It’s one of the most desolate and disputed pinnacles of rock in the world. Lashed by huge waves, besieged by seabirds and dirty white with guano, Rockall pokes its tiny head above the Atlantic, 228 miles west of North Uist.
Now, 200 years after the first recorded landing on the rocky islet, it is starting to reveal its hidden depths. For the first time, Scottish government scientists have mapped the sweeping underwater mountain ranges of which Rockall forms the visible peak.
They have discovered a series of “spectacular” ridges, reefs and crevasses fanning out across the seabed. And they have found huge conger eels lurking in the rocks, along with ling and tusk fish.
It was back on September 8th 1811, that Royal Navy officer Basil Hall set precarious foot on Rockall and climbed its 19-metre summit. Since then it has been at the centre of a series of international arguments over which country it actually belongs to.
Ireland, Iceland and Denmark (on behalf of the Faroes) have all staked their claims. Its ownership, and the valuable fishing and mineral rights that could go with it, is currently under investigation by the United Nations.
It started with a shake of the head, and that annoyingly knowing garage mechanic grin. “Well, sir,” he said, and began listing a baffling series of problems to do with tyres, brakes, springs, linings, discs and the exhaust catalyst.
My Saab 900 was in for its MOT, and had failed spectacularly. The minimum cost to make it roadworthy, the mechanic told me, would be £2,240 - though he would recommend additional repairs amounting to well over £3,000.
It was then I knew that my 11-year-old, 120,000-mile affair was over. The car that had played the soundtracks to my summer holidays, taken my Mum and Dad to the beach, and seen my girls become women, had to go.
I hadn’t meant to become emotionally attached to a large lump of polluting plastic, glass and metal, but it happened. So when the Saab was transported up the street on its way to the scrapyard, I felt an unexpected pang.
That was over a year ago now, and in recent days I’ve been assessing what we decided to do next. My partner and I thought we would try, for the first time in 25 years, to manage without owning a car. If it didn’t work, we said, we could always buy another one.
At a board meeting in Stirling on 20 September, the Scottish government’s environmental watchdog opted to encourage remediation “as far as is practically achievable” but to abandon any hope of removing all the radioactive pollution from the seabed.
Tens of thousands of radioactive fuel fragments escaped from the Dounreay plant between 1963 and 1984, polluting local beaches, the coastline and the seabed. Fishing has been banned within a two-kilometre radius of the plant since 1997.
The most radioactive of the particles are regarded by experts as potentially lethal if they get inside the body. Similar in size to grains of sand, they contain caesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, but they can also incorporate traces of plutonium-239, which has a half-life of over 24,000 years.
It’s the invasion of the incinerators. Scotland is facing a massive 17-fold expansion in waste incineration that could blight communities, threaten health and wreck the Scottish government’s recycling targets.
An investigation by the Sunday Herald has uncovered plans for 15 new, high temperature waste plants around the country which will treat nearly three million tonnes of waste a year. This compares to the three existing incinerators that burn just 166,000 tones a year.
Almost everywhere they have been proposed, the new plants have run into fierce opposition from local residents, fearful of toxic emissions, health risks and environmental pollution. They have held angry meetings, marched in protests and gone to court.
Environmentalists point out that the proposed plants are so huge that they will swamp Scottish ministers’ much-vaunted plans for “zero waste”. The incinerators will create such a large demand for waste that they will risk reversing the major gains that have been made in recycling in recent years, they argue.
“The scale of energy from waste proposals is shocking and risks undermining the Scottish government’s zero waste vision,” said Dr Dan Barlow, head of policy with WWF Scotland.
“Burning anything like this volume of household rubbish would render the target to recycle 70 per cent of waste a pipedream. It is at odds with government policy that energy from waste would only be used for materials that can't be recycled or reused.”
The SNP government has come under fierce fire for backing Westminster’s plan to double the number of nuclear-powered submarines on the Clyde in the face of mounting concerns within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) about nuclear safety.
The UK government plans to make the Faslane naval base, near Helensburgh, the home port for Britain’s entire fleet of reactor-driven submarines. That will boost the number stationed at the base at any one time from five to 11.
The plan has been quietly welcomed by the SNP government because it will help keep jobs at the base. This is despite a series of damning criticisms in internal MoD safety reports, which question Faslane’s “readiness” for more nuclear submarines.
Now the Scottish government’s position has been attacked by one of the SNP’s elder statesmen, Stephen Maxwell, a former party vice-chair and leadership contender. It will leave Scotland exposed to nuclear accidents and to the “doomsday risks” of military or terrorist attacks, he warned.
“The MoD's own nuclear safety board has identified a range of risks from the current operations at Faslane, from accidents and radioactive leaks to the danger that cuts in MoD personnel are degrading the safety regimes,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“And that is before taking into account the impact of the projected increase in the number of submarines using the base. There are also unresolved issues in the nuclear reactors and the coolant processes on the new Astute class submarines.”
Dangerous levels of sewage pollution have been detected at 18 of Scotland’s most attractive and popular beaches this summer, according to new figures from the government’s Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).
Four of the bathing waters have been so contaminated that they have now failed 35-year-old sewage safety limits for the season. They are Sandyhills in Dumfries and Galloway, Irvine in North Ayrshire, Eyemouth in the Scottish Borders and Lossiemouth East in Moray.
A further 14 beaches have also been badly polluted because they recorded single samples of seawater in breach of the safety limit (see table below). It takes two sample breaches to be deemed to have failed for the year.
The pollution comes from overflowing sewers and from farm animal faeces washed off the land by rain. It can cause stomach, skin or ear infections and in extreme cases can be lethal for surfers, bathers and paddlers.
“We are shocked and disappointed to hear that so many popular Scottish beaches and bathing waters have been polluted by sewage discharges this summer,” said Andy Cummins, from the campaign group, Surfers Against Sewage.
“This is a serious public health risk. With so many people using the coast to relax, surf and enjoy with their families, it’s vital that the alarming rate of raw sewage releases in Scotland is tackled immediately.”