Cailleach: When it comes to transport, it seems little ever changes

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Back in the mists of time, links between the West Coast of Scotland, its islands and Ireland were among the main transport routes for commerce in Europe.

Archaeological remains seem to point to trade throughout Europe and into Africa. That, more than any other reason, was why St Columba – or plain old Columba as he was known in AD563 – ended up on the island of Iona.
Adonoman, of course, the first great journalist of the West Coast people, then told his story and in it embellished the war, the killings, and the deaths.

Our transport links were self-propelled and most people would have had a boat in which to navigate from A to B and back again – a curruch or coracle.

Things changed when the world moved on and  funding was made available for transport links – with one person paying the ferryman. Today in our part of the world that is CalMac.
Angus MacPhail wrote about the power of the ferry company in his column for The Oban Times last week – and I had a notion to look into the archives to find the reasons behind route choices.

A little, often voiced, phrase struck me: ‘The Earth belongs unto the Lord,
‘And all that it contains, except the Kyles and the Western Isles as they are all MacBrayne’s.’

There is no doubt that the person who chooses the ferry links or indeed to build a bridge (or change a bridge from rail to road, as in the case of the Connel Bridge) can fundamentally change a community, not least because, with the linking of a bridge, an island or peninsula become part of a landmass and alters its accessibility overnight.

What is clear from The Oban Times archive is a lack of consultation in the past about what communities might want. This is probably due to the entrepreneurial nature of boat owners through the centuries, then the buying power of David MacBrayne.

The planning of boats and particular routes since the government took over their running, it could be argued, are based on what is best for the purse-strings for the central belt executives rather than the people who run the services on the West Coast.

I mean, who would cut off a ferry to the isle of Iona at 6pm, making it almost impossible to have a day in the city and come home – including for a hospital appointment or to have a meal out on the Ross of Mull? Or a ferry route that only once a year allows people living on islands right next door to each other to visit each other directly?

It will come to pass that the control of individual services
will return to the communities they serve. This should be the way of it.

If communities had real control over ferries, we would not be stuck with the travel-limiting policy of reducing ferry fares for everyone, and not just those people who live and work on islands. I am talking of course of the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET).

RET could be considered a bit of a disaster if its intention was to make the  mainland more accessible to people living on the islands.
Islanders often report how difficult it is to book a car onto a ferry in the summer months despite more sailings.

Often I hear that all the RET has managed to achieve is an increase in tourists using the boats, with the number of people accessing public transport beginning to stagnate, and on some islands decrease, because if you have four in your car it is easier and cheaper to drive.

A common theme in the Oban Times archive is that of the area’s roads.

A letter to the editor in September 1937 shows the state of some of the roads to be in a similar condition to the way some describe them now.
It seems a bit bleak, that nothing will ever change, but we all know that this place is extra special despite – and often because of – its difficulties. And we all like a good moan about CalMac.

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