BBC Alba reveals the life of the last traditional blacksmith

A documentary with exclusive interview footage with one of the last traditional blacksmiths in Scotland will be shown on BBC ALBA on New Year’s Eve.

Sunday, 20th December 2020, 11:20 am
Updated Sunday, 20th December 2020, 2:04 pm
The last blacksmith Calum 'Steallag' Macleod
The last blacksmith Calum 'Steallag' Macleod

The programme, originally filmed in 2006 by Calum Angus Mackay, Director of Mast-Ard Studio on Stornoway, provides a unique insight into the life and work of Calum “Steallag” MacLeod - a much respected and admired member of the Lewis and Harris community.

He passed away last year, 2019, aged 84, and this film explores Calum’s connection to island traditions, and the many stories told by the old characters of Stornoway by the heat of the furnace. Calum himself is a wonderful story-teller with a highly engaging imagination.

For many years Calum, and his father John, supported domestic and commercial interests of the islands and frequently made themselves available for the maintenance of crofts and fishermen’s nets etc. Over a 100-years period most homes had some tool, or implement, that carried the distinctive ‘Steallag’ trademark.

Calum took over the running of the smithy in Stornoway after his father died in 1972.

While his workshop was an accidental living museum, like his father before him, Calum tested each branding iron on the door of his workshop. It meant he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of crofters and their brands. The wooden door, covered from top to bottom in croft codes, is now part of the new collection at Museum Nan Eilean in Stornoway.

In this film Calum recounts many tales he’s heard over the years including a horse that arrived without his owner to get two new horseshoes fitted. Calum says horses know the days of the week and this horse knew to arrive on a Monday at 8am.

He also tells of men who came to get their wedding rings cut off and he was frightened he might accidentally cut off their finger. He tells a story about a blacksmith from Uig on the Isle of Skye, who had committed a crime and was due to be hanged.

Calum recounted the story, whether apocryphal or not: “Well it’s supposed to be true but I don’t know. They had decided to hang him until someone said we can’t hang the blacksmith, think about it, we can’t do anything without him, he’s the only blacksmith we have, who will fix things?

“When they realised they had two tailors, and didn’t need them both, they decided to hang one of them instead. So maybe there’s something to be said for being a blacksmith. You’re not so likely to be hung!”

Producer Calum Angus Mackay, said: “Steallag’s smithy was an extraordinary space, the original repair shop, with old tools and pieces of metal in every corner.

“Ash and smoke pervaded the air and when the forge was lit the heat was intense with sparks flying and echoes of history ringing from the anvil, Calum himself bent over, hammer in hand, fashioning a red-hot strip of metal.”

An Gobha - The Last Blacksmith airs on BBC ALBA on Thursday, December 31 at 7.30pm and is available on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.