Rhenigidale: The end of the road, but not the story

A launch party was held in Tarbert, Harris, recently to mark the publication of a new book from Acair. Novelist Fiona Rintoul, who lives on Harris, was there…

“Rhenigidale is a metaphor,” Brian Wilson, the journalist and former Labour government energy minister, told a packed room of emotional Hearaich at the Harris Hotel in Tarbert on Saturday. That it is a metaphor for positive change in remote communities rather than evacuation and decay is in large part due to one man: Kenneth (Kenny) MacKay (pictured below).

Kenny MacKay 1
Photo: Katie Laing

The gathering in Tarbert marked the launch of ‘Rhenigidale: A Community’s Fight For Survival’, Kenny’s book about the settlement where he has lived for most of his life. Published by Acair Books, it depicts Rhenigidale’s struggle to evade the fate of St Kilda, Scarp and countless other abandoned communities in the Hebrides.

It is also the story of Kenny’s implacable commitment to what at times seemed to be a lost cause. Born in Rhenigidale in 1935, Kenny devoted much of his adult life to lobbying for a road to be built to his birthplace. The campaign’s ultimate success and Rhenigidale’s survival today as a viable community of 20 with four school-age children owe much to his energy, tenacity and vision.

At the book launch in Tarbert, Mr Wilson recalled an incident that sums up a life of tireless and inventive petitioning. Standing on the steps of the Harris Hotel with Donald Dewar once, Mr Wilson said he was surprised (not) when suddenly, “like a leprechaun, out of nowhere, who should appear but Kenny”.

In the long and arduous campaign for a road to Rhenigidale, Kenny let no opportunity pass as he sought to highlight the plight of his community. Before the road was built in 1990, Rhenigidale could only be reached by boat or a four-mile hike over the steep, zig-zag path known as the Sgriob.

If the powers that be had hoped the people of Rhenigidale would give up and go away they were to be disappointed.

“Consider the worry felt by the person that awaits the return of someone to the village when they are delayed coming to this track until nightfall when it may be covered with treacherous snow and ice,” Kenny wrote to the council convener, Rev Donald MacAulay, in March 1979.

As the village postman from 1975 to 1987, Kenny walked the path three times a week. The other villagers were no stranger to it either. Some took the path to church on Sundays, and supplies were brought in by foot when no boat was available. In their youth, Kenny and his siblings were given the chore of meeting “whichever parent was walking home from Tarbert with the groceries”.

Kenny’s unscheduled encounter with Mr Dewar is one example of the constancy — some might call it obduracy — needed both to wage a single-minded campaign for many years and to stick it out in an isolated community while prosecuting that campaign. His book details the countless letters written, visits made and alliances forged, as he fought for what he believed was right in the face of a war of attrition by the “powers that be”.

Before him had gone others. The campaign for a road to Rhenigidale began in the 1930s when many of the community were resettled at Portnalong on Skye. Later, Kenny’s uncle, Roddy McInnes — who was remembered with great affection on Saturday — took up the fight, making frequent visits to the then county council in Inverness.

His nephew was initially stung into action by a remark made to the uncle on a bus when they were both returning from a burial at Luskentyre. Someone made fun of Roddy’s fight for a road, saying it was a lost cause.

“That was my turning point,” says Kenny. “I stayed quiet that day but from then on I got involved in the long campaign for the road.”

SELF-RELIANCE was everything. The route the road eventually took was surveyed not by any of the councils that oversaw Rhenigidale — they believed it could not be built — but by John Hutchison, an officer with the Schools Hebridean Society. A chartered civil engineer, he plotted the route during an SHS expedition in 1974, having received £100 for the task from Donald MacCuish of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, who was supportive of the cause.

If the powers that be had hoped the people of Rhenigidale would give up and go away they were to be disappointed. As the community declined in numbers, it was supported by the fishermen of Scalpay.

In 1980, Kenny married the Rhenigidale school teacher, Moira Laird, who had arrived in 1977 to teach the village’s one pupil. In 1982, their son, Duncan, was born, followed by a daughter, Kirsty, in 1991. Meanwhile, Kenny’s sister, Cathy, and her husband had moved back to the village from Edinburgh with their two daughters.

The small community endured material hardships with good humour, but one problem proved debilitating: access to medical help. When his uncle died on the path, Kenny began to question the campaign. His aunt, however, urged him to continue.
“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 I would win in the end.”

Win he did, but that was not the end of the story. The land around Rhenigidale did not belong to the community. After further campaigns, Rhenigidale eventually became part of the community-owned North Harris Estate — meaning the people, who had come there after being cleared from other lands, could never be cleared again.

Kenny Mackay and Katie Rose
Kenny at the launch with Katie Rose MacLeod, the daughter of family friends from Stockinish                                                          Photo: Duncan MacKay

The turnout in Tarbert on Saturday, the goodwill in the room, the heart with which the crowd took up the strains of ‘Oran an Scalpay Isle’ sung by Ewan Morrison at the end: these are a tribute to the man who led these campaigns. They are testament too to the universal hardships and joys of a twentieth-century Hebridean life — more acute perhaps in Rhenigidale but understood by all — for which Kenny, like his home village, is a metaphor.