Completed bridge spans Skye's sea of discontent

Controversial pounds 30m road link is about to open, but opponents plan to reintroduce a ferry service. John Arlidge reports
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Travellers have, for centuries, sailed "over the sea" to the Isle of Skye. From Bonnie Prince Charlie to today's Japanese tourists who strike up Flora MacDonald's refrain "Speed bonnie boat" as they board the ferry, the road to the Isle ends at the Kyle of Lochalsh. It is there that Hebridean adventures begin.

Yesterday, however, the romance of the sea-borne crossing to "the Misty Isle" was consigned to history when the last 80-ton section of the Skye bridge was lowered into place. The grey concrete span is now complete and for the first time since the Ice Age the island and the mainland are one. Later this year when the bridge opens, the two Caledonian MacBrayne ferries which ply the half-mile (800m) channel between Kyle and Kyleakin will disappear.

Three years after work on the privately financed crossing began, Sir Iain Noble, the merchant banker who is chairman of Skye Bridge, said yesterday its completion was a "blessing". At a ceremony on the top of the 120ft-high (36m) span, Sir Iain insisted drivers would welcome the "new, quick and convenient" route to Portree, the Cuillins and beyond. The crossing would also provide a much-needed boost to the island's economy.

But islanders, who initially welcomed the bridge, are not so sure. Many are angry at the high tolls - pounds 5.20 each way for cars and more than pounds 30 for lorries and coaches make the crossing the most expensive in Europe. Others argue that the bridge is so high that it will be forced to close in strong winds. The Government's insistence that the CalMac ferries be scrapped to allow the Anglo-German contractors to recoup the pounds 30m construction costs, means, locals say, that travellers will be left stranded during winter months.

The fears have prompted a group of local retired businessmen to lay plans for a replacement ferry - a rival to the bridge and the Government's policy of private sector road building. Bob Danskin, an accountant and entrepreneur who lives in Kyleakin, says the Skye Boat Company has already raised pounds 30,000 - half of it from an anonymous donor. The company's 200 trustees will raise another pounds 30,000 by the autumn to buy a six-car and 50-passenger ferry. The fare will be around pounds 4 with discounts for regulars.

Mr Danskin was confident the ferry would be in operation when the bridge opened and the CalMac ferries were scrapped. "A ferry is the most reliable and flexible way of getting people from the mainland on to Skye," he said. "It's good for locals and we also know that many travellers want to sail 'over the sea'. We are not in it for the money - we simply believe that the ferry is best and, yes, it will preserve the romance."

The proposal, welcomed by locals in Kyleakin who say they will never use the bridge, was dismissed as unhelpful by Sir Iain yesterday. "The level of tolls is spelled out by an Act of Parliament. We cannot alter them," he said. "If some people choose to use a private ferry instead, others will have to go on paying the tolls for a much longer period. Every person who pays now, brings nearer the day when these high tolls will cease."

Whether or not the "clang clatter" of ferry ramps is still heard on the slipways of the Kyle of Lochalsh next year, one thing is certain; Skye will remain an "Isle". Ordnance Survey map makers said yesterday they would continue to use the "Isle of Skye" unless Highland Regional Council voted for a change. Howard Brindley, the council's deputy director of planning, said: "There's no chance of that. As far as we are concerned the place is still surrounded by water. Bridge or no bridge, it will always be an island."

n Photographs (clockwise, from top left) by Brian Harris, Drew Farrell and Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.