Bheir tunail nan eilean crathadh air bun-reachd an tuath gu leir, le Murray MacLeòid​​​​​​​

An-dràsta ’s a-rithist, cluinnidh sinn mu thunail mhìorbhaileach a cheanglas na h-Eileanan Siar ri tìr-mòr agus tha sinn air a bhith a’ cluinntinn barrachd mu dheidhinn bho thòisich na h-aiseagan a’ dol a dholaidh.

Tha rathaidean an Eilein Sgitheanaich gu math trang mar a tha (Dealbh: Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Tha rathaidean an Eilein Sgitheanaich gu math trang mar a tha (Dealbh: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

[English-language version below]

Thog a’ chùis ceann a-rithist an t-seachdain-sa aig deasbad comataidh na còmhdhail aig Pàrlamaid na h-Alba.

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Thuirt riochdaire bho Iomairt na Gàidhealtachd is nan Eilean gum bu chòir coimhead ris mar dhòigh air gluasad air falbh bho aiseagan, a tha cho mòr an urra ris an aimsir agus rudan a’ dol ceàrr.

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Ach, tha dà rud eadar-dhealaichte an seo. A’ chiad rud, ‘s e tunailean a’ ceangal eilean ri eilean, a bhios feumail annta fhèin agus a bu chòir a bhith furasta gu leòr a thoirt gu buil, ged a bhios iad cosgail.

’S e an dàrna rud, agus rud a tha gu math diofraichte, tunail a cheanglas na h-eileanan ri tìr-mòr, a bhios gu math nas motha agus a tha nas duilghe fhaicinn ann an seagh practaigeach.

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Faodar gabhail ris, ma tha e idir a’ dol a thachairt, gur ann air an t-slighe as giorra a bhios e: Beinn a’ Bhaghla chun an Eilein Sgitheanaich, mu 16 mìle.

No an roghainn eile, a’ ceangal Leòdhas ri Ulapul, a’ leantainn an t-slighe aiseig as trainge; ’s e 50 mìle a tha sin. Tha sin dà uiread cho fada ri tunail Chaolais Shasainn. Faodaidh sinn a-rèist sin fhàgail far a bheil e.

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Thathas an-dràsta a’ coimhead ri tunail, ach tha e ri fhaicinn dè cho coileanta ’s a bhios an rannsachadh sin agus am bi e a' toirt a-staigh nan diofar cheistean poileataigeach is dealbhaidh.

Tha fhios gun gabh tunail de 16 mìle a dhèanamh – nach tric a tha sinn cluinntinn, ‘Uill, tha i aig na h-Eileanan Fàrach, carson nach eil i againne?’ – agus gun teagamh bhiodh i a’ ciallachadh ceangal fad na bliadhna, fad na h-ùine.

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Ach, gu càite?

Cha bhi ceangal sam bith leis an Eilean Sgitheanach idir furasta. Cha bhi muinntir Eilean a’ Cheò idir air an dòigh leis na tha sin de thrafaig a bharrachd air na rathaidean aca, a tha truagh mar-thà, ‘s mar sin, bhiodh tu ag iarraidh orra gabhail ri suidheachadh anns nach eil iad fhèin a’ faighinn buannachd sam bith, dha-riribh ‘s ann a bhios cùisean nas miosa dhaibh. ‘S e argamaid glè dhuilich a bhios ann a sin.

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‘S an uair sin, dè thachras às dèidh an Eilein Sgitheanaich? Tha e trì uairean a thide eadar ceann a tuath an eilein agus An Gearasdan, agus a-rithist air rathaidean nach eil ach cugallach agus ainmeil airson droch thubaistean.

An-dràsta nuair a thig e gu siubhal, ‘s e Ulapul as trainge ri linn is gu bheil barrachd sluaigh ann an Leòdhas.

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Ach, nan tigeadh tunail, tha fhios gun tigeadh cur às do leithid de sheirbheis agus ged is dòcha a bhiodh muinntir Steòrnabhaigh agus na companaidhean deònach siubhail sìos a Bheinn a’ Bhaghla airson uair thìde, tron tunail, trì uairean a thìde eile dhan Ghearasdan agus uair a thìde eile gu ruige Glaschu, ‘s e ceist eile a tha ann dè thachradh dha Ulapul bochd.

‘S e fìrinn na cùise nuair a thig e gu tunail nach urrainnear dìreach coimhead oirre tro shùilean nan eilean a-mhàin. Bidh e a’ ciallachadh crathadh mòr ann an bun-reachd an tuath agus an iar gu lèir agus mar a tha companaidhean is eile ag obrachadh.

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Gus an tig aithne cheart a thoirt dhan a sin, a’ gabhail a-steach nan cosgaisean, gach cuid sòisealta agus ann an dha-rìribh, cha bhi ann an tunail nan eilean ach aisling nach tig beò gu sìorraidh.

English-language version:

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Every so often the prospect of a tunnel linking the Outer Hebrides to the mainland rears its head, although usually on terms which bear little resemblance to reality.

It’s been a lot more prominent in recent months due to the disastrous failings of the ferry service and no doubt for some it’s been a convenient deflection.

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The matter was raised once again during a debate of the transport committee at the Scottish Parliament when a representative from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, in very general terms, said that the issue should be looked at as a means of moving away from weather-dependent and breakdown-inclined ferries.

But there are two separate matters at play here. The first is tunnels to link the islands internally, which would obviously create increased economic and social interaction within the island group itself, and is (at least technically) perfectly feasible, if costly.

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The other is the rather more different, altogether more expensive and difficult to fathom prospect of a tunnel to the mainland.

Taking it as a given that if it’s all in the remotest sense serious, it would be between the two shortest points: ie, Benbecula to Skye, a distance of some 16 miles.

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The other alternative, linking the population centre of Lewis to Ullapool, the existing main busiest ferry route, is some 50 miles. For context, that’s double the length of the Channel Tunnel. So, safe to say that can be parked where it is.

The proposal of a tunnel to Benbecula is being looked at seriously, but it remains to be seen how extensive that will be and whether it’s based on political and planning reality.

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Of course, a 16-mile stretch of tunnel is feasible from an engineering point of view – the oft quoted banality is, “well, the Faroese have done it so why can’t we” – and it would, clearly, create better round-the-clock access to the mainland.

But, to where exactly? Any link through Skye would be far from straight forward.

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All that extra traffic and lorries churning over its already crumbling road structure is unlikely to find favour with the populace there, who will be asked to accept major inconvenience for a gain that will not be theirs. As if they didn’t have summer gridlock as is. A case of good luck with that.

Then there is what happens after Skye, or before it, depending on your perspective. It’s a three-hour journey from the further reaches of Skye to Fort William and again on roads which are already stretched to the limit and full of known accident blackspots.

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Right now, when it comes to island travel, the busiest link is through Ullapool and Inverness, on account of Stornoway and Lewis’s higher populations.

Presumably, after a tunnel, no such service would exist which – if the people of Lewis and their businesses are happy to travel an hour down to Benbecula, through the tunnel, three hours then to Fort William and another hour to Glasgow (a five-hour straight drive on a good day) – would leave Ullapool a relative ghost town, stripped of its ferry port status. Again that’s going to be a hard sell to a community which stands to be directly affected.

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Even leaving aside the cost implications, the truth is that a tunnel to the Outer Hebrides cannot be assessed in isolation, merely through the prism of what it will mean for the islands. It will affect the entire infrastructure and business relationships of the north-west of Scotland and many of the islands’ closest neighbours.

Until that reality is addressed, it will remain as many people instinctively view it: a nice pipe dream that is unlikely to happen. And, meanwhile, it can all be sorted by having a decent ferry service.

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