The Isle of Raasay – History, places to go, things to see

The Island of Raasay

“Cha chuirear briathran air boidhche, Cha deanar dealbh no ceol no dan dhi.” in Gealic
“No words can be put on beauty, no picture, music or poem made for it.” in English

Extract from the poem ‘Screapadal’’ By Sorley Maclean, who was born on Raasay.

Raasay is one of the most beautiful islands in the Inner Hebrides. Tucked between the Isle of Skye to the West and the Scottish mainland to the East, it is just 14 miles long and 4 miles wide. The Norse name “Raasay” means Isle of the Roe, or Red, Deer. The 60 square miles of land that make up the island are now home to a population of around 160 people.  Most of them live in the South of the island close to the village of Inverarish. There are few roads on the island, one shop and a primary school. Raasay House is very much at the heart of the island. Raasay is the perfect destination for a day trip or a longer visit. While many visitors choose to scale Dun Caan, the distinctive flat-topped mountain visible from miles around, there are inland and coastal walks to suit all tastes; forests and beautiful beaches to explore, historic sites to discover and a richness of geology, landscape, flora and fauna rarely found in the British Isles. It’s unspoilt, peaceful, and inspirational.

Coming to Raasay and meeting the people who live here also gives you a real insight into a small island community and a simpler, more authentic way of living, far from the fast-moving, electronic-fuelled 21st century.

One of the turning points for the island occurred in 1746 when Bonnie Prince Charlie took shelter here. Government troops burned down hundreds of houses, sunk many of the island’s boats, and slaughtered large numbers of cattle and sheep for harboring him.

The island has also seen a rapid decline in population, with the Highland Clearances (where landowners removed or relocated families from the land and replaced them with sheep) contributing greatly.

Industry
The most obvious industry that can still be seen on Raasay today is the iron mines which opened in 1913. During World War One, the main village of Inverarish housed many prisoners of war who worked mining some 250,000 tons of iron ore before the mine was closed in 1920. A lot of the infrastructure near the old ferry pier still stands,  including the bridge pillars for the “railway” and the processing buildings.

Raasay has always been a crofting island, and there are still numerous sheep and cattle to be seen on the island.

Raasay Wildlife and Plants.
Raasay has diverse geology, climate, and history which combine to create a variety of habitats for plants and animals.  There are acid moors, limestone cliffs, coastal areas, freshwater lochs, and bogs.  This, and the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, is reflected in the diversity of life to be found in a small area so far north.  Raasay’s heather-clad moorland, forests, and sea cliffs are home to some 60 species of birds including golden eagle, sea eagle, sparrow hawk, tawny owl, spotted, pied flycatcher, and redstart.

The seas around the island are also teeming with life. In summer the sheltered bays, sandy inlets and foreshore are alive to the call of nesting waders, oystercatchers, sandpipers, and curlews. Golden eagles nest on the island and white-tailed eagles are frequent visitors. Red-throated divers nest by several lochs and great northern divers visit during the winter – though in recent years they have stayed into spring and early summer. On the moors you will very likely see (and especially hear) golden plovers. Ring ouzels are also regular visitors.  The inshore waters with their abundance of shellfish and the freshwater streams and lochs provide an island ‘playground’ for otters.  Red deer are also plentiful on Raasay.  Basking sharks are often seen in the waters around the island, as are Minke whales and Orca. There are regular sightings of schools of dolphins and porpoises just offshore, and grey seals breed and raise their pups in the inner and outer sounds, the stretches of water between the islands and the Scottish mainland.

The island is extremely rich in flora too with over 800 species of flowering plants and ferns recorded in recent years. There are plants of highly contrasting geographical distribution within Europe, and several nationally rare, scarce, or threatened species. There are about 40 different native ferns and fern allies found on Raasay, from the aptly named small adder’s-tongue to bracken, great horsetail and royal fern.  Many different orchids grow and, in some cases hybridise.  Bird’s-nest orchid has not been seen for many years but the rare Lapland marsh orchid has a strong presence in one area.  The limestone cliffs on the east side of the island are home to many ferns and flowering plants such as holly fern, dark-red helleborine and mountain avens as well as many more common plants such as wild thyme, wall-rue, and fairy flax.

Raasay Places to Visit and Things to See

Calums Road
A two-mile stretch of road which became a labour of love; built by hand, by one man, over a period of 15 years. The story is now a popular novel, a play and a film. People come from all over the world to be close to this man’s inspiring achievement.

Iron Mine
The disused Iron mine and the railway which has played a large part in the island’s history. The island was owned by the Baird mining company and the village of Inverarish was first built to house the mineworkers and their families.

Brochel
The ruins of ‘Brochel Castle’ which dates back to the late 15th/early 16th century. An artificial fort, three stories high, originally called ‘Castle Vreokle.’ 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 pirating activities prior to Calum Garbh’s investiture there. The castle was inhabited until the death by drowning of 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.

Hallaig
The Cleared township of Hallaig. Here you can find the birthplace of and some of the places immortalised in the poetry of one of Scotland’s most influential poets  Sorely Maclean.

Dun Caan
Climb our very own ‘mini mountain’, Dun Caan which offers breathtaking panoramas of both the mountains of Skye and the Scottish mainland. Explore the interesting geology which has geologists flocking to the island every year.

“The Cave of Oars”
Just a stone’s throw from Raasay House, the cave or “Uamh na ramh” is a souterrain believed to be over 2000 years old. In later years brought to new purpose, it is thought that oars were stored in there during smuggling raids.

Inver Beach
At the bottom of the Inver gorge, this secluded beach was visited by the Queen while the Britannia was moored at nearby Holoman. The gorge used to contain a network of steps, bridges and railings which traces of can still be seen today.

The Battery
Overlooking the Sound of Raasay, the battery once held six cannons and was intended as a defensive point against the threat of French invasion in the early nineteenth century. It also houses two limestone mermaids,  which were originally commissioned to be made from marble.

St Moluags’s Chapel/Pictish stone
13t century chapel surrounded by many of the island’s original graves. There is also a Pictish stone nearby, believed to be from between the late 7th and early 11th century which depicts a Christian cross as well as three other symbols.

Wildlife
Discover an abundance of wildlife including Eagles (Sea and Golden) , Otters, and Dolphins as well as a large population of Red Deer and a colony of Seals which are easy to catch a glimpse of.

MV ‘Hallaig’
Step aboard technological history as you make the short but spectacular ferry journey that links Raasay to Skye. The world’s first ‘hybrid’ ferry (MV Hallaig) is the serves the Sconser to Raasay route and marks the start of your island adventure.