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The island of Raasay measures some 14 miles from north to south, and a little over three miles from east to west at its widest point. It is separated from the east coast of the Isle of Skye by the Sound of Raasay, which is under a mile and a half wide at its southern end, and over four miles wide further north. Looking east, Raasay is separated from the Applecross Peninsula on the mainland by the Inner Sound.
Large parts of the island are formed of extremely marginal land. High ground occupies much of the centre and east of Raasay, and parts of the north end form a rocky landscape reminiscent of Harris. The highest point is the 443m high volcanic summit of Dùn Caan, an extremely distinctively shaped mountain prominent in distant views of Raasay from many directions. The name "Raasay" has Norse origins and translates as "Island of the Roe Deer".
Almost all the settlement on Raasay is confined to a narrow strip less than two miles long running along the south western coast from the ferry terminal at Suisnish to the main settlement of Inverarish and beyond it to the harbour at Clachan. There are sparsely scattered small settlements extending a little further north along the west coast of the island, but the largely cliff lined east coast is virtually deserted for most of its length, the exceptions being at Eyre point, at the south east tip of the island, and the small scatter of habitation at Fearns, accessed via a narrow road across the island from Inverarish.
Today's visitor begins an exploration of Raasay at Suisnish, the terminal for the ferry service from Sconser on Skye. A new £12 million ferry terminal and access road is under construction at Clachan, and in April 2009 construction was well under way. The result is that before long Suisnish and its decaying pier will be consigned to the travel history books, and the ferry will arrive directly in Clachan. The pier at Suisnish was built in 1912 by the commercial mining company, Baird & Co, who purchased the whole island for its mineral rights and began an iron ore mining operation in the heart of what is now the Raasay Forest connected by a (now demolished) railway line to the pier. The course of the railway now forms a footpath and the surviving harbour facilities at Suisnish include a vast concrete hopper. Mining ceased in 1919.
Inverarish is a residential settlement largely built by the mining company on either side of the Inverarish Burn as it makes its way into the Raasay Sound. From here a very minor road leads east through the Raasay Forest past the site of the old mine to the east coast at Fearns, while another heads directly north across country past the remote Raasay Youth Hostel towards the north end of the island. The third takes a more meandering route north that leads you past Raasay Church and the Raasay Hotel to Clachan, the island's main harbour and, in future, its ferry terminal.
Overlooking the existing small harbour and the site of the new terminal is the Battery, fortified as a gun emplacement in 1809 on the summit of an existing rocky outcrop. The Battery is flanked by larger than life stone statues of busty mermaids who, despite weather erosion and other damage, have become emblems of Raasay. Equally emblematic of the island is Raasay House. This was originally built in a much more modest form in 1720. Despite their Protestant faith, the MacLeods of Raasay (unlike those on Skye) backed the Jacobite cause in the 1745 uprising, and there were said to be 100 of them on the losing side at the Battle of Culloden in early 1746. In the aftermath, Government troops searching for Bonnie Prince Charlie, who spent some time in hiding on Raasay, destroyed most of the buildings on the island and committed a number of other atrocities.
Raasay house was rebuilt in time for the then laird, John MacLeod, to receive Samuel Johnson and James Boswell during their tour of the Highlands and Islands in 1773. It was remodelled on a much grander scale between 1796 and 1805 by James MacLeod. In 1843 the then laird John MacLeod, by now heavily in debt, sold the island to John Rainey of Edinburgh for 35,000 guineas. He then emigrated to Australia, in the wake of many of his fellow islanders: the peak population of 900 in 1803 had already fallen by 1841 to 676. Rainey made further additions to Raasay House, but is mainly remembered for clearing large parts of Raasay of its crofting tenants to make room for sheep to graze. Those cleared either emigrated or moved to the far north of the island and to the neighbouring islands of Fladday and Rona, with access to the bulk of the Raasay prevented by a large wall built completely across it by Rainey. The clearances on Raasay later received considerable publicity through the poems of Sorley MacLean, a native of Raasay.
The island later went through a series of changes of ownership, none especially beneficial to it, and Raasay House gradually fell into disrepair. In 1979 the house, and the island, were purchased by the Government. Raasay House found a new use as an outdoors centre. A major project to restore the house to its former glory was nearing completion when it was gutted by fire in January 2009. Plans are in place to restore it once more, but it is obvious, even from a distance, that this will be a major undertaking. Next to the road a short distance north of Raasay House is Raasay Pictish Stone, relocated here after being unearthed in abut 1800 during the construction of a road from the harbour to Raasay House.
The road up much of the length of the island is single track: but it is perfectly possible to travel the length of the northern 90% of the island's main road and back again without meeting another vehicle. As it nears the northern end of the island, the road crosses to the east coast, where you are greeted by the amazing sight of Brochel Castle, clinging grimly and improbably below you to the summit of a plug of rock. This was built in the early 1500s for the first MacLeod laird of Raasay, Calum Garbh, the younger son of Calum, the 9th MacLeod Chief of Lewis. The MacLeods abandoned this imposing but impractical residence in favour of Raasay House in the early 1700s.
Until 1982, Brochel, still nearly five miles south of the northern tip of Raasay, was, literally, the end of the road. Yet until 1912, the crofting townships beyond Brochel were home to the bulk of the 400 or so people living on Raasay because of earlier clearance of the rest of the island. With mining development and resettlement the balance has since steadily shifted towards what you see today, where almost all the island's 194 residents live in the south west of the island. Nonetheless, since 1982 the road north has extended for two miles beyond Brochel, largely thanks to the efforts of one man, Calum MacLeod. He almost single-handedly built what is now known as "Calum's Road" between the mid 1960s and the late 1970s, and it was when this was given a tarmac surface by the council in 1982 that the public road finally reached Arnish, where Calum MacLeod and his wife lived.