Waterways not motorways

New Statesman Scotland

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On the evening of Thursday 29 June, a modern odyssey will begin which shows that our thinking on transport has barely progressed since the time of the Trojan wars. In fact, in some senses, it has gone backwards. A party of 15 young people and their leaders will travel from the island of Westray in the Orkneys to a youth gathering on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, and the round-trip will take them an astonishing four days and nights, eight ferry trips and ten bus journeys. And it will cost more than £4,000. The details punch home the daftness. From Westray, the party will take a ferry to Kirkwall, where they will spend the night, before boarding a bus to Burwick, where they catch another ferry to John O'Groats. Then a bus trip to Inverness, where they will bunk down at a youth hostel, before catching another bus down the Great Glen to Fort William. Then another bus to Oban, a ferry to Craignure on the Isle of Mull, another bus across the south of the island to Fionnphort, where they board a final ferry to Iona. At least they will see a big hunk of Scotland - twice.

But it is absurd that this relatively short trip should take so long and cost so much, and it shines a bright light on a part of Scotland's infrastructure that is often forgotten in the endless focus on motorways, bypasses and parking restrictions in cities. Travel between bits of Scotland's periphery can be extremely and excessively difficult. Inter-island travel often involves going first to the mainland before catching a boat or a plane back out to the place where you wanted to go in the first place. The story on the mainland is not much better. Scotland to Cornwall is a good example; Glasgow to Newlyn by plane is possible, but it involves stopovers and a cool £500-plus for the privilege. If you want to fly in the opposite direction, to Skye, you can't. There is no airfield on Skye that is open to commercial or even subsidised air travel. If there were a regular service that converted the five-hour car journey from Glasgow into a 40-minute flight, there is no doubt that it would benefit the island's economy. And if you could get to Skye from Lewis or Barra by plane, a network would begin to make sense.

But the general issue needing much more attention is that of travel between the whole of the western and northern periphery of Scotland and, by extension, the western side of Britain. Aeroplanes and airports are the fastest way to get around, but they are very expensive to run, and need the sort of maintenance that ties them umbilically to central locations. Motorways through the mountains are definitely not the answer, either. What is needed is a change of attitude and an ability to recognise and utilise the obvious. Our transport thinking is far too land-based. Instead of ripping the rural heart out of Britain to slash more motorways through the countryside, policy-makers should remember a blindingly simple thing. Britain is an island with a wide highway all around it. Many of our major towns and cities are situated on the coast or on large estuaries for that ancient reason. Until the railways came in the 19th century, most travel of any substantial distance was undertaken by sea. Boats might be slower than planes or cars, but they are much more friendly to the environment, given that what they sail on is there already.

All sorts of local transport difficulties in Scotland could be relieved if we thought more about the sea and less about moving across the land. For example, the hideous cost of a second Forth Road Bridge could be avoided by the use of regular and comfortable ferries from Fife to Edinburgh's ports of Granton and Leith. Croissants and coffee and a 40-minute ride across one of the most beautiful sea lochs in the world could surely be marketed as preferable to gnashing one's teeth in the interminable queues at either of the Queensferrys. And the M8 in Glasgow might be unjammed if the imaginative plans to bring ferries up the Clyde into the heart of the city are not blocked by another unnecessary bridge. Cities such as Seattle and Yokohama have working populations who commute often by short ferry trips; but, in Britain, it simply doesn't occur to us as a serious proposition. London has a wide and navigable river, but no doubt lots of objections have been placed in the way of using it properly. However, the real difficulty is one of attitude. As a nation, we appear to think of our maritime heritage as just that - heritage.

A ferry from Westray or even Kirkwall that sailed down the western edge of Scotland and called in at Iona or Craignure would have made the lives of the teenagers from Orkney a lot easier and would have cost a great deal less in time and money. When we think about our transport and its future, we should try to remember lessons and habits from Scotland's past. In the far north-west, Cape Wrath's looming cliffs might seem to have prompted its angry name, but it actually comes from a Norse word meaning "turn left".

Alistair Moffat

This article appears in the 05 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Driving back to happiness