Book: Calum's Road

Radio National: the Book Show (audio)
January 2, 2008:

Ramona Koval: Some time in the 1950s (we can't be sure exactly when), a shy, unassuming, but articulate Scotsman called Calum MacLeod left his crofter's cottage early one morning with a wheelbarrow, a pickaxe, a shovel and a crowbar. He walked some miles south of his home on the wild, beautiful and tiny Hebridean island of Raasay and he started to build a road.

This moment was the beginning of a remarkable achievement by one man, a feat that took more than ten years to complete, and one that's entered the realm of Scottish, British, even European legend.

But this extraordinary act was not meant as some great theatrical flourish. It was in fact the last gasp of defiance in the face of terrible treatment meted out to many generations of traditional residents of Raasay, a well as many other remote islands and regions of Scotland, acts of forced removal and transportation by wealthy landowners in the 19th century and, more recently, disregard by governments and their agencies resulting in the almost total depopulation of the islands.

Journalist and author Roger Hutchinson first encountered the tough and charming Calum MacLeod during the 1960s. But his book Calum's Road is more than just a tribute to this one man. It's an eloquent telling of the history of Raasay's people, of the cruelties meted out to these crofting communities, and of the road that is now something of a shrine to engineers and land-artists and awe-struck people from all over the world.

Roger Hutchinson spoke to The Book Show's Michael Shirrefs from the BBC studios in the Scottish city of Inverness, and he describes the landscape that produced this story ...

Roger Hutchinson: I was working as a journalist. I'd joined a west highland newspaper in 1977, and early in 1979 we got word in the office of this extraordinary feat that was being attempted by a crofter in the north end of Raasay. So I drove over to cover the story. I drove from Skye and got the ferry from Skye over to Raasay and then drove up to the north end of Raasay. It was a dull, drizzly, fairly inhospitable February late afternoon. I didn't have long because I had to get the ferry back to Skye, and I got to the very beginning of Calum's road that he'd been building, and there it was, this stretch of un-tarmacadamed but perfectly contoured and hand-built road, 12 feet wide with passing places and culverts and dry-stone supporting wall stretching away into the distance.

I stood and looked at it for a while and decided...I mean, I didn't have the first idea as to how I was going to locate Calum in this wilderness. I knew that he lived much further along it but I just simply didn't have the time to get up there. There was a rustling in the bushes below me and a man walked up the cliff side out of the undergrowth with a telegraph pole on his right shoulder. And this was Calum MacLeod, he's been beachcombing and he had this huge telegraph pole which he'd...I don't know about you, Michael, but I couldn't have carried that pole two yards, let alone up from the shore up a cliff side. But the other extraordinary thing is he introduced himself cheerfully and we stood and chatted for a while, for perhaps 15 minutes, and he never once put it down, he just stood there as if he didn't notice it, the same way as you or I might have a jacket on ...

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