Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cost of trips to Scottish islands cut in half

Scotland is a land of many islands. Roughly 790, give or take a few. According to the 2011 census, of those 790 islands, there is a permanent resident population on 94 of them.

The names evoke stunning landscapes, remote wildernesses, pristine beaches. Croft houses, pastel harbor towns, and Fair Isle knitting. Island castles, whisky distilleries, and Neolithic monuments. Isle of Skye. Jura. Hebrides (inner and outer). Arran. Islay. Orkneys. Iona. Shetlands.

And now, the cost of travel to many of the islands will be cut in half. Half!

Caledonian MacBrayne ferry boat arrives in Armadale, Isle of Skye
CalMac ferry boat arrives in Armadale on the Isle of Skye.
On Thursday, the Scottish government announced the ferry fares to 14 popular island destinations will be cut by approximately 50%. Prices will drop by roughly 44% for single passenger fares. Fares for cars will drop by an average of 55%. The price drops will begin in October 2015.

Included among the islands receiving these price cuts are Iona, Skye, Mull, Bute, Muck, and Cumbrae, as well as Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Last October, the government reduced the fares to the Isle of Arran. Prices for passengers dropped from £11.30 to £7.30, while prices for cars dropped from £70 to £29.70 (in current US dollars, that's from $104.12 to $44.18). Similar price cuts were introduced for Gigha, Islay, and Colonsay in 2012, and for Coll, Tiree, and locations in the Outer Hebrides in 2008.

These price cuts are instituted by the Scottish government through a calculation called the "road equivalent tariff." The RET calculation seeks to align ferry prices with what the cost would be if a person were able to drive a car to these various locations, instead of taking a ferry. In other words, how much it would cost a driver in gasoline to drive to a location if that location was not an island, or if the island were linked to the mainland via a really, really, really long bridge.

Ferry boat in the Firth of Clyde
Ferry chugs through the Firth of Clyde.
The RET is used for passenger fares, car fares, bus fares, and small commercial vehicles. Large commercial vehicles already pay a different rate. The RET formula will be recalculated annually, with new fares applied at the beginning of the summer timetables.

The RET works as both a price control and a direct government subsidy for island travelers. Ferry companies like Caledonian MacBrayne are paid money by the Scottish government in exchange for setting their rates at this RET level. With these RET fares, island residents receive significant help in their commuting costs to and from the mainland. Tourists benefit from substantially cheaper travel. And the tourism industry gets a boost from, presumably, increased numbers of tourists attracted by the cheaper costs.

Not everyone is pleased by the new RET routes. While these new subsidized routes cover many of the islands to the west of Scotland, the islands to the north — such as the Orkneys and Shetlands — have not yet received similar subsidies. Those from the Northern Isles point to the basic unfairness of this proposition, with millions of pounds subsidizing the Western Isles and no equivalent to the north.

According to the Scottish government, the RET won't work yet for Orkneys and Shetlands: "For the Northern Isles, due to the longer distances involved, rolling out RET now or in the next few years would mean an increase on a range of fares currently available." However, the government says "the intention is to phase in the introduction of RET to the Northern Isles over a much longer timeframe."

Ferry between Mull and Iona
It takes only a few minutes to ferry between Mull and Iona.
Similar to its subsidy for ferry rides, the Scottish government has since the 1970s paid a subsidy for plane flights from Glasgow to the Isle of Tiree, as well as to Barra in the Outer Hebrides. The government will award a new contract for these routes in July, providing two aircraft to the contractor for the routes. The contractor will be required to increase the number of flights for both locations to twice a day from Monday through Saturday, and for one Sunday flight to operate all year round.

While the overall island population in Scotland fell 3% during the 1990s, in the first decade of the 21st century the population figures have rebounded and increased 4% by 2011 to roughly 103,700 people. The Scottish government wants to continue the population growth.

These new ferry and plane subsidies are a means of making life easier for islanders, and travel cheaper for tourists. How about we all help with this scheme and make some island trips soon?

Wake of a ferry boat
Bon voyage.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Monday Exposure: Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens
The Temple of Olympian Zeus.
The largest temple of ancient Greece was built not by a Greek, but by a Roman.

Begun by Greeks around 520 BC, construction was first abandoned in 510 BC when the tyrants controlling Athens were overthrown. The builders had sought to eclipse the size of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When they were forced out, however, only the platform and bits of the columns had been completed.

The temple lay untouched for hundreds of years until a Seleucid king restarted it in 174 BC. He set a Roman architect in charge, who tweaked the design to have double rows of 20 columns on each of the long sides, and three rows of eight columns on each end (counting the corners twice). Instead of limestone, the temple would be built with expensive Pentelic marble. But the king died in 164 BC with the temple only partially completed.

In 84 BC, the Roman general Sulla sacked Athens. As part of his booty, he claimed many of the columns and took them back to Rome, where they were incorporated into the Temple of Jupiter atop the Capitoline Hill. Once again, the half-built temple sat abandoned. Rome's first emperor, Augustus, made a small effort to complete the temple in the early years of the first century AD, but not much was done.

Arch of Hadrian in Athens
Standing on the "city of Hadrian" side of the arch.
Finally, another century later, Rome's emperor Hadrian made the temple a centerpiece of his rebuilding of Athens. Hadrian was an ardent Philhellene. He restarted construction in 124 AD not only of the temple, but also a brand new city adjacent to the decaying cityscape of Athens. At the border of his new town he placed an arch, proclaiming on one side "This is Athens, ancient city of Theseus" and on the other "This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus."

When it was dedicated in 132 AD, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was among the largest structures of the ancient world. It measured approximately 134 feet wide and nearly 360 feet long. One hundred and four massive columns supported the roof. Atop the columns were flowery Corinithian capitals, the first time Corinthian was used on the exterior of a major temple in Greece.

Corinthian capitals on the Temple of Olympian Zeus
Corinthian capitals atop the columns.
Inside the double and triple rows of columns stood a colossal statue of Zeus. Made in a self-consciously archaic Greek manner from chryselephantine — a wooden structure covered with ivory slabs for skin and gold leaf for garments and accoutrements — the statue was meant to echo the massive statue of Athena inside the Parthenon, within view from the new temple to Zeus. A similarly colossal statue of Hadrian was erected outside the temple, and many other statues and carvings decorated the temple and the surrounding area.

View of the Temple of Olympian Zeus from the Acropolis
The ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus as seen from atop the Acropolis.
After taking more than six centuries to be completed, the temple enjoyed only 130 years or so before the city of Athens was sacked by a Germanic tribe. The barbarian Herulians greatly damaged the temple, which fell into disuse. By medieval times the marble slabs were frequently culled for use in other buildings. As the Byzantine Empire wound down in the mid-fifteenth century, only 21 of the 104 columns were left.

By the 1800s, when archeologists started carefully examining the site, a mere sixteen columns remained. At that time, they found the hut of stylite atop the pillars. In the medieval era, Christian ascetics would live on top of pillars for years at a time, fasting and praying, their only sustenance from offerings placed in baskets which they would draw up to their huts with ropes. Viewing the stylite hut as an improper Christian incursion on the ancient temple, they tore down the hut to return the ruins to a supposed authentic state.

1833 painting by Johann Michael Wittmer
An 1833 painting by Johann Michael Wittmer.
1858 photo of Temple of Olympian Zeus
In this 1858 photo by Dimitris Konstantinou, note the prominent Christian stylite hut atop the ruins.
Temple columns are 56 feet high
The temple's columns are 56 feet high. The offending stylite has been removed.
One of the sixteen remaining columns toppled over in a storm in 1852, where it remains. The overturned pillar illustrates how the massive columns were built in segments. These column drums, each weighing several tons, likely were carved at the quarry and then transported to the site for hoisting into place. Inside the drums are holes, in which metal poles were placed to help align the segments and to hold the column together once it was erected.

Toppled column drums at the Temple of Olympian Zeus
Note the square and rectangular holes in the column drums.
Ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
Though only sixteen columns remain, the immense scale of the project is apparent.
As it stands now, the Temple of Olympian Zeus is just a fragment, much as it was for its first 600+ years. Indeed, in its more than 2,500 years, the temple has stood proudly complete for only 5% of the time. For all of the remainder it has been either incomplete, or in ruins.

Nevertheless, hints of its grandeur — and of the grandeur of its builders, both Greek and Roman — shine through.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Most Scots aren't keen on immigrants

Foreign-born residents like me make up only 7% of Scotland's population. A strong majority of Scots think 7% is more than enough. Ach, nae more sassenachs!

Sassenachs better known as the English are bad enough. But it's the other foreigners that are really drawing the ire of many Scots.

Last week, the BBC extensively covered Scotland's views on immigration. Shaping its coverage around a March 2015 poll it commissioned, the "Beeb" to some extent manufactured this "news." Nonetheless, it is eye-opening to those of us who hail from distant lands.

The BBC's poll found that 15% of Scots would prefer to halt all immigration. Another 49% want immigration reduced from current levels. Thus 64% of Scots support curbs and reductions on all folks from foreign lands. This from a nation which over centuries sent many millions of its own people out to emigrate elsewhere, a worldwide Scottish diaspora. Between 1915 and 1939 alone, roughly 2.3 million Scots departed as emigrants.

International pretend you like Guinness day
Some gentle Scottish ribbing of their Irish neighbors. St. Patrick, incidentally, was English and held for years as a slave in Ireland. After escaping, he later returned to Ireland as a missionary immigrant.
Currently, the largest numbers of immigrants to Scotland come from Poland. As of the 2011 census, the approximate total numbers of foreign-born residents living in Scotland included: 61,000 Poles; 54,000 Irish; 49,000 Pakistanis; 34,000 Chinese; 33,000 Indians; and 25,000 from African nations. Roughly 16,000 Americans lived in Scotland in 2011.

The percentage of non-whites living in Scotland has doubled in the last decade or so, from 2% of the population in 2001 to 4% of the population in 2011. Nonetheless, Scotland remains ethnically homogenous 84% of the overall population remains white Scots. Another 8% or so are whites from other parts of the U.K., and 4% are non-British whites.

Countries of birth outside of the U.K.
(Chart courtesy of the BBC.)
Furthermore, 58% of Scots believe employers should give preference to hiring British people over all other nationalities. Bear that in mind if you're looking for jobs here.

How does Scotland compare in its immigration profile? They're actually slightly more accepting of immigrants than other Britons. In a poll from last year, 70% of Great Britain believed that immigration should be reduced or halted entirely. While Scotland has 7% of its population foreign-born, similar to Northern Ireland (6%) and Wales (5%), in England the immigrants make up 13% of the population. Scotland has a net migration of 10,000 per year; England has a net migration of 300,000.

The U.S. population is 13% immigrant. For the European Union as a whole, immigrants make up roughly 15%. With only 7% foreign born, Scotland falls well below the median for immigration in Europe:

Proportion of foreign-born population
(Chart courtesy of the BBC.)
As a foreign-born national, I don't encounter much animus. If any. Truly, I'm having a hard time thinking of anything other than a few sports-related jibes. My whiteness blends in easily here, and an American accent isn't all that unusual in Glasgow amongst its several universities. Throw in our highly educated and middle class backgrounds, and we aren't exactly the folks who most likely would feel the brunt of discrimination.

So I was surprised by these poll results. I have found the Scots, in general, to be extremely welcoming and hospitable. Is my experience unlike that of other immigrants? Am I merely blind to animus I'm receiving? Are the Scots masking their dislike of me as an immigrant? Or do most just assume I am a tourist, and not an immigrant at all?

If you want to know more about Scotland's current views on immigration, the BBC has covered it extensively. Here are several articles worth a perusal:

BBC poll suggests 64% of Scots want immigration reduced

Immigration: Charting Scotland’s new arrivals

'Brits should get job priority', suggests BBC poll of Scots

How do we define immigration?

Q&A: Why does immigration matter?

Welcome to Scotland?

Incomers, income and outgoings

YouGov / BBC Survey Results

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

You don't know Jack (#6)

Like all toddlers, Jackson provides the occasional nuggets of observation or wisdom or humor. These are generally unprompted, often silly or nonsensical, and usually come out of the blue with no context. Here are some recent ones:

Pushing mommy into the fountain at Hampton Court Palace
Pushing his mother into the fountain at Hampton Court Palace in London.

•    "Things at museums used to be real, but then they got old and turned into toys."

•    "I know lots of stories about naked ladies. Sometimes, they just forget to put their clothes on. Sometimes, they say,
      'Ahhh, it's very hot outside.' And then they take their clothes off."

•    "Dad, you have to play choo choos. You can't just stand around looking fancy."

•    "I want to be a grownup so I can drink beer and Venti Iced Chais."

Drinking a babyccino
Sadly, all he can drink for now are babyccinos.

•    "Milk for me, please. Water for Daddy. And WINE for Mommy!"

•    "I'm going to the big kid section. If you need me, Dad, just give me a call." {Pauses and thinks.} "Dad, will you be
     okay on your own?"

•    "I love you a little bit more than my stuffed elephant." At least I have that going for me.

•    Jack:    "You should be excited."
     Me:      "Why?"
     Jack:    "You haven't died yet!"

Making cookies.
Making cookies.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Roughly ⅓ of Scots never move away from home

To have lived in the same town, or even the same region, for your entire life . . . it's something I have a hard time fathoming. I understand some folks do it; I just can't imagine being one of those people.

If you're reading this blog, you likely have similar thoughts.

Yet a third of Scots have lived in the same town or region for their whole lives.

Dunblane, Scotland
Dunblane, Scotland.
I take this statistic with a grain of salt. It comes from a press release put out yesterday by the Bank of Scotland. The research was conducted by YouGov, a reputable polling operation here in the U.K. While I give YouGov the benefit of the doubt, I have no information regarding its methodology for an online survey. How do they count people who lived in another town for schooling, but technically kept their residence at their parents' home? How large is a "region"? If you completed an internship for a few months in another city, did you "live" there or just visit it? Questions like these give me pause.

As a point of comparison, I decided to look up how many Americans have never moved away from home. It's roughly the same percentage as Scotland. According to the Pew Research Center, a reputable polling operation in the U.S., approximately 37% of Americans have never lived outside their hometown.

Besides that 37%, another 20% of Americans have never lived outside the state in which they were born. Thus, 57% of Americans have never lived outside of their birth state.

So far, I've lived in four states; Kate has lived in five. And now we reside in Scotland. Our next move, whenever and wherever it is, undoubtedly will be for a job and not governed by a particular hometown or region.

One out of every three people we've met, whether in America or in Scotland, has never lived anywhere else. What is it like to have lived in the same town for a lifetime? It doesn't mean you've never traveled, but to have never wanted or needed to live somewhere else? Is it a considered choice or more a result of circumstance?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Queen Elizabeth's fifth (and final?) coin portrait

Yesterday, the U.K.'s Royal Mint unveiled its fifth coin portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Now aged 88 and in the 64th year of her reign, it has been 17 years since the Queen's last coin portrait.

What is a coin portrait? It's the picture of the monarch on all British coinage — the "head" side of the coins. Some countries, like the United States, have various people (e.g., Presidents) as the portrait on their coins, while monarchies tend to feature their king or queen. Putting a ruler's head on coins is a practice going back thousands of years. Coin experts and historians study the images on coins for clues about the reigns of rulers, propaganda uses, artistic styles, and so on. Moreover, finding a coin in an archeological dig often helps pinpoint the age of the items with which it's found.

I'm no numismatist, but I do enjoy looking at coins and paper currency for the images they employ. I peruse the currency of whatever country we're visiting. In the United Kingdom, each bank — whether the Bank of England, Royal Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale Bank, etc. — chooses the images for the paper currency, providing a broad range of historical portraits, architecture, World Heritage sites, and sundry other subjects.

But the U.K.'s coins all feature the monarch's official image. After hearing about the announcement yesterday, I pulled some £1 coins off my dresser to see the old portrait. And then I realized there were not one, not two, but three previous coin portraits still in general circulation:

Second, third, and fourth coin portraits of Queen Elizabeth II
The second, third, and fourth coin portraits of Queen Elizabeth II.
Coins continue in circulation until they receive too much wear and tear. Generally, coins last 20 to 25 years. At that point, the Royal Mint withdraws the battered coins from circulation and recycles them for future coinage. Some coins, however, last longer. The coins with the Queen's second portrait were struck between 1968 and 1984, which means the leftmost coin in my hand (above) is at least 30 years old.

That second coin portrait is still the portrait used as the "definitive" (i.e., generally used) stamp for mail in the United Kingdom. On the stamps, the image is reversed/flipped from the coin portrait, and it has some other minor changes. Although the Royal Mail has tried several times to update the stamp image, the Queen herself has rejected any changes. So while she has consented to three further portraits for the coinage, she has maintained the use of the second portrait for the mail.

Given its 48 years of use in the U.K. since 1967 (slightly before introduction of the coin portrait), as well as the image's frequent use in various Commonwealth countries, the second portrait quite possibly is the most-reproduced image in the history of the world.

The coin portraits span nearly all of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, which began in 1952. The first portrait (1953) is girlish, without a crown and with her hair tied in a laurel wreath, even though she came to the throne a little before her 26th birthday. The second portrait (1968) is womanly, with a long bare neck; it was described by John Betjemen, a long-serving Poet Laureate, as "a little racy." The third portrait (1985), with the Queen aged 59, has been called "flatteringly young." The fourth portrait (1997) provides a more realistic portrayal of an aging monarch. Here are the images as provided by the Royal Mint:

Queen Elizabeth coin portrait 1
First coin portrait (1953).
Queen Elizabeth coin portrait 2
Second coin portrait (1968).
Queen Elizabeth coin portrait 3
Third coin portrait (1985).
Queen Elizabeth coin portrait 4
Fourth coin portrait (1997).
These four coin portraits, however, are not the only ones of Queen Elizabeth II. For her Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60th year on the throne, the Royal Mint struck a commemorative coin with not one, but two, images of the Queen. One image harked back to her first coin, while the other image presented her contemporary age. A double heads coin! (Heads, I win; tails, you lose.) These coins were not in general circulation.

Queen Elizabeth diamond jubilee portrait
Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee portraits. (Image by Royal Mint)
Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee coin was inspired by a medallion struck by the Royal Mint in 1897, celebrating the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria:

Queen Victoria diamond jubilee medallion
Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee medallion. (Image by Royal Mint)
Queen Elizabeth's official fifth coin portrait, unveiled yesterday, is the first coin portrait created entirely digitally. The new portraitist, Jody Clark, is 33 years old. He has never met the Queen. The royal palace provided specially-lit photographs for engravers to make their portraits, and the Royal Mint selected its favorite of the entries. Clark first drew an initial sketch and then, using computer software, created a low-relief model. The Queen ultimately gave her approval for the new portrait.

Sketch for Queen Elizabeth's fifth coin portrait
Clark's initial sketch. (Image by Royal Mint)
For this fifth portrait, the Mint first invited eight portraitists to submit entries, and then winnowed the pool to three finalists. Clark is the first Royal Mint engraver to have been chosen for an official coin portrait in more than 100 years. Previous portraitists had been from outside the Mint.

Clark said accuracy was his primary goal for the portrait, instead of an idealized image. Mint officials raved about the "subtlety" of the portrait's hair, and thought Clark captured some of the Queen's "glamour." He also paid homage to previous portraits, selecting the same royal diamond diadem she wore at her coronation and which appears on two previous coins. Clark did, however, want to make the Queen's image warmer and a bit less stern than previous coins. She seems to have the hint of a smile:

Queen Elizabeth II's fifth coin portrait
Queen Elizabeth II's fifth coin portrait. (Image by Royal Mint)  Note that the "J.C" on the coin is the initials of the portraitist, just as previous coins have the initials of their portraitists.
One other point of interest. Notice that in all five portraits, the Queen faces to the right. Following a tradition dating back to the 1600s, the image of a British monarch always faces in the opposite direction from the monarch who preceded him/her. Thus, her son Charles, the Prince of Wales (or, as he's called here in Scotland, the Duke of Rothesay), will have his coin portrait(s) facing to the left; his son, William, will have his facing to the right; and his son, George, to the left; and so on.

Some argue this tradition traces back to King Charles II, who reestablished the monarchy in 1660 following the Interregnum of parliamentary rule provided by Oliver Cromwell. The new king, seeking to "turn his back" on Cromwell, made his image face the opposite direction. Since then, successive monarchs have faced alternate directions from the king/queen they followed. The Royal Mint's museum suggests this explanation is too facile and says the reasons for the tradition likely have been forgotten.

Although the Royal Mint has already begun to strike the new coins, the coinage will not immediately enter circulation. First, all the coins that have the fourth portrait, but which have not yet been sent out into circulation, will be used first. Then, the newly-struck coins featuring the fifth portrait will be issued, generally to banks first.

When will the new coins make their first appearance? The Royal Mint won't say. It'll be sometime this year, probably reasonably soon.