Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - All in the course of a day's scran

The soul of a scranner lurks deep within me. Any seashore will have it clamouring to examine the tide-wrack for seaborne treasures. A bale or two of cannabis would be, well, interesting, but some good rope and a few fishing floats would be fine. Oh, and maybe an unbroken fish box or two to claim the money back on from the supplier.

Scranning, being on the scran, looking for scran . . . all Scots expressions meaning, in specifically Shetlandic terms, beachcombing. Sooth, it can also imply the general propensity to rake through rubbish in search of . . . well, rubbish with some kind of personal appeal.

The Blade, as the strand below our house is called, is a natural trap for all kinds of Atlantic debris. To be specific, wood. Big bits of wood. Tree trunks - some of them deck cargo washed from passing ships, some giant logs that have floated all the way from the St Lawrence. And these present something of a problem.

For I am not alone in my scrannism. I have competition from Zander, a middle-aged man whose arthritis keeps him permanently off work, thus giving him sufficient time to pick winkles in massive, very profitable quantities and obsessively scour the shore for wood, which he then stores and occasionally sells. We never speak, but always smile and wave at each other politely when passing on scran patrol. I am on a moral crusade to defeat his malingering. I'd never tell on him, obviously, but I can stop him getting my wood.

In truth, we are the deadliest of enemies. Both of us anxiously watch the weather for big westerlies, and will be up at the crack of dawn, scanning the beach for scran. If a big log does arrive, the aim is to get to it first, mark it with a length of rope knotted in a particular way, and then watch through binoculars the discomfiture on our opposite number's face when he turns up to claim what he thinks is his prize. By such pathetic rivalries are my days enlivened.

Scranning, though, has its perils. Dead and rotting whales, seals, sheep and dogs can turn up, though thankfully so far no human remains. Despite the "Over the Side is Over" campaign to stop fishermen chucking all kinds of rubbish into the ocean, nasties such as drums of waste diesel still rumble in, along with every conceivable sort of plastic container and innumerable shoes and rubber gloves.

Oil is the worst. The Blade has not been hit by hydrocarbons since the last war, when heavy bunker oil from a torpedoed merchantman came ashore in huge lumps. Almost 60 years later, some of it is still there, solidified on to rocks like road tar.

Other parts of Shetland have had more recent visitations from the black stuff. The Braer, for many of us who watched the doomed tanker rip herself apart on the island we love, was like a visitation from hell. A gale of driving oil, black beaches, thousands of dead birds and fish, the stink of fuel everywhere. A hurricane swept away the worst of the pollution, and most of the 85,000 tonnes of oil was light, easily dispersed. Still, the long-term effects on the shellfish industry remain.

The Esso Bernicia in 1978 spilt only 1,174 tonnes of much heavier fuel oil but killed 4,000 seabirds, far more than died due to the Braer. Jonathan Wills, boatman, environmentalist, author (and the man who preceded one Gordon Brown as student rector of Edinburgh University) tells me it will take another 20 years for the population of Great Northern Divers in Sullom Voe to recover.

Now the French Atlantic coast is being ravaged by huge quantities of the same sort of oil which caused such havoc in Shetland 22 years ago. The damage is horrific, and the committee set up to deal with the Amoco Cadiz pollution crisis in, coincidentally also 1978, which was on the point of being wound up, is being revived to fight for compensation.

There but for the grace of God, and one of the best-regulated oil terminals in the world, go all of us in these northern islands. But ships similar to the Erika, the old and very dodgy tanker whose foundering released this dreadful curse on Brittany, are still sailing around Britain's coastline. Action needs to be taken to stop ruthless and cynical shipowners and insurers risking major incidents like this through their use of inadequate vessels and crews.

Meanwhile, Zander and I will continue to fight quietly and politely over our logs, scranning like blazes, while in Brittany, all the junk and delight of the incoming sea is swamped by thick, black sludge.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands