The Birdman of Pollok

Birdman of Pollok: The man who inspired the original school strike

And last chance to watch the documentary The Birdman of Pollok on BBC iPlayer!

By Martin Hannan writing in The National, 28th December 2019

SCHOOL strikes to protest against damage to the environment are thought to be the inspirational idea of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has been hailed across the world for her powerful messages of the dangers of climate change. Yet in Glasgow as far back as 1995, school pupils went on strike to protest against a particular piece of environmental damage, namely the building of the M77 through Pollok Country Park.

The youngsters back then took their lead from Colin MacLeod, who became known as the The Birdman of Pollok after he spent nine days in 1992 up a birch tree that was to be felled to make room for the motorway. Now a new documentary byby BBC Alba which will be screened on Monday charts the remarkable life and achievements of the hugely influential environmental campaigner who died tragically young at the age of 39 in November, 2005.

MacLeod grew up in Pollok where gangs, drink and drugs were part of life but he was also a Glasgow Gael and used his own Gaelic heritage as a foundation and set up the Pollok Free State in an area of Pollok Country Park to try to give a voice back to the people.
The programme includes previously unseen archive photos and video footage, kindly loaned by his wife Gehan and closest friends.

The story begins with his tree protest in 1992. His attitude was that Pollok Country Park had been gifted to the people of Glasgow and he viewed it as a playground for the poor children of Pollok – “what’s given cannae be ungiven,” it can only be stolen he famously said.

Protesters blocked roads, tens of thousands marched against the environmental impact of the plans for the new motorway, and in February 1995 came that famous school strike by local pupils. It was calculated that 5000 trees needed to be felled for the £53 million motorway, and it was the sound of buzzsaws which brought even more people out to Pollok to protest.

There were confrontations between protestors and construction workers with police having to provide protection for the workers employed by Wimpey to clear the site. In a famous incident, the then-Tory minister of state at the Scottish Office, Allan Stewart brandished a pickaxe handle and had to resign.

The documentary features exclusive new interviews with MacLeod’s father Donald, his friend and fellow activist Barbara NicGriogair, his wife Gehan, friend and environmental campaigner Alastair MacIntosh, former MSP Rosie Kane McGarvey and her nephew, the author of Orwell-Prize-winning book Poverty Safari, Darren “Loki” McGarvey, who dedicated a whole chapter to MacLeod and his work in his book.In the programme, McGarvey says of MacLeod: “He was magnetic. He had those qualities that a true leader has.”

The M77 was extended anyway, but Colin went on to found GalGael “the free child of Pollok Park”, a Gaelic-inspired movement for cultural renewal in inner-city Glasgow, with boat building at the centre of his ideas. Alan Torrance, who met MacLeod during the beginnings of the GalGael and still works there today, said: “He was a very brave man. He stood in defiance of tyranny. He led from the front.”

When Colin died in 2005, the streets of Govan stopped, with 600 mourners behind his handmade coffin.

Filmmaker Nina Torrance said: “There is so much happening today that parallels what Colin was fighting against that it felt we needed to hear his story today more than ever.”

The music for the documentary was composed by John Cummings, formerly of Mogwai.

The Birdman of Pollok/Curaidh na Coille first aired on BBC Alba on Monday December 30 at 9pm and will also be available on the BBC iPlayer until Sunday 2nd February until 10pm.