GRITTER crews battled to keep the A9 open last night as heavy snow and gales caused chaos across the Highland and islands.
Traffic was backed up on the key trunk road between Inverness and Perth as blizzard conditions threatened to make it impassable.
The wintry blast followed an overnight storm with wind speeds hitting more than 90mph, leaving thousands without power and playing havoc with ferry, road and rail travel. And a school Christmas party also had to be cancelled because part of the building’s roof was ripped off.
The misery continued last night as lightning hampered engineers trying to reconnect power lines on the islands.
The Met Office warned that ice and snow could cause further problems for travellers in the north today. A forecaster said heavy rain would sweep in from the west in the afternoon and the Western Isles would be battered by gales.
Wind speeds when the storm blew in late on Wednesday night were above the 90mph predicted in the Met Office’s amber “be prepared” warning and hit more than 95mph on Lewis.
Evening commuters were faced with treacherous driving conditions across much of the region as high winds turned wintry, bringing heavy snow and hail.
The A9 was closed at Tomatin shortly before 5pm to allow gritters to treat the road surface, causing huge tailbacks.
The gales caused major disruption to the electricity network and left about 6,000 customers without power yesterday morning.
And as engineers battled to restore power in the Western Isles yesterday afternoon, they were ordered to stop working on power lines in case they were hit by lightning as squalls swept the area.
A bolt of lightning struck at Garenin, causing a blackout across the Carloway district. A lightning strike also set a utility pole on fire on the moor by Scaliscro on the west coast of Lewis, blacking out the Uig district.
Fort William, Oban and the Western Isles were among the worst-affected areas and extra staff were drafted in help restore supplies. By late evening, 1,606 homes across the country were still without power, including 250 in Oban and 60 in Fort William.
The sea conditions were so severe that three passengers on an Orkney-bound ferry were injured. The NorthLink vessel Hrossey, heading from Lerwick to Kirkwall, hit rough seas east of Orkney about 11pm on Wednesday. Cars on board were also damaged.
Two of the three injured passengers were treated when they arrived at Kirkwall, where the ferry remained until just after 8am before continuing its journey to Aberdeen.
The northbound Hjaltland ferry bound for Shetland was also delayed by the severe weather and did not arrive until after midday yesterday.
Several Caledonian MacBrayne ferry services were also cancelled or disrupted.
Early-morning trains north of Inverness were cancelled to allow Network Rail to check for debris.
The 6.20am Wick-Inverness, 7.06am Inverness-Wick and 6.22am Kyle-Dingwall services were all affected.
Children at North Tolsta school on Lewis had their Christmas party spoiled when ferocious winds ripped off part of the school roof, and power cuts forced the closure of the Leverburgh and Laxdale schools in Harris and Lewis.