Fiona Rintoul

IN THE summer months, the small, stunningly beautiful settlement of Rhenigidale on the north east coast of Harris sees a steady stream of visitors. Some come simply to have a look; others stay a while in the 12-bed hostel or one of the two holiday homes in the clachan. A few hardy types walk or mountain bike along the steep 3.5-mile postman’s path that connects Rhenigidale to Urgha near Tarbert, but most come by car. This is possible thanks to a six-decade campaign for a road to the settlement, which has been documented by campaign leader Kenneth (Kenny) MacKay in a fascinating book.

Rhenigidale is the St Kilda that got away. Until 1990, when it was connected to the neighbouring settlement of Maraig by four miles of winding single track road, there was no vehicular access. Residents, visitors and all supplies either came in along the postman’s path – treacherous in winter – or by boat. By the time the road was built, the community was on a knife edge with only 12 residents, several of whom were elderly. However, naysayers’ predictions that the road would be built in time to ferry out the last resident did not come to pass.

"It’s not a dying community now," says MacKay. "The road has brought five new houses into the area, three in Rhenigidale and two around Maraig."

Two of the new houses in Rhenigidale are family homes, and the settlement now supports a community of 20, including four school-age children. In 2009, Kate and Tim Langley built a new house and moved in with their two young children. Earlier, in 2001, Catriona Watt and Douglas Binns had bought a cottage by the shore that was lying empty, where Watt’s great-grandmother had once lived.

The Herald:

The Postman's Path in winter

It was meant as a holiday home, but they liked it so much they upped sticks from Glasgow with their three children, then aged seven, five and one. When Katie Campbell, a second cousin of Watt’s mother, gave them a croft they built a house on it, where Catriona gave birth to a fourth child, Mairi Anna.

"We realised we could have a life here," says Watt. "We were looking to work in a different way and living in the countryside enabled that. It felt nice to have more freedom, and we thought it would be a good place to bring up a family."

The family connections and the welcome that the Watt-Binns received from Katie Campbell and from MacKay and his wife, Moira, helped to persuade the family to make the move. Campbell’s gift of the croft, an act of generosity that is in line with a tradition dying out on the island, is emblematic of her "incredible friendliness". She has inspired Watt to take up crofting, which can feel like a male preserve, although in the past the women had to do hard physical work and handle boats like the men.

"She has the most incredible knowledge of crofting and gardening," says Watt. "She is a positive role model for females in crofting."

The croft is an important part of the package for the family. Watt works part-time at the University of the Highlands and Islands and Binns is a railway civil engineering consultant. Like most contemporary crofters, they work part-time on the croft, on which they grow fruit and vegetables for their own use and graze 100 sheep commercially.

"I like being able to do a mixture of things, from engineering consulting to the different physical work that is crofting," says Binns. "I enjoy the contrast and I enjoy working with neighbours and fellow crofters. A lot of tasks are difficult to do yourself, and so we work communally."

But however satisfying it may be to carry on crofting traditions, there is no doubt that the Watt-Binns would not have moved to Rhenigidale had it not been for the road. Also important was an upgrade to the local school in Tarbert, to which the Rhenigidale children are ferried each day by a bus also available to villagers and visitors. The school now takes pupils up to age 18. Previously, older school children had to complete their studies in Stornoway and board there during the week.

The Herald:

Rhenigidale in 1976

In fact, it’s doubtful if anyone would be living permanently in Rhenigidale without the road. Peter Carter and his wife, Josie, moved there in 2005, having taken early retirement. They came for peace and quiet away from city life and because they both wanted to live by the sea. "Because of our age and physical disabilities, without the road, we couldn’t have considered living here," Carter says.

The only current householders who might have taken up the challenge are Kate and Alastair Turnbull, doctors from Yorkshire with three grown-up children, who bought the former postman’s house of Gearraidh Mhurchaidh two years ago. The house overlooks the magnificent fjord of Loch Seaforth and is reached from the village by a two-mile hill path. The Turnbulls have meticulously restored it, bringing in materials by sea and persuading workmen to make the trek across the bog. Before starting, they had to repair the house’s exposed jetty on the loch and an iron railway that is used to draw materials 230ft up the hillside to the house.

"We would still have considered buying the house in the absence of the road as we sought an older isolated property and were prepared to access it on foot or by sea, which we do," says Alastair Turnbull. "In hindsight, though, the proximity of a community – itself the result of the road – has been very positive."

Had the road not been built, Rhenigidale would almost certainly have faced the same fate as the nearby village of Molinginish, which was abandoned in the 1960s, or the island of Scarp off the west coast of Harris, which was evacuated in the 1970s. A couple of houses have been renovated as holiday retreats in both places, but land that was painstakingly worked by people who had been cleared from other areas lies largely untouched and most of the houses are ruins.

Rhenigidale’s survival shows what proper infrastructure can do for remote communities. Because the campaign for the road was so hard fought – and might not have been won but for the extraordinary persistence of MacKay and his uncle, Roddy McInnes, before him – Rhenigidale has become a symbol of renewal in places that city dwellers may consider far flung but that have a rich and irreplaceable heritage.

"I saw the Rhenigidale road not only as a cause in its own right but as a metaphor for the treatment of peripheral communities," says Brian Wilson, the former Labour government energy minister who supported the campaign for a road to Rhenigidale as a journalist at the West Highland Free Press. "The argument against it was that spending so much money on so few people could not be justified. But if you buy into that mentality, where do you draw the line? A hundred people? A thousand people? And of course, the longer the delay, the fewer the people so the pernicious numbers game becomes self-reinforcing."

As well as detailing the tireless letter writing and lobbying that brought a road to Rhenigidale, MacKay’s book depicts life in the small, close-knit community before the road came. Everyone pitched in when boats arrived with supplies, families worshipped together each morning and all the villagers, including the children, helped with essential work on the croft and evening fishing. At lambing time, the MacKay brothers got up early and checked the various crofts before school to see if any new lambs had appeared in the night.

"If we found a neighbour’s sheep had just lambed and we were the first to tell them about it, we were able to claim two eggs and a scone for a female lamb, and if it was a male, one egg and one scone," Mackay recalls

The Herald:

The Margaret Rae boat brings supplies to Rhenigidale in 1981. Kenny is on the left. His wife, Moira, is on the quay

But there are less bucolic memories too. MacKay wasn’t taught to read and write his native Gaelic in the village school. English was the thing. Before his time, in 1923, on a visit to the Rhenigidale school, His Majesty’s Inspector of Schools was shocked to note that the coal supply had been dumped on the schoolroom floor.

"The good old days weren’t that good," says MacKay. "It was a harsh life."

Beyond the village, Rhenigidale was famous for its quality livestock and hospitality. Catriona Watt’s parents, Bill and Morag Watt, who followed their daughter to the village in 2007, moving from Linlithgow, remember visiting in 1983. Morag Watt, whose mother grew up in Rhenigidale, had last been there as a child in the 1940s, but learning who she was, the residents whisked her and her husband to Rhenigidale by boat and threw an impromptu party.

This warmth and spirit drew people in and made them want to help with the campaign. John Hutchison, an officer in the Schools Hebridean Society (SHS), which took children from varied backgrounds on expeditions to the Hebrides, visited Rhenigidale in 1967. In 1974, he returned. By then a qualified civil engineer, he plotted a route for the Rhenigidale road with Roddy McInnes – the route the council used 16 years later – and obtained a second opinion from the Royal Engineers.

"We presented a feasibility study to the council on a plate, having looked at the options," he says. "It made things a good bit easier. The community themselves had it in their hand and could put it on the table."

By then the community was dwindling in numbers. Fishermen from Scalpay provided a lifeline by ferrying in supplies. A radio telephone link via Gairloch installed in 1958 eased the community’s isolation somewhat, but a series of medical emergencies in the late 1970s proved that it was not enough.

"I have had to take my seriously ill nephew of six months in a small open boat to the doctor at Tarbert, and also, in the same boat, I had to ferry a visitor to the village, who had fallen and fractured his skull, to Kyles Scalpay," MacKay wrote to the convenor of the Western Isles Council, Rev Donald MacAulay, in March 1979.

Shortly thereafter, Mackay married Moira Laird, who had arrived to teach Rhenigidale school’s one pupil in 1977. With her he would go on to have two children, Duncan born in 1982 and Kirsty in 1991. It was a signal that the community wasn’t going to lay down and die.

In 1981, the villagers’ burden was eased by the introduction of mains electricity. One hundred poles were erected between Maraig and Rhenigidale at a cost of £60,000, a proportion of which was met by EEC funds. It was a kind of turning point, for MacKay believes the road would never have been built without European money.

The Herald:

Kenny MacKay in 1975

"The EU developed a coherent approach to the needs of disadvantaged areas, including peripheral ones, which was reflected in structural funds and development programmes," says Wilson. "These brought huge benefit to the Western Isles and other communities generally considered remote."

The EEC had a different philosophy: one which held that places such as Rhenigidale had a right to equality of treatment. "Unless a belief in the rights of minorities is integrated into public policy, the weak suffer and that is as true in geographic terms as it is in social ones," Wilson says.

Today, the fight for better infrastructure in Rhenigidale is far from over. Poor phone connections, inadequate broadband and an electricity supply prone to collapse in bad weather hamper business and social lives. However, most are positive about the future of Rhenigidale, which is now part of the community-owned North Harris Estate. The children who are growing up there may leave, but the road means others will come in.

"I would never live in that confined space of the city again," says Catriona Watt. "I don’t necessarily expect my children to come back and live here, but being away they can promote the island in their own way."

Rhenigidale: A Community’s Fight for Survival, Kenneth Mackay, Acair Books, £12