IT was one of the longest uprisings ever to take place in Scotland but the David and Goliath battle between the islanders of Skye and the establishment is far from ancient history and its aftermath is still felt today.

The decision to take on the might of the UK Government and the Bank of America began when the Skye Bridge opened in 1995 with the highest tolls in Europe.

As the first one of the controversial private finance initiatives to begin in the UK, it was Tory philosophy set in concrete and sparked a protest from the islanders who are still battling against criminal convictions they incurred during their campaign.

The National: The Skye road bridge with the Cuillin mountains in the backgroundThe Skye road bridge with the Cuillin mountains in the background

The Sunday National can today reveal they have now made a breakthrough which coincides with a documentary about the controversy which will be shown on BBC Scotland this week.

One of the campaigners featured is Robbie The Pict who told the National the Lord Advocate had ordered the release of confidential communications which he said proved statutory requirements for collecting the tolls were never put in place.

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“The courts were bluffed by the use of documents from civilian construction contracts but we have always maintained the statutory requirements had not been complied with,” he said. “Certain procedures had to be carried out but all they produced was a selection of pages from different documents which the counsel hired for the Skye Bridge Company had stapled together. It was outrageous – scandalous – but everything is now coming to light, coincidentally with the documentary coming out.”

Speaking en route from his home in Broadford to see his solicitor, he added: “Demanding a toll without proper authority is a criminal offence and every toll they demanded deserves a £350 fine. They are not getting away with this. What has happened is that Westminster has tried to pass it down and devolve responsibility to Edinburgh but they can’t do that and the truth will come out at last.”

A total of 130 islanders were convicted of breaking the law during the protests but were denied legal aid to defend themselves.

“I was charged 129 times and 25 of them were made to stick and they are still live,” said Robbie. “These have to be expunged. Denying legal aid was clearly a political manoeuvre. This has cost me 25 years of my life and made a big dent on my family life.”

The documentary, which goes out on Tuesday night, features footage never seen before, contributions from protesters and authorities alike and explosive courtroom developments. It includes Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the government minister responsible for the project at the time, who at one point called the protestors “Luddites and lunatics”.

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In the documentary, he concedes he may have said some “unwise things”. The bridge was built as an answer to the increasing numbers of vehicles trying to use the ferry to Kyle of Lochalsh and was, in the main, welcomed by islanders who often had difficulty getting on and off Skye because of the queues of traffic. While it was being built other, smaller bridges were built to connect islands in the Hebrides and these were opened without tolls.

However the Skye bridge was funded by the Bank of America and built to make a profit, meaning tolls were £11.40 for a double crossing. The Forth Road Bridge in contrast was 80p.

The National: Crossing the Forth Road Bridge cost only 80p before charges were scrappedCrossing the Forth Road Bridge cost only 80p before charges were scrapped

“It was an unfair deal,” says photographer Alasdair Scott in the documentary. “We were in an economically deprived area but here we were having huge tolls placed on us.”

The bridge was officially opened on October 16, 1995, by Michael Forsyth, the Tory Secretary of State for Scotland, but celebrations were muted as the tolls were to begin at midnight.

It was a dirty night, with gales blowing in from the west but as the midnight hour approached the skirl of the pipes could be heard above the wind and a pipe band, silhouetted by the lights of a queue of protestors’ cars, marched towards the toll booth. The organisers were overjoyed. “When I saw how many people turned up I thought we had a chance – we can fight them,” said Andy Anderson, who was jailed at one point during the campaign.

A few years previously the law had been changed so that refusal to pay tolls was no longer a civil offence but a criminal one.

“The people of Skye were being quite brave to confront the police at the risk of going to court and the likelihood of conviction,” said Robbie the Pict. “But if you are not happy about things you’ve got to do something about it. Imperialists are not known for being kind to you if you just sit in your armchair.”

The islanders thought it would all be over in a few weeks but despite their peaceful protests which eventually received worldwide coverage, the years dragged on and the tolls continued. Labour took over the UK Government in 1997 but broke a promise to get rid of the tolls and they were not abolished until 2004 when the problem was devolved to the Scottish Government whose Labour-LibDem coalition bought the bridge for £27 million – after £3.3m in tolls had been collected for a structure that cost £20m to build.

The human cost was high too, with the court cases causing stress and worry for the islanders and the local Procurator Fiscal, who is interviewed in the documentary and reveals he had a nervous breakdown as a result.

The Battle of Skye Bridge, BBC Scotland on Tuesday at 10pm.