In 1897, stonemasons and bricklayers traipsed up a hill on the west coast of Scotland, one of the wettest places in Europe, to build the Colosseum. They would work continuously for five years, and not finish it.
One hundred and fifty-eight years earlier, Lancelot Brown traveled from his home in Northumberland to Oxford, to create the first of his landscaped gardens, and with it began his fascination and championing of the surreal.
While Brown earnt more than five hundred thousand pounds a year perfecting his creations, John Stuart McCaig spent the same amount for a different reason entirely.
His folly was for the sanity and respect of human beings.
McCaig saw how dire the financial situation was for local craftspeople, and so decided to create a project for them, to keep them fed, proud, and sane during the hard times and the long dark winter months.
Rather than hand out alms, he determined to build a copy of the Colosseum right there in Oban, looking out across the Firth of Lorn, and the islands of Kerrera, Mull, and Lismore, and pay a decent living wage to all those employed.
The craftspeople, for their part, were eager to be useful again, to be respected, and to hold high their heads in town, and at home. They could walk into a pub at the end of a solid week’s work and buy their friends a drink. They could bring home sweets for the bairns, and provide for groceries and clothes for their families.
McCaig had no interest in making them jump through hoops to get involved. If they could work, and were willing, they were hired. No one was forced to create a ghastly truth-stretching resume just to be taken seriously or gain an attention bias over others. No one needed to lie awake at night wondering how safe their job was. No one needed to put anyone else down, so they could feel adequate.
After five years of work, the economic and financial situation of the country changed and improved, and gradually McCaig’s workforce dissipated and returned to other projects that needed their expertise.
The Colosseum, or McCaig’s Tower as it’s known today, can still be seen and visited, standing high and proud, like the great mountains of Morvern and Ardgour that look back at it from their misty peaks.
It never got finished but it served its purpose well, and is a testament to compassion and common sense. Those who worked on it returned strong, with sharp minds and healthy bodies, to their jobs and lives.
While we can meander through endless country houses enjoying the clever creations of a well-paid Capability Brown, better to stand in McCaig’s Tower and know exactly how our leaders should be caring for us all right now.
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