Day Bernera 'was released from its bondage'

Last week’s opening of the new Bernera Bridge was a muted affair due to the Covid restrictions and this was in marked contrast to the opening of its predecessor on July 22nd 1953 when possibly the biggest crowd for a single event in island history turned out for a grand occasion.

Monday, 27th December 2021, 9:00 am
Coverage of the opening of the bridge from 1953

While the bridge replacement has brought welcome relief to the 240 or so people who now live year-round on Bernera, the inconvenience of recent months hardly bears comparison with the privations suffered by generations of islanders who depended on small boats to maintain a link with the Lewis mainland, separated by a 400 foot channel.

Neither is there any similarity between the timescales involved. The case for a fixed link between the two islands had been going on for decades and as one small west coast island after another became depopulated, the inevitability of decline in the absence of communications that would bring them into the 20th century was inescapable.

There was reference at the opening of the Bernera Bridge to the fact that, only the previous month, the island of Soay off the Skye coast had been evacuated for want a ferry, with most of the population dispersed to Mull. It had become inescapable that terminal decline lay ahead if nothing was done to make life easier for ”islands off islands” that formed a category of their own.

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Bernera had its place in history assured as the crofting community that stood up to the tyranny of Sir James Matheson and his factor Donald Munro. Charles Innes, the crofters’ lawyer when they were brought to trial in Edinburgh, famously said: "Oppressed as they are I, as a stranger, cannot but admire them. Had Mr Munro, instead of being Chamberlain of The Lews, been an Agent in either Connaught or Munster, he would long ago have licked the dust he has for years made the poor men of this island swallow".

However, even the struggle against the harsh rule of 19th century landlordism to achieve security of tenure proved easier to win than the long 20th century campaign to secure the physical connection that would make life more viable and underpin the island’s future. When that battle was won, life on Bernera – and its prospects for prosperity as a fishing community – were transformed.

The Gazette’s coverage of the original Bernera Bridge opening ceremony perhaps gives a clue to how the island became, officially, “Great Bernera”. There were many speeches that day and one of them came from Councillor J. M. MacDonald who welcomed to Bernera the thousands who had flocked there for the occasion.

“This is the day the people of Bernera have been waiting for all their lives,” he declared. “The day when they would be released from bondage. We love our little island. But should I have said ‘little’? No! Very appropriately, the Director of Telephones has called it Great Bernera – today, I think you will agree, greater than ever”.

It was an occasion full of history and emotion. The Gazette reported: “Bernera Bridge was opened on Wednesday. On that day Bernera ceased to be an island and became part of Lewis or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, Lewis ceased to be an island and became part of Bernera. One of the largest crowds ever assembled in Lewis, in Stornoway or out of it, swarmed across the bridge behind the official party to explore a land hitherto unknown to most of them.

“From road end to the school, the combined Lewis Pipe Band and that of the Lovat Scouts (TA) marched gaily on like a multiple pied piper at the head of a weird procession of people, buses, cars, motor lorries, pedal cycles, hikers in walking kit, old folk hirpling on sticks, young folk skipping along the verges…”. It was reckoned that up to 4000 were present and the spectacle on the confined space of the bridge itself was like “the crowd that pours from Hampden after a cup final”.

The official programme for the event recalled: “Prior to the completion of this bridge, the only link with Lewis was a ferry service, consisting of a small rowing boat. Practically all the necessities coming into Bernera have had to be transported by this primitive method. In stormy weather, heavy seas and swift currents make the crossing hazardous and at times impossible, resulting in considerable hardship to the 400 inhabitants of the island.

“Agitation for a bridge linking Bernera with Lewis has been going on for many years. At last in 1947, the County Council of Ross and Cromarty were authorised by the Ministry of Transport to prepare a scheme for a bridge… After investigating the costs of the various schemes it was decided to break away from the traditional methods of bridge construction and adopt the principle of pre-stressed concrete girders.

“This form of construction has been developed very largely in France and Belgium but no bridge of this type had previously been constructed in this country … All the excavation for the piers was carried out by divers and it is interesting to note that while this underwater work was in progress, the divers reported that they could observe traces of what appeared to have been a stone-built causeway”.

So when the bridge opened in 1953 was it not the first time that man had put in place a connection between Lewis and Bernera? These programme notes raised that possibility and added enigmatically: “There is no historical record of the existence of a causeway here but it may be significant that at the Bernera end of the bridge there are two standing stones overlooking the site”.

A Gazette editorial looked back: “In the early days, a Bernera bridge was a far off vision which even those who spoke of it hardly believed possible. A new stage was reached when Mr M.K. MacMillan became MP for the Western Isles at the age of 22 and made the building of the Bernera Bridge the subject of his first question in Parliament. From then on, a Bernera Bridge was an immediate objective …”.

For the Gazette, which frequently locked horns with the Labour MP, to pay such a tribute was gracious. Even by then however, it had become lost in the mists of time that when Mr MacMillan asked his question, the proposal on the table was for a causeway rather than a bridge and that remained the case for quite a few years thereafter.

It is indicative of the emotions running at the time that, within a fortnight of his election, the MP asked the Minister of Transport “whether he will make a grant for the purpose of blasting and blocking the narrow sound between the island of Lewis and the smaller island of Bernera in order that Bernera may be linked up by a road with the island of Lewis and bring the amenities of Lewis in touch with the people of Bernera Island by facilitating transport of passengers and goods?”

To which Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha (who would be remember best for giving his name to Belisha Beacons) replied: “The responsible highway authority has made no application to me for a grant for the suggested new road, and doubtless they recognise that it could not be of sufficient general traffic value to attract a grant from the Road Fund”.

When Mr MacMillan asked again in 1938, the question was headed “Bernera Causeway” and he wondered if the “Minister of Transport has now received the recommendations of the County Council of Ross and Cromarty regarding the proposed causeway at Bernera Island, Isle of Lewis; and when the work is likely to begin and the estimated cost?” But Dingwall had not been in touch.

At some point, the preferred scheme became a bridge rather than a causeway. At the opening ceremony, the chairman of Ross and Cromarty highways committee, Duncan MacRae from Dornie, recalled that during the war they had established three priorities – Applecross road, Bernera bridge and Inveralligin road, all of them relating to isolated communities. “The neglect of people in rural areas has been the downfall of other nations but it can never be said it is the policy of Ross and Cromarty County Council and this bridge is proof thereof”.

Indeed, as Britain emerged from post-war austerity, there were signs that Lewis was moving forward. The Gazette noted: “The opening of Bernera Bridge is not an isolated event; it is a symbol of the improved relations between the island of Lewis and the County Council of Ross and Cromarty ….With Bernera Bridge, Portnaguran Pier and Lews Castle College all in progress simultaneously the County Council can feel that, even though much remains to be done, they are making progress”. It attributed this “change of attitude” to the Convener of the Council, Major John Stirling of Fairburn.

The opening of the bridge in 1953 gave Bernera the opportunity to survive and flourish, mainly through its long fishing tradition. Since the 1820s, lobsters had been exported from the island but little of the value came back to the people who caught them. It was not until the early 1970s that a processing plant opened at Kirkibost to give Bernera fishermen a home base for their catches.

It was appropriate that last week’s ribbon-cutting was performed by Catriona, widow of Rev. Donald MacAulay, the first convener of Comhairle nan Eilean and for many years Church of Scotland minister in Bernera. He was a lobster fisherman in his younger days and a constant advocate for Bernera’s needs.. Just as important, he did much to ensure that the island’s noble history was remembered and respected.

A connection with the Lewis mainland was not enough to stem the seepage of population. It merely put Bernera on a par with other peripheral communities facing the same continuing challenges – a lack of work, housing and young families. Bernera now faces the future with a new bridge but, in these respects, the same uncertainties as other places which are, quite literally, on the edge.