Gazing out over the sea from Rona, you can’t help but be soothed by the incredible sense of tranquillity that envelopes the island. And it’s that feeling which makes it so hard to grasp the wild, lawless history of the place.
Rona became a centre for piracy after the first MacLeods took up residence and came to an arrangement with pirates and so-called "broken men" who used to hide on the neighbouring islands and raid ships as they passed through the Sound of Raasay and the Inner Sound. Those wild days were long ago and it’s the peaceful present that draws 21st-century visitors to Rona - sometimes called South Rona to distinguish it from its namesake, which lies well north of Cape Wrath. A stony road runs from the renovated house known as Rona Lodge at Acairseid Mhr (big harbour), around Meall Acairseid, which has a triangulation beacon on it, to the settlement at Acairseid Thioram (dry anchorage). A track runs south from Acairseid Mhr to the remains of the southernmost village, Doire na Guaile. In the days when the lighthouse was manned, Callum MacLeod, of Arnish on Raasay, was for a time the Rona postman. He used to collect the mail at Arnish twice a week, walk to Eilean Tigh, row across Caol Rona, walk the entire length of Rona to the lighthouse, deliver the mail and retrace his steps, a total distance of 30km. Only when you have tried to follow in his footsteps for a few tortuous kilometres can you start to appreciate his dedication.
The lighthouse is now automatic, but 142 acres next to Loch a’ Bhrige, at the north tip of the island, are used as a deep-sea listening post by the Ministry of Defence. The three settlements on Rona boasted two schools and a church. The largest settlement was at Acairseid Thioram. The derelict old schoolhouse is still there beside the recently renovated and sub-divided single-storey Mission House. The islanders worshipped there after it was built in 1878.
Some of the crofters evicted from Raasay in the 19th century settled at Doire na Guaile in the south-east of the island. This is fairly close to the ecclesiastical site known as An Teampull (the temple), which is thought to have been an early Christian monk’s cell. A stone wall surrounds the ruin of a small chapel and there is one gravestone, for a man called Graham. He is reputed to be the only person actually buried in Rona’s stony ground as everyone else who died on the island was buried on Raasay. Caol Rona is a relatively narrow stretch of water dividing Rona from Raasay and the tide can run through briskly, past Eilean an Fraoich (heather island) in the centre of the kyle. Eilean Seamraig (shamrock island) is a narrow islet on the north side of the kyle beside tidal Garbh Eilean. On the east coast, almost directly across the island from Acairseid Mhr, is Giant’s Cave, now known as Church Cave. Before the island had a church the islanders worshipped in this cavern and the tradition continued of having babies baptised in the cave. The entrance is like a large Gothic arch and there is a large rock which was used as a pulpit. Beside it is a depression in some stones fed by drips of water from the cave roof and this served as a font. Rows of stones were used as pews by the congregation. A service was held in 1970 attended by 30 members from the Portree Parish Church and another service at Easter 2003 with 64 worshippers.
This cave is well worth a visit but it is not marked on the Ordnance Survey maps. Take the road from Acairseid Mhr, follow it north from the junction with the south-going path and at the head of the rise there is a discreet sign at the verge. Follow this across a flat boggy patch, over a small ridge and a further boggy patch. The next ridge has a small cairn on its rocky top, cross it and carry on down the hill through thick heather. There is a flat depression with four birch trees (and a narrow cleft running down towards the sea). Turn right up a rise into a shallow valley with old peat cuttings. This leads down and around the side of a cliff in which the cave is located. Tough going, but even grannies used to do it.
In 1840 the tiny cottage by the slipway (now renovated with four bunkbeds for visitors) was occupied by the Mackenzie family, the only residents of Acairseid Mhr at the time. That summer Kenneth Mackenzie was lost at sea but his widow Janet would not believe it, so she kept a light burning in the cottage window to guide his boat back into harbour. This was of such great assistance to other vessels that after some years the navy gave her a 20 award and the Commissioners of Northern Lights also gave her a small sum to purchase lamp-oil. She kept the light burning for 12 years but her husband never appeared and in 1852 she gave up and emigrated to Australia.
At one time there were wild goats on Rona but these have been absent for many years. There are no rabbits. A small herd of pedigree Highland cattle (from the Ardbhan Fold of North Uist) was introduced in 1996 and these now roam freely over the island. In 2002 six red deer hinds were brought in, much to the delight of a stag on neighbouring Raasay. The small mature patches of mixed woodland with some fine Scots pines provide cover for a variety of bird species. sm
• Edited extract from The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell-Smith, published by Canongate at 35.
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FACT FILE RONA
• Visitors are welcome but should make a courtesy call at the lodge first to Bill Cowie, 07775 593055. For summer trips from Portree, contact Peter Urquhart, Caledonian Hotel, 01478 612641.