Insight: Is the Boris bridge from Scotland to Ireland on a road to nowhere?

The view across Portpatrick harbour. Photographs: John DevlinThe view across Portpatrick harbour. Photographs: John Devlin
The view across Portpatrick harbour. Photographs: John Devlin
As Boris Johnson gets fired up about his latest pet project, Chris McCall talks to Wigtownshire sceptics about his chances in Scotland’s transport black spot

The residents of Portpatrick have looked on for centuries as grand plans to improve the crossing between Scotland and Ireland have been washed away by the ferocious waves of the North Channel. The picturesque village sits on the Rhins of Galloway, the name given to the distinctive hammerhead peninsula on the southwest edge of the country.

On paper, the distance from here to Larne seems trifling. Just over 20 miles separate Portpatrick from Northern Ireland. Bridges have successfully spanned greater distances in many other parts of the world.

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But those crossings didn’t have to deal with the terrifying depths and changeable weather that seafarers in this remote corner of Scotland know only too well.

“I’ve worked offshore for 25 years, and I would rather face the North Sea on a bad night than the North Channel,” says Calum Currie, who helped lead the local buy-out of Portpatrick’s harbour in 2016.

It’s a Thursday afternoon and, by Wigtownshire’s bracing standards, a fairly calm February day. The sun is dazzlingly bright and the wind, while noticeable, isn’t strong enough to blow you off the pier.

“See that red sandstone block?” Currie points at a colossal stone which sits incongruously on the breakwater. “That weighs around six tonnes. The waves can pick those up and hurl them over the harbour wall. In winter, the swell in the harbour can reach eight feet.”

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The North Channel offers regular reminders of its awesome power. During exceptionally bad weather in December 2018, passengers aboard a P&O ferry bound for Cairnryan feared they were going under when the boat suddenly lurched downwards – toppling articulated lorries like dominos in the process.

It is across such waters that Boris Johnson hopes a bridge can finally be built. Civil servants have been asked to come up with a workable plan for a seemingly impossible challenge.

Residents in the Rhins of Galloway are being asked by the UK government to think big. Instead, they’re more likely to shrug. The Prime Minister’s grand plan is merely the latest contribution to a debate that has spanned four centuries.

“It seems a wee bit fanciful,” is the assessment of June Hoad, chair of Portpatrick community council, who has lived in the area all her life.

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“It would be nice if we were to be consulted in all of this. So far we have heard nothing.”

The question of how best to cross from Scotland to Ireland is one that has never been definitively answered.

Some of the greatest engineering minds of the modern era were determined that Portpatrick was the solution.

John Smeaton, the man hailed as the father of civil engineering, set about in the late 18th century to make the village a suitable port for regular mail packet sailings to and from the Emerald Isle.

He proposed two breakwaters to enclose and protect the village bay. But efforts to construct a northern breakwater failed as a result of the destructive powers of the sea and were abandoned in 1801.

John Rennie expanded on Smeaton’s ideas in 1818. A new south breakwater and lighthouse were dutifully completed by 1836 – only for a storm to undermine the pier head just three years later. Work on the unfinished northern breakwater was soon abandoned.

By 1868 both the mail boats and ferry services had switched from Portpatrick to Stranraer, which sits in the sheltered waters of Loch Ryan.

Fast forward to 2011 and Stena Line quit Stranraer to open a new deep water port in Cairnryan, six miles up the coast – a decision the company insisted was necessary to cut costs and reduce crossing times.

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But few people seem satisfied with the current arrangements, which see both P&O and Stena Line operate from two separate terminals.

For 150 years passengers could alight from the train at Stranraer and kill time in its many pubs or hotels before boarding the ferry. Irish banknotes were accepted by many local businesses.

Now the town’s east pier and its vast lorry park, formerly home to Stena Line, stand empty – a visual reminder of Stranraer’s diminished status.

The current ferry terminals in Cairnryan are grim, utilitarian efforts with few amenities for passengers.

There is no rail link to either dock. The thousands of HGVs that use the ferries must navigate the A77, which runs south from Ayr, or the A75, which runs east from Dumfries.

These roads do not resemble vital economic links between two nations.

It is difficult to describe the depth of unhappiness the A77 and A75 cause the residents of Wigtownshire. Only the A9 to Inverness – which is now being dualled at fantastic cost – can rival their claim to be the most despised trunk roads in the country.

The condition of the roads don’t just affect individuals – it hurts the economy as well.

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Stena Line, P&O and the Belfast harbour authorities last year collectively called on Transport Scotland to upgrade the A75 and A77 to dual carriageway as a matter of priority. The trio said such an investment was required to prevent loss of business to better connected ports in England and Wales.

Transport bosses responded that they had already invested heavily in both routes and ruled out making them dual carriageway along their entire length.

“I’d like to see Boris Johnson drive here without being chauffeured,” says Carly MacDougall, a member of Portpatrick community council, when the subject of his bridge proposal is raised.

Residents in the village have lost loved ones who could not be transferred in time from Stranraer’s small hospital to better equipped facilities in Glasgow.

Locals joke that more babies are born on the road to Dumfries than in the town’s maternity unit itself.

Speak to anyone in Portpatrick or Stranraer about the possibility of a bridge to Ireland and the conversation soon returns to one crucial question: how can they even think about such a project when the existing roads are so bad?

The region’s poor connectivity is an issue the Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press has asked again and again over the years.

It is one of the few weekly newspapers in Scotland not to have fallen into the hands of the big media conglomerates, and unlike many other local titles, retains a visible presence in the centre of the town it serves.

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Jennifer Jones recently moved from Glasgow to Portpatrick after taking up a job as a reporter on the paper. While greatly enjoying her new life, she admits the condition of roads in the area leave a lot to be desired.

“There is a delicate balance,” she said. “It’s a great tourist attraction. People love it down here because it feels empty.

“But you look our through archives and the same arguments were being made 30 years ago.

“MSPs all say the same things regardless of political party. They promote the region – but it feels too easy to ignore it.”

John Cooper, a veteran newspaperman, agrees. He was brought up in Stranraer and returned to take charge of his hometown newspaper last year.

“It is a different world down here,” he says. “People talk about it being ‘the forgotten corner’ of Scotland. It’s almost like an island.

“Stranraer has been promised so much over the years that talk of a bridge just washes over people.

“Every party has struggled with the transport issues down here over the decades – and in the end nothing gets done.”