On this day 1995: The Skye Bridge opens

The Skye Bridge opened on this day in 1995 signalling a new chapter in island life - and a mass wave of civil disobedience over the tolls charged to cross Loch Alsh.

Tuesday, 16th October 2018, 3:06 pm
Updated Tuesday, 16th October 2018, 3:17 pm
The Skye Bridge opened on this day in 1995 with its controversial tolls abolished nine years later. PIC: PA/Chris Bacon.

For decades islanders had called for a road bridge to improve access from the mainland as growing visitor numbers put a strain on the ferry between Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin.

Everyday errands for islanders became an arduous task as long delays hit crossings, particularly in the summer, with attempts to keep appointments on the mainland regularly thwarted.

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Discussions had been held since at least the 1960s to build the bridge but a financial commitment from government remained out of reach until the first Public Finance Initiative in Scotland was signed to push forward the major infrastructure project.

Many believed that building the bridge was now essential for the island but concerns remained. The Skye Bridge Appeal Group was formed in 1992 to represent the varying and multiple strands of opposition to the project.

The tolls to be charged were a central concern with Skye Bridge Limited, the consortium headed by Bank of America to build and operate the bridge, to charge up to 10 times that charged to cross other bridges in the UK.

In peak season, it cost £5.70 to take a car across - the highest toll rate in Europe - with Skye and Kyle Against Tolls and veteran campaigner Robbie the Pict mounting robust opposition to the charges.

Hundreds of normally law abiding people were arrested for refusing to pay the tolls and dozens got a criminal conviction. One man spent 11 days in prison.

After nine years, the then Scottish Executive bought the bridge for £27m and the tolls were dropped over night.

Drivers had paid roughly that amount to cross the bridge since it opened.

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.

Now, an estimated 660,000 visitors journeyed to Skye in 2017 with 1.6m overnight stays recorded during the year.

Visitors to the island made an economic impact of £145m, according to latest figures.

Work is ongoing to make tourism more sustainable on the island as visitors converge on a handful of attractions, such as the Fairy Pools and the Quiraing ridge.

Traffic jams and vehicles getting stuck in ditches have become commonplace in the area but a total of £300,000 has been freed up to improve parking at the two popular sites given the increase in visitors.

More parking is also planned at Old Man of Storr and Neist Point on the island’s westerly tip.