Friday, 27 November 2015

Calum's Road

Calum MacLeod BEM (15.11.11 to 26.1.88)

Calum MacLeod was a crofter and part-time lighthouse keeper who lived in a remote croft on the small Scottish island of Raasay.

After many years of petitioning the local authority to improve the rough footpath to his home in the north of the island by building a proper road and being consistently refused he decided to build it himself.

With guidance from a tattered book on roadbuilding Calum built nearly two miles of unsurfaced road, suitable for a Land Rover, from his croft to the nearest public road. His tools were a pick, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. It took him ten years!

Map showing the location of Raasay
(Ruhrfisch/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Raasay lies off the west coast of Scotland. It is one of the islands of the Inner Hebrides located between the Isle of Skye and the mainland. Approximately 14 miles long and just over 3 miles wide at its widest point Raasay covers about 60 square miles with a permanent population of nearly 200.

It doesn't have a police station nor a gas station and there is only one small shop, The biggest village is Inverarish near the south of the island. There is one hotel and a handful of Bed & Breakfast lodgings

The name Raasay is old Norse and means The Island of the Roe Deer. The highest point on the island is Dun Caan (443m), an extinct volcano. Despite its remoteness Raasay is now a popular tourist destination with a youth hostel and an outdoor activities centre. Inevitably, Calum's Road has become a big tourist attraction - a fact which would probably have astonished Calum.

Calum's story

Calum was not born on Raasay. His father (who was a Raasay man) was a merchant seaman and Calum was born in Glasgow. He and his mother moved to Raasay at the outbreak of the First World War to a croft and house near Calum's grandfather at Arnish - a small hamlet in the northern half of the island

Calum is generally known today as a simple crofter who took his fate in his own hands and built a road for the betterment of his community.

But Calum was more than that. As well as being assistant keeper of the North Rona Lighthouse he was also part-time postman for the north of the island and a noted local historian and writer on local matters. He wrote frequently to the press and the local authority about various matters (including the road).

Roadsign for Calum's Road
(John Allan/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0)
Some of Calum's writings (written in his native Gaelic) were published during his lifetime and after his death his daughter collected and translated many others and published them as The Cruel Clearance of Raasay.

Building the road

Calum's home near Arnish was difficult to reach. There were two ways: by sea or by a rough footpath not suitable for any kind of vehicle. This remoteness was in large part responsible for the slow depopulation of the north of Raasay.

After years of asking the local authority to upgrade the track to his home and being repeatedly turned down by them as well as by various groups and authorities whom he asked to help by way of granting funds Calum grew tired of the authorities' intransigence and in 1964 he decided to build a road himself from Arnish, south to the nearest public road at Brochel Castle - a distance of nearly two miles.

The road going to Brochel Castle
(Anthony O'Neil/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0)
He was not entirely alone, however, he had some help from the Department of Agriculture who supplied a team of men with rock-breaking and blasting equipment to provide suitably sized stone and gravel for the surface of a single-track road.

After the team had finished Calum was on his own and, working in his spare time and his holidays, he took nearly ten years to complete the road.

By the time it was finished Calum and his wife were the only inhabitants of Arnish - everyone else had gone. But at least Calum was now able to drive his Land Rover from his front door to the public road at Brochel Castle - but no further than that. Calum couldn't drive on the public roads south of Brochel because he had never passed a driving test!

What happened next?

In 1982 the local authority finally gave in and recognised Calum's Road as a public road. It was brought under their control and they gave it a proper tarmac surface suitable for all vehicles. Today, it is popular with tourists who come to drive along it, admire the magnificent scenery and honour the memory of a man whose tenacity almost beggars belief.

Calum's Cairn and part of the road
(Richard Dorrell/Geograph UK CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Calum was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1988 (the year he died) - but not for building the road! 
The authorities apparently couldn't face the embarrassment of honouring Calum for doing something they had consistently refused to do for the best part of 20 years. Calum's BEM was awarded to him for 'maintaining supplies to the Rona light'.

A commemorative cairn was placed at the southern end of the road bearing an inscription in Gaelic and English.

Driving the road


  1. He was obviously of the same ilk as two other famous Scots roadbuilders, and engineers, McAdam and Telford!

    1. Indeed - but at 10 years per road Calum couldn't have made a living at it!

  2. Wow, it must of been a feat to build a road in a remote place. It takes a certain kind of person to take on something the government refused to do.