Food & Drink, History & Heritage, Island enthusiast, North West, Outdoor Activities, Raasay

By Robin McKelvie

Raasay walking stamp available in the app

It was at one of Skye’s landmark castles that the extent of tourist overcrowding on the largest island in the Inner Hebrides finally hit home. It was cumulative really – I knew of the issues they have had at the Fairy Pools and of a wonderful island not set-up for hordes of motorhomes, but here I was at a castle where the staff said in summer they simply have to repeatedly temporarily stop people entering due to sheer volume. That got me thinking about Raasay.

You see very few of the visitors to Skye’s castles will even have heard of Raasay – unless you’ve been watching ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins’ on TV. This real life Treasure Island reclines just off Skye’s eastern coast. And the relative lack of recognition is a beauty as it is an isle not overrun with tourists. If some of Skye’s crowds can be diverted to the likes of Raasay, even for a couple of days – and to the Small Isles and beyond – the tourist spend can be spread and numbers dispersed. It is here the Scottish Islands Passport really comes into its own with lashings of ideas of what to do on Scotland’s isles in the app and in their travelogue books.

Raasay in the app

And you should come to Raasay for multiple reasons. The ferry over from Skye to an island the size of Manhattan takes barely half an hour across the Sound of Raasay. There is none of the Big Apple’s population pressures, with 200 people living on Raasay. I’ve visited a number of times and each time have been impressed with a vibrant and dynamic local community that welcomes new arrivals interested in their island home. The island may look as dramatic as a BBC wildlife documentary, but it is home to real people leading real lives.

Raasay is, of course, spectacularly scenic. Skye’s Cuillin mountains form a dramatic backdrop to an island alive with its own hills. Chief amongst them is 444m-high Dun Caan. This is a fair yomp, a life-affirming one as you get far away from the modern world hiking with the ghosts of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, who famously trekked on Raasay and recounted the local legend of a wild sea horse-esque monster that snared locals. For me the walk to the summit is the island’s unmissable hike.

Raasay bench with a view

I savoured a day working my way up from the coast, through the forest and out on to the open moorland, where the ascent of this distinctive volcanic hill really began. Its flat summit plateau offers one of the finest views in Scotland as the mainland and the isles explode all around. I lingered here for a whole hour before descending back down to the community.

On the hike look out for eagles and sea eagles as you go. My Scottish Islands Passport app informs me Raasay is the only place in the world you’ll find the Raasay Vole, a sub species of bank vole. To check out Raasay’s wealth of sea life too – from dolphins and porpoises, through to the odd passing whale – you can embark on a wee wildlife cruise.

The Scottish Islands Passport app features Raasay House Outdoor Activities. For over three decades they’ve been opening up the island with loch kayaking, coasteering, traditional sailing, archery and rock climbing. They can also organise full all-inclusive family adventure holidays. Forget the Famous Five, this is real family fun getting active, forgetting about the stresses and strains of your life at home in a world that is more Jurassic Park than theme park.

Inland Raasay

Another walk is woven into the world of man. It’s a testament to the strength of the islanders that runs through Raasay’s history. Remember Raasay was decimated by British Government forces following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, after which Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have hidden on Raasay. The isle has lived through some seriously dark days, but somehow always found a way to keep on keeping on. In this case rather someone rather than somehow.

I’m talking about Calum’s Road – if you plan on visiting read the book before you come to really enrich your time here. The road in the island’s north was forged single handedly by Calum MacLeod over 15 torturous years without the aid of heavy machinery. He reacted after Inverness County Council refused to provide a road to connect Arnish. All he had to rip a road through was a homemade wooden wheelbarrow, axe, pick and shovel.

For me this is the very microcosm of Raasay’s spirit. Calum was driven in his roadbuilding by a burning desire to halt the kind of depopulation that had become rife in the Hebrides at the time. He dreamed of connecting the isolated dwellings around him with the road network, reconnecting roads, people and their lives. For me his tireless spirit is a microcosm for Raasay.

Isle of Raasay

More energy was poured into a more recent project – Raasay Distillery. This acclaimed business, opened in 2017, is the island’s first legal distillery. It conjures up a lightly peated, sweet Raasay single malt, as well as superb gin laced with Raasay juniper. If you indulge a little don’t worry as they have luxurious accommodation on site, so can sleep over here too and awake bathed in the angel’s share.

I mentioned the welcoming community. You can interweave your time with them at the community shop and pick up local books and gifts. The purpose-built Raasay Gallery is a joy for the treasure trove of arts and crafts that really shine back at home. The location is a work of art too, with classic Raasay views to enjoy as you browse. The world of man and nature constantly engage on Raasay.

Then there is Raasay Community Hall, who often stage events including ceilidhs, that you can throw yourself into. Impressively it has been community-run since 2010. The island’s rich cultural side should be no surprise considering this is the island of Sorley Maclean, the famous Gaelic poet who was born here. A great time to visit is during the Raasay Whisky, Fire and Song Festival in November when it is staged, with its drams, fine food and torchlit procession.

Toasting your time on Raasay with a local dram after a day drinking in lungfuls of the great outdoors – and a night wrapped in the charms of vibrant island community – you will have forgotten all about that bigger sibling of an island glowering just across the Sound of Raasay. And there will be a few less visitors at Skye’s hotspots too.

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