Vatersay Causeway

Vatersay Causeway

Vatersay Causeway

Vatersay has been for decades the most southerly inhabited island of the Western Isles.

Following clearances in the 19th century, its population was only 13 in 1901. By 1911 it had soared to 288 after movements of people from Barra and Mingulay. By 1971 the population was down to 77. It rose after ten local authority homes were built, rising to 107 in 1981 before falling again to 65 in 1988.

The population is mainly bilingual in Gaelic and English and Roman Catholic in religion. The roads are single-track. Before the causeway was built the Island was served by a passenger ferry from Castlebay in Barra. The transport of bulk good required boats to be hired. The pier and its access was difficult.

Vatersay Causeway from the air

In 1987 the Council got an Act of Parliament which said the causeway was needed 'to maintain the present population of Vatersay and relieve hardship'. The causeway meant far better access to social services, refuse collection, job opportunities, marketing, shops, imported domestic and commercial products, a daily postal service, and better chances to make something of tourism.

The immediate reaction to the causeway saw the population rise from 65 in 1988 to 83 in 1993, and planning applications soar from a mere two in 1985-9 to 24, including four new houses, in 1990-3.

Work started on the £3.7 million causeway linking Vatersay and Barra in 1989. The 250 metre wide gap - with a minimum depth of 11 metres - presented a challenge because it linked the Atlantic Ocean on one side with the Sea of the Hebrides on the other - 75 miles out from the mainland.

Vatersay Causeway Under Construction

The tidal currents between the shores - and between the banks of the causeway as it extended - were very strong.

The scheme - main contractor R.J. Macleod - took 18 months to complete including a new two kilometre access road across Barra. A total of 220,000 tonnes of rock was needed for the causeway.

The work had been preceded by seven years of feasibility study and consultation - and by a decline in Vatersay's population from 288 in 1911 to 65 by 1988. This has now been reversed. The project was funded by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Scottish Office, and the European Regional Development Fund.

The Vatersay Causeway, which was in full use by July 1991, remains an exception to the rule of Western Isles causeways in that it has never been formally declared open.

Vatersay Causeway today

According to local people, the causeway was in intensive use long before it was even finished, as drivers of vehicles with strong constitutions took them over the rough stones of the causeway itself, before the road had been laid on top.

Crossings are even claimed to have taken place as work continued on completing the structure ­ but what is certain is that unlike all the other major crossings, no one ­ whether a local or national celebrity ­ actually opened this route.