Outdoor Pioneers: Tom Weir

Pic credit: Lairich Rig / Tom Weir statue: detail, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Weir was a world-class climber and mountaineer who was among the first to explore the previously forbidden ranges of Nepal in the post-war years. But he also had as much enthusiasm for Scotland and his long-running STV series Weir’s Way introduced millions to the beautiful scenery, wonderful stories and amazing walks to be enjoyed just beyond their doorsteps.

It is the latter that I have most admiration for, the ability to stay grounded about everything in the natural environment and not become aloof because you have climbed arduous routes that had been thought inaccessible. Tom Weir’s contribution to the outdoors in the second half of the 20th century cannot be underestimated, and is why he is an obvious choice for this series on Scottish pioneers of the outdoors.

Weir was born in Springburn, Glasgow, in 1914 – the son of a locomotive fitter. Like many of his generation he was among the first working-class climbers and walkers to escape the industrialisation of home for the glens and mountains to the north. At first this would be in the Campsies and the Trossachs but catching a night train to the Highlands would also be on the young man’s itinerary.

One formative destination would be the Craigallion fire, a gathering place for climbers and walkers below the Campsies. This was somewhere to sit around a fire and talk all things outdoors – like-minded folk learning from each other about where to best experience the outdoors.

Weir served with the Royal Artillery during World War Two and later became a surveyor with the Ordnance Survey. But it was mountains that really held his interest and before long his ability was noticed and in 1950 he was part of the first post-war Himalayan expedition. Climbing would also take him to Greenland, Norway, and Kurdistan, among many other countries.

To supplement his income he wrote many books and in 1976 began recording Weir’s Way for STV. It ran until 1987 and won him a Scottish Television Personality of the Year Award. When I moved to Scotland in 1998 the programmes were shown on repeat and even 20 years after being made were a great introduction to the history, landscapes, mountains, glens and coast of Scotland, as well as the people who live here. I was not alone in enjoying them and feel that without his enthusiasm and knowledge many may never have discovered the hidden gems which are all over this country.

He also wrote a column for The Scots Magazine for many years, championing the environment and Scotland’s landscapes, cementing his place as one of the most authoritative voices on the outdoors.

Weir died aged 91 in 2006 near the shores of Loch Lomond, where he lived for many years, and a statue now stands in his memory at Balmaha. Many may have thought of him as “that man with the bobble hat on telly” but he was much more than his personality – he was a driving force for public recognition of Scotland’s natural environment. Read about the other Scottish outdoor pioneers in the series – Nan Shepherd, Hamish MacInnes and John Muir – more to follow in the coming weeks!


This is another great walk for those looking to walk their first Munro, or bag a relatively easy one! It is a little longer than the last one I posted (two Munros above the Glenshee Ski Centre) but good path work by the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland has transformed the lower reaches of the route, making the going much easier. (There used to be a huge amount of boggy ground to negotiate which could put off the most determined of hillwalkers.)

This means pinewoods and birch woods higher up can be enjoyed to the full and at this time of year you may be lucky enough to hear the call of the cuckoo.

As you gain more open ground a wonderful burn is followed – the Allt Coire Dubhchraig. If you don’t linger along here to admire the pools, falls and layers of rock then you must have blinkers on. I have set off late and ended up having a long lunch here before continuing up to the top. The views are stupendous, with countless mountain tops to be seen.

A lot of people include Ben Oss but the fine weather on a recent visit meant it didn’t feel like the sort of day to be rushing up and down too many peaks so I lingered again – letting the sun begin to slip down before making my way back down.

DISTANCE:  9 miles / 14.5km.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 2,640ft / 805m.

TIME:  5 to 6 hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 50.

PARK: Turn off the A82 at Dalrigh, a mile south of Tyndrum. There is a car park a few yards down the single track road, on the left.

THE ROUTE: Continue down the single-track road you drove in on, go through a gate and then over a bridge above the River Fillan before turning right, up a track which rises to follow a railway line.

Further on, cross another bridge, over the railway line, and immediately bear right, on a new path being built by the Outdoor Access Trust for Scotland. You reach a new wooden footbridge which is a vast improvement on the old, ramshackle crossing over the Allt Gleann Auchreoch. Go left on the other side, along a good path which used to be something of a bog festival.

It does become boggy for a short while before bearing right, into pinewoods. The path eventually leads out of the woodland, through more boggy sections and up the Allt Coire Dubhchraig. A series of rocky gorges, waterfalls and pools are passed before the top of a corrie is reached, next to a couple of lochans with views of Ben Oss and Ben Lui.

Turn left to go up the broad ridge to reach the summit of Beinn Dubhchraig – it is the second of two – with more views; down Loch Lomond to the Arrochar Alps and across to Ben More, above Crianlarich. Retrace your steps to the start.


Here’s the latest route for those starting to discover the joys of climbing Munros! Like the previous route up Meall Chuaich near Dalwhinnie this is a relatively easy walk and the way is obvious, meaning getting lost is difficult unless it is cloudy – and why would you want to go to the top of a mountain if there was no view?

This was the first Munro I took my daughter up. Although only six, she managed it easily (with the encouragement of a bag of sweets) and earned a bottle of J2O in the cafe at the bottom!

The A93 rises to the Cairnwell Pass, five miles north of the Spittal of Glenshee, on “Britain’s Highest Road”. Therefore, relatively little effort is needed with a start point of 2,133 ft. And although there is a lot of metal construction connected to the Glenshee Ski Centre, the walk offers great views over the Grampian mountains and beyond. You can add the summit of Carn a’ Gheoidh but if this is among your first forays up Munros you may want to leave that for another day.

Distance: 5.5 miles / 9km.

Height climbed: 1,390 ft / 425m.

Time: 2.5 to 4 hours.

Map: OS Landranger 43.

Park: At the Glenshee Ski Centre by the side of the A93.

The route: Go past the ski centre building and turn left, up a broad track. After reaching the top of a steep rise, go right and pass a round, green building which houses a cafe during the winter. The track continues round to the right past a number of ski lifts before bearing left, uphill and across the ski slopes. When the track forks (just before it drops down slightly) go left and follow it around a final ski lift then through a gap in a fence.

The route becomes boggy here as it passes a hut made of orange corrugated metal and reaches another fence marking the boundary of the ski area. Once past this fence Loch Vrotachan comes into view and you should turn left on reaching a track. Follow this along a broad ridge as it crosses the fence and reaches a col.

After the col the track turns right and becomes steep as it goes up to the top of The Cairnwell and its incongruous telecommunications mast at 3,061 ft.

The views are extensive. To the south lies the Spittal of Glenshee with Perthshire beyond, east is the bulk of Glas Maol and north are the high Grampians. To the west, across a wide corrie is Carn a’Gheoidh. (At this point you can cut the walk short by going down by the one chairlift which stays open in the summer, at the col near to the bottom of the steep section leading to the summit of The Cairnwell.)

Retrace your steps to where Loch Vrotachan first came into view but instead of going back down to the right continue straight on. The track veers round to the right and crosses more ski slopes. When it starts to go further right, along a man-made terrace, look for a small path up the scree to your left. This leads the short distance to the top of Carn Aosda. From the rocky 3,008ft summit which has a distinct lack of vegetation there is a good view down Glen Clunie towards Braemar. Retrace your steps for about 50 yards until you have passed a fence on your left. Turn left here and follow a track down in a straight line before turning right and zig-zagging down to the track you came up on. Go left and drop back down to the car park.

Outdoor Pioneers: Nan Shepherd

I’m rather late coming to Nan Shepherd – I’ve only just finishing reading her most acclaimed work, The Living Mountain (six years after she appeared on an RBS banknote, when I should really have noticed). But then everyone, including Nan Shepherd herself, has been quite late coming to Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain (about the whole Cairngorm plateau, rather than just Cairn Gorm) was written in the 1940s but not published until the 1970s.

Extraordinary to think what’s now hailed as one of Britain’s finest works of nature writing lay abandoned in a drawer for 30-odd years. But then Shepherd’s life was a bit of a paradox. Born in 1893, she lived just outside Aberdeen her whole life and worked for 41 years in the same job (as a lecturer in English at an Aberdeen college). She loved the Cairngorms (she saw the whole plateau as “a single mountain with individual tops”), spent as much time as possible there and knew it probably far better than the back of her hand. 

Her background would make you think that her book would be narrow and nerdy but it’s just the opposite. It’s a love letter to the area, a beautiful piece of writing with descriptions that are spot-on yet make you look, think and see again the simplest thing, from the rocks under your feet to the air above your head.

For those who love the Cairngorms, it’s great geographically to follow her – and she really does get in some places. For me, I love the fact that she doesn’t feel it important to charge up to summits – one of my bugbears – and instead just to enjoy the journey itself. But she is wise enough to have patience with those who do. She also loves the purple glow on birch trees in late winter, one of my best-loved sights, but she’s even made me consider my favourite tree again – apparently it smells like brandy when wet.  Why have I never smelt trees more closely before?! Now when I’m out I’m using another sense – I’ve already discovered larch trees smell of honeyed plums.

The rhythm of life is in her feet as she walks in all seasons and all weathers, eating cloudberries, striding barefoot over the heather, swimming in lochans, chatting to ancient crofters, waking under the stars and watching stags fight.  

Sometimes I feel, however sensitive I try to be to the landscapes that I love and walk through, that I’m just a tourist in nature, tramping along, wildlife fleeing at the sound of my coming, each sweep of my manmade boots helping to erode away the earth, treating the outdoors as a playground. Nan Shepherd was one of those extraordinary human beings who tried to ascend that, to understand and immerse herself in the landscape so much she almost became part of it. Reading The Living Mountain has made me determined to tread with a metaphorically lighter step in future. And I might even try barefoot!

Read about the other Scottish outdoor pioneers in the series – Hamish MacInnes and John Muir – more to follow in the coming weeks!

Outdoor Pioneers: Hamish MacInnes

John Muir, the ecologist and national parks trailblazer, was my first piece in a series on Scottish pioneers of the outdoors last week (see here for the article). Muir was a giant in outdoors terms but he is also very much in the past (he died in 1914). The subject of my second piece is much more personal and rather more up-to-date.

I have marvelled at the exploits of Hamish MacInnes, climber, mountain rescue visionary and film-maker, ever since I was a boy and I “borrowed” (still have them) books about mountain rescues from my dad. In more recent times I was lucky enough to meet and interview Hamish at his home in Glencoe – he even wrote a letter of praise for an article I wrote in the Scots Magazine which is about as high an award as I could wish for! It’s on the wall on my office even now.

Hamish sadly died last year but his legacy will live on for as long as people seek adventure in the mountains.

It was 60 years ago that he established the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team after realising the band of brave shepherds, fishermen, landlords and climbers who helped save lives on the high summits needed better equipment than Wellington boots and storm lanterns.

It was these rescues, and tragedies, which led MacInnes to develop cutting edge equipment used by mountaineers and rescuers across the world. It began after he invented the first all-metal ice axe in the late 1940s. He developed this until a version was created in the 1960s using aluminium alloy shafts. After finding a drop forger in Manchester they went into production and their use was to revolutionise the climbing world, not only improving safety but providing lighter equipment.

He is equally as famed for the invention and manufacture of stretchers suitable for use on difficult terrain such as mountains. He designed the first stretcher which came apart and had wooden skis attached. Further modifications were made and the first folding stretcher was invented – quicker to carry out to an injured climber as well as being easier to lift back, meaning there was a better chance of saving lives. Since those early days the MacInnes Stretcher has been used for rescues across the world as well as in conflict zones such as Afghanistan.

Despite the inventions, MacInnes always said they didn’t make him a rich man. Rather, his major income came from the world of film where his expertise was used in productions ranging from The Mission with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons to the James Bond film The Living Daylights with Sean Connery.

Work on the Eiger Sanction in 1975 is credited as some of the most dangerous location shooting ever done. MacInnes enabled a camera crew to work on the north face of the Eiger and he developed a mutual respect with the director and star, Clint Eastwood.

With typical enthusiasm for anyone who enjoyed being in the mountains – whether a film star or day-tripper from Glasgow – Hamish told me: “Clint was a great bloke. He did all his stunts, he wasn’t a climber but he was very fit and had no fear whatsoever.”

I am sure Mr Eastwood would return that compliment.

I’d love to hear of any suggestions for Scottish outdoor pioneers so please let me know.

You can also read about the other Scottish outdoor pioneers in the series – Nan Shepherd and John Muir – more to follow in the coming weeks!


We are all allowed to travel around and re-explore the hills, mountains, glens, coast and lochs of Scotland – brilliant! But where to start, especially if going up hills is a relatively new thing. Well, the Munros are always popular but to get started on them you don’t want a perilous scramble along a knife edge ridge. Meall Chuaich is a great introduction to the mountains over 3,000ft/ Apart from some huffing and puffing on the south west slopes this is a walk for anyone of moderate fitness. Saying that, don’t think it is not worth doing. Just because climbing a particular mountain does not entail risking life and limb does not mean it shouldn’t be tackled.

This is a good mountain to start children off on Munros. If the steep bit is taken slowly with plenty of stops to admire the view, look for birds such as ptarmigan on the ground, or even the odd hare, they should manage to reach the top.

At the top the views are superb, encompassing Ben Alder, Creag Meagaidh, the Monadhliath and the Cairngorms in the foreground. Further afield you can pick out the distant summits of Perthshire, Lochaber and the more north western Highlands.

At the top the views are superb, encompassing Ben Alder, Creag Meagaidh, the Monadhliath and the Cairngorms in the foreground. Further afield you can pick out the distant summits of Perthshire, Lochaber and the more north western Highlands.

Even on a wet day it can be interesting; a few years ago I was fascinated at the array of lichen growing on the flat rocky summit, and grateful for the shelter of the large cairn at the top.

However, if you are going to introduce family

members to the enjoyment of hillwalking it is best to save this for a fine day, and enjoy the views.

DISTANCE: 9 miles / 14.5km.

HEIGHT CLIMBED: 2,000ft / 610m.

TIME: 4 to 5 hours.

MAP: OS Landranger 42.

PARK: On the A9, just over 2½ miles north of the Dalwhinnie junction, park in Layby 94, just south of Cuaich on the east side of the road.
THE ROUTE: Walk north along the A9 a short way and after about 102 yards go right up a track and through a gate. On the other side of the gate go straight ahead, up a track to reach an aqueduct used to create hydro-electric power.
Once by the aqueduct go left and follow it to a small power station where you bear left. Go left again at a fork in the track, just after a bridge.
Further along the track keep left after crossing another bridge. Go straight on when another track cuts diagonally across it as you get close to Loch Cuaich. Then, go right at a fork, along a slightly less distinct track.
After passing a locked bothy, cross two low wooden bridges then go left, up a steep path through heather onto the broad south west ridge of Meall Chuaich. This is the toughest bit, up unremittingly steep slopes. But take your time and stop to enjoy the views opening up behind.
Follow the very wide ridge, gradually bearing right until you are heading east, eventually reaching the large summit cairn. Enjoy the 360 degree views before retracing your steps to the start.

Outdoor Pioneers: John Muir

So tomorrow (April 21) is John Muir Day – the birthday of ecologist, naturalist and writer John Muir who was born in 1838.

And it got me thinking. His influence is everywhere – the John Muir Way runs near my house, the John Muir Trust helps protect some of my favourite Scottish landscapes and both myself and my children have completed John Muir Awards, given for work with nature.

We’ve got a lot to be grateful to him for so I thought I’d write this wee piece about him to mark the day but also make it the first in a series looking at Scotland’s outdoor pioneers, those folk we owe a debt of gratitude to for paving the way for us today. 

Scotland has had John Muir Day since 2013 but all this recognition has been relatively recent – for years Muir was somewhat forgotten here as his pioneering work was done in the US.

Born in Dunbar in East Lothian, the third of eight children, Muir grew up loving the countryside around his home, hunting for birds’ nests and going on walks with his grandfather. He moved with his family to the US when he was 11 but Scotland was always with him, not least in the form of a book of Robert Burns’ poetry which he carried with him on his mountain travels.

This extraordinary man studied, explored, wrote about and fought for the wilderness that he loved. His influential writings helped create the first national park in the US, Yosemite. He took the US president Theodore Roosevelt camping in the Yosemite wilderness in 1903 and convinced him that the country’s wild places needed more protection from man’s intrusion. He was an inventor, botanist, geologist, glaciologist and activist whose influence is almost impossible to quantify. And that influence bounced back to Scotland in the form of an increased interest in protecting our wild places, even if it was nearly 100 years before we got our first National Park.

Muir lived before the days of sound bites but because he understood the beauty and power of language every bit as much as that of nature, I find his quotes far from meaningless platitudes. Instead they have a deep resonance and often come to me as I’m out on the hills. His most famous quotes are probably: “The mountains are calling and I must go,” and “Wildness is a

necessity”, which you can fit on a T-shirt but which seem to have layers of meaning. My favourite is: “All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.” A quote I try to keep with me to remember wherever I am, so long as I’m in nature, I’m in the best place in the world! 

Read about the other Scottish outdoor pioneers in the series – Nan Shepherd and Hamish MacInnes – more to follow in the coming weeks!

Wild swimming – in icy water


The snowplough was out, clearing the roads at the foot of Glen Feshie, while the frosted trees and icy landscape were doing their best to create the appearance of a magical winter wonderland.  A perfect day to be on the snowy shore of Loch Insh. But perhaps less than ideal for an outdoor swim.

Alice Goodridge, however, would disagree. She runs SwimWild which organises courses and adventures in the Highlands for those who like to get into the water outdoors – and that includes in winter.

“It is the most amazing way to start the day, it sets you up and I find I have more positive days afterwards,” she told me. I had a sneaking suspicion that I would get the same effect from a cup of steaming coffee from the nearby café, but I decided instead to have faith in her qualification as a lifeguard and take the plunge – despite the fact I was shivering already while still wearing four layers of clothing.

Outdoor swimming has gained huge popularity in recent years and that now also includes the colder months, even when the thermometer drops below zero.   A quick change saw me even colder but ready to go in.  When Alice produced a sledgehammer to break the snow-covered ice, however, I began to wonder if this was a bit too extreme and undertaking for me.

I needn’t have worried – the ice was thin enough to crack and move out of the way by hand (thank goodness for thick neoprene gloves and socks, essentials at this time of year) – and the water was genuinely lovely. Yes, it was cold – Alice said the water temperature was 1 degree C – but the action of breaking ice warmed the body.

Then came the moment of actual swimming; I gingerly dipped down so my shoulders were submerged then decided just going for it was the only option. There followed a desperate imitation of breaststroke but it was actual swimming, in winter, surrounded by ice and snow!

We had only been in for ten minutes but the adrenaline was surging through me, not realising the most important part of the experience was to come – getting warm as quickly as possible once out of the water.

Numb fingers were warmed on a hot water bottle, then I had to ask for help while struggling out of my wetsuit – this was no time to be prudish.

“You get to know each other quite well because you will be helping each other get dressed really quickly,” Alice explained. “Your hands and feet are going to get cold but it is your core you need to get warm as soon as a possible. Your hands and feet will be throbbing and your body will feel fine but there is this thing called after drop which means your core keeps cooling down when you get out of the water so you want to get clothes on as soon as possible.”

Alice’s introduction to taking a dip in winter began when training to swim the Channel in 2012. In 2017 she set up the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers group and more than 20 meet for a dip every Sunday in winter – it is important to swim with someone else for safety. But it is the thrill of it which attracts most. “I get a buzz

afterwards – it is a little bit addictive,” Alice said. And after my dip I realised I might be an addict too.


Good clothing – a woolly hat to keep the heat in; thick, tight-fitting neoprene gloves and socks (a wetsuit can be worn but only if you can take it off quickly afterwards to avoid getting overly cold).

Never swim alone.

Make sure you know what is under the water such as whether the bed of the loch drops off suddenly.

Clear ice before swimming to avoid being cut on sharp edges.

Breathe out – focus on your breathing to avoid hyperventilation caused by repeated sharp intakes of breath.

Hot water bottle and lots of warm layers to quickly put on afterwards.

A hot drink in a flask, or café close by.


The Outdoor Swimming Society was established in 2006 to pioneer outdoor swimming in rivers, lakes, lido and seas.

It has a comprehensive list of outdoor swimming clubs which can be found on its website: www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com

The wooden house with a heart

The house of a pioneering Scottish artist has been saved for the nation after a last-ditch funding appeal saw mystery benefactors come forward. 
The Tim Stead Trust had almost given up hope of raising the £450,000 needed to buy the late artist’s home in the Borders. The house, which is filled with the Stead’s experiments in wood – even a wooden sink – had gone on the open market when the anonymous benefactors stepped in.

Tim Stead, founder of Britain’s first community woodland and the artist behind works such as the National Museum of Scotland’s Millennium Clock, died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 48. His widow, Maggy, wished to return to her native France but could not afford to keep their home – The Steading, near the small village of Blainslie – as a cultural hub.

It was due to go on the open market after a fundraising campaign struggled to meet the huge amount needed but the Tim Stead Trust has announced that with a “significant number of major pledges and donations”, finished off with help of a Crowdfunder campaign, the target of £450,000 has been reached. 

The funds will allow the Tim Stead Trust to purchase The Steading for the nation and begin an ambitious programme of restoration, renovation and development.

Now, phase two of fundraising is about to begin in order to turn the home into a cultural and education centre.

The good news comes as the culmination of a roller-coaster journey for the Trust, which began a major fundraising campaign over a year ago. In November, following the refusal of The National Heritage Memorial Fund to award a major purchase grant, the Trust’s hopes were severely dashed. However, within days a major benefactor stepped up and offered matched funding up to £250,000. This was swiftly followed by a number of major private donors and trusts, and within a few weeks the majority of necessary funds had been secured. The Crowdfunder campaign, launched only a week ago, raised £20,000 with donations from over 240 individuals.

The Tim Stead Trust has ambitious plans to develop The Steading as a major international centre for “wood culture” which embraces Tim Stead’s all-round vision for the environment, art, literature, wood-working and architecture. The Steading is envisaged as a centre for education and creativity, reflecting its unique place in the Scottish Borders, but with a global reach.

Maggy Stead, Tim’s widow, said “It is a huge relief to me to know that my Tim’s work will now be preserved and used in such a creative way. He would have loved that.”

Unlike his public work, such as the North Sea Oil Industries Memorial Chapel in Aberdeen created in 1989 and the chair made for Pope John Paul’s visit in 1981, this was a private family house where the couple brought up their children Sam and Emma. But it is also a shrine to Tim’s work and his experiments in wood.

Sam Stead, Tim’s son and a Trustee, said: “It is fantastic that we have managed to get to the point where The Steading can be bought by the Trust and start working on opening it up for the public. The amazing support from friends and fans of my father’s work has been truly heart-warming.”

Stead, originally from Cheshire, came to Scotland in 1975 as a post-graduate at the School of Art in Glasgow. He met Maggy, also studying in Glasgow, four days before she was due to leave Scotland – they fell in love at first sight and were married a year later.

Nichola Fletcher, Chair of the Trust, added: “We are overwhelmed by the speed of this response, and with the enthusiasm that our project has sparked. We are so grateful to our supporters, who have given so generously. The past two months has turned me into a fund-raising junkie so I’m not stopping now!  We have urgent restoration work to do and of course we have ambitious plans for The Steading. So now the real work begins, of fundraising for Phase 2 of the project, which will allow us to realise our dream of developing The Steading into a major centre for creativity and education.”

His style of working with wood, celebrating its natural beauty, is so fashionable now, it was actually pioneering at the time.

Initially he used pieces salvaged from a Glasgow hardwood importers – the bed in the couple’s bedroom, complete with a knobbly, multi-coloured topped chest, is from wood destined for a bonfire –  but a move to the Borders ignited a passion for native wood.

Café Gandolfi in Glasgow was one of his first public works, the Millennium Clock one of his last, created in conjunction with several artists including Eduard Bersudsky, who now runs the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre in Glasgow but who lived in a nearby cottage when he first arrived from Russia in 1993. One of Bersudsky’s characteristic pieces – ornate shelves – graces the house, a testament to the time when the house buzzed with art students and collaborators. Stained glass around the house was made by local artists, the kitchen table was created by Tim from a slice of a massive stump of burr elm spotted by the couple’s chimney sweep while up on the roof.

To find out more about the house and the ongoing fundraising, visit www.timsteadtrust.org

Skye Bridge, 25 years on


Andy Anderson is a criminal. He has been charged under the law more than 100 times, spent time in jail and had his face shown in newspapers and on TV news programmes across the world.

But Andy is also a hero, a fighter for justice and a good friend of the policemen who put him in front of the courts.

It is just over 25 years ago that the Skye Bridge opened amid great controversy. A road link had been established to the “Misty Isle” for the first time but at great expense to the taxpayer, and to those driving across, who were faced with a toll which was the most expensive, per mile, in Europe.

Enter Andy Anderson, then the owner of a B&B near Uig at the north end of the island. He, like many islanders, was opposed to the crossing charge and was determined to fight it, even if that meant facing up to the British Government, major American banks, and the courts.

After the bridge was first proposed by the Government in the late 1980s it had seemed a good idea to many but as the high cost of the tolls became apparent, opposition began to grow. When the bridge finally opened that resistance had grown into a full blown protest and the campaign group Skye and Kyle Against Tolls (SKAT) had started what would become a nine-year battle to have the charges abolished.

Andy was the secretary and had helped organise a protest which would see drivers refuse to pay when the bridge opened at midnight on 16 October 1995.

“We decided to go down at midnight and be there as soon as the bridge opened and we wouldn’t pay.” SKAT expected around a dozen people to be there in no more than 10 cars but the numbers were three times that, despite the weather being awful. “A whole load of people who had never been at the meetings decided they were going to do it as well. It wasn’t your usual rent-a-mob, this group were elderly, young, business people, a real mix and you knew straight away this was different.

“The wind was howling and they kept us there for hours, they wouldn’t let us through. The police wanted us to go away.” Just before dawn they were let through, but only after being charged – the first of many times the protestors would be at odds with the law.

But Andy and his fellow campaigners were in no doubt they had to continue the fight. “We were left with little option – either we had to shut up and do what we were told, or we took them on. That was quite a daunting prospect; a small community taking on the Government, but we did.

“Once we were in the battle there was no way out. As soon as I started getting charges against me, which I was refusing to pay, I realised my house and property was in danger. The minute we tried to draw back they would come after us.”

Protests took many forms; as well as refusing to pay campaigners would hand over bags of pennies at the tollbooth, which led to huge tailbacks as the cashiers counted them up (the charge was £5.70, one-way, for a car). Another tactic was to drive over flocks of sheep – something which was legal. “There was an ex-Army officer who had a croft and he drove his sheep over. We realised we could block the bridge with the sheep and technically it was a way of putting two fingers up.”

On many occasions they tried to invoke the spirit of the law which says it can be broken with a “reasonable excuse”. Even though they had little chance of succeeding in court, they knew the publicity they would receive would help their cause. Andy, a former miner and trade union official, who has a degree from Oxford University, once referred to a Government minister who had called the protestors “lunatics and luddites”. “The police sergeant came down and asked what our reason for not paying was. I said: ‘If you disabled you are not required to pay, and I am a lunatic. A minister of the Crown said so and ministers don’t tell lies.’ The sergeant said I should see my doctor. I said: ‘I can’t do that, he’s in the car behind and he’s a lunatic too.’” Again, Andy was charged.

That interaction with the officers of the law was typically friendly, in part because everyone knew each other as friends and neighbours. Andy says:  “We had a perfectly good relationship with the police – they used to ring us up to say we were going to get arrested. I once said that I was going down the pub for choir practice as I was in a Gaelic choir and they said ‘OK, give us a ring when you’re ready’.”

However, the threat of imprisonment was ever present for campaigners who refused to pay – it had been made a criminal offence by the Government, rather than a civil one. Because of that, Andy thought he was better placed than some others to risk going to jail because he was semi-retired which meant he no longer had a young family to support unlike younger campaigners who would have risked losing their job if they received a criminal conviction. “We realised the only people who could take it on were people like myself, no family commitments and no career to worry about. So I decided to go for the jail, to up the ante because every time we did that it became a lot more political and we got a lot more support.”

In 2001, Andy was placed in Inverness Jail for 14 days for refusing to agree to return to court after being charged with refusal to pay. “Within two days the balloon had gone up – there was international press and people in Australia and the United States asking about it – that interest put them on the spot.” When he was brought back to court he was not given a prison sentence but received and admonishment which under Scots law meant he was free to go but with a warning and conviction. “They wanted rid of the case. If the media had heard I was going back to prison, it would have exploded.”

After that ruling, Andy believes the authorities decided they could no longer threaten protestors with jail if they refused to pay the toll and victory in their fight to abolish the tariff was in sight.

After much political argument, the tolls were finally lifted in December 2004. Andy believes there were a number of reasons for their victory, including the gradual weakening of the Government’s political position, with the help of national and international media coverage and the support of leading politicians of the day such as Liberal Democrat John Farquhar Munro. But Andy also looks back at the efforts of the residents of Skye and Kyle who had faced up to authority and held firm: “The community stuck together in a way that we ended up with more criminals per hundred of the population than anywhere in the world … but we won.”