Kelso rally: Two-stroke serenade

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They’ll never burn up the road but a lifelong passion still inflames the diehard scooterists of the Kelso rally

‘You feel,” says Scott Lindsay, “like the king o’ the road, eh?”

Picture: Ian Georgeson

Picture: Ian Georgeson

Scott is a scooterist. He is 45, a joiner to trade, and hails from Livingston. He owns so many Lambrettas that he really ought, by now, to have come up with a collective noun. A clutch, perhaps, or uno sciame – the Italian for swarm.

“Scooters are just everything to me,” he says. “It’s your blood and bones. It’s right in your heart. I dread to think of the day I’m too old to ride.”

I meet Scott in Kelso, where he is one of a couple of thousand scooterists in the Borders town for the Scottish National Scooter Rally. It’s quite a sight. Scooters everywhere, Spitfireish engines droning. Some are painted with pictures of bands, including The Jam, The Temptations and Joy Division; others with thistles, saltires, lions rampant, clenched fists. Music drifts across the field where the scooterists are camped – Ring Of Fire; Rudy, A Message To You – and the air is fragranced with two-stroke, the engine oil which many scooterists consider just about the most erotic scent going.

An English bull terrier is taken for a walk by a woman with a blonde mohawk. Her name is Lou. His name is Mr Pudding.

There are 72 scooter clubs in Scotland, among them the Coyotes, Panthers, and Leopards; Globetrotters, Gorehounds and Ghosts; the Mad Monks and Purple Hearts; the Ayr Aces, and not forgetting, of course, the Animals Fae Naboombu, who are, in fact, fae Paisley. Scootering in Scotland is strong across the Central Belt, up the east coast, and down into Ayrshire. It flourishes, for some reason, in old pit villages and towns; something to do, scooterists joke, with fumes ­coming off the bings and making the folk half-daft. Certainly, they are scooter-daft. Crazy for their Vespas and Lambrettas. Still crazy after all these years. Some of these clubs have been going for ages; one of Scotland’s biggest, the Coyotes, from West Lothian, plan to celebrate their 30th anniversary with a rally at the Royal Highland Centre in August.

Most of Scotland’s scooterists first came into the scene in the late Seventies, early Eighties, as teenagers inspired by the 1979 film Quadrophenia and by the subsequent mod revival bands. Many of them fell away from the scene over the years, their energies going into career and family, but in middle-age they have returned to their first love, the scooter, as if returning to the warmth of an old flame.

Although there is a crossover between mod and scooter culture, although a Venn diagram could be drawn, the scenes are largely distinct. Scooters, for mods, are an optional extra, not crucial markers of identity in the same way as tailored suits and seven-inch singles; for scooterists, the reverse is true, the bike is the most important thing and clothes are secondary. Scooterists, indeed, tend to favour a much more casual look – green nylon flight jackets covered in patches, combat trousers and Doc Martens – and often regard their mod cousins as rather preening. Many of the people here have scooters tattooed on various parts of their body. Paul Roddie, 46, from Paisley has a stereotypical See-You-Jimmy Scot riding a Vespa across his right leg.

I’ve not been in Kelso long when I bump into Alex Paton, known as the Minister of Sound on account of the fact that he is a Northern Soul DJ who is also licensed to carry out weddings. He can marry you and then do the disco afterwards. Alex is a stocky Glaswegian, aged 42, with enormous mutton-chop sideburns, and, on his neck, peeping out above his dog collar, tattoos of swallows and roses. His ordination was not especially spiritual – “Coming back from a rally, aff ma nut one night, I filled in the application for a laugh” – but he now performs quite a number of weddings at rallies, during which the bride and groom vow never to part each other from their scooters. The first dance is, very often, Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) by Frank Wilson, a copy of which rare seven-inch sold at auction recently for £25,000.

In a scene as tight and self-contained as this, marriages between scooterists are common. Annie McKenzie, 44, known as “Acid Annie”, has floral Doc Martens and a blonde Chelsea cut. “We met on a scooter,” she says of her husband. “I was on my 50 Special and I was getting hassled in Livingston by a guy on a Honda Superdream. Then my knight in shining armour came round the corner and chased him.”

The knight was Stewart McKenzie. “I was on my Vespa PX125,” he recalls. “I saw this biker chasing an attractive young lady on a scooter. So I went after him but he was off.”

That was 1985. It was the first time they met. The rest is history. They married the following year, have a daughter, and run their own motor repair business. They still favour Vespas, considering Lambrettas to be both unreliable and underperforming.

“Lammies break doon aw the time,” says Annie.

“They’re as slow as a week in the jail,” says Stewart.

There is, within scootering, a deep ideological schism between the two iconic Italian scooter makes. “It’s just like women,” says Speno, a scooterist from Glasgow. “Some folk like them curvy and some folk like them slim.”

Lambretta enthusiasts will tell you that they have a deeper relationship with their scooters because they have to spend so much time working on them. “A Lambretta could break your heart,” says Alexander Murray from the Edinburgh Scooter Club. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. A Lambretta is a marriage; a Vespa is a fling.

It’s difficult to understand, as an outsider, why these people feel quite so passionate about their scooters. But the passion, the obsession, is undeniable. One man tells me that he left school before sitting his exams just so that he could get a job and afford to buy a scooter. Another says that when his first scooter stopped working he didn’t just scrap it, he gave it a proper burial.

Keith Bertram, 43, from Galashiels, says that he sold his scooter when his first child was born, as the new family could no longer afford to keep it on the road, but he was lost without it and bought it back after a week; now, he is here with his teenage daughter Rebecca, and she herself hopes to get a scooter for 16th birthday. This will make her the third generation scooterist in the Bertram family, as Keith’s father was a Vespa man in his day. “You’ve got to nurture them,” is how one scooterist puts it. “You’ve got to love them. That scooter is my baby.”

Riki Hussain is 48, rides a canary yellow 1959 Vespa, and is a member of the Glasgow Globetrotters, a scooter club formed in 1980. He is an HGV driver, living in Coatbridge, but originally from Bradford; he is of Pakistani descent and has always been one of the few non-white faces on the scene. This is notable as the scootering world has, over the years, attracted far-right elements. Riki’s response to racism has been to fight fire with ire, reclaiming the iconography of the enemy. He once painted his scooter with the SS logo and the words, “Black Gestapo”, after the 1970s blaxploitation film.

“You used to see these guys on rallies with National Front T-shirts,” he says. “But we kept the neo-Nazis out the scooter scene in Glasgow; they knew if they walked about with a swastika they got beaten up and got it taken off them.” It’s not so long ago that he got into a ruck with a scooterist in Edinburgh who gave a fascist salute, but nobody really wants to be fighting these days; it’s not very becoming in middle age.

There was, at one time, a great rivalry between scooterists and bikers, but these days there is a certain amount of solidarity along the lines of “four wheels bad, two wheels good”. Back in the Eighties, though, the enmity was bitter, and scooterists found themselves targeted by bikers, punks, skinheads, you name it. The Coyotes, driving every Monday evening to Airdrie, would routinely get stuff thrown at them from a footbridge over the A8 at Salsburgh. “One night,” says founder member Gus Martin, “they actually had a couch. But they chucked it too early and Wee Ian fae Whitburn drove roond it.”

Men dominate scooter culture. It is, perhaps, 90 per cent male. There are even clubs, among them the Glasgow Globetrotters, which refuse to allow female members. “Nae automatics and nae women,” says Alexander Murray, outlining the rules of the Edinburgh Scooter Club. His partner, Jill, rolls her eyes when asked whether she is disappointed not to be able to participate fully in the scootering life: “I was too busy,” she says, “raising our children.”

Scootering is, for many on the scene, a second childhood. Not a mid-life crisis, but rather a return to a pleasure from their youth. You hear jokes about how arthritis is preventing many from changing gears and that one day soon the clubs will be full of mobility scooterists. There is real concern, though, that not enough young people are coming into the scene and that it could, before too long, die out.

“I think we’re the last of the scooterists,” says Richard ‘Sting’ McKnight, 46, a Glasgow Globetrotter with silver hair and a beautiful customised Vespa. “Once we’re gone, that’ll be it.” «

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss