Scotland's tree, Scotland's future

Clockwise from left: birch, Scots pine, wych elm, rowan
Image caption What would you choose? Clockwise from left: birch, Scots pine, wych elm, rowan

So they're back and let's get straight to the big question, the issue that will dominate the year ahead - should Scotland have a National Tree and, if so, which?

What's that? You thought I meant the Big Question, the one that is prefaced by the Big Bill, currently gliding through Holyrood? Get to that in a moment.

Let us, for the nonce, talk trees. Let us take the Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse at his word when he says that people in Scotland have a great affection for our upstanding arboreal entities.

After all, our history is closely entwined with our branched chums. Think of the Birnam Oak, splendidly upstanding and even better now that it remains firmly in one place.

Think of the Fortingall Yew, said to be the oldest living thing in Europe, not counting Bruce Forsyth. Think of the Wallace Yew. Or the Covenanters' Oak.

How to choose? Which way to cast a vote? Whom to believe when they try to tell you which is Top Tree, when they promise a proud, autonomous arboreal future or when they say that real strength comes from cross-pollination, from sharing and spreading?

Now the First Minister has been heard more than once crooning in praise of the Rowan Tree. And a fine singing voice he has, too. (For the avoidance of doubt, I feel sure that the other political leaders would also be fine chanteuses/-eurs, given the chance. Go on. Fill those lungs.)

Image caption Symbols such as flags matter

But does Alex Salmond's musical taste extend to this crucial decision? And what of other trees? Most politicians and especially those who have suffered defeat might be inclined to pine, lonesome or otherwise.

Other options include the birch and the wych elm. To be quite clear, you can pick any tree for which, to quote Mr Wheelhouse once more, you feel a particular affection. It is entirely your choice. Scotland's tree, Scotland's future.

Symbols matter, don't they? Flags, emblems. Entering Holyrood today, I decided to check out the new public entrance. Rather posh, airport-style security and less obtrusive than feared.

Wander down the entrance corridor and you're in the main hall, still a little gloomy despite all the efforts. But today it is decidedly enlivened by the display of a Great Tapestry, some 143 metres long, depicting aeons of Scottish history.

And there's symbolism too at the core of the legislative programme being unveiled in the chamber. That is because everything - everything - is refracted through the prism of that other big choice, next year's independence referendum.

Hence, the eager within the Scottish government - yes, they do exist - note that the programme contains a Bill to empower local communities in Scotland with regard to buy-outs. Such empowerment, they enthuse, could extend to the whole of Scottish life - with independence.

Then there is the proposal in the programme to place the new Revenue Scotland tax authority on a statutory footing. Said body will be responsible for handling Holyrood's new tax powers, made possible by the Scotland Act at Westminster.

Brass neck

But - and stand by for the symbolic bit - said authority could also form the template for the Real Thing in the event of independence, should the people so choose.

Again, you get the concept. Everything is weighed, in full or in part, against the test of the referendum. Which is entirely understandable, given the extent and scope of that choice.

More directly, the options are being calibrated by the competing campaigns and competing governments. Today, in Aberdeen, the Chancellor is arguing that financial prospects, including in the North Sea, are best supported by the "broad shoulders" of the wider UK economy, sharing risk and opportunity.

In response, Nicola Sturgeon glances a little further north, anatomically. They reckon George Osborne has a brass neck, given his stewardship of the economy and its impact upon Scotland.

I wonder if they agree on the Top Tree.

And what else at Holyrood? Tributes paid to the late David McLetchie, one of their number whom they sorely miss. And contumely aimed at Bill Walker, one of their number with whom they would gladly dispense.

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