The Road to the Isles
"The Road to the Isles" is a famous Scottish traditional song. It is part of the Kennedy-Fraser collection and it appeared in a book entitled 'Songs of the Hebrides' published in 1917, with the eponymous title by the Celtic poet Kenneth Macleod. The poem is headed by the statement 'Written for the lads in France during the Great War'. The impression is given by the notes appended to the book that the author was Kenneth Macleod himself. Marjory Kennedy-Fraser toured the Western Isles of Scotland in the summer of 1917 and collected a group of local tunes. The tune associated with the Road to the Isles was an air played by Malcolm Johnson of Barra on a chanter and composed by Pipe Major John McLellan of Dunoon (originally titled "The Bens of Jura"). Kenneth Macleod then wrote the words for a voice and harp (or piano) arrangement of this air by Patuffa Kennedy-Fraser. It is said to have been played by Bill Millin, piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, during the first day of the Normandy Landings on D-Day during World War II, during a daring Commando attack during Operation Roast in the Spring 1945 offensive in Italy, and also at the start of construction on Toronto's first subway line, under Yonge Street, in 1949.
The lyrics mention first the hills of the Isle of Skye (whose memory is calling the traveller west); then the successive locations he will pass on the way across the Western Highlands and Inner and Outer Hebrides. The locations mentioned are (in this order): the Cuillin Hills (on the Isle of Skye), Tummel (in Perthshire), Loch Rannoch (in Perth and Kinross), Lochaber (to the west of the Scottish Highlands), Shiel (near Fort William), Ailort (near the Sound of Arisaig), Morar (near Loch Morar), the Skerries (rocky islets - in this case, just off Skye), and the Lews (near Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis).
A far croonin' is pullin' me away
As take I wi' my cromack to the road.
The far Coolins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' the sunlight for my load.
Sure by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go
By heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles.
If it's thinkin' in your inner heart the braggart's in my step
You've never smelled the tangle o' the Isles.
Oh the far Coolins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' my cromack to the Isles.
It's by Shiel water the track is to the west
By Aillort* and by Morar to the sea
The cool cresses I am thinkin' of for pluck
And bracken for a wink on Mother knee.
The blue islands are pullin' me away
Their laughter puts the leap upon the lame
The blue islands from the Skerries to the Lews
Wi' heather honey taste upon each name.
- Caledonian Sticks (Fancy Crooks and Cromachs)
- Harker, Ben (Spring 2005). "'The Manchester Rambler': Ewan MacColl and the 1932 Mass Trespass". History Workshop Journal (59): 219–228.