On 1st January 2013 BBC ALBA reminds us of the power of direct action when we are angry enough to take wrong from no one,
An hour long film, starting at 20.30, the channel is airing a superb documentary on a landmark contemporary rising – the battle of the Skye Bridge tolls. This was a decade-long running battle that brought a precedent setting victory for the people, showed the value of courage – and gave the world Robbie the Pict and the pivotal political intervention of John Farquhar Munro.
The Skye Bridge opened on 16 Oct 1995; the tolls were abolished on 21 Dec 2004.
BBC ALBA’s programming is, as so often, inspirational.
What better way to hit the first day of a new year – and of a month that is always the pits – than by screening an epic, feel-good story of a modern rebellion.
In their campaign against the tolls on the Skye bridge, plucky Scottish islanders took on the might of the government and the Bank of America – and won.
This is a funny, bittersweet tale of passion, ego, and multi-million financial deals, told through the first-hand testimony of some of those who took part.
The Skye Bridge was the UK’s first Private Finance Initiative [PFI], making an estimated £33m for the Bank of America.
In January 2004, the tollbooths on the Skye Bridge were removed – after ten years of protest, hundreds of arrests – one of the longest-running uprisings in modern Scottish history. You no longer have to pay to go over the Bridge, but do you know why?
The Bridge Rising / An Drochaid is packed with humour, twists and surprises. Telling the inside story for the first time, this film takes you behind closed doors at the main turning-points of the Skye Bridge story. Many of the key players tell their tale, from protesters to politicians, toll-collector to engineer, civil servant to police.
The revelations made include:
- Skye police sergeant Dennis Hyndman – who arrested his neighbours when they refused to pay the tolls on the Bridge emerges as a secret supporter of the anti-toll campaign. ‘If I hadn’t been a police officer I would have been down there protesting along with the rest of them’.
- John Carson, the engineer behind the design and building of the bridge, reveals for the first time his own role in putting together the deal with the Bank of America for the private finance of the bridge. ‘The protestors were a bunch of badly informed opportunists’, says John Carson. ‘There was not a conspiracy. If there was, then you are looking at the master conspirator.’ [This of course makes no mention of the figures involved in what was no more than a government licensed scam.]
- Former Labour Minister Brian Wilson also comments on some of the campaign ringleaders. ‘The attempts of a few individuals to portray themselves as folk heroes are not taken seriously by anybody. The egos were the size of the Cuillins, and I think the inevitability of them falling out was pretty strong.’ [And Brian Wilson and his colleagues in the government of the day were without ego? And never fell out?]
- And indeed the protest campaign did split. The two factions were led by Robbie the Pict and Andy Anderson. The passing years have not softened the clash between them. Robbie on Andy: ‘He might’ve been useful as cannon fodder’. Andy on Robbie: ‘I couldn’t think of one campaign where Robbie had been involved which had been successful. I said to him, you say you’re a good plumber and you’ve mended all the taps in all the houses in this row. But they’re all leaking. After that he wouldn’t talk to me.’
- Former MSP John Farquhar Munro says the Scottish Office civil servants who negotiated the PFI deal ‘didn’t have a clue about the amount of money the Bank of America were taking from the area and the massive profits they were going to make out of this scheme.’ John Farquhar Munro reveals his own brinkmanship in the Lab/Lib coalition that ended the toll regime in 2004. ‘I decided I would be willing to leave the party if they didn’t take the tolls off the bridge. The other members weren’t very happy with me. They’ve taken me off their Christmas card list.’
- The film captures the campaigners’ sense of fun and mischief during the campaign. Drew Miller describes the atmosphere on first day he went to court for refusing to pay the toll: ‘It was like going to the Shinty cup final, or your first pantomime.’
- David Hingston, Procurator Fiscal who dealt with the prosecutions against protesters, says: ‘Their stated intention was to bring Dingwall Sheriff Court to its knees. It started as a flood and became an avalanche. That left me holding the baby, with the bathwater running out very rapidly.’ Hingston confesses how the pressure contributed to his own nervous breakdown. He drops a bombshell, his own personal sympathy for the campaign, that couldn’t be revealed at the time: ‘PFI, in my personal opinion, is a fraud upon the public’.
Some of the costs are still a matter of dispute, but the following estimates are based on figures from Miller Construction and from the National Audit Office report:
- The Skye Bridge could have been delivered as a public project for approx £20m
- The PFI project construction cost approx £40m.
- £25m of that was private investment, £15m was public subsidy from the UK government
- Bridge-users paid the private consortium a total of £33m in tolls
- The Scottish Government paid the private consortium another £26m to buy them out when the tolls were abolished in 2004
We will preview the production before it airs on 1st January 2013.
Notes: The Bridge Rising / An Drochaid is an ambitious film, directed and produced by award winning film-makers Robbie Fraser and Louise Scott. It is a media co-op international co-production with Canada, supported by MG ALBA and Creative Scotland.
A feature-length cinema version due in the Spring, with plans for an accompanying CD which will feature some of the music specially composed for the feature-length film soundtrack.
Creative Scotland is supporting this cinema version of the film; Screen Hi has funded a trainee on the production; media co-op and Watercolour music are developing a CD inspired by music from the forthcoming cinema
The Bridge Rising / An Drochaid ,59 mins, a media co-op Scotland/Canada co-production for BBC ALBA.
Broadcast on BBC Alba Tuesday 1st January 2013 at 8.05 pm, repeated Sunday 6 January 2012 at 8.30 pm