As I walked for hours in the rain and climbed a rocky, slippery and steep path to get to the hamlet of Umachan on the Isle of Raasay earlier this year, I never once thought: ‘why am I doing this?’ I was going to find Joe Strummer’s grandma’s house and that was that.

If you had asked me what drove me to go there, I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly. But the desire had sprouted shortly after the 10th anniversary of Joe’s death. Yes, I am a Clash fan and I had to go pay my respects to Joe – but also to his ethereal Scottish maternal lineage. The flight from London to Glasgow, the 6-hour bus ride to Sconser on the Isle of Skye, and the ferry to Raasay itself, did not faze me.

When I had stepped onto the 14-mile long and 3 mile wide Inner Herbridean island the previous day, the sunny weather had made it look peaceful, magical and idyllic, like Oz or Shangri-La. Perhaps this seems at odds with the urban, gloomy and gritty landscape the Clash are usually synonymous with. But the scenery perfectly reflected the poetic, wise and still side of Joe beneath his more snarly persona.

The day I walked to the ruins of the ancestral home in Umachan, I saw another side to the island’s character – a wild bleakness made more dramatic by the pouring rain. Two guides from Raasay House and I, had set off in the morning with a 40-minute drive along one of the few roads on the island that had joined us to Calum’s Road (with which there is attached a famous local tale about one determined islander, Calum MacLeod, who built the road single-handedly over the last twenty years of his life).

Then the car had to be parked and a near two-hour walk began. In the early stages we came across a building (below) that had been an old school, extremely likely to have been the one Joe’s grandmother, Jane MacKenzie, had walked to – sometimes barefoot! We were essentially taking her walk back to her house – one she had made all the time.

We walked mostly in silence, up long steps, and shallow inclines; upwards and then downwards…the path was, at times, hard to make out and we had to ensure each step was a careful one lest we fall quite far down amongst the craggy rocks or even on a mountain goat. The walk certainly reminded me of writer Chris Salewicz’s words about the island as “tough, gritty, awkward, dangerous, an astonishing terrain of primal, pure, mysterious beauty” – much like Joe himself. We reached a point on the trail, where we knew Umachan lay eastwards. It was hard to spot easily despite the general flatness of the land, because of the hills that obscured the hamlet. But as we walked closer, we saw the ruins of Umachan and made our way down to them.

Once we had singled out the MacKenzie house, we sat inside, had our sandwiches and reflected on what life must have been like for Joe’s ancestors especially during the darkness of the winter months. The family had moved to this remote part of the island after the Highland Clearances – the cruel and forced displacement of people from their homes by aristocratic landowners. Maybe Joe had genetically inherited some of his anti-authoritarian attitude from this family experience?

The rain and wind which seemed to be getting worse, wouldn’t let us linger for too long. I wrote Joe a note thanking him for the inspiration and stuck it in the wall of the ruins. We noticed all the other notes, messages and mementoes left for Joe by fans from all over the world, who had decided to make the pilgrimage. Someone had even left a pencil drawing of the MacKenzie lodge in a mouldy and weather-beaten plastic see-through bag and a white Jiffy envelope. Unsurprisingly, Paul Simonon’s Clash on Broadway box, that he had left years earlier, just after Joe’s passing, was no longer there.

Weeks before his death, Joe had said: “I’ve been a terrible Scotsman but I’m going to be better.” He was due to visit Raasay in the summer of 2003 but he never made it. But his failure to do so has inspired others – like myself – to do it for him. When I crossed the ferry back to Sconser a few days later, I looked over longingly at the island. Something about it felt like home. Was I leaving something there that I had brought with me? Later, I even wrote a song about my trip. Heaven only knows the inspiration the rugged and beautiful land would have drawn from a native son.

WORDS: Herpreet Kaur Grewal Ⓒ

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An old school building likely to be where Jane MacKenzie, Joe’s grandmother went to school


The remains of Joe Strummer’s ancestral home


At last! We spot the MacKenzie house from a distance

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It comes fully into view…the MacKenzie family home…inside and outside


The view the MacKenzies would have had from their window, looking out onto the Inner Sound of Raasay


Clash stash in the ruins

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Inside the school that Grandma Strummer would have attended…as you can see some of the old furniture still remains