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Misery of fuel poverty faces rural residents

Tour buses and cars are already crawling up the A9 and on to the island ferries, as summer approaches and with it a swarm of sight-seers keen to admire our glorious countryside.

As they swish along verdant Highland roads, or admire the standing stones at Callanish, few of these visitors will realise that the picture-postcard scenery hides a shameful truth. A report from Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) published today reveals that nearly 60% of over-60s in rural parts are living in fuel poverty. That compares to 45% in towns and cities. Thus, remoter areas - those that for many are what make this land especially unique and memorable - are also places of quiet misery.

Urban poverty is better documented and harder to ignore, since it lies under the noses of the majority of the population, most notably politicians. Not so those experiencing serious hardship in the countryside who, the SRUC report says, are "falling through the cracks" in government policy.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the fuel poverty rate is highest on the islands - 76% in the Western Isles and 75% in Orkney - and lowest in Glasgow, Renfrewshire and others near the central belt, where it is only 40%. I say only, but of course even 1% anywhere, be it Govan or Glencoe, would represent too many householders in trouble.

It is awful to think of older rural residents struggling in this way, yet the causes of such inequality are not hard to find. Low-quality housing and lack of access to mains gas combine for many to make alarmingly high energy bills. Added to this is the relative inaccessibility of many leafy locations, served by intermittent or seasonal bus timetables, and by an ever-dwindling number of petrol stations, offering expensive fuel. And since fuel prices are higher, so is food in local shops.

An elderly woman I visited recently, in a Borders village, told me her coal fire uses nine bags of coal a month (£16 each) heating three radiators on her ground floor, while upstairs rooms have electric fires and wall heaters. Her fibreglass loft insulation looked like something from a DIY horror movie, but the expense of a new central heating system would have been prohibitive. Like many of her generation, however, she had lived through the war and was not just stoical but tough.

One suspects that many in her situation, and far worse, are too proud to admit they can't pay their bills; or that in order to do so they must choose between buying good food or cheap, between new clothes and the charity shop.

It does not take a climate expert to recognise that bad weather takes a worse toll in the countryside. B-roads and lanes are more quickly blocked and less swiftly cleared, ferries cancelled, and power lines brought down by fallen trees or high winds less easily repaired.

When the last of the blackhouse tenants were relocated to modern white houses, we thought we had turned a corner, bringing civilisation and good health to all. Now, as inadequate housing persists in areas on the mainland and the islands, we recognise the illnesses poorly insulated and under-heated country homes breed. These homes may not be as life-threatening as those of blackhouse days, which were shared with animals and filled with smoke, nor as squalid as those in city slums, but there is still no room for complacency about living conditions for many in the so-called wilds.

Rural Scotland has always been the backbone of the country, and it should be treated with a great deal more respect and concern. Its citizens are afflicted by heavy bills on every front, yet their predicament seems to be viewed as inevitable, one of the unfortunate costs of choosing the country life.

It should not be this way. Most of those off the beaten track are not rash escapees from the city who had day-dreamed of a rustic idyll. Many who have lived all their lives in areas best reached by a 4x4 could no more uproot to an urban flat than could an ancient oak.

Lest you were not aware, our countryside produces 30% of the nation's economic output. But how could you have known? From the lack of help and attention its aged and hard-up population receives, who could ever have guessed that?

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