A short and winding road on Raasay


My brother, silhouetted against Loch Na Meilich, Raasay

I’ve contributed some recollections to the Guardian’s family section, for a regular section called ‘playlist’.

I wrote about the significance of a fiddle tune called ‘Calum’s Road’, and a trip to Raasay to see the eponymous road with my family for my father’s 60th birthday.

Full text can be found after the fold.

Playlist: The short and winding road

Calum’s Road by Capercaillie

The Guardian, Saturday 27 October 2012

I played the fiddle when I was young and my father would accompany me, vamping on the piano – oom-pa oom-pa, oom-pa oom-pa. One of our favourite tunes was Calum’s Road, a strathspey (a kind of dance tune) written by Donald Shaw of the Celtic folk band Capercaillie. Mainly I liked it because it was simple to play. Two sharps – the easiest key on the violin – and starting on an open string. Nice and easy, not too fast.

But Dad was very taken with the story that inspired the song.

It was written to commemorate the remarkable story of Calum Macleod, a tenant crofter and part-time postman on the tiny isle of Raasay, off the west coast of Scotland. Exasperated by the local council’s refusal to link his remote village to the rest of the island, he took matters into his own hands and constructed the 1.75 mile road himself, with little more than a shovel, a pickaxe and a wheelbarrow. It took him a decade, from 1964 until 1974, but the road still stands today.

We went to see Calum’s road, as a family, for Dad’s 60th birthday. He had always wanted to see it, so all of us Flyns – my parents, my brothers, their wives and me – packed our bags and drove across Scotland to catch the ferry from Sconser on Skye. (“You know you’re off the beaten track,” advises the guidebook, “when the island can only be reached from another island.”)

The north of Raasay is barren and beautiful. Heather baked golden by the sun, cropped short by the sheep, rocks blown smooth by the winds.

A mile and three quarters does not sound very long for a road, but it is a feat of engineering and endurance. The track climbs and drops through the hills, skirting the rocky inlets at the edge of Loch Arnish. Until the 1960s this route was only passable on foot, along a rugged footpath.

Calum hoped that, with a proper road, his daughter Julie could get to and from school at the weekends. As it was, she had to board at the school in Portree on Skye – where my mother was a pupil – all term, only returning for the holidays.

He built the road for his daughter. I walked the road for my father.

I live in London now, only returning for the holidays. But I can still play the tune from memory. By ear, as we fiddlers call it.


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