We live on the island of Great Bernera, which, since 1953 has been connected to the Isle of Lewis by a 108ft (33m) single track bridge (see photo above). Before that, the only (dry) way for humans to reach Bernera was by boat (cattle were made to swim across the fast-flowing strait), although it is believed that a causeway existed at this spot at one bygone time.
The bridge has an interesting history. Shortly after WWI, the people of Great Bernera, realising how their relative isolation could negatively impact the future of their island, started campaigning for a permanent connection to the Lewis mainland. It wasn’t until 1951, however, that public funding was granted and work started on the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’.
The bridge was a major breakthrough for British civil engineering at the time, as it was the first of its kind (and one of only six in total) in the UK to be built with pre-stressed concrete girders, utilising only a quarter of the steel required in conventional bridge building. A total of 25 local men worked on the construction of the bridge, with stone and earth being moved by wheelbarrows and a temporary tramway. The total cost of the bridge was £70k.
On the day it opened, 22 July 1953, it was estimated that up to 4000 people crossed over the bridge to explore the island of Great Bernera for the first time.
Fast forward 67 years to August 2020, when a survey of the bridge revealed some serious structural weaknesses, leading to a weight limit of 7.5t being introduced. For over a year, this impacted the residents on Bernera, most notably in terms of refuse collection, oil and gas deliveries, and the transport of building materials such as gravel, sand and cement.
Work on a new bridge started in March 2021 and heavy goods vehicles were permitted to cross from November. The bridge was officially opened to all vehicles on 15 December 2021.
The estimated construction costs of £500,000 were somewhat exceeded when the final bill came to nearer £2m. It is anticipated that the new bridge will last around 30 years. A more permanent structure, expected to last 120 years, would have cost an estimated £5m and was therefore not deemed a feasible option at this time.
These two photos taken in summer 2019 and autumn 2021 show the view before and after construction of the new bridge.
Great Bernera was truly an isolated island before 1953 and it’s difficult to imagine today, in a world in which we are so dependent on road transport, what life must have been like for the residents at that time. Although we don’t leave the island very often ourselves (perhaps once every two weeks), we’re very much reliant on outside deliveries to maintain the standard of living we wish to have, and are consequently extremely indebted to all the people who made the construction of both bridges possible. A feat of engineering indeed.