Epic journeys don’t necessarily involve epic distances. The journey at the heart of Roger Hutchinson’s Calum’s Road is just one and three quarter miles.
Calum MacLeod lived on the island of Raasay in the Scottish Hebrides, where he worked as a crofter, lighthouse keeper, postman. But his village was nearly two miles from the end of the road.
Frustrated at the lack of commitment on the part of Inverness County Council, despite the repeated appeals from the community, he decided, around 1964, to extend the highway himself. Virtually single-handedly, over more than ten years, ‘with the aid of a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow and a road-making manual which cost him three shillings’, he widened the track which wound its way round the hillside, above the sea-cliffs, and in and out of deep glens, laying the foundations for a rough thoroughfare until that final moment when he could drive his Land Rover all the way to his door.
Finally, after another long wait, the road became what he called an Autobahn, when in 1982 the council belatedly made amends and surfaced it in tarmac.
If conventional travel books should be first-person narratives, then this is not a conventional travel book. After all, most journeys never make their way into print. And those that do often only find a readership through the offices of a historian or biographer, roles that Hutchinson plays well here.
He has plenty of material to draw on. As news of MacLeod’s astonishing project spread, it featured in guidebooks, radio and TV programmes, and art exhibitions. Capercaillie even wrote a song about it (you can hear it in the background of the video above). As be became something of a celebrity, McLeod talked to many outsiders. And as a prolific writer of letters to the newspapers, he left a substantial record relating to his struggle.
Hutchinson could have turned the story into a novel. And maybe fictionalizing it would have given us a keener sense of the day-to-day experience of building the road, and brought us closer to the people it was designed to serve. But Hutchinson chooses to tell a wider-ranging account that takes us back to the Clearances of the 1820s. And makes of Calum a heroic figure who stands for all those who took a stand against the powers that be, which in the twentieth century helped to depopulate the Highlands and Islands as the rapacious landlords had done in the nineteenth.
As schools and post offices were allowed to close, and transport links failed to materialise, the road became a monument not to the past, but to a possible future, whose keynote is active regeneration rather than passive neglect, justified cynically by the dwindling numbers of residents caused largely by that neglect in the first place.
Hutchinson does not sentimentalize his protagonist. He does not spare us some of the less attractive strands to his ideology. MacLeod’s antipathy to the 1960s establishment is intensified by his hostility to the liberalisation of laws regarding homosexuality, abortion and capital punishment. He wrote a ballad about his achievements that talked of himself ‘working like a nigger’, a phrase that may give us pause, though Hutchinson passes over it without comment.
But the most unexpected passage in the book concerns a letter MacLeod wrote to the Stornoway Gazette in 1970. He refers to a history of Egypt on his desk and comments:
There is reference to allegations of transactions with crocodiles. I fully believe that were these reptiles common to our riverbanks, Socialists in their apathy to crime or evils would not ban this abomination, but would gladly seize the opportunity to licence and tax as harmless amusement.
In a surprisingly long footnote, Hutchinson explains that the book was probably a translation of Description de l’Egypte, the monumental Napoleonic survey that was originally published between 1809 and 1828. Apparently it included claims that ‘Egyptian fellahin had congress with crocodiles as part of divine worship’, claims later given credence by the explorer Richard Burton. But it was all nonsense.
According to a ‘modern veterinarian’ he does not identify, Hutchinson tells us that the activity observed must have been attempts to determine the sex of the reptile, an activity that involved adopting a position that was evidently open to misinterpretation.
It is clear from Calum’s Road that MacLeod travelled quite widely in Scotland; and he was certainly very well-read. But travel doesn’t always broaden the mind. And travel books – like the Description de l’Egypte – perhaps even less so.
But building a road with your bare hands. You can’t argue with that.