Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - You'd call it a wreck, I call it my car

The old Volvo - 147,000 miles, heated leather seats, oil leak - is growing into the landscape. Or the landscape is growing into it, as grass tangles around the tyres, marauding sheepdogs keep it well irrigated and the suspension droops ever nearer the ground.

Good isles cars - that's how the old Swedish beast has been advertised. The phrase has a particular meaning in Shetland. It says that the vehicle concerned is either not MOT'd or on the verge of losing its roadworthiness certificate, but still goes relatively well. That it would, therefore, be ideal for any of the outer Shetlands islands - such as Unst, Yell, Fetlar, Foula or Whalsay - where there are people, roads but, thanks to the late Jo Grimond, no need for an MOT.

The Last Great Island Liberal Toff earned the affection of all outer Shetlanders in search of cheap mobility by this amendment to an otherwise forgotten bill.

Ever since, some of the most appalling transportation in Greater Petrolworld has cheerfully hauled pigs, sheep and people around, sometimes roofless, frequently floorless, supposedly safe but often tied together with old rope and braked by stout footwear.

Yell is where old cars go to die, very slowly. Years ago, I spent many a Friday night on this very large island, which was then equipped with one solitary policeman. Now, normally, it has none. A network of CB radios was used to send the PC concerned scurrying on wild goose chases in search of drunken drivers, while Mad Max-style convoys of belching wrecks, some of them in cars, would trundle from one of the two pubs to the other, thence to a dance and the inevitable parties.

Now this government is, it seems, to clamp down on banger-drivers, starting with the withdrawal of leaded petrol at the end of the year. There is much muttering about a possible compensation system, which would enable the owners of polluting rustbuckets to dispense with them for cash. The sum of £900 has been mentioned.

In the outer islands of Shetland, £900 would buy a fleet of luxury limo-bangers. In fact, perhaps the government would consider shipping all those 900-quid nails, deemed unsuitable for the urban environment, north, so they could be given a new lease of life. After all, pollution is not such a problem where the air is in clean, ready supply and moving very quickly indeed, all the time.

Also worth considering would be a couple of other pieces of legal tinkering that would aid our efforts to get about the place. And we do need to drive. In an isolated rural environment, it is not only more comfortable to motor the 37 miles to the nearest supermarket, it is safer than cycling. Nasty cases of people's bottoms becoming frozen to saddles during ice-storms have been reported. The necessary surgery is available on the NHS, and thankfully there is no waiting list. But, let's face it, it isn't pleasant. Not even with an anaesthetic.

It isn't even pleasant in a small car. Hereabouts, we need great big oil-burning monsters, else we will, most probably, die by being blown off the road or stranded in a peat-drift. So my wife goes about her medical duties in a monstrous Toyota Hi-Lux Crew Cab diesel turbo pick-up truck (Redneck Friend's model). Wimps in tiny Fiat Cinquecentos get cheap road tax for having minuscule engines. We need big ones to survive. And if we're to stay in this inclement climate, we deserve encouragement.

The other thing would be to allow the legal use of red diesel. This is the dyed, tax-free fuel sold to crofters and pseudo-crofters such as myself for our generators, tractors and other, er . . . solely off-road vehicles. Get caught with this stuff in the tank of your BMW TDi, though, and you will most likely end up in jail. The Customs and Excise takes a very dim view indeed of fuel fraud, as they do of almost everything.

One consultative body on Scottish transport has, however, suggested a pilot scheme that would allow the road use of red diesel by bona-fide commercial vehicle drivers. That'll be me, then, not just with the Hi-Lux, now that I've cut the back off the Carina and lined it with plywood. If only Saint Gordon of Brown could actually drive a car, maybe he'd have some sympathy with us.

Meanwhile the Volvo sits there, gradually breaking down into its component chemicals. A good isles car. Another week and out comes the angle grinder. I think it might make quite a good hen house. Swedish cars often do.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The eminence rouge