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 from 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 444m or 1,457ft 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 old iron ore pier at Suisnish to the main settlement of Inverarish and beyond it to Raasay House, the harbour at Clachan and the nearby ferry terminus at Churchton bay. (Continues below image...)
Historically, Raasay belonged to Clan MacSween, but in 1518 ownership was transferred to Calum Garbh, the younger son of Calum, the 9th MacLeod Chief of Lewis.
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 over 900 in 1803 had already fallen by 1841 to 676. Rainey 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 Raasay blocked 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 the island.
In 1912 Raasay was purchased for its mineral rights by the commercial mining company, Baird & Co. They began an iron ore mining operation connected by a (now demolished) railway line to a pier they built at Suisnish. The course of the railway now forms a footpath and the surviving harbour facilities at Suisnish include a vast concrete iron ore hopper. Mining ceased in 1919. Another reminder of the mining company comes in the shape of the island's largest settlement, at Inverarish, which they built to house miners.
Today's visitor begins their exploration of Raasay at Churchton Bay, where the ferry arrives from Sconser on Skye. The ferry terminal opened in 2010, replacing the decaying old pier and slipway further down the coast at Suisnish. In 2013 the new ferry terminal began to be served by a new ferry, the ecologically friendly hybrid-powered MV Hallaig. Perhaps of more immediate significance to users of the ferry is that the MV Hallaig nearly doubled the vehicle carrying capacity of her predecessor on the route.
The ferry terminal is close to Raasay's traditional harbour at Clachan, and the ferry waiting room was designed to echo the shape of the Battery, which rises behind it. This was 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, which stands beyond parkland that runs down to the shore at Churchton Bay and is prominent in views from the ferry. Raasay House's origins date back to a house built here for the MacLeod Chief of Raasay in the early 1500s. His descendent backed the losing side in the 1745 Jacobite uprising, and the first Raasay House was burned down by Government troops in 1746 during a vicious campaign of retribution that swept across the Highlands and Islands. Building of the current Raasay House began the following year.
Raasay House acquired extensions and a new facade during the period of John Rainey's ownership. It served as a sporting hotel between 1937 and 1960, and was purchased by the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1979, along with other properties on the island. The house spent much of the next quarter century serving as an outdoor activities centre, and was purchased by the Raasay House Community Company in December 2007. They began a major refurbishment project the following year, but in January 2009, just before work was complete, the house was severely damaged by fire. It has since been restored, again, to the glory you can see and visit today.
And visit it you very probably will. On an island that is not overburdened with facilities and services for visitors, Raasay House offers a range of different types of accommodation, an excellent cafe, a bar, and a restaurant for evening dining. It also serves as an outdoor activities centre. While in the area of Raasay House, make sure you visit the wonderfully tranquil nearby ruins of St Maol-luag's Chapel, and keep a lookout for the Raasay Pictish Stone, beside the public road just to the north west of the house.
The roads on Raasay are all 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 MacLeods later abandoned this imposing but impractical residence in favour of Raasay House.
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 the situation you find today, where almost all the island's residents live in the extreme 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.
History has not always been kind to Raasay, and its run of bad luck extended to as recently as January 2009, when the nearly restored Raasay House was damaged by fire. Perhaps this was part of the reason why the island's population actually fell, from 194 to 161, in the decade between 2001 and 2011. Our own most recent visit left us with the strong impression that a corner has been turned. The new ferry terminal and ferry are both impressive indications of the wider public commitment to the future of Raasay, as is the new Community Hall. Meanwhile, the glorious completion of the restoration of Raasay House shows that the community of Raasay is likewise determined to ensure that the island thrives. The disappearance of the Raasay Youth Hostel and fate of the Raasay Hotel (which on our most recent visit looked like a "work in progress" that was no longer actually in progress) show that nothing can be taken for granted, but the range of positive developments, including a project to build a distillery on the island, really does bode well for the future.
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