One for the new year: BBC ALBA documentary on landmark battle of Skye Bridge tolls

Skye Bridge

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

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13 Responses to One for the new year: BBC ALBA documentary on landmark battle of Skye Bridge tolls

  1. Unfortunately nothing was learned from the Skye PFI as Labour launched a torrent of PFI projects leaving a legacy of toxic debt for future generations.

    PFI is one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated on the public purse. It rigs capital construction prices by maybe +12% to +18%.

    It lays down a legacy of toxic debt, an issue still not fully exposed in the ever deepening debt crisis.

    And in terms of construction, the developer and constructor will push the design and build standards down to the lowest level it can self certify as being to standard.


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  2. Indeed, if the hapless for the most part paying public truly understood PFI they would be rioting in the streets.

    But for the most part they don’t know, they were never expected to know, save only to pay. And like to the banks, pay plenty.

    And as for the legal system of Scotland, Prof Brandon Nolan of Mcgrigor Donald had a fairly clear opinion on the legwlity of the tolling order.

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  3. It’s good that the story is getting wider attention, but it was recounted eloquently, along with other similar tales, in George Monbiot’s “Captive State” over a decade ago. It’s proof of that fact that multi-party democracy only really works when the parties have different policies.

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  4. Adding a £15M subsidy, £33m of toll income, and £26m of buy out money comes to a total of £74 million.

    Compared to the £20m that Audit Scotland say the bridge would have cost through public procurement, one can get an idea of the Klondyke that PFI was for the bankers and the builders.

    What hapless gullible suckers the little people are as we now pay the penalty for the pillage of the public purse so effectively orchestrated by New Labour.

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  5. The Skye bridge would never have been built unless it was paid for under the PFI scheme with tolls to pay back the cost.
    Prior to the Skye bridge being constructed CalMac operated an excellent ferry service running almost 24 hours per day. The main problem was that some “chosen” people were allowed to travel free on the ferries whilst everyone else had to pay the laid down fares.
    When the Skye toll bridge opened every vehicle user had to pay the laid tolls regardless of who they were.

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  6. There was a fascinating, inspirational, story which I hope is true. it is said that farmers returning with empty wagons were’t charged for the return crossing by Calmac – some farmers cooperated with others on the ‘other side’ and had a pig or cow available for instant transport – but the bridge owners refused to offer this concession. On the day of the official opening, an eagle eyed farmer who had noted that the passage of livestock on foot was free, herded his flock of sheep over the bridge.

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  7. Several years ago there was a film report on BBC Scotland Reporting Scotland news programme showing a farmer from Mull taking sheep in his car to Oban. At that time CalMac did not charge farmers for taking their sheep from Mull to Oban by ferry.
    This farmer and his car travelled free because he had a couple of sheep in it. The news report said that the farmer arranged with a farmer on the Mainland to look after his sheep whilst he had a holiday.
    After his holiday the farmer collected his sheep and returned to Mull with no charge for his car as CalMac thought he had bought a couple of sheep at market.
    As usual one “chancer” spoils it for everyone else.

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  8. What is the difference between having tolls on the Skye Bridge and currently having a private monopoly of the vehicle crossing of the Firth of Clyde? I think there were some Government controls on fees on the bridge, there are none on the ferry.

    The Observer has published extracts of letters between CalMac and the Scottish Office in the 1980s. It turns out CalMac essentially got their wrists slapped for daring to lay on extra sailings and reduce public subsidy. They were told “We could not accept any further increase is the number of scheduled sailings since these would be contrary to the spirit of the arrangement for the route”. What agreement for the route and who were parties to it?

    It seems the Scottish Office did not want extra sailings as these might “lead to expectations among the travelling public”. Can’t have the public getting used to a frequent service, heavens no they would use it.

    So Maggies Government seemed to have had an arrangment where they were prepared to pay more subsidy than necessary to CalMac, to keep its sailing frequency down, effectively providing support to Western Ferries.

    Of course it was the present Scottish Government that went the whole hog and put an uncontrolled vehicle monopoly in place. The icing on the cake being they did not manage to create a reliable passenger service, so far this month there have been 13 days of service suspension, cancellations and disruption!

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  9. I hope you have all watched this programme – I did and will watch it again on iPlayer. Fascinating and thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    It might interest people to know that many of my English friends whom I’d asked to visit Skye during the toll years used Glenelg or Mallaig ferries and purely photographed the bridge. Last year, when I had to use the bridge due to bad weather, the stark emptiness of the old toll system brought a smile to my face. I’ve also had six emails from people to whom I brought this programme to their attention to say how informative it was and respect for the people who fought so hard.

    Lest anyone think this is a political statement, it is not. I have no respect for our current policiticians regardless of hue. It is simply a tribute to the power of the people and their tenacity.

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