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The Highland Line: hailing the unsung heroes of Skye Bridge

BBC Alba’s well-received film  “An Drochaid / The Bridge Rising” , made by the Glasgow based Media Co-op, has caused a few ripples in its telling of the  story of the campaign to get the tolls off the Skye Bridge.

Not all of those involved agree  - which is putting it mildly - on which figures, issues, strategies or events were important and which weren’t. Some of these disagreements resurfaced  with the transmission of the film on January 1 and since repeated.

It focussed on those involved in the Skye and Kyle Against Tolls (Skat) non-payment campaign.

This began at midnight on the day it opened in October 1995 when the first tolls were charged and refused. In December 2004 they were finally lifted by the then Scottish Executive when the contract was bought out for £27m  from Skye Bridge Ltd (SBL), the consortium headed by Bank of America.

Some 130 people convicted of refusing to pay the tolls on the Skye Bridge, although most have still not paid their fines, while several hundred others were charged but got away with it.

In anybody’s book it was an extraordinary campaign, but as the film’s director Robbie Fraser has acknowledged he just couldn’t fit in the crucial period before the bridge opened, which was a shame.

The  injustice felt by so many islanders had been growing for years before SKAT was formed  because of work by other  campaigners who barely rated a mention.

In particular the Skye Bridge Appeal Group (SBAG) . It had been formed in 1992 to represent all the different strands of opposition, from resident otters to the design of the bridge and, of course, the tolls, while the structure was being built.

Until the bridge opened on October 16, 1995, and SKAT marched into our headlines,  SBAG was the voice of dissent. Without it, it is highly unlikely there would have been a SKAT or film.

Crucially SBAG  was the voice which articulated the sense that a bridge paid for by a high toll regime, was offending  against the very idea of progress. While other communities enjoyed the benefits of transport improvements, the people of Skye would still be paying ferry fares to drive across a tiny piece of new road.

The concept of toll roads  was one fine when drivers had the option to take another, albeit less convenient,  route. But during the winter months the only alternative for  the drivers  of Skye to get to the mainland,  was to take a ferry to North Uist or Harris then drive to either Lochboisdale or Stornoway then take another ferry to Oban or  Ullapool.  In the summer they could go by the Kylerhea to Glenelg ferry, a difficult and time-consuming journey.

What SBAG also successfully highlighted was that just as the final approval for the bridge was being given by the Tory government as the first public finance initiative in Scotland,  politicians were claiming success for winning Objective One status for European Funding.

It meant of course that the area was one of the poorest in Europe, which was rather unusual boast, but it did mean £260m of European would be invested in the Highlands and islands in the six years to 1999. It was reckoned that well under £10m of that would have built a publicly funded, free bridge to Skye.

But instead the people of one of the poorest areas in Europe were to pay the highest tolls in Europe, over £5 each time they crossed the bridge during the summer and a pound less during the winter. Had it been a pound  or perhaps two, few would have bothered.

It was SBAG members who were raising these issues over and over again, who monitored every move the government and the developers were making, who informed the public inquiry into the bridge and who spoke for the people of Skye.

None more so than Kathleen MacRae, who was perhaps an unlikely protester. She had been from the Colinton area of Edinburgh. Her father had been the  secretary of the old University Club in Princes Street which merged after the second world war, with the socially prestigious New Club.

An occupational therapist by profession she had been a life- long Liberal. She married an Edinburgh-based Skyeman Ian MacRae, part of the Gaelic diaspora whose family owned a hotel in the capital. She and Ian retired to his home territory at  Breakish near Broadford. Once there she started to take an interest in local affairs, politically speaking, and campaigned against pay beds in the MacKinnon Memorial Hospital in Broadford and against a road that would have cut across local crofts.

Then came the bridge, and SBAG which all but consumed her life.  SBAG  had some influential supporters, with official patrons such as MPs  Charles Kennedy, Brian Wilson,  Calum Macdonald, and Gaelic rock band  Runrig.

But none were there on a December’s night in 1998 in  Kyleakin’s old school; and most of the bridge campaigners were at a Scottish parliamentary election hustings in Portree.

Just six people turned up for the final meeting of the SBAG.  Bob Danskin, who tried so hard to found the Skye Boat Company to run a ferry challenging the bridge’s monopoly, was in the chair.

He was flanked by Kathleen MacRae and Pam Noble, treasurer and secretary respectively. Kathy Reid was there as were Clodagh MacKenzie and Anne Danskin.

There was an air of unreality, anti-climax. They got through their agenda fairly quickly, including the memorials planned for two group members, Flo Reid and Peter Findlay, who have died since the group was founded.

Six years earlier the group had been founded 100 yards up the road in a packed village with all determined to fight the bridge.

Now after all the letter writing, lobbying, campaigning, SBAG was calling it a day amidst a feeling of deep frustration.

Just six months earlier there had been confirmation that the new Labour  Government was to write off at least £62m of debts accrued by the Humber toll bridge which linked the Lincolnshire coast with Hull, the parliamentary constituency of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott (Hull East).

That night after SBAG closed its final meeting  Kathleen MacRae told the Herald: “There was little point in carrying on. SKAT  took the campaign on to the next stage. We have collated a great deal of information about the project over the years and it will be available to anyone who is interested. I feel very sad about it all.

“We had great hopes that a new government would provide the breakthrough as far as the tolls were concerned. We did get the reductions for regular users but you have to buy books of 20 tickets. This is of little help to the many people, particularly the elderly who might only leave the island once or twice a year. Our biggest disappointment in the new government, however, was not that ministers believe themselves powerless to change a commercial contract, but how quickly they began to adopt the rhetoric of the Tories promoting the bridge - a bridge supposed to have been privately financed but which had millions of pounds of public money. According to the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee calculations the toll and tax payer will end up paying more than £50m.”

One of the SBAG’s  last acts had been to donate £150 to help Robbie the Pict pursue his attempt to win an interdict in the Court of Session Mrs MacRae explained: “This isn’t even about the tolls any more. It is about justice. From the very start this project was prosecuted at a lunatic pace and we have always been convinced that mistakes were made. But the feeling is that Scottish Office is above the law. If Robbie can show otherwise it would help restore a little faith in our institutions.”

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