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Gaelic: Ratharsair

Inner Hebrides

Dun Caan from Loch na Mna.jpg
Dùn Caan from Loch na Mna
Main village: Inverarish
Location: 57°22’48"N, 6°1’41"W
Grid reference: NG579395
Area: 15,397.1 acres
Highest point: Dùn Caan 1,457 feet
Population: 192

Raasay is an island of Inverness-shire lying close by the Isle of Skye, amongst the Inner Hebrides. It is a long, thin island north of Skye and separated from it by the Sound of Raasay and separated from Applecross on and the mainland of Great Britain by the Inner Sound.

Raasay has few claims to fame. It was though the birthplace of the poet Sorley MacLean, an important figure in the northern literary renaissance.[1] Traditionally the home of Clan MacSween, the island was ruled by the MacLeods from the 15th to the 19th century. Subsequently a series of private landlords held title to the island, which is now largely owned by the Highlands and Islands Development Board.[2]

Raasay House, which was visited by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson in 1773, is now an outdoor centre.[3]

The name of Raasay is, like those of many Hebridean islands, is from Old Norse and may mean "Isle of Roe Deer" or possibly “Horse Island”.[4]

Geology and geography

The islands stretches about 14 miles north to south and 3 miles east to west at its widest. Raasay's terrain is varied. The highest point at 1,453 feet is Dùn Caan, an unusual, flat-topped peak.

The island of Rona lies just off the north coast and the tidal islets of Eilean Fladday and Eilean Tigh are to the northwest. Other smaller surrounding islands are Eilean Aird nan Gobhar, Eilean an Inbhire, Holoman Island, Manish Island, Fraoch Eilean, Glas Eilean, Griana-sgeir and Eilean an Fhraoich. The main village of Inverarish is near the southwest coast.

Geologically interesting, the island is visited by many students engaged in mapping projects. The south is mainly Torridonian sandstone and shale; the north is grey-banded Archaean Lewisian gneiss and granulite with layers of gabbro, peridotite and anorthosite. There are also smaller outcrops of Jurassic oil shales and sandstones occasionally interspersed with limestone. The related ironstone beds contain low grade oolitic siderite and chamosite ores which were worked commercially in the early 20th century. Remaining reserves are estimated at 10 million tonnes. The seas to the east and west are very deep, large troughs having been created by the Skye icecap in the Pleistocene Era.[5]

Economy and culture

Map of Skye and Raasay

The primary employment is in tourism, working for the ferry company, crofting and fishing, or commuting to work on Skye. There is a primary school, but older students go to Portree by ferry and bus. A twenty-minute ferry ride connects the island with Sconser on Skye.

Sites of interest include the remains of a broch, the ruins of Brochel Castle, inscribed stones, the old manor of Raasay House, abandoned crofting communities, and many walking paths.

There is a shop/post office located in Inverarish. Accommodation is available at Borodale House, the Raasay Outdoor Centre (located in Borodale House due to the longtime closure of Raasay House),[6][7] at various bed and breakfasts, and the youth hostel, Creachan Cottage.

There are significant numbers of incomers and holiday homes especially in the south of the island. This has helped to arrest the population decline from over 900 in 1803 to 194 in 2001. Some inhabitants belong to the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which strictly observes the Sabbath. On Sundays there are no public services, the playground is closed and, until 2004, the ferry did not run.[8][9]

In early 2007 the Raasay Community Association signed a contract with a number of building contractors to construct a community centre, which hosted its first céilidh on 29 May 2010.[10][11][12] In 2008 construction began on a new £12 million ferry terminal at Churchton Bay, which was officially opened on 17 August 2010. Following the community buyout of Raasay House a £3.5 million refurbishment is underway, leading to the temporary closure of the outdoor centre until 2009.[13][14] However, in the early hours of 18 January 2009 the building was severely damaged by fire.[15] Restoration work commenced in August 2010 but was suspended in November when the main contractor, ROK, went into administration.[16][17] Work restarted with a new contractor, Mansell, in late 2011.

Birds, beast and blooms

On Raasay lives an endemic subspecies of bank vole, the Raasay vole (Clethrionomys glareolus erica).[18] This raasay vole is darker and heavier than the mainland variety of bank vole and is found nowhere else in the world. It is possibly a survivor of a Scandinavian race.

Murray (1973) states that a single specimen of a Pine Marten, otherwise missing from the Hebrides, was found on the island in 1971.[19] No other records for this species exist. Raasay is one of only four of the Inner Hebrides where Mountain Hares breed.[20]

Raasay is regularly visited by White-tailed Sea Eagles and Golden Eagles and there are populations of Otter, Red Deer and Rabbit (which were thoughtlessly introduced by the island's proprietor in the 19th century). Stoat and Weasel are found in small numbers, but Water Shrews, which were recorded in the 20th century but are now absent.[21] It also supports a rich variety of plants, including Red Broomrape, Dark Red Helleborine, Mountain Avens and numerous other saxifrages, orchids, alpines and ferns. The Carline Thistle (Carlina vulgaris) was apparently extant in the 1970s, but a recent survey found no evidence of its continued existence. There are several stands of mixed woodland.[4][22][23]


Little is recorded of Raasay's early Christian period. The placename Kilmaluag suggests the presence of St Moluag in the late sixth century.[24]

The Norwegians came to the islands they called the Suðreyjar in the eighth century and Raasay became part of the Norse Kingdom of the Isles. The church in the islands was under the jurisdiction of the Bishopric of the Isles.[25] The Hebrides were yielded to the Kingdom of Scotland as a result of the 1266 Treaty of Perth,[26] after which time control of the islands north of Ardnamurchan was in the hands of the Earls of Ross.[27] Most of the island names remain those given by the Norsemen, and several place-names within the island too; the name "Raasay" itself and such as Arnish (eagle headland), Suidhisnis (seething headland) and Eyre (beach or sand spit), all a legacy of the Norse age.[28]

15th to 17th century

Castle Broichin on the Isle of Raasay by William Daniell, 1819

Tradition has it that Clan Sweeney or Clan MacSween originally held title to Raasay but there is no written record of this.[29] It is known that the island was ruled by the MacLeods from 1518 when Calum Garbh, younger son of the MacLeod Chief of Lewis was granted title.[4] Martin Martin visited towards the end of the 17th century and noted:

it has some wood on all the quarters of it, the whole is fitter for pasturage than cultivation, the ground being generally very unequal, but very well watered with rivulets and springs. There is a spring running down the face of a high rock on the east side of the isle; it petrifies into a white substance, of which very fine lime is made, and there is a great quantity of it. There is a quarry of good stone on the same side of the isle; there is abundance of caves on the west side, which serve to lodge several families, who for their convenience in grazing, fishing, &c., resort thither in the summer. On the west side, particularly near to the village Clachan, the shore abounds with smooth stones of different sizes, variegated all over. The same cattle, fowl, and fish are produced here that are found in the isle of Skye. There is a law observed by the natives that all their fishing lines must be of equal length, for the longest is always supposed to have best access to the fish, which would prove a disadvantage to such as might have shorter ones. There are some forts in this isle, the highest is in the south end; it is a natural strength, and in form like the crown of a hat; it is called Dun-Cann, which the natives will needs have to be from one Canne, cousin to the king of Denmark. The other lies on the side, is an artificial fort, three stories high, and is called Castle Vreokle.[30]

Brochel Castle, as it is more commonly known, was built by the MacSweens in the 15th century on the north-east coast of Raasay. Latterly, it became a base for the MacLeod of Lewis's enterprise of piracy before Calum Garbh's investiture there. The castle was inhabited until the death by drowning of the Chief Iain Garbh in 1671 and is now a ruin sitting atop a pinnacle. In the meantime the Macleods moved their seat to Raasay House at the south end of the island.[4][2]

18th century

The MacLeods of Raasay supported the Young Pretender “Bonnie Prince Charlie” in 1745. After his defeat at the Battle of Culloden, the Prince spent some time hiding from the British troops on Raasay[31] and as a consequence of the island's support for the Jacobite cause the original Raasay House and many dwellings were burnt down by government soldiers. In conversation with Malcolm MacLeod of Raasay during his short stay on the island the Prince confided that although his life on the run was hard, he would rather live that way for ten years than be captured as he feared assassination. He seemed less aware of the risks his supporters ran. The atrocities perpetrated in the aftermath of Culloden were a shock to him. Of the Duke of Cumberland he said: "Surely that man who calls himself a duke and pretends to be so great a general cannot be guilty of such cruelties. I cannot believe it."[32]

The cliffs of Creag na Bruaich

In 1773 James Boswell and Samuel Johnson arrived on the island during their Hebridean tour. Johnson wrote:

Our reception exceeded our expectations. We found nothing but civility, elegance, and plenty. After the usual refreshments, and the usual conversation, the evening came upon us. The carpet was then rolled off the floor; the musician was called, and the whole company was invited to dance, nor did ever fairies trip with greater alacrity. The general air of festivity, which predominated in this place, so far remote from all those regions which the mind has been used to contemplate as the mansions of pleasure, struck the imagination with a delightful surprise, analogous to that which is felt at an unexpected emersion from darkness into light. When it was time to sup, the dance ceased, and six and thirty persons sat down to two tables in the same room. After supper the ladies sung Erse songs, to which I listened as an English audience to an Italian opera, delighted with the sound of words which I did not understand.[33]

Boswell went exploring and described the island as follows:

Having resolved to explore the island of Rasay, which could be done only on foot, I last night obtained my fellow-traveller’s permission to leave him for a day, he being unable to take so hardy a walk. Old Mr Malcolm M’Cleod, who had obligingly promised to accompany me, was at my bedside between five and six. I sprang up immediately, and he and I, attended by two other gentlemen, traversed the country during the whole of this day. Though we had passed over not less than four-and-twenty miles of very rugged ground, and had a Highland dance on the top of Dùn Can, the highest mountain in the island, we returned in the evening not at all fatigued, and piqued ourselves at not being outdone at the nightly ball by our less active friends, who had remained at home. My survey of Rasay did not furnish much which can interest my readers; I shall therefore put into as short a compass as I can, the observations upon it, which I find registered in my journal. It is about fifteen English miles long, and four broad. On the south side is the laird’s family seat, situated on a pleasing low spot. The old tower of three stories, mentioned by Martin, was taken down soon after 1746, and a modern house supplies its place. There are very good grass-fields and corn-lands about it, well dressed. I observed, however, hardly any inclosures, except a good garden plentifully stocked with vegetables, and strawberries, raspberries, currants, &c.[34]

19th and 20th centuries

Raasay House
Iron ore mine

In 1843 the last laird, John Macleod, was deep in debt and chose to emigrate to Tasmania[2] having sold Raasay for 35,000 guineas to George Rainy. After the failure of the potato harvests in the 1840s the new owner decided to convert as much arable land as possible to sheep farming. This required the removal of the islanders and his solution was to ban marriage. Several townships were cleared including Hallaig and Screapadal. Two boat-loads of emigrants left for Australia in 1852 as a result and another 165 left for the same destination in 1865.

The estate was then sold to Edward Wood and conflicts between the laird and the islanders grew as he decided to turn the island over to sporting purposes.[35] On 20 September 1862 the steamship Irishman ran aground on "Skernataid Rock" between Raasay and Scalpay. A 30.2-foot vessel Spindrift is also recorded as having become jammed under the ferry pier at the sound end of the island and broken in two by the rising tide at an unspecified date.[36]

The island was acquired in 1912 by Baird & Co. who opened the iron mine. A portion of the village served as a prisoner-of-war camp for Germans during the First World War, who were used to work the mine. The island was purchased by the government in 1922 after the mine closed. In 1949 The Forestry Commission was granted land bringing much-needed employment, and 1956 The North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board delivered mains electricity to the island.[37]

In the 1960s Raasay House and various other properties were purchased by Dr John Green, a resident of Sussex who visited the island only once and whose lack of interest in it earned him the sobriquet "Dr No". Having purchased the property for £8,000 he finally sold it to the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1979 for £135,000.[4][2][38]

Culture and the arts

Piping tradition

John McKay, born on Raasay in 1767, was supported by the MacLeod Chief as the foremost island piper of his day and an inheritor of the MacCrimmon tradition. His son Angus published a pibroch collection and was the first piper to Queen Victoria.[2] The subsequent family members have emigrated from the island, and their direct descendent lives in Inveraray.

Sorley MacLean

The poet Sorley MacLean was born in Osgaig, a small crofting community on the west coast of the island; perhaps his most famous poem is about Hallaig, an abandoned community on the east coast. MacLean's writings often combine an ancient traditional awareness, with a modernist political outlook, in which Raasay, and the areas adjacent to it are frequently referenced. But while MacLean's work dwells on the brutality of war, of the Highland Clearances and modern exploitation, he also writes about nature. Thus, although the Clearances leave an empty landscape populated only by the ghosts of those evicted or forced to emigrate, "Time, the deer, is in the Wood of Hallaig".[39]

MacLean lived much of his life off the island, but some of his time was spent in nearby Sleat on Skye and Plockton on the neighbouring mainland.

Calum's Road

The two miles of road between Brochel Castle and Arnish were built using hand-tools by Calum MacLeod BEM over ten years. Only when complete was the road surfaced by the local council; by then Calum and his wife were the last inhabitants of Arnish. Calum's Road has been commemorated in song by Capercaillie on their 1988 album The Blood is Strong and in a book by Roger Hutchinson.[40][41][42]

Outside links


  1. Douglas Gifford, Douglas; Dunnigan, Sarah; MacGillivray, Alan: (Eds.) (2002) Scottish Literature: In English and Scots. Edinburgh University Press. Retrieved 2 June 2007.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Keay & Keay (1994) Page 797.
  3. "Welcome to Raasay House" Raasay Outdoor Centre. Retrieved 4 June 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 1841954543. 
  5. Gillen (2003) Page 176.
  6. "Borodale House (formerly the Isle of Raasay Hotel)"
  7. "Raasay House"
  8. MacLeod (2004) Page 182.
  9. "Sabbath ferry service sets sail" (2 May 2004) BBC News. Retrieved 28 October 2008.
  10. "RCA - News: March 2007" Raasay Community Association. Retrieved 27 October 2008.
  11. "Community Centre - Inverarish, Isle of Raasay (2007)" Dualchas Building Design. Retrieved 31 May 2010.
  12. "Calum's Road" The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust. Retrieved 31 May 2010.
  13. "Work commences on Raasay Ferry Terminal" (7 March 2008) Highland Council. Retrieved 12 May 2008.
  14. "Raasay Outdoor Centre" Raasay.com. Retrieved 12 May 2008.
  15. "Blaze devastates historic isle house" The Scotsman. Retrieved 19 January 2009.
  16. Ross, David (4 August 2010) "Restoration work starts on fire-ravaged Raasay House." Glasgow: The Herald.
  17. "Rok boss tells of bid to buyout construction division". (17 November 2010) BBC News. Retrieved 25 May 2011.
  18. "FUNET species list: Rodentia" funet.fi. Retrieved 12 April 2007.
  19. Murray (1973) Pages 108–109. He states "The pine marten, which has been absent from the Hebrides for a hundred years, reappeared on Raasay in 1971, when a single specimen was identified beyond doubt". He attributes this to a 1972 report in The Scotsman by Alison Lambie.
  20. Fraser Darling & Boyd (1969) Page 71.
  21. Murray (1073) page 107 is quite clear that "water shrews are recorded only from Mull, Skye, and Raasay", but see recent records starting from 1986 at "Mammal Atlas" Highland Biological Recording Group. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
  22. Slack, Alf "Flora" in Slesser (1970) Page 57.
  23. For a comprehensive flora of the island see Bungard, Stephen J. (2009) "A Flora of Raasay and Rona" waitrose.com. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
  24. Rixson (2001) Page 19.
  25. MacLeod (2004) Page 12
  26. "Agreement between Magnus IV and Alexander III, 1266" Manx Society. IV, VII & IX. Retrieved 11 Jan 2011.
  27. MacLeod (2004) Page 13
  28. Mac an Tàilleir (2003) Pages 8, 47, 110
  29. MacLeod (2004) Page 17.
  30. Martin, Martin (1703) A Voyage to St. Kilda in A Description of The Western Islands Of Scotland. [1] Retrieved 3 March 2007.
  31. Murray (1966) Page 153.
  32. Forster (1975) Page 169.
  33. Johnson, Samuel (1775) A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. London. Chapman & Dodd. (1924 edition). Pages 85–86.
  34. Boswell, James (1785) Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D: Sunday, 5th September. Retrieved 27 October 2008.
  35. Cooper (1979) Pages 142–143.
  36. Baird (1995) p. 234. Baird suggest "Skernataid Rock" may be Sgeir Thraid at NG628334
  37. MacLeod (2004) Page 173.
  38. MacLeod (2004) Pages 174–183.
  39. "Hallaig by Sorley MacLean, translated by Seamus Heaney" (30 November 2002) guardian.co.uk Retrieved 27 October 2008.
  40. "The Blood Is Strong" capercaillie.co.uk. Retrieved 27 October 2008.
  41. "Calum's Road" (chord sequence) nigelgatherer.com. Retrieved 27 October 2008.
  42. Hutchinson (2006)


  • Baird, Bob (1995) Shipwrecks of the West of Scotland. Glasgow. Nekton Books. ISBN 1-897995-02-4
  • Cooper, Derek (1979), Road to the Isles: Travellers in the Hebrides 1770-1914, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, ISBN 978-0-7100-0256-3 
  • Margaret Forster (1975), The Rash Adventurer: The Rise and Fall of Charles Edward Stuart, St Albans: Panther, ISBN 978-0-586-04082-9 
  • Frank Fraser Darling; Boyd, J Morton (1969), Natural History in the Highlands and Islands, London: Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-213092-9 
  • Gillen, Con (2003), Geology and landscapes of Scotland, Harpenden: Terra, ISBN 978-1-903544-09-9 
  • Haswell-Smith, Hamish (2004). The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 1841954543. 
  • Roger Hutchinson (writer) (2006), Calum's Road, Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 978-1-84158-447-8 
  • John Keay; Keay, Julia (1994), Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, London: HarperCollins, ISBN 978-0-00-255082-6 
  • MacLeod, Norma (2004), Raasay: the island and its people, Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 978-1-84158-280-1 
  • W.H. Murray (1966), The Hebrides, London: Heinemann, OCLC 4998389 
  • Murray, W. H. (1973), The Islands of Western Scotland, London: Eyre Methuen, ISBN 0-413-30380-2 
  • Rixson, Denis (2001), The Small Isles: Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck, Edinburgh: Birlinn, ISBN 978-1-84158-154-5 
  • Malcolm Slesser (1970), The Island of Skye, Edinburgh: Scottish Mountaineering Trust, ISBN 978-0-901516-26-8