As the minibus rumbled over the bridge to the Isle of Skye, our tour guide Jack Lawrie, normally a picture of patriotic enthusiasm, turned sullen. It’s a national disgrace,” he barked, handing over £23.70 for the most expensive bridge toll (per metre) in Europe. “Tourism is down. It’s literally killing the island.”
Six months later and it’s clear Lawrie wasn’t alone in his displeasure. In a deal that reverses the actions of the former Conservative government, the Liberal Democrats have bought back the bridge from Skye Bridge Limited and abolished the toll. Since December 21, motorists have been able to cross to the misty isle scot free.
As hinted at by Lawrie, guide for tour company Wild in Scotland, the fallout for the island’s tourism can only be good. Macbackpackers, a company which has in its five years of existence ferried 30,000 eager visitors round Scotland, now intends to make Skye a much bigger part of its tours.
“Before, we used to drive buses over the bridge as seldom as possible in protest,” says managing director Peter Macmillan. “Now we can go straight over we’ll have more tours to Skye.”
During the nine-year tyranny of the toll, locals joined the action group Skye and Kyle Against Tolls (Skat) which was founded by a man known as Robbie the Pict. Although delighted about not being a “prisoner of the Bank of America” anymore, Robbie is not totally appeased. “People have been used in an ideological experiment to the detriment of the economy of Skye and we have 130 people who received criminal convictions,” he says.
Macmillan was one of the many to acquire a police record as a result of refusing to pay the toll. Like the Skat boss, he believes it should be dropped, but he’s proud of having fought against a situation he believes was holding the island to ransom. “It’s a badge of honour,” he claims, chest- beating only faintly audible.
If a toll bridge became the main point of entry to, say, Deptford, it’s unlikely anyone outside the area would give a damn. So what is it about Skye that makes outsiders like Lawrie, Macmillan and Pict (who moved to Skye to “take up cudgels”) so passionate?
“It’s got one of Europe’s most dramatic and haunting landscapes,” says Macmillan. And once our own tour guide recovered from his outburst, it’s clear he feels the same.
“It’s one of the most magical places I know,” Lawrie says as we park the van by the kelp-covered shore of Loch Slapin. Across the water, Mount Blaven thrusts vertically into the clouds, its jutting ridge emerging ominously above them. The munroe’s wooded gorges and rocky outcrops make it a favourite among many, but today our hiking boots are headed further north, up the less strenuous ascent of the Quiraing. The gentle incline stretches into the distance, and by the time we reach the top our breath is surprisingly short, but the effort pays off. The earth drops sharply away revealing a valley intimidated by huge, bullying towers of rock. At the foot of one stony bulk lies a small lake, giving the impression that the Sphinx has found a watering hole.
Back in the bus, we drive along the jagged coastline of the Trotternish peninsula, past the isolated stone spike known as the Old Man of Storr to a bridge by the Sligachan Hotel at the foot of the Cuillin Ridge, a mountain range which includes 12 of Scotland’s 284 Munroes.
“There’s nothing better than sitting on a bridge hearing stories from Celtic mythology,” announces Lawrie before launching into an impassioned tale about the Warrior Goddess Scathach. After a long, vicious battle with the Ulster Sun God Cuchulainn, she realised she had met her match and named the range after him out of respect. The story of rampaging Gods suits the dramatic backdrop of the Cuillin, whose ice-sculpted peaks are stained varying shades of red, white and black.
From the contrasting hues of the natural world we head to the manmade rainbows of Portree. The houses that front the fishing harbour of Skye’s only real town are painted in different colours to continue the tradition started by sailors wanting to pinpoint their home from sea.
Like the Cuillin Ridge, Portree has its own legend: After his defeat at the Battle of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to Skye with the help of Flora Macdonald. At Portree he gave her a golden locket containing his portrait before setting sail for Raasay.
As we drive back over the bridge, Lawrie explains the epic escape and plays us a rendition of the Skye Boat Song inspired by the tale. “Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on a wing,” the chorus begins, but the tape is stopped abruptly so our guide can mourn the loss of being able to approach Skye by boat.
“When the bridge was built the ferry was closed down to ensure maximum profit for the toll investors in the toll regime,” Robbie the Pict explains later. “They created a monopoly crossing that was tolled and that’s patently unlawful.” With the criminal convictions, fall in tourism and legal uncertainty, there are still many issues surrounding the bridge that need resolving, but at least latest chapter of the history of Skye is the end of the toll. It might not be a legend to match the island’s others, but it’s a story that means Skye’s myth and beauty can now be experienced for free.”