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Scottish Parliament Speech: Sailing and Boating (November 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I thank Stuart McMillan for his motion and for securing the debate. The statistics on revenue, employment and the potential of the sailing and boating industry are remarkable, and it is reassuring to find out that we do not have to be Russian oligarchs to afford to run a boat.

Once upon a time - and a very good time it was - I turned my mother's Morningside dining room into a boat yard and built myself a sailing dinghy, the Blandford Gremlin. It was 1962, and I navigated the 8ft "hobbit" from Slateford in Edinburgh to Linlithgow along the derelict Union canal. Only a couple of years later, navigation ended and the canal was culverted near Broxburn and through Wester Hailes. The Forth and Clyde canal was closed and, in part, filled in. It was not good timing because it was just at the point that English inland waterways were staging a quite remarkable revival.

As a member of the Inland Waterways Association and the proprietor of a semi-derelict cabin cruiser called the Dalriada, I took part in that revival after 1973. Powered by fry-ups and real ale, I covered much of the English midlands, writing "Scotland and Nationalism". As Scotland's own Kenneth Grahame wrote, "There is nothing ... half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." Since the late 1990s, the revival has reached Scotland, and we can now go from sea to sea along the Forth and Clyde canal.

Canals and navigable rivers are a timeless, quiet world where one might still be in the England of George Eliot or in the Scotland of Neil Munro's immortal Para Handy and his puffer, the Vital Spark. In a society marked by the extremes of the hectic road hog and the couch potato - I give members the world of "Top Gear" - they are humane and reflective, in every sense of the term.

Scotland also has the richness of the highland landscape that the canals reach to in the west. The Firth of Clyde, for example, is one of the great marine landscapes in Europe. In mid-2006, a joint study by Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise highlighted its considerable potential for tourism growth. I like to think that in the longer term there might develop a linear park between the lower Clyde and Edinburgh, along the course of the Forth and Clyde canal and the Union canal, and for the park to develop re-creation - recreation in every sense of the term. Such a park could be appropriately dedicated to the great Scottish planner and sociologist Patrick Geddes, the theorist of "head, hand and heart'" and the belief that one ought to feel and to craft as well as to think. The Firth of Clyde could then extend northwards to Loch Lomond and the Firth of Lorne by the canals and the possible canalisation of the Leven, and westwards to Ulster and the waterways that are being restored and extended south to Shannon, Dublin and Waterford.

However, I would like to see something more. The Clyde once had perhaps the most beautiful pleasure steamers in the world. In 1972, at the age of 25, the PS Waverley was saved by enthusiasts and it has given pleasure to thousands - probably millions - since. Why not rebuild some of the classic steamers of the high Victorian period - the Columbas or the inter-war Duchesses? It has been done on the continent, on the Rhine and on the Swiss lakes. I have even sailed to Switzerland - it can be done - on the 95-year-old Hohentwiel on Lake Constance.

I join Mr McMillan in congratulating everyone who has contributed to the current success of sailing and boating. As a veteran who is old enough to have seen the replica Comet launched at Lithgow's in 1962, which harked back to the origins of steam on the Clyde, I express my hope that there will be further impressive developments in the marine leisure industry.

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