Over the sea to Skye: island life after 25 years with the bridge

Driving along the shores of Loch Alsh on a clear day on the main route from the south, the distinctive arc of the Skye Bridge comes into view long before you reach it.

Sunday, 11th October 2020, 7:00 am

It can be seen spanning the horizon from at least three miles distant. And though its design may not be among the world’s most striking architecturally, its appearance – silhouetted against the sky and framed by the rugged mountain scene – is nonetheless arresting.

Now the bridge has become such a familiar part of the landscape, it’s easy to forget it has only been there for 25 years. In 1995 it replaced a ferry service that is thought to have begun around 1600. But if its conception had seemed touch-and-go, its delivery brought a whole new level of drama.

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The Skye Bridge celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. It was opened by Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth on 16 October 1995

Skye is without a doubt Scotland’s best-known island. The idea of the bridge had been tossed around for a long time, but Skye’s remoteness and small population had meant the cost could not be justified.

When it finally did get off the ground, it became the first major infrastructure project delivered under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI), meaning the contractors paid the £39 million cost of its construction in return for a licence allowing them to recoup the money from travellers. However, the high toll – more than £11 for a return journey, compared to 80p for the much longer Forth Road Bridge – caused outrage, with protestors saying the charge made it “the most expensive road in Europe”.

The issue caused national controversy, sparking mass protests, political debate, much media coverage and court cases.

Around 100 people were convicted, some jailed, for their part in a campaign of non-payment. After pressure from protest group Skat (Skye and Kyle Against Tolls), the Scottish Government bought back the bridge in December 2004 – at a cost of £27 million – and scrapped the levy.

Skye and Raasay councillor John Finlayson says the Skye Bridge has brought many benefits to local communities

Over the Sea to Skye

Skye has long been a lure for tourists, its dramatic scenery and rich history attracting visitors from near and far. Today it is one of the most visited places in Scotland. Analysis suggests Skye and Raasay attracted 650,000 visitors last year, generating £211 million for the economy and supporting 2,850 jobs.

Skye and Raasay councillor John Finlayson, who lives in Kyleakin, believes the link has been “a very positive thing” and does not detract from Skye’s appeal.

“While we all look back romantically on the days of the ferry, the fact that we have 24/7 access to the mainland and can plan our journeys accordingly, like any other part of the mainland, is very important,” he said.

“Skye is still an island, but the bridge means that access for everyone, including the emergency services, contractors, suppliers, tourists and residents, is as flexible as it is for someone living in Inverness. I would be very surprised if any residents living on Skye would see a return of the ferry as being in any way acceptable now.”

Chris Taylor, regional leadership director at tourism agency VisitScotland, says there has been “a monumental uplift in tourism to the island” since the bridge was built and Skye regularly features in lists of the world’s top travel destinations.

“That, in turn, supports events, restaurants and attractions, which benefits local people and creates employment opportunities,” he said.

“It’s the island’s potent mix of stunning landscapes, rich history and heritage, inspiring culture and warmth of the people which make it an attractive destination, while its appearances in popular culture such as TV and film have also boosted the island’s reputation.”

But he concedes that Skye, like other popular Scottish destinations, has experienced challenges over capacity and facilities due to the scale of its appeal. He says these are being addressed in part by the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund and marketing efforts to encourage visitors to travel at quieter times of year and to explore the wider Highland region.

Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the like have been having a major effect on the numbers of people flocking to Skye, but Councillor Finlayson says the way in which tourism is managed going forward will be crucial to continued success.

“Skye is the second most visited tourist destination in Scotland and there has been a huge rise in tourism over the last three years in particular,” he said.

“The flexibility of getting here by having a bridge is of course a bonus, but the main driver has been social media and folk posting pictures and selfies from tourist hot-spots. However, this has created new problems relating to overcrowding and erosion at places like Storr, Fairy Glen, Fairy Pools and Neist Point.

“The priority now is how we continue to manage the tourists who do visit and whose profile is changing, and to do this we need investment and vision – and of course support from the Scottish Government and engagement with all stakeholders.”

Retired CalMac skipper Iain Mackenzie worked on the ferries until their withdrawal in 1995. The 82-year-old says there is no way the service could have coped with the levels of traffic currently crossing the water. Even back in the 1980s, massive queues could build up during busy periods, choking up the villages on either side.

A whopping 612,00 vehicles crossed the Skye Bridge in its first year of operation – a third more than the ferry’s official numbers. And the figures have been rising ever since. Transport Scotland data shows nearly 5,000 journeys over the crossing were made each day in 2019, doubling from the 1998 tally.

What the people say

After a quarter of a century it seems the bridge has been embraced by locals on both sides of the water. Although there is no doubt some businesses have suffered and jobs were lost, most people now agree it has benefited the community over the long term.

Free access on and off the island 24 hours a day means ambulances, fire engines, suppliers and other lifeline services no longer have to wait in traffic queues or call out ferry operators in the middle of the night to gain passage in an emergency.

The bridge is also less vulnerable to stormy weather, which could see ferries cancelled. Pubs, restaurants, entertainment and public services can be accessed by a wider audience and people have more choice about where they can live in relation to their work.

Caroline Clouston is a retired local businesswoman whose family had owned the general store at the ferry terminal in Kyleakin since 1930. The premises also housed the local Post Office. It closed after the bridge was built.

She acknowledges the impact of traffic no longer having to stop to wait for a ferry has affected both Kyle and Kyleakin, particularly in the early days.

As well as her own shop, several businesses across the water in Kyle also disappeared. Two grocery stores, a shoe shop, an electrician, the Hydro-Electric showroom and a clothing store, which once stood on the main street, are long gone. Only one of two banks remains open, on a part-time basis.

Ms Clouston admits she used to refer to the bridge as “that lump of concrete blotting the landscape”. When it first opened, she feared the strong links between Kyle and Kyleakin would be severed since both communities regularly used the ferry to travel backwards and forwards on foot, with a journey time of just five minutes.

There was also a worry that tourists looking to experience the romance of a trip ‘over the sea to Skye’ might be put off.

“Being born and brought up in Kyleakin I have seen the changes in the village, especially since the Skye Bridge was opened in 1995,” she said.

“Where once all the traffic on and off the island went through the village, making it a very busy place, everything changed.

"Now all the local traffic goes in the opposite direction to access the bridge, making Kyleakin quieter, but actually a more pleasant village for tourists to stop and stay or spend time walking around this picturesque harbour village.

“I was – as were most locals and businesses – against the bridge and the tolls it charged. We didn’t welcome the changes which were coming, and Kyleakin did feel the impact for several years.

"But I’m pleased to say the village now is a desirable place to live with several holiday homes, guest houses, hostels and a large hotel. Now the population can double during the tourist season. Kyleakin is quieter than the rest of the island, but it has definitely not lost its heart and has a good community spirit, which others are envious of.

“I don't think anyone would want to live without the bridge now as it’s so convenient. We don't have to wait for a ferry. It’s open 24 hours and in good weather offers a lovely walk with panoramic views.

“And as for tourism, when the bridge opened the high tolls put a lot off crossing. Some would turn around. Since becoming free, tourism has gone mad on Skye – not only for overnight stays, but also lots more day-trippers.”

Anne Gracie Gunn, founding director of tourism management organisation SkyeConnect and owner of the Sonas Collection of hotels on Skye, agrees.

“The Skye bridge has altered Skye residents’ lives forever and brought prosperity with it,” she said.

“Gone are the days of uncertainty, mainly caused by long queues throughout the summer, intermittent out-of-hours crossings and occasional vessel failure. Prior to the bridge, off-island visits were more infrequent and needed more strategic planning because of this perceived hurdle.”

Dave Till, general manager of Skyeskyns tannery, shop and visitor experience in Waternish, recalls “racing from the hills to get to the ferry” when he began coming to Skye as a visitor before setting up home there.

“The island was quieter, but it had the feel of a comfortable old car with a comfortable, not-too-exciting tourist offer,” he says. “Now it has a vibrant and diverse tourist offer, with a wide range of restaurants, hotels and exciting self-catering properties to suit all.

“The downside is that it has become easily accessible, not only a function of the bridge, but also of the better road infrastructure, bringing the bridge closer to the rest of the UK and, through the development of the airport at Inverness, to the rest of the world. It’s not the place that held the mysticism of being difficult to get to any more, but where is?

“More of a difference was made when the bridge became free to use. The bridge has created the opportunity for people to live and work on Skye or live on Skye and work on the mainland. We now have an MP who lives on the island and is able to commute to the House every week. Who would have thought that 25 years ago?

“It’s also much more suited to the younger generation, who plan things more on a spur of the moment and don’t have to factor in whether they can get home from a night out in Inverness.

“The northern reaches of Skye, where I live, still feel a long way from the bridge and a long way from the rest of Scotland.”

Local life

Over the years since the bridge was built, the population living on Skye and the neighbouring island of Raasay has grown, increasing by 17 per cent since 1991. Crucially the number of young people living in the area has also risen, bucking the general downward trend witnessed in many parts of the Highlands. Official figures show the number of residents aged 16 to 24 increased by 7 per cent between 2001 and 2019.

Ms Gunn said; “Skye residents can now live and work anywhere, which is witnessed today by the growth in young people choosing to stay and work on the island.

"The robust tourism industry, which has grown up around the ease of access over the past 25 years, has presented new and exciting opportunities for all to enjoy.”

Alastair Nicolson, Highlands and Islands Enterprise area manager for Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross, added: “There has been an increase in the population of Skye over the past 25 years, driven by sustained investment in local infrastructure.

“The bridge, along with other improvements such as increased digital and mobile connectivity and the growth of institutions such as [Gaelic college] Sabhal Mor Ostaig, have collectively helped make the island a more attractive place to live, work, study and visit.”

Winners

There have been many positive developments over the past couple of decades, boosted by the freedom to travel.

Ms Clouston said: “One of the benefits with the bridge approach road is the access to the Plock of Kyle, which has been acquired by the Kyle and Lochalsh Community Trust (KLCT) and is being developed with the help of various grants.

“In 2002 Kyleakin benefited through much fundraising and grants with the building of a large community hall, which is used by many sports clubs, meetings, weddings and the arts serving south Skye and Lochalsh. The bridge makes this accessible for the mainland area. The Kyleakin Connections centre for adults with physical and mental disabilities also benefits from the convenience of the bridge.”

KLCT was set up in response to a local consultation carried out by Kyle Development Group, with the aim of delivering social, economic and environmental regeneration projects that will boost the local economy and ensure services are maintained and enhanced.

A masterplan has identified projects that will be developed at the Plock, including a Viking Living Village, while funding has been secured to employ a countryside ranger and an outdoor learning and wellbeing officer, who will deliver green activities and conservation volunteering opportunities.

The work is endorsed by the Highland Green Health Partnership and Kyle Medical Practice and is part of a pilot project that tests social prescribing of green activities to address physical and mental health issues in the area.

KLCT chair Pam Noble said: “When the bridge came it had a major impact on Kyle. Kyle used to be a destination in its own right and the stopping-off place for catching the ferry to Skye. Once the bridge was open, people going to Skye had no need to stop, so the village was bypassed and suffered the consequences.

“Kyle is set in a beautiful location, but has very high levels of deprivation and suffers from a lack of opportunities for young people. In order to try and benefit the locality, KLCT has been involved in a variety of projects, such as enhancing the facilities available at the former council-owned public toilets to include showers and a launderette.”

The trust has also taken over running the pontoons at the harbour from Highland Council and expanded them to provide more berthing spaces.

More recently KLCT took ownership of the Plock of Kyle and has been improving access and managing it as community parkland. Mrs Noble says one of the most satisfying projects has been the purchase of the former toll office, bringing it into community ownership as the KLCT office.

Going forward

Concern has been expressed across Skye due to the increasing number of minibus and campervan tourists visiting the island as they cause congestion and wear-and-tear on roads, while bringing in lower revenue to the local economy than other types of visitors. And it’s thought the current coronavirus crisis may leave a lasting legacy, increasing the numbers of UK visitors.

“The issues are that tourism has to be managed and infrastructure put in place to cope with the new profile of tourism,” Councillor Finlayson said.

“It might well be a landmark time as I cannot see foreign holidays returning at the same level in the near future, so Skye will, I think, be as busy as ever - as it has been this year after lockdown was lifted. We need to ensure we have facilities to cope with more campers, more staycation folk, more outdoor tourists.”

Skye councillors and other public agencies are working on creating a Skye Plan to support this, he says, but government support will also be necessary.

Skye Bridge in numbers

£39m the cost of building the Skye Bridge

570 metres the span of the bridge

35 metres the height of the main arch of the bridge

2.4km the total length of the crossing

2004 the year tolls were abolished

4,924 the average number of vehicles crossing the bridge each day in 2019

£11.40 the cost of return journey across the bridge in 2004

£27m the amount the Scottish government paid to buy back the bridge on 21 December 2004

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