Island of the week: Raasay

Churchton Bay on the island of Raasay
Churchton Bay on the island of Raasay
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THIS WEEK we’re exploring Raasay, in the Inner Hebrides.

LOCATION: Inner Hebrides

POPULATION: 192

GAELIC NAME: Ratharsair

MEANING: Old Norse for “roe deer island” or possibly “horse island”

HISTORY

Little is known about the earliest days of Raasay, but an historical name of Kilmaluag hints at the presence of the Saint Moluag in the late sixth century. As is the case with a number of the Hebridean islands, Raasay became part of the Norse Kingdom following Viking expeditions to the island they knew as Suðreyjar.

In 1266, the Hebrides were handed over to the Scots as part of the Treaty of Perth, and the islands north of Ardnamurchan - including, of course, Raasay - were ruled by the Earls of Ross.

In the Middle Ages, tradition suggests that Clan MacSween held title to the island but as there is no record of this, it is a claim which is in doubt. What is known however, is that Clan MacLeod ruled the island from 1518, with Calum Garbh, son of the MacLeod Chief of Lewis was granted title to the island.

After the battle of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie (whom the MacLeods had supported) spent a period of time in hiding on the island, to escape the British troops, leading to government troops burning down the original Raasay House, and many other buildings on the island.

The last laird of the island, John MacLeod, emigrated to Tasmania in 1843, having sunk into debt and sold Raasay for 35,000 guineas.Much of the island’s land was converted to sheep farming in the 1840s, following the failure of the potato harvest. This required the removal of several of the islanders, so new owner George Rainy decided to ban marriage. Two boats carrying immigrants left for Australia in 1852, with a further 165 following suit in 1865.

The island was acquired by Baird & Co., in the early part of the 20th century, opening an iron mine and subsequently allowing part of the village to serve as a PoW camp for German prisoners during the Great War who were then put to work in the mine. The government bought the island in 1922 following the closure of the mine and since then, passed through the ownership of the Forestry Commission, the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, Dr John Green (whose lack of interest and single visit saw him dubbed ‘Dr No’) until the Highlands and Islands development board bought it off him for £135,000 in 1979.

WHAT TO DO

There are only two main points of interest - the poet Sorley MacLean was born in Osgaig, a small crofting community on the island’s west coast - and indeed, possibly his most famous poem references Hallaig, an abandoned community on the east coast of Raasay. Although MacLean spent much of his time off the island, it’s worth visiting his birthplace.

Secondly, Calum’s Road, which is a stretch of 3km of road between Arnish and Brochel Castle, built entirely with hand-tools by Calum MacLeod over a period of ten years. The road was eventually surfaced by the council - but by then, Calum and his wife were the last remaining inhabitants of the village of Arnish. Fans of the music group Capercaillie may recognise the road from their album The Blood is Strong.

HOW TO GET THERE

The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Raasay leaves from Sconser, on the Isle of Skye. The ferry runs a few times a day during the week and twice on Sundays.