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March 15, 2007

Ferry tale’s happy ending

Lottery grant saves the most spectacular way of travelling over the sea to Skye.

Lorna Martin

Ferry tale’s happy ending

Lottery grant saves the most spectacular way of travelling over the sea to Skye

Lorna Martin, Scotland editor
The Observer

For almost 400 years, a tiny boat has taken travellers from the village of Glenelg on the Scottish mainland across the sea to Skye. It is the oldest and fastest ferry route to the island. Offering unique views of Sandaig – immortalised in Ring of Bright Water as Camusfearna, where Gavin Maxwell lived with his otters – it is also the most scenic.
James Boswell and Samuel Johnson used the crossing in 1773 while on their Hebridean tour. When they arrived on Skye, they met Flora MacDonald, saviour of Bonnie Prince Charlie after his defeat at Culloden. It has since become a lifeline for numerous remote and rural communities, as well as a popular choice for tourists who want to cross to Skye in the traditional way.

But there were fears that the present ferry, the Glenachulish, the last manually operated turntable ferry in the world, would cease operating. It was put up for sale three years ago, but an attempt to take it into community ownership failed in 2005 because of lack of cash. However, the community has now been awarded a £60,000 grant from the Big Lottery’s Growing Community Assets fund that will enable it to buy the boat.
‘This is one of Scotland’s national treasures,’ said Jennifer Frances of the Isle of Skye Ferry Community Interest Company. ‘There was every chance the ferry would have closed without this money. The owner had put it on the open market, but it was too resource-hungry for any private individual to take it on.

‘Its only viable future is through community ownership, and we are thrilled that that is what we have achieved. It is not only a vital link for local people, it is a tremendous tourism asset, opening up spectacular views for the passenger.’

The Glenachulish, which can carry only six cars at a time, is one of only two remaining ferries crossing the sea to Skye. The other is the publicly subsidised CalMac route between Mallaig and Armadale. Both routes also have to compete with the Skye Bridge, but trade on the ancient crossing remains good. Last year, when the ferry was operated under a charter arrangement, it carried around 14,000 cars across the 500-yard channel between Glenelg and Kylerhea on the south of Skye.

Tourists enjoy the crossing as an authentic Scottish experience – they have to take a 10-mile mountainous single-track road to reach Glenelg. Shops, hotels and guesthouses rely on the ferry to bring visitors to the remote village of just 240 inhabitants.

Dharmendra Kanani, the lottery fund’s director for Scotland, said the future was extremely bright: ‘There is a romance here, but there is also tremendous practical potential and enthusiasm. Rather than simply preserving the ferry as an intriguing historical novelty, the community sees it as a terrific asset they can develop.’