DAVID ROSS and STEWART PATERSON IT has been a long week for the islanders. Even at the best of times, the 200 residents on Luing and the 70 on Easdale have a hard road to travel to reach the mainland.

First, they have to take the ferry across narrow stretches of water to the island of Seil.

Then they have to head through Seil to Clachan Bridge, leaving them a few miles south-west of Kilninver and the main road to Oban.

But this week has not been the best of times. Thanks to strike action by Argyll and Bute Council staff over the imposition of a new pay grading system, they have been left stranded. Luing and Easdale were the only two islands to have been left without any ferry service.

Yesterday, you could detect a collective sigh of relief from both communities as the unions announced that the industrial action was being suspended.

For the past three days, 10-year-old Simon Fraser has been taken to school by his mother, Jan, in her dinghy.

With no ferry serving Easdale this week she has made the trip across the water, morning and afternoon. Without her little boat with its outboard motor she would have had to take time off work and Simon would have been kept off school on Seil Island near Oban.

The islanders have relied on their community spirit to see them through, with those who own boats helping those who do not.

The island has houses and a community hall but no other amenities. Shops, doctors, chemists, schools and anything else that is needed involves a trip to Oban.

Mrs Fraser said: "If I wanted Simon to get to school I had to bring him across myself. The weather has been OK this week, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to do it.

"Some people have not been off the island since the strike started. If the weather was poor we would all have been stuck as we wouldn't take the risk without the ferrymen. I also have to get to Oban for my job as a picture framer."

Local builder Mike Mackenzie has also made the trip in his rib boat, to get his wife to Oban for her job as a teacher. He said: "Many islanders have their own small boats but some wouldn't cross in poor weather or in winter, so we rely on the ferrymen. I had to cancel a dentist appointment, and my wife and sister have had to start work later and leave early to make sure it is light when we cross the water.

"There is a self-help culture among island communities. We will do what we can for one another, so people have been running errands to Oban and giving lifts to those that need to go for work."

A permanent link either by bridge or causeway is being investigated by officials, but there seems little appetite among the islanders despite them being almost cut off this week. The island has no roads and only a small passenger ferry.

On Luing, where a ferry ran yesterday for the first time since Saturday, children have not been at school, the shop has almost run out of provisions and the community nurse, Fiona Cruikshanks, has had to cross in an open boat to ensure that her patients receive care.

She said: "I have been coming back and forth in a small open dinghy carrying blood samples and vital medicines."

The strike may have been much more than an inconvenience to the islanders but, despite it all, their sympathies seem to lie with the striking ferrymen.

Sue Blackwell is one Luing resident who is on their side. She was delighted at the restoration of the island's links across the Cuan Sound. She works in a garage in Oban but hasn't been there for a week.

"I have not been to work since last Thursday. Luckily for me, I have very understanding employers," she said.

"I think there are about 20 people who leave the island each day for work but unless they have access to a boat themselves they haven't been going to work.

"The man who lives at the caravan site has kindly been bringing the postman over so we have been getting our mail. But everything else, such as dental appointments, have had to be cancelled."

She said there was one retired man who had been due to go into hospital on Monday for heart surgery.

"He set off on Saturday, got as far as Clachan Bridge and the car couldn't get over because of the snow. He came back and had to go over on the passenger boat on the Sunday."

Ms Blackwell added: "But our sympathy this week is definitely with the ferrymen and we understand why they have had to take this action."

The unions say that some members stand to lose between £5000 and £6000 a year under the council's single status pay structure.

Pro-ferrymen sentiment seems to be running the same way on Easdale Island.

Sandra Melville, is chairwoman of the Easdale Island Trust community development company. She is also the pharmacist at the Lorn and the Isles Hospital in Oban.

This week she has been starting her journey to work by being taken to Seil in a small inflatable boat and the same on the return journey.

"It just depends if you have somebody with a small boat to take you over."

She said that it has meant that a lot of people haven't been able to travel and a lot of the children have missed school, either the primary on Seil or the secondary school in Oban.

But again her sympathies are with the ferrymen.

"The low pay and low esteem in which ferrymen are held by the council is indicative of an island bias which sees islanders as second-class citizens in direct contradiction to the sentiments expressed on the council website and in the corporate plan in which they profess to be falling overboard' to help island communities.

"The ferrymen do a great job and are responsible in a sense for the wellbeing of the whole community. This is not properly acknowledged or appreciated and their pay review has obviously been carried out by someone with no understanding of this.

"It might be instructive for anyone conducting a pay review to stand in an open boat in winter weather for 12 hours a day."

But the experience hasn't converted her to the idea of a bridge.

"The majority don't want a bridge - they just want a decent ferry service," she added.

The strike action has also been felt on the island of Bute, from which scores of workers commute to Glasgow and the west coast mainland each day.

The main Wemyss Bay to Rothesay service has been off, not because the local authority owns the ferry, but because it owns the island pier.

For the duration, Bute has been served only by the Colintraive to Rhubodach service where the former Kyle of Lochalsh ferry carries only 36 cars compared to 60 on the Wemyss Bay service.

Peter Wallace, secretary of Bute Community Council, said "It has meant that those people without cars have been effectively cut off, not least the students who commute daily to Glasgow or Greenock."