A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE SCOTTISH BANNER EX-PAT NEWSPAPER IN OCT 2020
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.”