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For Isle of Skye, a bridge to 'progress'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ABOARD THE ISLE OF CUMBRAE -- Norman MacDonald will miss the mornings, when shafts of red and yellow sunlight peak over the mountains and reflect off the water, when anxious tourists drive onto a ferry for a 10-minute journey back in time and "over the sea" to a misty paradise called the Isle of Skye.

"I've seen a lot in this job," Mr. MacDonald says, piloting the squat, floating parking lot from Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland to Kyleakin on Skye. "I've gone through storms. Gone through winters. It's sad to move on. But that's progress."

Today, a ferry service closes and one more bit of the past vanishes with the opening of a bridge to the Isle of Skye. The Skye Bridge, a 770-meter ribbon of concrete, is the island's first tenuous connection with the western Scotland mainland since the Ice Age.

But don't expect the islanders to come out en masse to celebrate the engineering marvel built since 1992. The privately funded project cost $40 million, leaving them with the most expensive toll bridge in Europe; it costs $8.50 to cross each way during the height of the summer tourist season.

Even though the toll matches the current ferry fare, a lot of islanders are furious. Sure, they'll get steep discounts, and the promise that once the bridge has been paid off in 18 years, the tolls will go away. Still, in Britain, tolls are a recent phenomenon. In a country where a motorist can drive 650 miles from London to the base of the bridge for free, an $8.50 toll to go less than a mile isn't just steep -- it seems like highway robbery.

Some locals are also fearful that the bridge will somehow change life on Skye, that it will bring the island that much closer to the ills -- and traffic jams -- that afflict the rest of modern society.

And then, there's just the look of the thing. The architects did their best to make the bridge blend into the scenery, using two spans that resemble a sea gull in flight. But it is jarring to see a bridge -- however tasteful -- in one of the more remote and rugged areas of Europe.

"Hideous, isn't it?" Clodagh Mackenzie says, looking at the bridge that cuts through what was once the edge of her back yard on a bluff overlooking the tiny Skye port town of Kyleakin. "It is a horror."

Mrs. Mackenzie and her late husband came to Skye 40 years ago to get away from it all, to tend a garden, to revel in a place where rain and mist give way to dazzling sunlight. From the back edge of their 25-acre yard, they once had one of the finer views in all of Scotland. The aqua water of the Inner Sound. A crescent beach. A lighthouse. And mountains reaching to the sky in the north and south.

Now, Mrs. Mackenzie, an 80-year-old who can hike farther than men half her age, is left looking at the base of the bridge.

"It was peaceful," she says. "Really peaceful. Now, let me know if you see my beach. It's under the bridge somewhere."

The blessing and the curse of Skye through the ages is that it has always been a tough place to reach. Wedged in the Inner Hebrides, the island is in full view of western Scotland, so close, yet somehow, so far away.

Samuel Johnson was buffeted by the seas on his 1773 journey to Skye and mystified by the island's hardened residents, the cottager who "grows old over his oaten cakes, like a citizen at a turtle feast."

Hunter-gatherers, Celtic missionaries and Norsemen all called the place home. So did the great Scottish chiefs, who established clans filled with farmers and warriors.

Skye was the setting for Bonnie Prince Charlie's dramatic escape "over the sea" in 1746, as the Jacobites made a final attempt to secure the British throne for the Stuarts. When the rebellion was finally quashed, the clans came under the thumb of British government. Over the next century, the chiefs turned from protectors to exploiters, clearing the land of their people to make way for sheep farming. From a high of 23,074 inhabitants in 1841, the population on the island dropped to a low of 7,700.

Today, nearly 12,000 people live on Skye.

Road signs are written in Gaelic and English. A herd of sheep can cause a traffic jam. There are spots on the island where the road narrows to a lane and a half.

But don't be misled. Skye is hardly unspoiled territory. In summer, tour buses roam the roads like buffalo, and the island's 2,000 guest rooms are filled with tourists from the United States, Japan and Germany.

Yet, there are some who say that without the ferry from Lochalsh to Kyleakin, the magic may be gone. There still will be two other, smaller ferries running from the mainland to the island in the summer, but it just won't be the same.

The Lochalsh-Kyleakin ferry was in existence as early as 1841, though it was hardly first-class. One early traveler called it "detestable, at least for carriages!" But for more than a century, the ferry did its job, hauling goods and vehicles over the sea in ever-changing weather.

This is an area where bright blue skies can be replaced by pouring rain and 100-mile-an-hour wind gusts in an instant.

"You have to be careful out here," says Mr. MacDonald, 32, a ferry pilot for 13 years.

For the past 20 years, it has been tough for the ferry workers to keep pace with the rise in auto traffic. Even with two ferries running 24 hours a day, the traffic often backed up at the ports in hourlong lines.

When the bridge opens, 27 of the 38 workers will lose their jobs with Caledonian MacBrayne company, the ferry operator. Mr. MacDonald is among 11 workers who will transfer to different lines that service other islands in western Scotland.

"I could have grown to be very bitter about this," he says. "We carried all of the raw materials over to Skye to build this bridge. We've seen it start from nothing and take form and rise up. And now our jobs are gone. Market forces dictate there won't be passengers for a ferry, when you've got a bridge right next door. I understand that. Some of the others don't."

There was talk in recent months of some of the old ferrymen starting up another service. But the project never progressed beyond words.

"Everyone knew the bridge was coming," says Donald MacLeod, 42, unemployed after 22 years on the ferry. "In the back of our minds I guess we thought, 'Oh, they'll never get the bridge done. Well, they have.' "

In many ways, the bridge is a marvel, a testament to the ruling Conservative government's plan to put road and bridge building into the hands of private investors.

The bridge was constructed in harsh weather and completed on time by a British-German consortium, Miller-Dywidag. But there are already cracks as large as eight feet in the structure. And then, there are the tolls.

Even those who wanted the bridge are aghast at paying sky-high tolls.

"We needed the bridge, we got tired of waiting for the ferry. We got tired of the car lines outside our hotel. But put in big block capitals that we're against the tolls," says Ian Sikorski, owner of the White Heather Hotel in Kyleakin.

Sir Iain Noble, chairman of the Skye Bridge and owner of more than 20,000 acres on the island, says the tolls are a necessary evil. The bridge, he says, will help the island develop economically.

"The more traffic we get, the quicker we'll pay off the bridge," Sir Iain says.

A bridge is opening, and an era is coming to an end. But on Skye, nature has the last word. There is the land and the sea and the sky. And there will still be brilliant mornings, when the sun rays clear the mountains and light up the water.

The view from the bridge should be a stunner.

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