POWER workers were battling strong winds to try to restore electricity to thousands of homes last night after storms wreaked havoc, leaving three people dead.

In Scotland, prolonged power cuts delayed Christmas dinner for up to 8000 householders in Dumfries and Galloway when lines were brought down by winds gusting up to 90mph. ScottishPower electricians worked round the clock and had re-connected all but a handful of customers by 8pm.

As its linesmen worked full-out to repair the damage, the emergency switchboard at ScottishPower was jammed with calls from consumers.

Mr Gordon Christie, regional manager for Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders, said: ''A power cut is bad enough at any time but we realise it is 10 times worse on Christmas Day and we can only apologise to consumers.''

Emergency services are bracing themselves for a second wave of devastation today, with more stormy conditions predicted, mainly south of the Border.

The weather centre in Glasgow said Scotland was unlikely to face a repeat of the buffeting it had experienced yesterday, adding that the weather was set to get milder and calmer towards the weekend.

Hopes were fading last night for the five-man crew of a French-owned trawler which went missing in fierce storms in the Irish Sea on Christmas Eve. A full-scale search was called off until first light today.

A major air-sea rescue operation had been launched for the crew of the Brittany-registered vessel Toul an Trez, which was believed to have sunk 35 miles off the coast of West Wales.

Aircraft and a flotilla of French and British fishing vessels scoured the seas for survivors from the 50ft vessel.

Wreckage believed to have come from the 25-year-old boat's wheelhouse was found floating near where an emergency beacon was discovered.

Coastguard crews were waiting on the coastline south of St. Anne's Head, South Wales, hoping that if the crew have survived in dinghies, the high winds and tidal currents would have taken them close to the shoreline.

Five rescue helicopters took part in the search, co-ordinated by Milford Haven Coastguard, including one RAF Nimrod from Kinloss.

An Irish rescue helicopter with heat-seeking equipment from Shannon, and French and English vessels in the area, along with lifeboat crews, also joined in.

Mr Eric Ninnes, of the Milford Haven Coastguard, said: ''We aim to resume the search at first light tomorrow, but we must accept that hopes are fading of finding the missing fishermen.''

The gale force winds blocked scores of roads across the UK with fallen trees and masonry, causing three fatalities. On the Wirral peninsula, falling trees caused two serious road accidents and closed a number of roads.

A 32-year-old woman from Stoke on Trent visiting friends in the area was killed when a tree crushed her car. In another incident, a woman driver died and her passenger was injured in an accident with another car in the Penny Lane area of Liverpool.

In the south-west of the Irish Republic, a man died and his brother was injured when a wall collapsed as winds gusting at more than 100mph lashed in from the Atlantic.

The 19-year-old man, who died in Waterville, County Kerry, was trapped under rubble when the wall of a disused dance hall was blown down.

His brother escaped with only slight injuries.

For once, the north of Scotland escaped the worst of the appalling conditions and Perth-based HydroElectric drafted 10 land rovers and 19 staff down to Warrington in Cheshire, where ScottishPower's sister company, Manweb, was struggling to cope with the number of downed power lines.

A spokeswoman for HydroElectric said English power workers had been sent north at Christmas two years ago, when homes in northern Scotland were hit by a severe freeze, and the company was happy to return the favour.

She added: ''This is one of a number of reciprocal arrangements which exist between power companies. Fortunately, our customers have escaped the really bad weather, so we are able to help out elsewhere.''

The return of stormy weather to North Wales later in the day hampered the efforts of 300 Manweb engineers who were spending Christmas Day repairing damaged

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power cables. At one point more than 21,000 customers in the area were without electricity, mainly in the Caernarvon, Holywell and Wrexham areas, with extra staff drafted in.

A spokeswoman said the company was advising customers that they could experience a ''prolonged'' black-out as repair work was dangerous.

Elsewhere in the North-west, almost 4000 homes were without power in Cheshire, but on Merseyside around 3000 properties got their electricity back after several hours. Small pockets of Greater Manchester were also blacked out for a time.

The situation in Cumbria and Lancashire was more serious, with electricity company Norweb re-porting power loss in 50,000 properties. Damaged cables and a fault at a Lancashire sub-station were to blame and by lunchtime 20,000 homes had their power back on.

Police in Blackpool said part of one of the town's historic piers was badly damaged. A spokesman said around 100 metres of the jetty of the North Pier was washed away into the sea during the high winds.

He added: ''It appears that there has been no structural damage to the theatre which is on the pier but a large part of the jetty behind it has gone.''