BY ROGER HUTCHINSON
One man’s single-minded determination to challenge the powers-that-be
To reach Calum’s Road, you need to walk, cycle or drive north, a distance of about seven miles, along a single-track road from the ferry terminal to Brochel. From there, you can continue the almost-two miles along this famous road to Arnish. Please be aware the road is narrow, winding, and, although there are passing places, the road surface can be potholed and care should be taken at all times.
Calum MacLeod was born in 1911. He was brought up and spent his life in Arnish, a small sheltered township in the north of Raasay.
Calum MacLeod was accustomed to deserted settlements.
When Calum was a young man, the 100 people who lived in his neighbourhood petitioned Inverness County Council for a motor road to connect them to the south of Raasay. Their request was denied. And so, as the 20 th century went on its careless path, people continued to walk and sail away from the forgotten dwellings of northern Raasay.
The house on Eilean Tigh, in which Chrissie Nicolson was born, was abandoned. The families from Kyle Rona left. The fertile satellite island of Fladda emptied. The people of Torran went south. The school and post office closed. By the late 1960s, just two people remained in the whole of northern Raasay from the 100 who had petitioned Inverness County Council for a road in 1931.
Those two people were Calum MacLeod and his wife, Lexie.
On a spring morning in the 1960s, Calum MacLeod placed into his homemade wooden wheelbarrow a pick, an axe, a shovel and a lunchbox. He trundled this cargo south from his crofthouse door, down the familiar, narrow rutted bridle path, up and down rough hillsides, along the edge of hazardous cliff-faces, through patches of bent and stunted hazel and birch and over quaking peatbogs.
After almost two miles he reached the official, adopted tarmacadamed council motor road. There he stopped and turned to face homewards. Before him and to his left were steep banks of bracken, turf, birch and hazel. To his right, green pastureland rolled down to the sea. There were sheep on this pasture, and, close to the shore, a small group of waist-high rectangles of old stone which once, a century ago, had been the thatched cottages of a community called Castle. The vestigial masonry of a medieval keep teetered on an outstanding crag a few yards from the deserted homesteads, melding into its bedrock so naturally that, 500 years after they were first erected and 300 years since they were last occupied, it had become difficult to tell from 100 yards away where the remnant walls of the man-made fortress finished and the natural stone began.
Then, alone in an empty landscape, Calum MacLeod began to build a road.
He started by widening his workspace. He cleared the scattered clumps of wind-blasted native woodland which lay on either side of the old track. He chopped the dwarf trees down and he then dug up their roots. He gathered the detritus carefully into piles at the edge of his planned route. He worked a long day. He was accustomed to working long days.
And at the end of that first long day, when he reassembled his equipment in the wheelbarrow and began his walk home, he had denuded several yards of ground. He had, in fact, accomplished slightly more than one 2000
th of a task which would take him almost 20 years to complete, which would pay him not a material penny and would cost him little more, but which would leave his manifesto marked in stone upon his people’s land.
Calum MacLeod’s road to northern Raasay was surveyed, adopted and tarmacadamed by the council at Inverness in 1982. Between Brochel Castle and a turning place 100 yards above Calum and Lexie MacLeod’s crofthouse in Arnish there lay at the end of that year almost two miles of smooth and navigable road. It was a single-track highway, but it had 20 passing places to permit the safe transit of northbound and southbound traffic. There were already plans to install sheep and cattle grids instead of gates to keep different townships’ stock separate, all of which were located, purchased, installed and maintained by Calum MacLeod.
“I am very pleased indeed,” said Calum. “They have done a very good job.” He chuckled. “It’ll be like an autobahn when they’ve finished. Mind you, they have not had to change an inch of the lines. I had an Australian science master over here this year and he said that, considering the terrain, the lines of the road were the finest example of scientific engineering he had seen!”
In the New Year’s Honours List of 1983, Calum MacLeod was awarded the British Empire Medal. This merit was officially given to him as a reward for his decades of “community service” both to the Post Office and to the Northern Lighthouse Board, decades which stretched from his time as a deckhand on the Rona lighthouse tender in the 1920s to his retirement in July 1975, when the Rona light was automated. Letters of congratulations – more than 60 of them – flooded into Arnish from the rest of Britain, from the USA, Canada and Australia. Calum MacLeod, wearing his full lighthouse dress uniform, was invested with the BEM by the Lord Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty, Admiral Sir John Hayes at a ceremony in southern Raasay in April 1983.
Apologies for their unavoidable absence were received and noted from Queen Elizabeth II, from Mr Russell Johnston MP, and from the convener of the council at Inverness.
Mr Alastair Henry of the Department of Agriculture took the opportunity to comment on the “extremely good order” of Calum MacLeod’s croft. A cousin of Calum’s from Brisbane in Australia travelled to be in attendance. In his presentation speech Admiral Hayes remarked that he had been a shipmate of Calum’s late brother Ronald on board the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable during the Second World War. Calum himself would muse that he was not the first member of his family to receive a medal. “My cousin was the famous Captain Donald MacRae,” he said afterwards, “the Sydney harbourmaster who was decorated twice before his death in 1962. He led an Australian contingent in the Dardennelles [during World War One], and was said to be the last man out of Gallipoli with a captured Turkish machine gun under his arm! His mother was born and brought up on what is now my very own holding in Arnish, and until his death Donald MacRae had more Gaelic than English.”
If Captain Donald MacRae’s medal-winning feats had been clearly defined in the bloodbath of Gallipoli, his cousin Calum’s was a masked award. Calum MacLeod’s great achievement was by 1983 acknowledged to be the creation of his road, not his service to the Northern Lighthouse Board. But to have listed an emblem of 20 years’ active agitprop against local and central government as sound reason to be offered the British Empire Medal might have set an embarrassing precedent. The citation said that he became Malcolm MacLeod BEM for maintaining supplies to the Rona light, and latterly for working as local assistant keeper there for eight years.
But the whole world knew that he had become Malcolm MacLeod BEM for building Calum’s road. Following the presentation ceremony in the Isle of Raasay Hotel on the afternoon of Saturday 23 April 1983, the entire official contingent drove north, and made its way in stately convoy along the finished road between Brochel and Arnish. “They were very charmed with it,” said Calum MacLeod. “But I never thought I’d end up with a British Empire Medal.”
On Tuesday 26 January 1988, Calum MacLeod finished his midday meal and went outside to continue working. “He’d had his lunch,” said his daughter Julie, “and went out of the door, but he didn’t come back in for his mid-afternoon cuppa.
“My mother thought he was busy doing something, or had met somebody and would be chatting. Then she realised that it was getting dark and wondered, ‘Where is he? The cows have to be fed.’
“She took her zimmer frame and went outside, and all the cows were at the end of the house looking through the gate. She wondered what the cows were doing there, and she looked further round to find my father there, just at the end of our house.
“He was in his wheelbarrow, with Coll the white collie on watch. I think he had sat down on the wheelbarrow because he felt unwell. We assume it was a heart attack. The family was prone to them.”