16 October 1995 is a date firmly etched into the Isle of Skye’s history. That day, the Skye Bridge was officially opened, seeing the island connected to the mainland by road for the first time. This brought many opportunities for the island’s residents and businesses, but was not without initial controversy. For its twenty fifth anniversary, this article will explore the Bridge’s economic picture as well as some of the reasons for the controversy that followed. As Skye man Robert Danskin observed in his work about the Bridge, “Apart from the Clearances, few events in the Highlands and Islands can have been as controversial as the Skye Bridge…”
When Michael Forsyth, then Secretary of State for Scotland, undertook the role of opening the bridge, he was met with a large amount of booing from the crowd who had gathered to witness such an occasion. It may seem puzzling to the onlookers now why the locals would feel negatively about such an important event in their island’s history. Skye residents, on the whole, were very much in favour of the bridge as they realised the benefits that being connected to the mainland would bring. However, the story of the Skye Bridge is, unfortunately for the residents, not a simple one.
Understanding the economic picture helps us to grapple with these negative reactions. The Skye Bridge was not going to be free to cross; a toll of £4.20 each way would be required, rising to £5.10 in the peak summer months. This would also be applicable to Skye’s residents, which resulted in making it a very pricey affair for those who wished to leave the island, and a particular annoyance for those who did so frequently. The toll charges also had an effect on the number of tourists visiting the island, with many turning away once they realised how much they would actually have to pay. Previously, the main access route to Skye had been via a ferry operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (also known as CalMac) where locals benefited from discounted or, in many cases, free travel. During the building of the bridge, locals were promised that the cost of the toll would not be more than that of the ferry. In the years leading up to the opening of the bridge, the price of the ferry would rise and rise. This did little to appease locals who were already disheartened by the fact that there was going to be a toll.
Another cause of concern for those on Skye was how high the toll charge was in comparison to other toll crossings in Scotland at that time. Both the Forth Road Bridge and Tay Bridge charged approximately 50p, with the tolls only being payable in one direction. The reason beyond the large difference in the cost of crossing the Skye Bridge was due to the way this structure had been funded. Significantly, the Skye Bridge was the first Private Finance Initiative (hereafter PFI) implemented by the Conservative government of the time (the following Labour government would continue to use PFIs). Put simply, PFIs see the government utilise private money to build public projects –often hospitals and schools. The Isle of Skye was the first British community to have a PFI project imposed on them and, unfortunately for Skye, it came at a personal cost too. The idea behind PFIs is that they are alleged to save the taxpayer money; however, in the last 25 years this has been shown to be far from the case, especially by the example of Skye Bridge.
As more information became available about the bridge, it become apparent that the Bank of America was a key financial player in this project, which did little to quell the anger on Skye. As a result of it being a PFI project, the bridge toll was being operated by a US-based private company, Skye Bridge Company Ltd. A further grievance to locals was that the profit being made via the toll charges was not being put into the local economy or even staying in the country. Many locals have expressed the belief that Skye was chosen as the first PFI for political reasons. They believe it was an experiment by the Conservative party, who did not risk losing a seat in the parliament if it went wrong. It would appear that there is some gravity in these statements, which is something to be explored further by historians.
These feelings of anger, unfairness, and a lack of trust in the government’s handling of the Skye Bridge project resulted in two local protest groups being established in attempt to have the toll charges abolished. It would be impossible for a piece of this length to enter into a discussion of the roles of these groups and do it justice. Their fight continued into the twenty-first century and the toll charge was finally abolished in 2004. At some level, it would appear that the protests went on for so long due to the governments lack of understanding and awareness of the Highlands and Islands region. In 2004 the then Scottish Executive bought the Skye Bridge Company Ltd. out of their contract at a cost of £27million. The official cost of the building of the Bridge was £20million, with an estimated £33million being collected in tolls over the nine-year period. It is unclear how much profit was actually made as these documents are closed from public eyes due to remaining classed as ‘commercially confidential.’ It seems that the claim PFIs save the taxpayer money are very much null in void in this case.
Since the introduction of the free crossing, tourism is very much booming in Skye. There are no barriers, physically or financially, to driving across from the mainland which has been a great boost to local businesses across the island. However, there are now discussions about overcrowding of the island due to the sheer number of tourists coming – a current area of conflict which the island must grapple with and find workable solutions to. Over the last week, various newspapers across the country have covered aspects of the Skye Bridge in the lead up to its quarter-century anniversary. It has been intriguing to see how they have tackled its complicated, and at times unbelievable, history.
This article is very much an introduction to this complicated history, with there being a wealth more to this story including the anti-toll protest movement. It is, thus far, an area not well populated by historians despite the wealth of elements to research. The events, it must be remembered, are not too far in the past – one protestor even questions whether it can be classified as history at all due to its very recent nature. With time, more historians will hopefully come and help the process of grappling with this significant period in Skye’s history.
Written by Mhairi Ferrier
Amos, I. ‘Over the sea to Skye: island life after 25 years with the bridge.’ Scotland on Sunday. 11th October 2020.
Anderson, A. The Skye Bridge Story: Multinational Interests and People Power. Argyll Publishing, 2008.
Danksin, R. The Skye Bridge: An Unfinished Story. Broadford, West Highland Publishing Company, 1997.
Monbiot, G. The Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain. London: Pan Macmillan, 2001.
The Battle of Skye Bridge. Directed by John MacLaverty. BBC Scotland, 2019.