For Isle of Skye, a bridge to 'progress'

Sun Journal

October 16, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,LONDON BUREAU OF THE SUN

ABOARD THE ISLE OF CUMBRAE -- Norman MacDonald will miss the mornings, when shafts of red and yellow sunlight peak over the mountains and reflect off the water, when anxious tourists drive onto a ferry for a 10-minute journey back in time and "over the sea" to a misty paradise called the Isle of Skye.

"I've seen a lot in this job," Mr. MacDonald says, piloting the squat, floating parking lot from Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland to Kyleakin on Skye. "I've gone through storms. Gone through winters. It's sad to move on. But that's progress."

Today, a ferry service closes and one more bit of the past vanishes with the opening of a bridge to the Isle of Skye. The Skye Bridge, a 770-meter ribbon of concrete, is the island's first tenuous connection with the western Scotland mainland since the Ice Age.

But don't expect the islanders to come out en masse to celebrate the engineering marvel built since 1992. The privately funded project cost $40 million, leaving them with the most expensive toll bridge in Europe; it costs $8.50 to cross each way during the height of the summer tourist season.

Even though the toll matches the current ferry fare, a lot of islanders are furious. Sure, they'll get steep discounts, and the promise that once the bridge has been paid off in 18 years, the tolls will go away. Still, in Britain, tolls are a recent phenomenon. In a country where a motorist can drive 650 miles from London to the base of the bridge for free, an $8.50 toll to go less than a mile isn't just steep -- it seems like highway robbery.

Some locals are also fearful that the bridge will somehow change life on Skye, that it will bring the island that much closer to the ills -- and traffic jams -- that afflict the rest of modern society.

And then, there's just the look of the thing. The architects did their best to make the bridge blend into the scenery, using two spans that resemble a sea gull in flight. But it is jarring to see a bridge -- however tasteful -- in one of the more remote and rugged areas of Europe.

"Hideous, isn't it?" Clodagh Mackenzie says, looking at the bridge that cuts through what was once the edge of her back yard on a bluff overlooking the tiny Skye port town of Kyleakin. "It is a horror."

Mrs. Mackenzie and her late husband came to Skye 40 years ago to get away from it all, to tend a garden, to revel in a place where rain and mist give way to dazzling sunlight. From the back edge of their 25-acre yard, they once had one of the finer views in all of Scotland. The aqua water of the Inner Sound. A crescent beach. A lighthouse. And mountains reaching to the sky in the north and south.

Now, Mrs. Mackenzie, an 80-year-old who can hike farther than men half her age, is left looking at the base of the bridge.

"It was peaceful," she says. "Really peaceful. Now, let me know if you see my beach. It's under the bridge somewhere."

The blessing and the curse of Skye through the ages is that it has always been a tough place to reach. Wedged in the Inner Hebrides, the island is in full view of western Scotland, so close, yet somehow, so far away.

Samuel Johnson was buffeted by the seas on his 1773 journey to Skye and mystified by the island's hardened residents, the cottager who "grows old over his oaten cakes, like a citizen at a turtle feast."

Hunter-gatherers, Celtic missionaries and Norsemen all called the place home. So did the great Scottish chiefs, who established clans filled with farmers and warriors.

Skye was the setting for Bonnie Prince Charlie's dramatic escape "over the sea" in 1746, as the Jacobites made a final attempt to secure the British throne for the Stuarts. When the rebellion was finally quashed, the clans came under the thumb of British government. Over the next century, the chiefs turned from protectors to exploiters, clearing the land of their people to make way for sheep farming. From a high of 23,074 inhabitants in 1841, the population on the island dropped to a low of 7,700.

Today, nearly 12,000 people live on Skye.

Road signs are written in Gaelic and English. A herd of sheep can cause a traffic jam. There are spots on the island where the road narrows to a lane and a half.

But don't be misled. Skye is hardly unspoiled territory. In summer, tour buses roam the roads like buffalo, and the island's 2,000 guest rooms are filled with tourists from the United States, Japan and Germany.

Yet, there are some who say that without the ferry from Lochalsh to Kyleakin, the magic may be gone. There still will be two other, smaller ferries running from the mainland to the island in the summer, but it just won't be the same.

The Lochalsh-Kyleakin ferry was in existence as early as 1841, though it was hardly first-class. One early traveler called it "detestable, at least for carriages!" But for more than a century, the ferry did its job, hauling goods and vehicles over the sea in ever-changing weather.

This is an area where bright blue skies can be replaced by pouring rain and 100-mile-an-hour wind gusts in an instant.

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