Saturday, 24 September 2011

Calum's Road - Raasay's Local Hero

What happens if you can't get from A to B because there's no road to
take you there? In an already isolated island community with a
declining population such as Raasay, the fourteen-mile long
no-man's-land that lies between Skye and Scotland's mainland, such a
lack of civic facilities can cut people off from each other even more.
This was something crofter, assistant lighthouse keeper, part-time
postman and resident of Arnish at the island's north end Calum McLeod
could see first hand.

What happened next can be found in Calum's Road, a new stage play inspired
and adapted by David Harrower from journalist Roger Hutchinson's 2006
book of the same name. Co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland
and director Gerry Mulgrew's Communicado company, Calum's Road will
tour in tandem with a revival of children's show Tall Tales For Small
People before finishing up on Raasay itself.

This is further recognition of McLeod's feat of everyday heroism that
has already become a twentieth century legend. Because, by spending the
best part of two decades building a road by himself with only shovel,
pick-axe, wheelbarrow and a copy of Thomas Aitken's 1900 manual, Road
Making and Maintenance: A Practical Treatise for Engineers, Surveyors
and Others for company, MacLeod was carving both himself and his
one-man construction into history.

“It's a great story of a remarkable man,” is how Hutchinson sees it.
“But trying to make a play about a man building a road can't be easy.
It was tricky enough trying to write a novel. I've not seen what David
and Gerry have made out of it, but they came up to see me in Raasay, to
see the road and to chat to people, and I know they both have
formidable talent. And if the play helps spread the legend of Calum
MacLeod, then so much the better.”

The legend goes something like this. Born in Glasgow in 1911 of Raasay
parentage, MacLeod and his mother, two brothers and three sisters moved
to the house adjacent to his grandfather's following the outbreak of
World War One. MacLeod identified the going exodus of an already tiny
population, and, along with his brother Charles, spent the winters
between 1947 and 1952 building a narrow track across the island.

After years of unsuccessful petitioning for a fully-fledged highway,
and with Raasay's population down to around a hundred, MacLeod decreed
to do it himself. Between 1964 and 1974, he built almost two miles of
road that linked Brochel Castle and Arnish.

“Calum had identified the slow death of his community,” according to
Hutchinson, “but in a way it was a kind of parting shot, because by the
time he set about doing it, the population had declined so dramatically
that you could say he built his road forty or fifty years too late. But
in a way Calum was also making this huge gesture.”

Originally from the north of England, Hutchinson perhaps recognised an
unconscious affinity with MacLeod's rebellious streak and penchant for
very practical direct action from his time as caretaker editor on 1960s
and early 1970s counter-cultural magazine, Oz, while the publication's
editorial board were on trial for alleged obscenity charges in the
notorious Schoolkids Oz issue. Hutchinson went on to edit the
underground's other bible, International Times, before joining London
listings magazine, Time Out.

In the late 1970s Hutchinson joined the radical Skye-based newspaper,
the West Highland Free Press. It was through the paper that Hutchinson
first came into contact with MacLeod, himself a prolific and persistent
correspondent on assorted letters pages, as well as a contributor to
Gaelic publication, Gairm. MacLeod's other works were collected and
translated posthumously by his daughter, Julia MacLeod Allan, in
FĂ sachadh An-Iochdmhor Ratharsair: The Cruel Clearance of Raasay,
published in 2007.

“He was five foot eight and had the body of a teenager when he was in
his eighties,” Hutchinson says of MacLeod. “He was a real outdoors man
with this red, weather-beaten face, and was a deeply religious member
of the Free Presbyterian Church. He was fluent in Gaelic and English,
and kept up a rolling correspondence with exiled Highlanders in
Australia, New Zealand and all over. He had a very dry wit, and was
stubborn, obviously. He was a very thrawn kind of man. Once he decided
he was going to do something, then he would do it. When he set about
building the road, he wasn't elderly, but he was past middle age. The
paper had already followed the story of the road being built, and I
arrived to do a news story after the road had been completed and the
council had finally adopted it.”

It was almost thirty years before Hutchinson wrote Calum's Road. By
that time the saga had already been mythologised in song, first by
Capercaillie on their 1998 album, The Blood Is Strong, then in 2001 by
Runrig on the Macleod-inspired Wall of China/One Man, that appeared on
the band's The Stamping Ground album. Calum never heard either. He
passed away in1988, by which time he and his wife Lexie were the last
surviving inhabitants of Arnish.

“It seemed by the twenty-first century an age had passed,” says
Hutchinson. “I'd arrived in the Highlands at the back end of a
tradition. I'm not saying the language is dying, because it isn't, but
that whole Gaelic crofting and farming culture that Calum loved through
his fantastic sense of connection with the place, thirty years on it's
not as it had been. Calum had become a kind of parable for everything
that had gone before, and I was aware the book was going to be elegiac
as I was writing it, even though there's a happy ending when the road's
built and there are people living at the end of it again.”

Before the road was adopted and tarmacked, some observers likened it to
a piece of landscape art. Despite the beautiful stone-masonry involved,
MacLeod would have no truck with such fancy notions.

“He wanted a road,” says Hutchinson. “ remember ringing him up after it
was tarmacked to ask what he thought. 'It looks like an autobahn,' he
said. It was what he always wanted.”

With MacLeod's construction now immortalised in song, a book and a
play, and with film rights perennially 'in development', Calum's Road
is well and truly on the cultural map. What, though, would the great
man think of all the attention?

“I think he'd be tickled pink,” says Hutchinson. “He was never shy of
publicity. He wanted publicity for his cause, because he wanted to
shame the council, then once he'd finished the road he realised he'd
done something remarkable. He would always make time to talk to
visiting journalists, and I'm sure of he was still around he'd make
time for visiting playwrights and film-makers as well. If ever there
was a man who deserved to be memorialised, it's Calum.”

Despite such ongoing eulogies, things still aren't looking too rosy in
the Raasay garden. According to official sources, Raasay's population
currently stands at one hundred and ninety-two, and, according to
Hutchinson, is “still a long way from anywhere.

“Raasay is in need of some kind of economic kickstart,” he observes.
“If all the agencies involved, and I'm talking about Highlands and
Islands Enterprise, Highland Council and the Scottish Government,
invested one hundredth of the amount of energy into that as Calum
MacLeod put into building his road, then Raasay would be a much happier

Calum's Road, North Edinburgh Arts Centre, September 24th, then tours

Supported by Bank of Scotland

The Herald, September 20th 2011


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