Storm brews over island idyll as council plans to build bridge

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The Independent Online

The island of Easdale lies just 250 yards from mainland Britain, yet it belongs to a time long since forgotten in the rest of the UK.

The island of Easdale lies just 250 yards from mainland Britain, yet it belongs to a time long since forgotten in the rest of the UK.

Free from crime, drugs, roads and cars, it is a utopian community made up of residents from across the UK, and beyond, eager for peace and tranquillity.

But for the inhabitants of the smallest permanently inhabited island of the Inner Hebrides stormy times lie ahead. The local authority, Argyll & Bute Council, has announced proposals to build a bridge linking Easdale with the mainland, destroying a way of life which has existed for centuries.

Situated in the Firth of Lorn, about 15 miles south of Oban, Easdale covers an area of less than 10 hectares and has only about 70 permanent residents.

Once the centre of the British slate industry, it used to have a community of more than 500 working as many as seven quarries, some of which extended down to 300 feet below sea level.

Easdale slate helped to build major cities of the British empire and can still be seen on rooftops as far a field as Melbourne, Nova Scotia, Dunedin or Dublin.

However, times change and the last slate was cut from the rocks in the 1950s and the once active quarries are little more than still pools which provide a safe haven for a wide variety of flora and bird life.

By the early 1960s, the population had dwindled to only four people and the island appeared doomed. But 40 years later, many of the descendants of the original quarrymen, along with others from around the world, have moved to Easdale to create a model of island regeneration.

"Easdale is unique among Scotland's islands," said Mike Mackenzie, a local building contractor who has lived there for 25 years.

"We have increasing number of residents and a healthy population of youngsters. It is a cosmopolitan community with people here from all over the UK and other parts of the world.

"Nobody here locks their doors. Children play safely in and around the cottages watched over by everybody - they are almost communally brought up. But if the council build a road - which nobody here wants - it will destroy the very fabric of the island."

At present, Argyll and Bute Council operates a small, open-topped ferry between Easdale and the neighbouring island of Seil, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge.

Although only a proposal at the moment a bridge would, the council believes, save money and increase safety; Ambulances would be able to reach the island more quickly if a seriously ill patient had to be taken to hospital.

"If anything were to go seriously wrong over there it would be a nightmare," said Duncan McIntyre, a councillor for Argyll and Bute, who, although he doesn't live on the island, has publicly defended the suggestion of a bridge.

"Reality does have to kick in and we have to consider the safest option. The ferry service costs a lot of money."

A recent report to the council found that, in 2004, the operating costs for the Easdale ferry - a 12-seater boat, three minutes each way - were more than £60,000 a year while the income, at £1.40 per return journey, amounted to less than £13,000.

A new bridge or causeway would cost an estimated £850,000, part of which could be met with European grants.

"This is a financial decision not an economic one," claimed Mr Mackenzie, who has become a major voice in the "No Bridge" campaign. "Ten thousand people come to Easdale each year and spend between £200 and £500 each travelling through Argyll to get to us. If just 10 per cent of those people were turned off from coming because we were no longer an island attraction then any money saved from the removal of the ferry and the building of the bridge would be quickly wiped out."

He was backed by Annabel Gregory - a relative newcomer, having lived on the island for just five years - who explained: "I was attracted to the place by its unique atmosphere and community spirit - both of which would be destroyed if the island was joined permanently to the mainland."