On a spring morning in the middle of the 1960s, a man in his fifties placed into his home-made wooden wheelbarrow a pick, an axe, a shovel and a lunchbox. He trundled this cargo south from his crofthouse door, down a familiar, narrow, rutted bridle path, up and down rough Hebridean hillsides, along the edge of hazardous cliff faces, through patches of bent hazel and birch and over quaking peat bogs.

"After almost two miles he stopped and turned to face homewards "

More than 10 years later Calum MacLeod, had built a road along the one-and-three-quarter tortuous miles between Brochel and his home at Arnish at the north end of the Inner Hebridean island of Raasay. It had required him to break through the six-foot stone wall built by a nineteenth-century landlord to keep the people and stock away from the rest of his island playground. Truly, the stuff of metaphor.

Calum died in 1988 at the age of 76 and was buried in a graveyard at the south end of Raasay. But, unlike his forebears, Calum did not have to be transported to his final resting place by boat. Because of his own extraordinary endeavour, the hearse was driven to his crofthouse door along his "autobahn", as he proudly called it.

Later today, the story of his project - lovingly recorded in Roger Hutchinson's book Calum's Road, from which the extract at the beginning of this article is taken - will be confirmed on the shortlist for the prestigious £10,000 Ondaatje Prize, awarded by the Royal Society of Literature. The RSL was founded in 1820 by King George IV to "reward literary merit and excite literary talent". Last year, James Meek's much-acclaimed The People's Act of Love took the prize, which is awarded to a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry "evoking the spirit of a place".

Roger Hutchinson certainly succeeded on that count when writing about Raasay, the place he has called home since 1999. But he had known of Calum's road long before.

He had come north to Skye from London to work as a journalist on the West Highland Free Press in the late 1970s. It was in 1979 that he learned Highland Regional Council was due to commence work on a crofter's home-made track. So he went to Raasay in search of the original road-builder.

At first he couldn't find him. "Then there was some movement among the trees and shrubbery down the hillside to my right. A wiry man, five feet eight inches tall, walked easily up and out of the vegetation, smiled at me shyly and offered his hand. He was, he said, Calum MacLeod, and had a weather-worn telegraph pole balanced on his right shoulder." He didn't bother to put down the pole during the 15-minute conversation that followed.

MacLeod told Hutchinson of the requests made in the 1920s to the old Inverness County Council by his parents, and another 90 residents, for a road. As the council procrastinated, the young families left one after another and eventually there was nobody left but Calum and his wife.

He concluded that if he didn't build the road, nobody else would. But by that time he was building it not to keep families there, but to attract them back.

Hutchinson duly wrote up the story, and sparked a lot of interest. It appeared in tourist literature, documentaries were made - and the band Capercaillie even wrote a strathspey to mark MacLeod's achievement. "But even when I came to live here eight years ago, I still had no intention of writing a book about Calum or the island," Hutchinson says now. "A lot of good books had already been written about Raasay."

However, he became intrigued by the number of islanders at the south end who had originally come from the north end and from the small islands just off Raasay: the communities of Fladda, Torran, Arnish and Eilean Tigh. "Their families had left the north end in their own lifetimes, not because of the nineteenth-century clearances. But I thought there was a newspaper piece to be written, probably about the last three families leaving Fladda in the mid-1960s - an untold St Kilda.

"Then it started to come to me that the story of Calum's road provided a narrative, because the people of Fladda had been involved in petitioning for a road."

There was also a literary influence. Many years ago, Hutchinson had read the French novel The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono. It was about a man who saw his community in Provence disappear because of a lack of water, and believed the answer was to reforest the whole area. So for decades he would scatter seeds everywhere he walked. Trees and flowers grew, returning moisture to the soil, and the people came back.

"It was always in the back of my mind that what Calum did was a real-life version of the man who planted trees. I thought there was a book here after all."

And what a book. Social history, biography and commentary, by a man with deep affection and respect for the hero of his tale, as well as for all the other islanders involved.

Since its publication last year it has struck a chord throughout Scotland and beyond. It was a best-seller for weeks, and now talks are well advanced with the respected Handmade Films (Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa) about making a film.

Calum's Road is Hutchinson's 13th book; others include a biography of the diarist James Boswell and a history of Newcastle United. A fan of grassroots sports (he coaches the Raasay football team), he was keen to write about the subject when he arrived at the West Highland Free Press in 1977. His first job was to report on a shinty match at Lochcarron; he had never seen the sport, so asked to be pointed in the direction of the best history of the game. There wasn't one, so he wrote it.

The success of Calum's Road is seen by many as a long overdue tribute to an author whose contribution to the intellectual life of Scotland has not been adequately recognised. The son of a primary headmaster, Hutchinson spent his childhood moving from home to home across the north-east of England. His mother had died when he was still young. He studied English at Bretton Hall College, Leeds, and on graduating immersed himself in underground publishing, launching the fortnightly radical Styng, based on London's IT magazine.

He would take copies down to London and befriended the producers of IT and Oz, particularly the latter's Felix Dennis. This was shortly before the Oz obscenity trial, when Hutchinson's new friends were accused of conspiring to "corrupt the morals of young children" by producing an "obscene article" involving Rupert Bear. In the wake of the trial he moved to London to help edit Oz and was soon in charge of Time Out and IT. At that time he played for a football team called the West London Unattractives, largely made up of underground press men - including one Duncan Campbell, who was to go to become a highly respected Guardian correspondent, not to mention Julie Christie's boyfriend.

Campbell had been commissioned to write pieces about Billy Connolly, and through him met Brian Wilson, one of the founders of the West Highland Free Press. "They had been sending the Free Press down to us, so we knew about it," says Hutchinson. "I met Brian shortly afterwards, and a year and a half later I went up to Skye to work for the paper."

He still does. From the cottage he shares with his partner Caroline, looking out over the Sound of Raasay to Glamaig and the Braes area of Skye, he writes columns and reviews books, sending them over to head office in Broadford.

He is also planning his next book. "It's about a family who went to America in the 1880s and walked all over the place, ending up in Arizona - all in search of a doctor who could cure blindness. ,br> "It was my family."

Calum's Road is published by Birlinn, priced £9.99. An island with a troubled history Lying between Skye and the Applecross Peninsula, Raasay is 14 miles long and four miles wide and currently has a population of around 200. It was a Macleod island, with family lines going through the Macleods of Lewis rather than the geographically closer Macleods of Dunvegan.

In 1695, the Skye-based physician Martin Martin recorded the islanders' attachment to their chief Macleod of Raasay: "They have as great a veneration for him as any subjects can have for their king."

This was underlined during the 1745 Jacobite uprising when Macleod, despite being a Protestant, managed to muster 100 men for Bonnie Prince Charlie's cause, from an island that had barely 500 people. Raasay and her people were to pay dearly at the hands of Hanoverian troops for that support.

Prince Charlie spent a night on Raasay while he was on the run, but it was not deemed safe for a longer stay. Johnson and Boswell had no such problems when they visited the island in 1773.

The nineteenth century was troubled by clearance, first by the chief, whose actions did not save him from bankruptcy in 1843. Things got worse. On one day, in June 1854, some 129 people left Raasay, mostly "encouraged" by then-landlord George Rainy, a West Indian merchant who had bought the island in 1846 for £26,700. More than 40 of them came from Hallaig on the east of the island, the setting and title for Sorley MacLean's celebrated poem.