I recommend it to anyone who is interested in a forgotten type of character, and it motivated me to give you a synopsis.
The journey is a common motif in literature, witness Homer’s Odyssey, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, or more recently Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Each of these, and countless others, generally subscribe to a simple format, the protagonist embarks on his quest and through trial and tribulation, learns something about himself.
If the journey is a parable of adventure and self-discovery, what can we make of a man whose journey is to build the road, with no other allegorical intent other than he wishes it to revive his community?
Calum MacLeod was a Gael, living on an island off the West Coast of Scotland, the Hebridean Island of Raasay, and Calum had watched his community on the South side of the Island wither and die for want of a two-mile stretch of road until there was only himself and his wife left. Calum would tell of when there was a thriving community in Arnesh, his native village, and how for more than 60 years, he, and his father before him, petitioned the various government departments to build a road to save the community. To no avail.
And so it was that sometime in the middle of the sixties, a man in his fifties, set out from his croft, with a homemade wooden wheelbarrow, a pick, an axe and a shovel as well as a copy of a book called Road Making and Maintenance, written by a fellow Scot and published in 1900. He walked two miles before he laid down his tools and commenced his return journey that would take the best part of 20 years as well as 3 wheelbarrows, six picks, six shovels, five sledge hammers, four spades and one crowbar.
Calum MacLeod built his road and it’s known the world over as Calum’s Road. He was a man of a dying culture, and Calum was of a type of man we see ever more rarely, a type of man extinct in the material excess of the Western world, found only, still, in those areas where men toil by the dictates of the seasons and where the time is measured not by any clock or timepiece but by phases of life, where there’s no television or internet to while away the hours in dumb passivity. This toil is not in pursuit of leisure time, but for improvement, both his own, a characteristic of the poor but educated community that existed in Scotland at the turn of the 19th century; and his immediate environment.
What can we make of man this man of fortitude? Some called him stubborn, some called him determined and some called him an anachronism. Indeed Calum was dismissed as eccentric, but only in that he differed from conventional behaviour.
If there were a single word to define this man it would be indefatigable. It’s estimated that the largest single boulder he moved weighed nine tons: “He used a jack to lift it, then packed it in place with stones, then jacked it up again, then repacked it with stones, then jacked it once more… until it had been heaved out of the way and had fallen, defeated, into the sea.”
He was the very definition of an autodictat, a self taught polymath who learned both academically and empirically. He was an accomplished essayist in his native tongue, a prolific contributor to newspapers and a poet, as well as being Master of the local lifeboat, lighthouse keeper, part-time postman and crofter.
Calum was a living reminder of the peasant crofting culture of the Gàidhealtachd, a man who put his own desire for knowledge above all else, a man who trusted only in himself and who would continue his self-education till the day he died. He exemplified what was once known as a ‘Lad O Pairts,’ he left school at 14 and was largely self-taught, but his education was broad, a symbol of the best education system in the world at the time, a system that taught you how to think and that learning was a virtue unto itself.
The depopulation of the highlands is well documented, but in Calum’s mind it wasn’t Patrick Sellar or The Duke or Sutherland, absentee landlords or even sheep that finally did for the Gael, he blamed well intentioned but miss-judged socialism. In 1970, in the the Stornoway Gazette he wrote “Socialism was responsible for remote authoritarian units that have no consideration for, and are mainly ignorant of, local factors essential to benefit those concerned,” he went on: “During the last two decades, this system was pursued by it’s advocates in education, police, postal and transport facilities in rural areas and islands… the whole North Western seaboard from Shetland in the North to Arran and Bute, including the Hebrides – were subjected to the downgrade system.”
That Calum watched this happen is clear, when his daughter was 12, the local schoolhouse was closed and, like many others from remote communities, she became a boarder in far off Portree; on graduation, many of these boarders never returned to their communities.
Again Calum wrote in one of his lengthy essays: “ Is it any wonder Scots emigrate? The decline and fall of the system of education they prided themselves of, and which was unsurpassed in the world, began with the closure and downgrading of the local one and two teacher schools, wherein was a high degree of individual tuition and responsibility.”
Calum would be burling in his grave to see the continued demise of the Gaelic culture although it must be said there is hope yet for his language. But what would he have thought of the continuing centralization by Governments and homogenization of society?
Calum raged against the dying of the light, he didn’t succeed, but his road stands as a testament to the spirit of one man determined to fight for what he believed was right.
Calum died on 26th January 1988, he was 76 and was working his croft the day he died. He was resolute to the last that the depopulation of the highlands could be reversed and his culture could be revived, but he was the last man to come out of Anish, in a hearse, driven on the road that he built himself, ironically, he had never driven the road; he never sat his driving test.
Quotes from Calum’s Road, by Roger Hutchison
Part of a Ballad Written by Calum MacLeod
Yet I was Undismayed,
With peg and line and level too
Its course was then surveyed.
No bulldozer was to be got,
No crusher and no digger
Just brawn and strength to do the lot,
and, working like a nigger.
For six long years the work goes on
by crags or mossy hollows.
The tourists are amazed to find
a road they now can follow
Round many a curve and rocky cliff
the road does now meander
and you will find a motor-car
where only sheep could wander.
And, when at last it is complete,
The battle will be over,
And walking will be obsolete
We all go by Landrover.
The road a monument will remain
In memory of one fellow
who saw his countrymen swept away
By the heirs of Patrick Sellar.