The poem is headed by the statement 'Written for the lads in France during the Great War'. The impression is given by the notes appended to the book that the author was Kenneth Macleod himself.
Marjory Kennedy-Fraser toured the Western Isles of Scotland in the summer of 1917 and collected a group of local tunes.
The tune associated with the Road to the Isles was an air played by Malcolm Johnson of Barra on a chanter and composed by Pipe Major John McLellan of Dunoon (originally titled "The Burning Sands of Egypt"). Kenneth Macleod then wrote the words for a voice and harp (or piano) arrangement of this air by Patuffa Kennedy-Fraser.
The tune is a march of the British Army. It is said to have been played by Bill Millin, piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, during the first day of the Normandy Landings on D-Day during World War II, during a daring Commando attack during Operation Roast in the Spring 1945 offensive in Italy, and also at the start of construction on Toronto's first subway line, under Yonge Street, in 1949.
The Road to the Isles lyrics mention first the hills of the Isle of Skye (whose memory is calling the traveller west); then the successive locations he will pass on the way across the Western Highlands and Inner and Outer Hebrides.
The locations mentioned are (in this order): the Cuillin Hills (on the Isle of Skye), Tummel (in Perthshire), Loch Rannoch (in Perth and Kinross), Lochaber (to the west of the Scottish Highlands), Shiel (near Fort William), Ailort (near the Sound of Arisaig), Morar (near Loch Morar), the Skerries (rocky islets – in this case, just off Skye), and the Lews (near Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis).
(A cromach or cromack is a shepherd's crook or stick.)
There is also a Scottish country dance called Road To The Isles.
Sure by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go
By heather tracks wi' heaven in their wiles.
If it's thinkin' in your inner heart the braggart's in my step
You've never smelled the tangle o' the Isles.
Oh the far Cuillins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' my cromach to the Isles.
It's by Shiel water the track is to the west
By Ailort* and by Morar to the sea
The cool cresses I am thinkin' of for pluck
And bracken for a wink on Mother´s knee.
The blue islands are pullin' me away
Their laughter puts the leap upon the lame
The blue islands from the Skerries to the Lews
Wi' heather honey taste upon each name.