Imagine being evicted from your croft home and resettled in a challenging environment where you had to start all over again in cultivating the land. Imagine then having to fight tooth and nail, for half a century, for the right to a road to the outside world.
That was the struggle and the ultimate triumph of the community of Rhenigidale in Harris. A David and Goliath fight, picked up by successive generations, to keep up the pressure on the powers-that-be in a bid to prevent Rhenigidale becoming a second St Kilda.
The story of this struggle, and of the community itself, has now been told in a compelling book by Kenny Mackay, the man who led the campaign to its successful conclusion, and is being launched at an event in Tarbert tomorrow (July 30).
Rhenigidale: A Community’s Fight for Survival is published by Acair, who have been publishing books on the social history of the Highlands and Islands for 40 years.
The Rheningidale road was officially opened on 20 February 1990, after a decade of hard lobbying and fundraising. The first plans for a route were drawn in 1974 but the campaigning actually went back to the 30s. It was not a fight easily won.
There are many letters, documents and press cuttings in the book — all of which help the storytelling and track the ups, downs and political machinations of the campaign. One letter in particular, from 1955, shows what they were up against.
It is from Malcolm K Macmillan, the local MP, who had been making their case to Inverness County Council, the local authority Harris belonged to at the time. To Duncan MacInnes, he wrote: “Rhenigidale has no sort of priority at present in Inverness. I am deeply sorry to appear to talk so bluntly; but I am sure you prefer to have the truth as I know it than to have fancy promises that mean nothing.”
There is much historic detail in the book, including croft histories, maps with old Gaelic place names and personal stories, including one lovely transcript of an old BBC interview with a Glasgow Gael, Morag Morrison, who was born in the area in 1899 and lived to see the road. “Something I did not think I would ever see — a car going to Rhenigidale”.
Kenny’s story is, of course, central. He was the Rhenigidale postman from 1975 to 1987, walking miles over the track to Tarbert with the mail, and had taken over this role from his uncle, Duncan MacInnes. The year 1975 also marked the start of his involvement with the campaign for the road, which he took over from his uncle Roddy.
In the book, he said: “I remember coming back on a bus after a burial at Luskentyre. My uncle was by this time taking up the fight for a road, as he felt that that was the only means of our survival. I distinctly remember another person on that bus making fun of my uncle – that he was fighting a lost cause – and even making fun of the problems we had here.
“I stayed quiet that day but from then on I got involved in the long campaign for the road. It was very strange that something as simple as that would have stung me into action, but that was my turning point.”
There was a lot of opposition to Rhenigidale’s road, with one councillor even saying that a helicopter should be sent to evacuate the people of Rhenigidale to a more civilised village. The road was finally built in the 80s, in two stages, with the campaigners having to battle all over again to secure the funding for the second stage.
In his foreword, Kenny tells a story, about an incident involving his father during the First World War. He was serving on a minesweeper and had been tasked to pick up a mooring buoy, with the help of a crewmate. It was dark and the crewmate panicked, leaving Kenny’s father abandoned on the buoy. When he was rescued, many hours later, his hands had to be prised from the mooring ring because he had clung on for so long.
“This story of my father’s tenacity inspired me not to give up the fight for a road,” he wrote. How utterly apposite.
Kenny credits many people for supporting him in this fight, beginning with his mother and Aunt Marion, who had lived in the village all their lives, and the fishermen in Scalpay — whose support, in providing a lifeline with their boats, had made it possible for the villagers to stay in Rhenigidale and see their road come to fruition.
His Aunt Marion would keep him going at his lowest point, when his uncle was found dead on the postman’s path. Grief-stricken, Kenny questioned whether he should give up the campaign. “The first time I walked the path with my Aunt Marion after my uncle – her husband – had died, I felt it wasn’t right that my obstinate fight for a road would cause further problems in the village but she reassured me that she was confident that if I carried on we would win in the end.”
The turning point came 1984 when one of the local councillors offered to forgo scheduled roadworks in his ward so that funds could be diverted to the Rhenigidale project. Kenny knew then that the councillors were coming on side. Another step forward came when one of the villagers, Kenny’s aunt, had to airlifted to hospital in Stornoway by the helicopter from Lossiemouth. This generated a lot of publicity.
Deep and enduring friendships were formed during the campaign and these stories are told in the book. Some of these friendships came from the media, particularly the Stornoway Gazette and the West Highland Free Press who were very supportive.
Special mention must be made of Brian Wilson, who “acted as the conscience of the council” and put great pressure on them. One time, writing in the West Highland Free Press, he accused councillors of “oozing goodwill towards their fellow citizens in Rhenigidale but (doing) precisely nothing”.
Later, he wrote: “The Rhenigidale road was important symbolically, as well as for its practical purposes. I recall being appalled by the argument, coming from within the Western Isles Council, that you shouldn’t spend this kind of money on such a remote place with so few people. For, of course, the logical extension of that argument would be to turn it against the Western Isles as a whole.”
The media have long been fascinated by Rhenigidale — the romance of it, as much as the road. Kenny’s wife Moira has a copy of The Scots Magazine from 1955 which features an article on Rhenigidale — ‘Taking The Mail To Rhenigidale’ — and talks of the path, which affords beautiful views over Loch Trollamarig and out to the Minch from its high point.
The writer, John Macfarlane Gray, said: “One may discover an inner peace which is very comforting”.
Moira’s cuttings file is impressive. There is another special one — an article from the News of the World in 1979, which tells the story of how she moved to Rhenigidale from Ayrshire, aged 22, to teach the only pupil at the local school… and fell in love with the postman.
“Hermit teacher Moira finds romance”, went the headline. “Her mother was horrified!” said Kenny. It then told how “a pretty young teacher has found romance… in one of Britain’s remotest communities.”
In the article, Moria said: “I’d not swap it for life on the mainland. I intend to stay and help to fight for the community’s survival. It’s ridiculous. The community has been pressing for a road for 40 years. A road will mean the survival of a threatened community.”
That support never wavered. In his acknowledgements, Kenny wrote: “A special thanks to my wife, Moira, for her continuous support over difficult years. Without her support neither the road nor this book would ever have happened.”
The road that was ultimately built is the same one that was mapped out in 1974 by John Hutchison, a civil engineer who came to Rhenigidale with an expedition from the Schools Hebridean Society. It was expensive, costing £1.5million and serving around 10 residents.
Now, there are twice as many residents and the village is community owned, as part of the North Harris Estate.
Acair manager Agnes Rennie said: “This is a story that had to be told and recorded for future generations and who better to tell it than the man who was at the centre of things, leading the campaign.
“Working with Kenny and his wife Moira has been a joy and we have a book that’s partly the memoirs of a unique man and partly a memorial to a unique way of life, but above all else is a celebration of a community that fought against the odds and won.”
I wonder if Kenny always believed they would win. “We had to.” You keep going, he said, “to the end of the road”.