre peninsula) to arrive early-mid afternoon.

Norman is currently in Vagar in the Faroe Islands having flown in here yesterday from Iceland.

World Reach Comms

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Round-the-world gyro man hopes to reach Stornoway on Saturday

Gyrocopter could reach Stornoway on Saturday

The Northern Ireland lifeboat cox Norman Surplus is on his way from Iceland to the Faroe Islands this afternoon (Friday) before the last leg of his round-the-world record-breaking trip in his gyrocopter.

Photo: Belfast Telegraph

Norman coming in to land.  Photo: Belfast Telegraph

If conditions remain as they are, it looks like the weather may hold to allow Norman to reach the UK tomorrow – and that will mean a landing at Stornoway, sometime in the afternoon hopefully.

The final leg to Stornoway from the Faroes is 255 miles and the time he takes will depend on the wind and weather.

You can track his progress up to the minute here:

Live Gyrocopter Tracker

This is the video made five years ago before setting off:

And here is preparing to fly across the USA:

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