How the Skye Bridge changed island life

The Skye Bridge. Picture: Chris Furlong/Getty Images.
The Skye Bridge. Picture: Chris Furlong/Getty Images.
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It spans less than a mile - but its impact on the isle of Skye has been infinite.

The Skye Bridge opened 22 years ago this week following decades of debate over whether the island should be linked to the mainland by road.

Skye bridge with snow covered Cuillins in the background
in 2000. PIC: AlanMilligan/TSPL.

Skye bridge with snow covered Cuillins in the background in 2000. PIC: AlanMilligan/TSPL.

With ferry services from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin unable to keep up with increasing visitors numbers and everyday errands turning into arduous missions for islanders, support for the bridge ran deep for many.

Hotelier Anne Gracie, who was raised on Skye and now runs three hotels on the island said she had “vivid” memories of the ferry which would often be hit by long delays.

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Ms Gracie said: “It was almost impossible to keep an appointment on the mainland, particularly in summer when the delays would sometimes run up to four hours.

The ferry 'Lochalsh' which connected the island to the mainland before the Skye bridge. PIC: TSPL.

The ferry 'Lochalsh' which connected the island to the mainland before the Skye bridge. PIC: TSPL.

“Trying to get the chemist at Kyle of Lochalsh would be like trying to get overseas.”

She added that connecting the island by bridge was a “no brainer” for the majority of islanders.

However, controversy surrounding the bridge began as soon as the first cars made the crossing with those protesting against the toll charges arrested.

As one of Scotland’s first Private Finance Initiatives, it was built and operated by Skye Bridge Limited, a consortium headed by Bank of America.

Brian Robertson aka Robbie the Pict who vigorously campaigned against the tolls on the Skye Bridge. PIC: TSPL.

Brian Robertson aka Robbie the Pict who vigorously campaigned against the tolls on the Skye Bridge. PIC: TSPL.

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The tolls were expensive with it costing £5.70 to take a car across in peak season - the highest toll rate in Europe.

The Skye and Kyle Against Tolls group and veteran campaigner Robbie the Pict mounted robust opposition against the charges and argued that the owners had collected far more in tolls than it cost to build and maintain the bridge.

Some 130 people were convicted for refusing to pay the tolls, and several hundred others were charged but let off.

Controversy engulfed Scotland's first PFI project given the expensive tolls for drivers.  PA Photo: Chris Bacon.

Controversy engulfed Scotland's first PFI project given the expensive tolls for drivers. PA Photo: Chris Bacon.

A report by Highland Council in 2002 found the positive impact of the quicker journey times had been reduced by the “considerable local resentment” of the fees.

Businesses reported that tourists, particularly short stay visitors and coach parties, had been deterred from crossing the bridge, the report added.

Many continued to fight the tolls until December 2004 when the fees were scrapped by the then Scottish Executive when it bought out the contract from Skye Bridge for £27m.

Drivers had paid around that sum to cross the bridge between 1995 and 2003.

Restauranteur Shirley Spear, who moved to Skye 33 years ago to start her restaurant, The Three Chimneys, said she welcomed the opening of the bridge.

As a licensee she could not risk a conviction by not paying the road charges but she said she had supported those who chose not to.

Ms Spear recalled how, before the bridge, milk would be delivered to her business by ferry and then arrive in the afternoon on the school bus.

Ms Spear said: “The ferry services could be very frustrating. The stretch of water is only around a mile across. The bridge should have happened long before it did.

“It has made life a lot easier and it was one step towards taking the island into modern life.

“There were people who were fearful of the island way of life changing. Life has of course changed on Skye over the past 20 or 30 year but it has changed everywhere else too.”

This summer, it was well documented that the infrastructure of the island was overwhelmed at key visitor sites given the numbers of people arriving on Skye.

Ms Spear said the bridge had attracted more day trippers to the island.

Ms Spear added: “We do tend to get more day trippers, particularly those on mini-tours who visit one or two of the big beauty spots which usually lie down a single track road. That is where the pinch points are. Parking is very restricted and lack of toilets are an issue.

“The bridge is also part of the main route to Uig, the ferry port to the Outer Hebrides so that also brings through a particular type of traffic, usually campervans.”

John Mason MSP (SNP) was criticised earlier this year after questioning whether Skye was a “real island” given it is connected to the mainland by bridge.

Ms Spear said, despite the bridge, Skye was “still very much an island at heart.”

She said: “It is still has the characteristic of being a little bit wild. It is still associated with the romance of crossing the sea.

“We don’t have fantastic mobile or internet connection. Every part of Skye has this scenery that has to be experienced and it goes beyond the five main beauty spots that are so heavily publicised.”

Ms Spear is a member of SkyeConnect which is pushing for infrastructure improvements to the island.

While the bridge has improved access to the island, many believe the infrastructure has not moved at the same pace as Skye’s popularity among holidaymakers.

“We feel that the Scottish Government should help us get it right,” Ms Spear added.