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The Highland Line: over the sea to Skye once more, using maritime heritage

Despite a slight delay for essential repair work on the vessel and the mainland slipway, the oldest ferry route to Skye, Glenelg to Kylerhea, will start operating again this weekend for the summer.

The ferry Glenachulish will look different this season with a return to her original green livery from her days plying across the mouth of Loch Leven as a Ballachulish ferry. She has been in Kishorn where its turntable was removed for the first time ever and is reported to be in excellent condition .

The manually operated turntable deck is believed to be the last of its kind working in the world. It takes up to six cars, and is rotated by the crew pushing it round so drivers are once again facing ahead.

The enthusiasm of the people around Glenelg and the surrounding area who keep the ferry running, is infectious. They have done something important for Scotland through their determination to keep it going, often against the odds.

Indeed, at one point a few years ago it looked as though Glenelg and Kylerhea were set to join the long list of Highland and Islands communities with slipways or jetties lying unused, their ferries no longer sailing. If that had happened, we would have been the poorer. The ferry route has a fascinating story to tell.

It was the ferryman crossing Kyle Rhea who advised Samuel Johnson that a mile on land was two miles at sea, which did little for that great Englishman of letters' regard for Gaelic wit.

But when you see the tide rushing through the narrows where Skye comes closest to touching the mainland, you begin to wonder whether there might have been something in the ferryman's calculations. After all, these were the waters that consumed the Fingalian hero Reatha, only to take his name as their own forever.

What exactly was happening in the third century AD, when Reatha had to try and vault the kyle using his spear, is not totally clear.

But when Johnson and Boswell left Glenelg on a September morning in 1773 to sail all the way to Armadale Castle, Glenelg-Kylerhea was the main ferry route to and from Skye. Just as it had been for many a century and would be till the arrival of the railway in Kyle of Lochalsh in 1897

Drovers would take cattle from all over Skye and the Uists to cross from Kylerhea to Glenelg on their way to the markets of Crieff or Falkirk.

Anything up to 8000 cattle a year would be swum across the kyle. But because of the tides, which often flow at seven, eight, nine knots, time was limited, as Alexander Nicolson recalled in his History of Skye.

''Across these straits the animals were made to swim and, as soon as 'slack' water supervened, the work of ferrying began. The animals were bound together in files of five, the tail of the one in front being tied by a rope of heather, or of straw, to the muzzle of the one behind, and the first of the line was fastened to the stern of a boat that was rowed across the sound with its trail behind it.

''By this means, as many as 100 animals could be transferred to the mainland in the course of a single day.'' The same was done with horses.

The ferry fell into disuse from time to time, but it was started again in 1935 by a Kylerhea man, Lachie MacInnes, who had a ferry built that was capable of taking two cars. The service was discontinued with the outbreak of war in 1939 and, with petrol rationing continuing after the war, the ferry wasn't properly re-established, although Lord MacDonald, who had the ferry rights, tried.

It was in the 1950s that one Murdo MacKenzie and his father decided to have another go. Although born in Inveraray, Murdo had many connections with Glenelg. His grandfather had been the first doctor there, and his mother the first district nurse. His father, meanwhile, had come from Arnisdale just down on the northern shore of Loch Hourn.

The first thing they needed was a vessel, Murdo told The Herald in 1995 at the opening of the Skye Bridge

"I knew that Lachie MacInnes's boat had been sunk over in Loch Nevis.So I went down there and managed to get her up, and even managed to get the engine running - an old petrol paraffin one - but I finally had to put a diesel in her. So that's how we got started.

''Things were pretty quiet. I think on the first day we got three cars, and it took us till the middle of the summer before we got into double figures. You see, there were hardly any roads; they weren't tarred. I think there was only three cars in total in Glenelg and we owned one of them, so that wasn't much good.

''Slowly, the tourist trade built up. I remember when we got our first £5 in the day. My father and I went to the pub and we drank it. That was a big day.''

Murdo ran the ferry for 33 years, during which time his name became almost synonymous with the Glenelg/Kylrhea crossing. He had five boats in all, ending up with the last of the Ballachulish ferries, the Glenachulish, which is still running today

When he decided to retire, it proved difficult to find a successor who had both the seamanship equal to some of the worst currents on the west coast, and the social skills to integrate with the local community.

Murdo explained ''Being a ferryman, you have to know the people - it's more than working a boat. It would have been difficult for a stranger. One man from down south wanted it as a plaything for his son. In these waters?

''Having built it up, I would have felt terrible if it had collapsed. I had to get the right man, even if it meant taking a Raasay man,'' Murdo says affectionately of his successor.

The Raasay man in question was Roddy Macleod, who had sailed deep sea for 11 years before coming back to work for the MoD in Kyle of Lochalsh. In 1989, he took over the ferry, but many thought he would be put out of business with the opening of the Skye Bridge

He, though, was confident from the start. ''Everyone goes on about the bridge opening, and how it is going to affect me. They have got that the wrong way round. Can the bridge withstand the opposition from Glenelg? "

And he was proved right. Visitors still wanted to cross a ferry to Skye, while locals liked to make a trip once a year, and many more often as the anti-tolls campaign raged on the bridge.

However, in 2004 he decided to sell and focus on his fruit and vegetable business. He offered first refusal to the local community at Glenelg.

They voted 60 to 39 against launching a £150,000 community buyout because it was regarded as too expensive a cost for a fragile community to bear.

Roddy ran it again for another year. But then a wider community group embracing not just Glenelg but also Kylerhea and Lochalsh was formed. The Isle of Skye Ferry Community Interest Company's members were determined to take over the ferry.

In 2006, the community company had received pledges of £90,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and a loan from Highland Council's Highland Opportunities Fund but they were still £60,000 short so they chartered the vessel instead of buying it.

Then the following year they heard they had won a £60,000 grant from the Lottery fund and it was full steam ahead.

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