According to Wikipedia, Scotland has over 790 offshore islands; Whoever put their head above the parapet to make that claim must have been having sleep problems, but I’ll take their word for it.
Some are small, some are large, some are well-known, and some not so well known – so which islands to visit can also cause a lack of sleep if you let it.
Raasay (meaning Isle of the Roe Deer), is 14 miles long and up to 5 miles wide, which means that it’s not too small and not too big, but it’s not too well-known either. Lying between the Isle of Skye and the Applecross Peninsula, it can be reached by ferry from Sconser on the Isle of Skye and takes around 25 minutes.
For this blog I’m going back in time to 2008 when the ferry landed at East Suisnish, but apart from a new ferry terminal on the other side of the bay, I can’t imagine things would have changed very much.
Skye is an undeniably beautiful island, and looking across the Sound towards Raasay you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much point in catching the ferry over to Raasay, which in comparison, doesn’t look anywhere near as inviting as the Cuillins or the Quiraing, but there are reasons why you might want to think again.
Firstly, in recent years Skye has seen a surge in visitor numbers, which if you were coming to the Scottish Islands for an away from it all break, then you might feel a bit cheated if you’ve chosen a busy time to come. Raasay is much more peaceful.
Another reason is that the views from Raasay towards Skye can be quite breathtaking – and of course, there’s the appeal of the island itself.
The ferry now arrives close to Raasay House, the focal point for most visitors to the island. Unfortunately, it was closed for major renovations when we were here, but even more unfortunate was the fact that that as the renovations were nearing completion the building suffered a major fire. At least it was fully insured and today it is a hotel and Activity Centre run by the Raasay House Community Company.
It wasn’t the first time that Raasay House had burnt to the ground. During the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 the house and island was owned by the Clan Macleod of Raasay who were supporters of Bonnie prince Charlie.
After his defeat at Culloden, the Young Pretender escaped over the sea to Skye and spent some of his time in hiding on Raasay.
With the help of Flora Macdonald, the Bonnie Prince escaped to France, but the islanders of Raasay paid the price for their support. Government forces under ‘Butcher’ Cumberland razed practically every building on the island to the ground, including Raasay House.
The house was rebuilt two years later and was even visited by Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, but the extravagant lifestyle of the Macleods led to the island being sold in 1843 when the last laird got into financial difficulties and emigrated to Australia. Many of the islanders were soon to follow suit when the land and its occupants were cleared for the more lucrative farming of sheep. From a population of around 900 the population has dropped to around 170 today, many of whom live in Inverarish, the island’s largest settlement near Raasay House.
There are very few roads on Raasay, and to be honest there’s only one that is of any real consequence, and even that one is just a single-track road that leads up to Brochel Castle. It’s nigh on impossible to take a wrong turning, but somehow or another I managed it.
We found ourselves at Osgaig, the birthplace of Sorley MacLean, the famous Gaelic poet. I didn’t know this is where he came from, but I’m not surprised, as I was familiar with Hallaig from Martyn Bennet’s sampling of Maclean’s own reading in both English and Gaelic on his album Bothy Culture. Hallaig was a victim of the clearances on the opposite side of the island from Osgaig. Below is a link to the track, which you really should listen to. Maclean is interpreting the Clearances of Raasay with nature in a way that suggests the souls of those people are still here even though they are long gone. It goes even deeper than that, but it’s a captivating combination of traditional poetry and contemporary music.
Back on the ‘main’ road we headed towards Brochel Castle which was the Macleod’s first stronghold on Raasay. When they acquired the island in 1518 their territory included the Islands of Lewis and Harris as well as a large part of Skye and pockets of the North-West coastline.
The central location of Raasay made it easier to access their lands, especially as travel was mainly by boat, and one of the first things they did was to build a castle at Brochel.
The castle was built on a volcanic plug and had a commanding position overlooking the Inner Sound. It was occupied for around a hundred and fifty years but has been left to crumble ever since with no public access allowed for safety reasons.
The road used to end at Brochel, but due to the determination of one extraordinary human being, the road now continues for another two miles to Arnish.
Two miles may not sound very far, but the story I’m about to condense into a few words doesn’t do justice to Calum Macleod, a crofter from Arnish.
For years, Calum had seen people leaving the north of the island for pastures new, until there were only two people left – himself and his wife. He tried pleading with the authorities to extend the road, hoping that even if it was too late to stop people leaving, maybe it would encourage others to come back, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. The native culture of northern Raasay had all but disappeared.
For Calum, there was only one thing that could be done – build the road himself; and so, one spring morning in 1964, the 53-year crofter, lighthouse keeper, and postman started another job. He picked up his home-made wheelbarrow, a pick, an axe, a shovel and his lunch-box, and trundled along the rough path from his house to the hillside which took him over bogs, through trees and along the cliff edge for almost two miles – and then started on a task that was to take him another ten years to complete.
Only by driving along Calum’s Road can you get the full enormity of his task. In 1982 the council eventually adopted the road and finished it off with tarmac, but Calum never went beyond Brochel as he never had a driving licence.
He died at the age of seventy-seven in 1988. He was not only a road-builder, but also a writer in his native Gaelic helping to keep the language alive.
His task wasn’t all to no avail it would seem, because along the road at various points were road signs showing a picture of a pig, and when we got to the end at Arnish we realised that a free-range pig farmer had moved in. He spotted us and gave us a wave and we waved back, but that was the only person we saw all day on Raasay.
We had a ferry to catch and so we had to head back, but if we’d had more time, I think I would have liked to have spent more time looking out for eagles and other wildlife that no doubt live here, but at least we had the road to ourselves and those wonderful views back over to Skye.
Places like Raasay are easy to overlook, but they shouldn’t be. Scottish clans like the Macleods will always capture the imagination of lovers of Scottish history, and so will people like Sorley Maclean who propel lovers of culture into another world, but people like Calum Macleod impress me the most. His achievements had no bearing on his own purpose in life – but were meant to help others and his native island.
He was awarded the British Empire Medal for “maintaining supplies to the Rona Light”. As far as I’m concerned, he should be a knight of the realm for services rendered to the Island of Raasay, but that was never going to happen was it? After all, he took on the local authorities – today’s laird – and won.