Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber

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A bridge too far
The disruption to the ferry service across the Corran Narrows for five days recently brought the inevitable knee-jerk reaction that it should be replaced by a bridge.

True, many motorists, cyclists and foot passengers were inconvenienced, but accidents happen and all things mechanical break down at some time, especially well-used marine components. The problem came about because the standby ferry wasn’t standing by but was sitting in some distant yard where it had been for months.

Complacency had clearly reigned supreme and, for leaving the peninsula vulnerable, the council official in charge should consider resigning.

For the Highland Council’s representatives, salaried or elected, to talk of a bridge without having a long-term strategic plan for upgrading the single lane carriageways to Lochaline, Salen, Acharacle and Kilchoan, is ridiculous. Long sections of these roads are in an appalling state and deteriorating by the day. They can hardly cope now with the traffic for Mull which CalMac is diverting from Oban to Lochaline and Kilchoan because their ferries to Craignure are fully booked. Clearly, the situation is going to worsen, particularly in the summer months, and that a slow-moving convoy system will ultimately be necessary.

One of the grumbles about the ferry being off is having to negotiate heavy
vehicles on the twisted single-track road on the south side of Loch Eil. Yet this is exactly what all drivers would face on the A884, A861 and the B80047 if a bridge was built across the Corran Narrows.

Lest it be forgotten, the Corran Narrows form part of the Great Glen fault which is prone to seismic movement. While perhaps not impossible to construct, expensive compensatory arrangements would need to be included in a fixed link that would also need to be high enough to allow shipping to pass under. Who would fund a bridge? The Highland Council and its Holyrood paymasters are not exactly flush. Tolls perhaps?

The ferry regulates the flow of vehicles which is the key to good traffic management in rural areas and the 15-strong local crew who operate it, are the eyes and ears of the peninsula. If a bridge was built, what of their full-time jobs?

If there is one place a relatively inexpensive fixed-link could and should be built for light private and commercial vehicles, it is across the Loch Eil Narrows from Corpach to Achaphubuil. The span is short and there are no large merchant vessels passing through. It would be a boon to the folk on the south side of the loch for accessing Fort William and useful for those of us who live further down the peninsula when the ferry is storm-bound.

There has probably been some type of ferry arrangement over the Corran Narrows since dugout canoes were around. Records exist of a ferry in the 15th century and of it being put out of use when the Hanoverian troops ransacked Maclean of Ardgour’s property after Culloden.

The stone piers on either side which underlie the existing ones were built in 1817 by Thomas Telford. The stone came from Strontian by way of Loch Sunart, the Sound of Mull and Loch Linnhe.

The ferry was on the cattle droving route from Mull, Morvern, Sunart, Ardnamurchan and Ardgour to the great Falkirk Trysts. Large flat-bottomed boats, called wherries, occasionally took animals over but more often they were forced to swim at slack water.

The narrows form a bottleneck through which the currents flow at speeds of up to eight knots, making it a dangerous place in the days of sail or when oars were the only form of propulsion. In a note in the 1842 admiralty chart for Loch Linnhe, it was recommended that two steam tugs of about 90hp should be stationed in the vicinity to assist vessels struggling to make any headway or in danger of being pushed onto the rocks by the powerful back eddies.

A casualty at the Corran Narrows some years ago. Picture: Allan Maclean, Onich

Judging by logs kept by the Ardgour lighthouse keepers, there were many casualties: 1870, the Fortune at Corran point and the Gagella at Black point; 1872, the Moir, east Corran pier; 1874, the Margaret, Sallachan point; 1881, the Petrel, flat rock Corran and the Lord Clyde, half tide rock Bunree point; 1892, the Merganser, Cuilcheanna spit; 1909, the Ness Queen, Corran; 1911, the Glenrose, Cuilcheanna point and the Feishaic, Corran Narrows; 1912, the Loch Nell, Keil Bay and the Treasure 504 INV, Sallachan Point; 1918, the Margaret, Corran Narrows and the Backwash GY 1299, Ardgour slip; 1924, Drodgena schooner, south of lighthouse.

There is little doubt that if a bridge was built at Corran it would alter an entire way of life forever. The crime level would rise and housing and ugly industrial development would run rampant, taking away the charm and uniqueness of the area which every B&B and holiday cottage owner raves

The country needs places like West Lochaber. Would it be too direct to say to those who grumble about its isolation and find being cut off now and again difficult to cope with: ‘Perhaps you should try somewhere else – we like it just as it is.’

Iain Thornber