Calum’s Road by Roger Hutchinson
It had been the most awful day of weather, of the sort which only those who holiday regularly North of the Border can understand, and in desperation for something to do, we drove in the car – quite where we were not sure. We headed south and towards Glen Coe where, gasping for coffee, we ended up in the National Trust for Scotland Visitor Centre. The rain was torrential and we felt almost stuck in the bookshop, but without any sign of abatement to the downpour outside, we were happy to browse.
Any book which can win the praise both of The Guardian and of The Daily Telegraph must be worth considering and Calum’s Road immediately stood out. Roger Hutchinson, originally from Yorkshire but himself now living on Raasay, tells the story of Calum Macleod, the last remaining resident on the northern half of the island.
Without a road, Calum realised his community would not survive. And without the assistance of the local authority in providing one, Calum set out to build one. But without funds, manpower or equipment, such a road was to be an almost impossible task – particularly when the sheer wildness of the landscape is considered. For those in the South of England – indeed perhaps the majority of the British Isles – the idea of not having a road seems almost inconceivable in the twentieth century. But in much of the Highlands and Islands, roads were at best single track and many areas could be reached only by foot or by boat.
Calum was no fool – eloquent, a writer in his own right, a humble member of the Free Church, erudite in the way once common in the Highlands – and he set out to learn about how such a road might be engineered, before he began, with pick and shovel, to build his road.
Yet Hutchinson’s book is more than biography: this, too, is the tragic history of Raasay and the Ghàidhealtachd: the oppression of Factors working for absentee landlords; the devastating effect of sporting estates; the impact of the First World War (arguably much greater in the Highlands than elsewhere); the politics of land tenure; the decline of the Gaelic language, and the death of a community.
This summer, I visited Skye and from Portree, the island’s captial, we looked over to Raasay. As we munched on fish and chips in Portree harbour and moved around to avoid the midges, we read advertisements for excursions on boats to see the wildlife around Raasay and … to ‘Calum’s Road’. Had we had more time on Skye, I’d have loved to have gone.
Rumour has it that the book will be a film before long. Don’t leave it till then. As the West Highland Free Press remarked of it, this is indeed ‘an extraordinarily fine book’.
In August 2012, whilst on holiday on Skye, I crossed over to Raasay on a day of incredibly varied weather – the ferry journey back was stormy with a squall blowing hard against the ferry, whilst earlier in the day we had enjoyed splendid views and beautiful sunshine. By the standards of the South East of England, every road on Raasay is an adventure, but Calum’s Road is – having walked its length – an incredible piece of engineering. And best of all were the quirky signs along its route. The photograph added to the top of this post and those below are from that day.