Colin Macleod

Chieftain of the Glasgow Gaels
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The Independent Online

Colin Macleod was a dreadlocked anti-motorway protester who led his clan of kilted eco-warriors from their treetop protest houses to establish a highly praised and emulated Gaelic-based movement for cultural renewal in inner-city Glasgow. His work brought hope, purpose and meaning into many lives previously blighted by alcohol, drugs, poverty and unemployment. He was one of that notable species, a true inspirer of people to find the best in themselves.

Perhaps best known as a leader of the "Pollok Free State" protest against the construction of the M77 motorway through south Glasgow in the early 1990s and as a founder of the Gal Gael Trust in 1997, Macleod has been described in many ways: activist, community leader, prophet, chieftain, shaman, craftsman, poet. He was all of these, and something indefinably greater than the sum of the parts.

Colin Murdo Macleod began life as part of the Scottish diaspora. He was born in Sydney, Australia, to parents of Hebridean and Irish descent, but they returned to Scotland when Colin was four, to settle in the Pollok area of Glasgow. Pollok Park provided the young Colin with a focus for his fascination with nature and fostered his deep love of its trees and wildlife.

After training as a forester, Colin Macleod spent time in the United States, working as a volunteer among Native Americans. He learned wood- and stone-carving. He also came into contact with a movement to restore the self-esteem of young people whose lives were damaged by alcohol and drugs by reconnecting them with their native culture. The experience was to prove inspirational and shaped his life's work.

Discovering, on his return to Scotland, that the ancient trees of Pollok Park that had meant so much to him as a boy were threatened with destruction to make way for the proposed M77 motorway, Macleod instinctively acted to protect them. He gained a certain notoriety as the "Birdman of Pollok", spending nine days in a tree to prevent its being cut down. He was heavily involved in setting up and running the protest campaign and camp, which became the seedbed for many of the skills, insights and attitudes behind the Gal Gael Trust.

To survive and be effective, the camp evolved a culture in which drugs and heavy drinking were outlawed and a strict rule of non-judgemental hospitality and inclusivity was established. There were also carved totem poles and regular skill-sharing workshops. Macleod's practical skills and visionary social thinking were coming together.

When the "Free State" dissolved, Macleod harnessed this culture into an ambitious new project. A charity was registered and a request broadcast on local radio that trees blown down in a storm in the winter of 1998 be collected on an area of waste ground in Govan so that local people could use them for carving and boat-building. The Gal Gael Trust was born.

The concept was to occupy long-term unemployed people in activities that would provide them with transferable skills and experience that could lead them back into work. For many it became a means of re-finding their sense of personhood.

A timber-frame workshop, a 12ft-long model of a birlinn, a Hebridean galley of the kind that provided transport among the Western Isles for centuries, and a number of beautiful traditional rowing skiffs emerged from the hands of the experienced and learning workers. The Gal Gael took the birlinn model to the Govan Fair. The press loved it and the publicity helped them generate greater public interest and find new funding.

The success stimulated Macleod's vision of something greater. He wanted the Gal Gael to build a full-size birlinn. The birlinn would not only be physical testimony to their growing skill and confidence; it also symbolised a culture, represented a set of values, a reconnection with lost roots.

After two years' work, the 30ft-long Orcuan was finished in the summer of 2002. During the time it was being built, members of the Gal Gael took the opportunity offered by the existence of another replica, the Aileach, to learn how to row and sail these ancient craft. After Orcuan was launched on the Clyde by the Deputy Social Justice Minister for Scotland, they applied these new skills, under Macleod's leadership, to sailing her to the island of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides to offer sail training opportunities to the community there.

In May 2004 Orcuan was sailed to Ireland, where Macleod's mother's people had their origins. Given the recent past of most of the crew, recreating classic voyages of their forebears was a momentous experience for them, a new dimension to the sense of belonging and self-esteem developed in the work community in which they themselves had built their vessel.

It had been a long haul, but the benefits to Govan of its dispossessed and disadvantaged people having this sort of experience were receiving recognition. A few days after Colin Macleod died, the new Gal Gael premises were visited by Scotland's Communities Minister Malcolm Chisholm, and the leader of Glasgow City Council, Steven Purcell. The man who had been such a challenge to the authorities in the Pollok Free State was now the focus of their more positive attentions.

At the time of his tragically early death at the age of 39, Macleod was busily developing even more ambitious projects. Working in partnership with Govan Youth Access, the Gal Gael are mentoring local youths in building a series of 23ft galleys. There is talk of racing these on the Clyde as a better channel for young people's energy than gang fighting. Plans are in hand to build a timber Gaelic-Norse longhouse based on images on 10th-century tombstones in Govan parish church. The building is to become a community centre and also to house the construction of a 70ft birlinn, which the Gal Gael aims to sail round Scotland, promoting community and ecological regeneration.

Macleod's contribution to all these activities was enormously practical. He was a man who produced beautiful artefacts and whose enthusiasm for skilled manual work was infectious. But there was much more to it. When enlisting the efforts of unemployed men to restore the cathedral on Iona in the 1930s, the Rev George MacLeod (the future Lord MacLeod of Fuinary) talked about "work as worship". Never a churchgoer, Colin Macleod was nevertheless a deeply spiritual man, a man for whom work was a "religious" pursuit. His spirituality connected him very strongly with the people he came in contact with and was the foundation of his qualities as a leader.

As a leader, Macleod fused the practical and the romantic. As the chieftain of his clan, his Gal Gael, he became a sort of living myth. He was a "father" to his people, who provided inspiration, taught skills and self-respect, and who was always there, whether it was the loan of a tenner or a good talking to that was needed. This was chieftainship not in the debased tradition of the hereditary clan chiefs who featured so largely in the clearances of people from the Highlands and the decline of Gaelic society. There was an element of inspirational romanticism in it but it had a great deal about it of the old, robust, tradition of chieftainship in which becoming and remaining head of the clan (family or community) was based on earning the respect, indeed the love, of its members; leading not from the front, but from the midst.

The qualities that made Colin Macleod a "chieftain" in 21st-century Govan put him up there with some of the important folk of Scottish history. His legacy of regeneration will endure - and he will live on in the hearts and in the stories of his people.

Glen Murray