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Slàinte mhath

It's entirely possible to be wrong. And unwise to conceal error that can be revealed by examination of publicly available sources.

So when I wrote yesterday that Peter Ustinov played Nero in "I Claudius", it took little time for a pal to point out that it was actually in "Quo Vadis". So I have corrected my error in yesterday's writings and annotated as a footnote that I have done so.

In the midst of this viral pandemic, there will similarly be many missteps of science, of public policy and of choice of actions. But here, there is little by way of a corpus of previous experience to test against. And that's why caution needs to placed against what we do know, which is, that this is dangerous, particularly for people with compromised immune systems or vulnerable by reason of age.

That's why the existence of our Parliament's COVID-19 Committee, of which I am a member, is important. It contains people with no special knowledge of the subject. Rather, we are experienced inquisitors on matters of public policy and practice. We are independent of Government, even though in my case, I am a supporter of our current Government.

It does not aid the Government that difficult questions are not asked. Because the holding to account process can serve two purposes. It can help governments perform better by complementing the internal debate and challenge they normally use, with external probing.

When doctors undertake diagnosis of a patient, for example, They start with understanding the medical history of the individual in question. They seek information about the symptoms. And then they physically intervene with stethoscope, thermometer, probing hands or other diagnostic aids.

To diagnose appendicitis, for example, they gently press the abdomen at McBurnie's point. If upon releasing the pressure, there is discomfort or pain, it indicates inflammation of the peritoneum at that location which in turn suggests an inflamed appendix.

Serious note at that this point. I am absolutely not a trained medical practitioner. The above is simply from my recollection of dinner discussions at home led by my GP father. He had always hoped at least one son would follow him into medicine and I suspect such discussions were part of an attempt to inculcate an enthusiasm for the subject in us.

As he was an Edwardian, I remain unsurprised to have never heard him offer such encouragement to my sister. Ironically, of the three of us, she is the only medically qualified one of us, a nurse.

As politicians, or lay people in general as indeed we also are in this matter, we carry our previous life experience and what we think is knowledge into our Parliamentary activity. So when we test our Government, we also have to be prepared to be tested. And to have our preconceptions corrected.

The difficulty comes back to the limited knowledge and understanding against which to reference what our committee members hear on the subject of this virus.

The second thing being done when Government is challenged and held to account is the proper process of opposition politicians seeking to leverage advantage for their future political prospects by highlighting any shortcomings of an existing administration.

It is to the great credit of opposition politicians that almost all have twigged that some crises are so serious and in its basics, not caused by Government, as to rise above such considerations. We shall get back to "politics as usual" later.

Some things we "know" are simply wrong. Or are less certain than we believe. Another topic illustrates the point.

The April edition of "Communications of the ACM" contains an interesting article about a machine developed at Glasgow University that can distinguish whisky from different Scottish distilleries from each other by taste. (

The ACM (of which I am a Professional Member), is based in the USA and entitles this interesting article, "Machine Learning, Meet Whiskey". Were it to have been published here we can be fairly certain that the last word in the title would have been spelt, "Whisky", without the "e", because we insist that is how Scots write it.

In either event, it is a word whose origins lie in the Gaelic, "uisge beatha", which translates directly into English as "water [of] life". Transition into English has been phonetic, via some simplification, to become whisky or whiskey. There we have it; no guide as to whether it should or should not have an "e" in the name.

The Scotch Whisky magazine provides an explanation and some confusion. ( It appears that around the world, the two spellings co-existed almost everywhere.

I have conducted some research into the criminal activities of someone in my family tree - I emphasise that I share no DNA with the individual in question. I have ploughed through the precognitions relating to theft by housebreaking effected by John McFeat overnight on the 22nd and 23rd August 1830. He purloined a bottle of whiskey, yes - with an "e", and a coat. The precognitions cover interviews with 17 people and run to about 100 pages.

This 17-year-old was tried on the 11th October that year, one of eight trials that day, found guilty, and transported to Australia where he started a family, without the inconvenience of marriage, whose descendants live there to this day.

The word "whiskey" comes up regularly in the documents, which are clearly in at least three hands, and never appears using what we now consider as the proper spelling, whisky, without the "e".

Indeed it seems that our assumption that our whisky is spelt with the "e" is, comparatively recent. It seems that it is only because it is incorporated in legislation spelt thus, that we use the spelling we do. Use another spelling and you risk losing the protection accorded to Scotch Whisky?

Now what whisky have I at the back of the cupboard that I have been neglecting? I see a bottle of Glenglassaugh at the back of the cupboard. But it is a "Cask 1" bottle from the first production after distilling restarted in 2008. I see one went for 133 euros a few years ago and there appear to be none on the market today.

So I will toast your health tonight with my nearest whisky, from about four miles away and a delight to imbibe, an Cnoc.

Must be good. It's spelt "whisky".


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