An organiser's view....
As the warning signs on the Skye Bridge flashed "High Winds" and the incessant rain breached the best of protective clothing, a snake of defiance crept across this high profile monstrosity, fuelled with a belief that the sting in it's tail was growing even stronger. From head to tail there was the largest number of non-payers ever to grace the bridge at one time. Significantly there were up to twenty new non-payers and an excellent representation from the business community which included builders, electricians, fish farmers, shops and of course hauliers who, for the first time brought the freight industry into the non-payment campaign.
New tactics were employed by the charmers at the toll booth in that only one vehicle at a time was allowed to progress to the barrier to be charged. This was probably implemented in light of the dubious nature of previous practices as exposed in Dingwall Sheriff Court, but could have been employed as a means to frustrate the participants into turning back. Whatever the reason it made no difference to the defiance of the waiting throng and only added venom to their actions. The non-payment procedure continued for six hours and everybody who took part has to be congratulated for their patience, passion and common sense commitment to rid us of this politically led, social and economic injustice.
As many vehicles still waited on the plaza from out of the mist could be heard the Isle of Skye Pipe Band, leading a large rain-soaked defiant group of protesters, displaying once again the total solidarity from all sectors of the community to get rid of the tolls. Marching through Kyle to the village hall, they then attentively listened to various historical and topical aspects concerning the Skye Bridge, delivered from seven well-informed speakers - five of whom are non-payers. It became obvious in the hall that this large gathering included people from all over Britain who had either come to join the campaign for the first time or to re-affirm their commitment to SKAT. Tributes were paid to the recently departed Peter Findlay, a fine gentleman and great campaigner whose memory will live on long after the tolls have been removed and the commercial, political and justicial connivance surrounding the Skye Bridge have been exposed.
It certainly has been a fun month the highlight, of course, being the big protest and march over the bridge on 22nd February. A number of things seemed to be afoot with the highwaymen. When first protestors asked to see written proof that they could be charged a toll they were shown a document which wasn't quite what was required. Many people, quite rightly, took the stance that, since the manager at the booths couldn't produce the goods, then they couldn't either. After the queue and the bridge manager wore down they were simply refusing to show any evidence. So much for having everything in order. One woman travelled the length of the island with the intention of joining the ranks of non-payers patiently waiting in the procession and when it came to her turn she refused. Then the police refused! To charge her that is - her vehicle had a disabled exemption applied to it. Even though she pleaded with the officer he was having none of it! Perhaps she could start hiring out her vehicle for those pesky trips across the bridge!
One welcome addition to the march was a Crofter's Union Banner. This is the first time the Union have officially come out on a demonstration although they have also been against a toll bridge from as far back as 1989. The Area President commented that it was time to publicly show their opposition. Areas affecting crofters include haulage costs which have dramatically increased since concessions to the hauliers were no longer available since the demise of the ferry. As to further official demonstrations it would be discussed at the next area meeting at the end of March.
The P&J reported Mr Forsyth dropping another clanger this week. When asked if there were any plans afoot to shadow toll the Skye Bridge and he snapped back at the reporter that the tax payer wasn't going to shadow anyone's tolls and they would stay on the bridge for the next 14 years! (A bit of a drop here - see "dissent" section) Oops Mike - maybe if you're asked enough it might drop to six months or are you just getting worried about your election chances.
Meanwhile a local camp site attendant who is currently being tried for alleged offences on the bridge called the Booth manager as a defence witness. The manager was, apparently "available" initially, but then changed his situation to not-available which was acceptable by the court for some reason. The protestor pointed out that this is the first time MrT (for that is his name) had been called as a defence witness and as such the court had no business allowing the case to proceed without one of his cited witnesses. It took the threat of the press to get the authorities to back down and the case has been rescheduled to a time which is more convenient to the aforementioned witness! A tip for anyone who doesn't want to appear as a witness - have a family event around the time of your appearance. This seems to do the trick.
While we bask in the euphoria of the triumphs at Dingwall we should never forget the people who have lost their cases due to their inability to afford a lawyer, perjury amongst the prosecution witnesses, having the wrong Sheriff, not being able to get to Dingwall and pleading guilty to save hassle or just plain bad luck. They are worthy of the same praise we give the winners. Remember it is better to have stood up to be counted and fallen rather then not to have stood up at all.
A press release from SKAT suggesting a possible protest at the Toll Booths on the Forth Road Bridge caused consternation across the central belt of Scotland. So much so that The Forth Road Bridge Authorities rang Scot FM about the possibility and said they would like to meet with SKAT. Taking this on board the SKAT secretary has written to the Authority to try and arrange a meeting. If a protest is to take place then the question of access for emergency vehicles was raised, however this would be taken into consideration as has been the case with any protests on the Skye Bridge. With a car in each toll booth it wouldn't take very long to bring traffic approaching in both directions to a complete standstill. This could make the relevant Secretaries of State think twice!
After 40 appearances by campaigners we have a total of 13 accused who have enjoyed at least one "not guilty", a batting rate of over 30%. Things were looking better at the end of week seven out of 33 people tried we had 12 "not guilty's" but last week saw the return of one of the two Draconian imperialists whose poor grip of arithmetic has not yet allowed them to figure out that there is no more trivial "crime" known to the laws of Scotland.
These two brethren are not permitted to deal with cases involving the non-payment of £145 road tax, the matter being considered too trivial to trouble the Sheriff with, but when given the responsibility by the Lord Advocate for the political control of civil protest against the Tory Toll tax they suddenly feel the need to be zealous in the extreme. The average fine for a road tax conviction is about £50 - a third of the tax due. Perhaps the two shriveral brethren concerned would like to give consideration to fines of £1.50 to accompany the more damaging criminal record for this least trivial offence known, an offence which only the Lord Advocate and the morally gutless consider to be a crime.
A Sheriff on more than £3,450 a fortnight has no moral right to discipline the public, who after all pay their wages, with fines of £50 made against some people who receive either nothing or £68 total in that same fortnight. Haw Jimmy, in the name of God, get it in perspective.
On a lighter note, our sixth Procurator Fiscal, a Miss Elaine Thom from the Glasgow area, started with a bright entry for Colemanballs when she asked her first police witness for his age and occupation! To her credit she giggled it off and explained that she meant length of service which still sounds like a personal question!
Please note the new Legal Help line, midday to midnight, is 01470 521760 for Court Guides, campaign legal information and the latest poop. Have Fun!
Following the success of the function at the Corriegarth Hotel in Inverness there is a Ceilidh Dance & Grand Auction to be held at the Royal Hotel In Portree on Saturday 12th of April at 7.30pm. The band "Brain's Trousers" will be playing together with local artists which will provide a very full evenings entertainment. To provide the artists with a break there will be an auction of goods to help funds. All contributions will be gratefully received by Brian Forehand on Portree (01478) 612182. Tickets, priced £3.00 are available from D Miller butchers and the Portree Post Office or from Brian Forehand.
While SKAT has remained largely successful in remaining afloat during it's campaign it is always needing funds. SKAT has now challenged one of the Government's (and the operating company's) great money making institutions - The National Lottery. The News urges all readers to abandon picking up the wee pink slips at the Co-op and other participating outlets and instead subscribing to Hugh Mackenzie's SKAT 999 club. (And no, this 999 will not get the police out!) The draw will take place once a month with cash prizes offered and at £1 per number per month we hope this will generate more winners than the aforementioned great institution. Rumour has it the highwaymen are interested in joining in to help while away those dull Saturday nights. Support us now and join up to the SKAT 999 Club.
One publication to look out for is the Private Eye who are at last taking an interest in the bridge tolls. A budding playwright from the SKAT ranks has written an amusing dialogue comparing the English Channel to the Skye crossing. It starts in the vein of how could Eurotunnel be made profitable? Solution - jack up the fares and ban any competition ie ferry crossings. Keep an eye on The Eye.
Robbie the Pict, on long term loan from the Scottish People's Mission and acting as Head of the Legal Committee, has purchased the Title to Skye Bridge Tolls Ltd. for use by his own Scottish Independence consultancy company. This has resulted in some difficulty for the Toll Regime who are at present depending on documentation in that name for proof of authority from the Secretary of State to charge and collect tolls. In the meanwhile Robbie has been excused to toll and has had his appearance in Dingwall for trial on 12th March punted into touch with no new date assigned. Keep an eye out for interesting posters.
(or keeping up the standards') Many protestors have sent letters to the Secretary of State for Scotland registering their dissent demanding 1) Publication of the date on which the toll order ends, 2) Dropping of any criminal charges and records for any non-payers and 3) The nature of the contract requiring the recovery of £23 million. These letters were passed on to the Scottish Office Development Department who sent back a standard reply stating:
1) It would not be possible to give a date but with predicted growth, ministers expected a period of 14-18 years.
2) The criminalisation was made under the provision of the new Roads & Street Works Act 1991 and "Decisions on whether or not to prosecute are, of course, a matter for the Lord Advocate, not the Secretary of State".
3) £23 million represents the total cost of the scheme including (the all important - ed) finance charges at 1990 prices. "The concession period will end when the aggregate revenue from the tolls reaches that figure. This was fully explained and debated at the Public Local Enquiry held in early 1992."
The writer, a Mr Brian O'Donnell then hoped this would be helpful, signed off and left his phone number as 0131 244 ?
The News asks the following:
1) If 85% of the revenue for the first year went in wages, admin., etc. then a phenomenal "traffic growth" would be required to pay for the bridge at all let alone 14- 18 years.
2) Talk about passing the buck! The government made it a criminal offence to non-pay and not a civil one as would be the case on every other toll bridge in Scotland so surely they have the power to change the law again. You wouldn't get dragged along to Dingwall for not paying your road fund licence so why should you for the trivial bridge offence?
3) The Skye Bridge accounts put the cost of repayment at over £30 million. How does this translate into £23 million at 1990 prices? The only thing explained at the Local Enquiry sham was that the project was going ahead whether anybody agreed to it or not.
If you would like to receive your personalized copy of this standard letter courtesy of the Scottish Office then please phone the legal hotline (01470 521760) for the letter to send and also a standard letter to return when you receive the standard reply from Mr O'Donnell.
On the political front we were heartened to see such a high level of support from many quarters at the recent Tidal Wave Demo. This included support from the Federation of Small Businesses and the Scottish Crofters Union as well as the encouraging support from local businesses, in particular the haulage contractors. SKAT has provided a focus for continuous and consistent opposition to the tolls but we know that there are many others who oppose tolls and we were delighted to see some of them turning out to make their own stand against the toll regime.
It shows that there is a broad-based and wide-ranging opposition to the tolls which sends a strong message both to Skye Bridge Ltd. and to the politicians. On that note SKAT has written to the Prime Minister, John Major, and to the Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth. We have some specific points to make to Michael Forsyth regarding and auspices under which the Skye Bridge Concession was granted. The Company undertook "to institute annual meetings with representatives of the local communities during the construction and concession periods". This has never happened and we have requested a meeting with Michael Forsyth and the directors of Skye Bridge Ltd. To date we have had no response. Also under section 41 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, the Secretary of State for Scotland is required to lay reports before parliament in respect of new roads and toll orders and we want to establish whether this has been done.
On Thursday 6th March the current affairs programme "Words with Wark" was broadcast from Inverness and one of the topics for discussion was the Sky Bridge Tolls. There were four SKAT members invited to participate with the audience and it was evident that there was a great deal of sympathy from both panel and audience. The panel consisted of Helen Liddell M.P., Scottish Labour Party, Robert Maclennan M.P. - Liberal Democrat, Dr Anne Lorne Gilles - S.N.P. Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Western Isles and Annabel Goldie of the Scottish Conservatives. With the exception of Annabel Goldie all the panel members spoke against the toll regime and the criminalisation of the non-payment of the toll. Further attempts were made to quash the old lie that the bridge is cheaper the ferry, including Gail Ross from the Skye Transport Company detailing how haulage companies pay more on the bridge. There wasn't enough time to tackle some of the more complex issues surrounding the bridge construction and operation but some good points were reiterated and it was clear that the majority of the people present had sympathy with our cause. At the following SKAT meeting, however, the feeling was still the question left that the labour party were still not showing a firm commitment to abolishing the tolls if they were successful in the forthcoming election.
If you wish to further support our campaign, the next opportunity to be part of a demonstration comes on the 21st March 1997 when the Scottish Grand Committee comes to the Highland Council Buildings on Glenurquhart road in Inverness. The proceedings begin at 9.00am so we would hope to be present from 8.00am. If you would like further information on this please call 01470 552212.
Dennis has agreed to take up the tough post of The News's agony uncle. Here is a short selection from his bulging mailbag.
Dear Dennis, Every few weeks I get an urge to cross the local bridge and incur the wrath of the legal system. What should I do when I feel this non-payment feeling coming on?
Dear Confused, I've found that the best way to overcome this problem is to buy a Skye Bridge Dart Board and try to score a maximum of 5.40 in the summer and 4.30 in the winter. As well as having the Bridge staffs' beautiful faces on the board, there are fiscals, sheriffs and politicians in abundance. The darts are embossed with full frontals of such people as Robbie Bridge, Robbie the Pict, Myrna & Drew and are of course, razor sharp. Your non-payment urge is ultimately quelled by making as many holes as is practicable in the defenceless board, breaching its resistance and eventually bringing it down to the wire. Unfortunately the cost is prohibitive and no credit cards are accepted.
Dear Uncle Dennis, At a recent christening I was upset to realise that the registrar had made a mistake when registering my son's birth. Is there any way in which this can be changed?
Dear Russell - Unfortunately nothing can be done. I must say however that, Stanley, Kevin, Archie, Thomson is a lovely name.
Dear uncle Dennis, I am being stalked by an English lady who often disguises herself, and has tendency to drink tea and knit socks at the same time. I am frightened to stop at the Skye Bridge barrier now, in case she accosts me. What should I do?
Dear Irn Dru - Being such a sex symbol must be a problem, but if you manage to transfer your verbal energy down to your legs, you should be able to outstrip your conquestor.
Only a relatively small number of the huge wave of protestors have actually been taken to trial. The statistics of success are outlined elsewhere in The News, however one thing has become starkly apparent in that a good defence is not the only thing required to ensure a victory - a fair judge helps too. Here is a short story of one "offender's" day trip to Dingwall, outlining a fair judge and some perjuring witnesses using only short sentences.
Am I a criminal? Another few hours and I would know. What on earth had I been thinking of, getting myself into this position?
On any other occasion the drive through to Dingwall that morning would have been glorious. It was a beautiful sunny morning with a definite scent of Spring in the air. I, however, was exhausted and feeling decidedly off colour as I had very little sleep the night before. Perhaps if I just stopped somewhere and phoned the court to tell them I was too ill to take part in the farce? What would happen if I just passed out in the court, or just threw up? Ridiculous, pull yourself together I told myself, they can't shoot you - can they? Having watched Lord Fraser's performance once or twice before in the court, I was not so sure!
Arriving in Dingwall at about 9.30am , clutching my beautifully typed notes for my defence as if my very life depended on them, I went into the National hotel in search of someone or something to give me a shot of moral support. Having decided alcohol was out of the question I found Robbie the Pict calmly eating a full breakfast. How could he? Give the man his due he did talk to me and my morale felt considerably bolstered by his words, though I have no memory of what he said. We set off for the court itself, along with Anne Martin and her "glee" club of friends who had by then turned up in the National. I was not on my own!
Once in the court and Sheriff MacPartlin has made his entrance I discover that several people are "on" that day as the Sheriff clerk starts to read out the day's cases. Joy of joy, it's in alphabetic order and R is an awfully long way down the alphabet! Perhaps they won't even reach my case at all. The clerk reads out Robertson, nobody moves, oops that's me! I go into the dock and identify myself and even the Sheriff comments that my case will not be called till much later. Now comes the long, long wait. As each case is tried and the result pronounced I start to realise that this Sheriff is a real person. He does not want to fine anybody. Even cases found guilty are being admonished - two people are even found not guilty - almost unheard of so far in the court. How I wish I had taken up those offers when I was at school to perform in the school plays so that I too could produce a "performance" like Ann Martin's and get a not guilty! I am frantically rewriting my questions for the prosecution witnesses as I start to identify what precisely the Sheriff is looking for. They are getting through the cases awfully quickly - can I write this fast?
Back into court after lunch, having managed to force down a plate of somewhat insipid soup and taken a long walk to try to calm myself. Suddenly the clerk of the court calls my name! That cannot be right, I am supposed to be last! Ahrg, Scott-Moncrieff is after Robertson, I am on! The Sheriff goes through the opening preamble and the prosecution calls its first witness, Thompson the Bridge Manager. After he took the oath I sat there dumbfounded as he told a story which completely contradicted what I knew had happened on the 21st October which was the day of my refusal. He had obviously learned a script like a parrot - what was that oath bit supposed to be about? It was obvious to me that this man could not remember one thing about that day. My shock turned to anger as I realised that as far as he was concerned the actual events of the 21st were irrelevant; all he was concerned about was getting a conviction! I cross examine him with little effect. I did however, under cross examination, manage to get the two police witnesses to alter their stories of precisely what Thomson had said to me when he supposedly asked me for the toll. Which by the way he never did, so obviously the prosecution witnesses were "mistaken".
After nearly 2 hours the trial came to an end and all that was left was the Sheriff's decision. Not proven! I had won! Or at least I had put enough doubt into the Sheriffs mind that the prosecution witnesses did not really remember the day as clearly as they made out. The sense of relief and pleasure is almost tangible. One more success for what must surely soon be a successful campaign.
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Copyright © Ray Shields, 1997.
Most recent revision, 13 March 1998