I’ve written about motorways cutting through communities before; in the story of Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, San Diego. Those events weren’t a one-off. A BBC Alba documentary called The Birdman of Pollok Park (on BBC iPlayer for the next couple of weeks) tells the story of Colin MacLeod, a local man who tried to stop the same from happening to Pollok Country Park in Glasgow. Both describe a clash between two opposing cultures: one based on the principles of honour, kinship and community and the other based on the aggressive pursuit of progress, profit and territorial domination. I find the brutal arrival of a new motorway in the middle of a close-knit neighbourhood a great metaphor for this global and eternal conflict.
Glasgow didn’t do well from the mid-20th century rise in car ownership. Charing Cross and Anderston were razed to the ground in the late 60s to accommodate the M8 motorway. It remains the only motorway in the UK which goes straight through the middle of a large city rather than bypass it; akin to the M25 cutting through Marylebone in London.
In the mid 90s plans went into motion for the M77 to do the same to parkland in the south of the city. The Conservative government was in its death throes at the time, but still pursuing the gruesome individualism which had made Margaret Thatcher so popular in the South of England. In practical terms, this meant more motorways, as private transport must come before public transport and public spaces.
The motorway would skirt Cowglen Golf Club to avoid disrupting the lives of richer Glaswegians, and instead tear through five schools which served children from council estates, as well as woods in Pollok Country Park. When finished, the motorway would cut Pollok people off from their park.
For Colin MacLeod, this meant losing his childhood escape. Colin’s family had benefitted greatly from the UK’s post-war settlement; a socialist leap which had taken the horrors of World War II to bring about. His family had been given a good council house after the Glasgow slums were torn down; Pollok was one of four large housing estates built by the city in the 50s and 60s. While his parents enjoyed the rising wages and improved working conditions which labour unionisation helped bring about, Colin spent his childhood climbing trees in the park, which had been donated to Glasgow by the wealthy Maxwell family on the condition it remained public.
But when Colin left school Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her power, and using it to sell off the country’s public utilities and industries to foreign buyers and encourage a culture of greed. Public funding and apprenticeships were stripped away, and Pollok became one of the poorest areas in Europe.
Colin had developed a love of nature during his childhood and spent time studying tree surgery in Dumfries after he left school. When the M77 plan was announced he was scandalised. And when he realised that no amount of written objections from residents would change the government’s decision, he decided to take direct action. Just as he had when he was a child, Colin went up into a tree – and stayed there.
Word soon got round that there was a man living in a tree in the park, and soon a community sprung up around Colin.
‘We’re here to teach people that there’s something we can do, by getting in front of the builders and showing politicians that if you refuse to listen to us, we’re not going away,’ he said to local TV.
The rapidly growing community called itself ‘Pollok Free State’, and was made up of tents and repurposed materials. Soon the Free State had its own passports and declaration of independence. It was a leading question: where was the local democracy and autonomy? At that time there was no Scottish Parliament and the country was run through diktats from London.
The people of Pollok, who had never been trusted to make decisions about their home, were inspired by the idea of their own state. Every part of Pollok society was welcome. Schoolchildren turned up and went on strike from school, explaining their decision to TV cameras far more articulately than government ministers would have expected from a bunch of working class Glaswegian kids. One school had recently won an award for being environmentally friendly; only to find out afterwards that their building was to be demolished to make way for a road. The irony wasn’t lost on the students.
Inside the camp, conversations took place which wouldn’t take place in the local supermarket or bus stop. Gaelic music was heard which wouldn’t be heard elsewhere. Kids learned a history of Scotland which wasn’t taught in school. People lived imaginatively.
As often seems to happen in Scotland, the resistance to the motorway ended in glorious failure. The camp’s inhabitants were eventually turfed-out by private bailiffs supported by the police, amid the apocalyptic roar of chainsaws as tree after tree was felled as soon as it was clear of people.
But Pollok Free State was not a failure.
Colin had grown up steeped in Gaelic culture, his family having originated from Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Much of Gaelic culture, songs and poetry is about mountains, lochs and seas. These pillars of the Scottish natural environment and psyche give Scots, and especially Gaels, a sense of connectedness to each other and the land they live on.
But this connection had been eroded by a succession of events going back hundreds of years. With the union of the crowns in 1603, James VI of Scotland became king of England and Ireland too, and decided that the Gaelic culture of Highland Scotland and Ireland was a threat that should be wiped out. The proceeding crackdown on the culture, along with the Highland Clearances and famine which came along in the 18th and 19th centuries, uprooted people from their traditions and their land.
While many Gaels were forced to emigrate to North America, others settled in Glasgow. They lived in slum housing and made up the working class who were the grease for the Industrial Revolution. Their children had the Gaelic language beaten out of them in school. It was their descendants who were decanted to places like Pollok when the slums were torn down, and who then saw their land taken from them again, 150 years after the first time. Colin saw it as his life’s work to give his people ownership of their surroundings and help them to connect with their heritage.
When people talked about the Free State, it wasn’t the victory of the road that they dwelled upon, it was the sense of connectedness they had felt in that community. Colin had enabled people to rise to their duty and care about their environment.
In the late 80s, Colin had visited South Dakota in the USA, where he met members of the Sioux tribes. Though an ocean apart, Colin was struck by the similarities between the Sioux and the Gaels in Scotland. He saw the Indian reservations as he saw the council estates in Scotland. Both were full of people who had been uprooted from their land and culture; both had drink and drug problems caused by losing a way of life; both had experienced the bleaching out of their culture and the disregarding of hundreds of years of history, and both now saw the appropriation of their cultures by the colonisers. In Scotland, this meant members of the British aristocracy dressing up in tartan to go deer shooting on empty private estates in the Highlands, where thousands of people once lived. In the USA, it meant white people transforming Native Americans into a heroic foe defeated by a great nation – and forgetting the barbaric facts of what really happened.
Colin understood that what he had seen happen in Pollok was not unique to Glasgow. It was a global phenomenon: this is what happens when a society is systematically broken down by people who don’t understand it.
After Pollok Free State, Colin felt more determined than ever to help the people of his home connect with the traditions and heritage that they had forgotten. This manifested in the building of a Birlinn boat, a traditional vessel banned by James VI in an attempt to hobble the Gaels. The young people who Colin dragged in off the street relearned skills which had languished in Scottish cultural memory for centuries. He helped them find meaning in their lives at a time when Glasgow was struggling to find a meaning for itself as the last of the shipyards closed their doors. Working as a team, they first built a workshop and then the boat, which Colin and his crew then sailed down the Clyde and out to sea. The river was no longer the domain of rich yachtsmen; it belonged to the people of Pollok too.