Skye Bridge tolls were ‘outrageous scam’, says fiscal

It was a campaign that ran for the best part of the decade and has still left cries of injustice ringing out 15 years after victory was claimed.
The Skye Bridge. Picture: GettyThe Skye Bridge. Picture: Getty
The Skye Bridge. Picture: Getty

Now the islanders who fought the tolls on the Skye Bridge have been told that they were an “outrageous scam” – by the man who prosecuted protesters for refusing to pay up.

David Hingston, the Dingwall procurator fiscal at the centre of legal battles with campaigners, claims a “very serious crime” was committed to try to pursue them.

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He suggests that attempts to “paper over” the lack of evidence to justify charging tolls meant that “somebody, somewhere has perverted the course of justice.”

David HingstonDavid Hingston
David Hingston

Appearing in a new BBC Scotland documentary on the campaign against the tolls, Hingston recalled the “ludicrous” levels of secrecy over the details of the original deal the UK government struck with a consortium led by the Bank of America.

The documentary, The Battle Of Skye Bridge, recalls how the campaigners were “absolutely sure” a crucial legal document had been fabricated. Despite this, the 130 convictions have never been overturned.

Robbie the Pict, the activist who was the most high-profile campaigner against the bridge tolls, tells the documentary: “It is a matter of justice. We are still fighting it and we will win it.”

The Scottish Office issued tenders for the bridge in 1989 and contracts for Scotland’s first Private Finance Initiative (PFI) project were agreed in 1991 and the bridge opened in 1995. However its tolls, which eventually rose to £11.40 for a round trip, made it the most expensive bridge in Europe.

Robbie The PictRobbie The Pict
Robbie The Pict

The documentary charts the dogged resistance of many islanders to the tolls, leading to their arrest and prosecution, and recalls how Hingston became a “hate figure” due to his apparent determination to pursue them.

Robbie the Pict recalled how the campaign focused its efforts on the lack of an “assignation statement” providing the legal justification for the Skye Bridge Company to charge the tolls and the leaking of secret documents on its creation, which “arrived outside the Post Office in Portree”. When an assignation statement was finally produced in court, the campaigners thought some of the extracts looked suspiciously familiar.

He added: “We could identify pages stapled together from documents we had been supplied. We were absolutely sure this was fabrication and still are. A fake Crowd production. Think about that.”

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Hingston said: “It was a very important document. If it didn’t exist then the prosecutions are wrong. The ultimate document presented to the court came from the Scottish Office. It looked genuine, full stop. I had no reason to doubt it.

“This document was produced to try to paper over this very large hole in the process. If it is accurate, somebody somewhere has perverted the course of justice.

“It was extremely stressful. In the end, all these prosecutions were in my name. The pressure was really ramped up extremely high. I had a nervous breakdown through stress.

“As a fiscal I had to do what I did, but as a human being and a citizen I thought they were a scam. It should never have happened. It was outrageous.

“One if the main problems with the Skye Bridge is that it is surrounded in secrecy. Everything is apparently financially confidential. It is ludicrous, frankly.”

The documentary also featured an admission from the Scottish Office minister responsible for the project that he harboured regrets over how the protesters, who claimed he branded them “Luddites and lunatics,” were dealt with.

He tells the programme: “I may have said some unwise things in my day. If I was provoked I may have said something I would later wish to withdraw.”

The documentary recalls the demonstrations staged on the Skye Bridge as soon as it opened to motorists, as well as at Dingwall Sheriff Court, in Edinburgh and at Westminster.

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One campaigner, Liz McIntye, tells the programme: “I worked in the Co-op and got the day off and went to Edinburgh. Michael Forsyth (then Scottish Secretary) saw the main body of protesters and walked right ribbed in front of me. A photograph was taken. When I went into work the next day they said: “We’re surprised at you putting your face in here today.I said why and looked at the newspaper stand. Every newspaper had picture of me with my face up to Michael Forsyth. It was a bit embarrassing.

Musician Arthur Cormack, one of the campaigners arrested and put behind bars, said: “his policeman arrived and said he had a warrant for my arrest. I was actually fairly ignorant. I didn’t really know what that meant.

When we were arrested they were debating whether we should be handcuffed or whether that would inflame the situation. They decided not to - we were quite grateful for that, actually.”

Robbie the Pict said: “When the Crown sets its mind against the people it can be a vicious piece of machinery. Some of the protesters were in tears at how they were treated by the law. They were outraged. I was taken away by the police in front of my kids on my birthday.

“The people of Skye were being quite brave to confront the police at the risk of going to court and the likelihood of conviction. But if you are not happy about things you’ve got to do something about it. Imperialists are not known for being kind to you if you just sit in your armchair.”

The Battle of Skye Bridge will be broadcast on the new BBC Scotland channel at 10pm on Tuesday.