Saturday, 19 March 2016

Raasay

Approaching Raasay from the ferry

Thursday, 17 March 2016

After three days in the mountains we sought some respite by taking a trip to the island of Raasay off the east coast of Skye. We had made attempts in the past but were thwarted by lack of suitable ferries on Sunday or poor weather that would have given little scope for exploring the island. Today was another splendid March day with the high pressure making the north west highlands the sunniest and warmest part of the UK. The ferries run frequently and the 15 minute journey in the well maintained Cal Mac ferry was a treat with the ferry crew extending courtesy and sage advice on where to go.

We headed to the north end of the island and in the incomparable luck of the week we were entertained by a golden eagle circling us above Manish Mor. Our intention was a walk to the small offshore island of Fladday and to drive on Calum's road. This three kilometre section of road was built by hand with barrow, pick and spade by Calum MacLeod over a period of ten years and has been the subject of TV documentaries and books as well as a tune, Calum's Road.

Calum was one of the last remaining residents in the small settlement of Torran, 10 miles north of the ferry terminal and main settlement at Inverarish. He had been the postmaster and lighthouse boatman and his wife had taught at the small local school. He was frustrated by the failure of increasingly centralised organisations to understand and respond to the needs of remote communities so built the road that the Council refused to build. As a testament to willpower, bloody mindedness, public spiritness and sheer endeavour he has few peers. He died a couple of years after it opened in 1988 and one of the locals who had lived there until 1966 told me that he had left a hell of a legacy. There remain some cottages occupied mainly by the families of former residents. The area around the beautiful sea loch at Arnish were always isolated from the more populous south of the island by poor roads and they forged closer links with Portree just five miles away by boat.

Calum's road was no better maintained than the rest of the island. We returned to the south as the heathers were being burnt and passed through the forest plantations that were being felled following an outbreak of Phytophthora ramorum to larch trees above Raasay House. A new distillery has been built on the island and a Raasay 'While We Wait' bottle is available prior to the arrival of the finished product. The Hotel and Outdoor Centre provide some employment and the island seems well populated with sheep. Raasay had suffered greatly when owned by the London retired GP, Dr Green or Dr No as he became known. When the Scottish Office took over the ownership in 1995, the local population made heroic efforts to generate new businesses.

There are a number of community based initiatives and there is evidence that the steady population decline over many years has now been reversed. Work on the walled garden, a new ferry in 2013 and some community run enterprises as well as various cultural and outdoor activities suggest that the island could be on the cusp of  a sustainable regeneration.

We were told that the sea fishing in the Sound of Raasay by larger vessels bottom trawling has had damaging consequences for the seabed ecosystem. The number of rabbits on the island is much reduced since the arrival of mink, it is thought from the Uists. There are two pairs of golden eagles on the island as well as sea eagles, otters and a seal colony.

Sailing back on the evening ferry and enjoying the views of Skye we felt elated about our day on the island. At the same time the alleged criticisms of insensitive national organisations and the lack of support by the Scottish Government agencies and Highland Council compared to other smaller islands seemed to suggest that the potential of Raasay as a place of sustainable growth has yet to be realised.

Golden Eagle over north Raasay

Brochel beach
The start of Calum's Road
On Calum's Road
On the path to Fladday, also built by Calum and his brother
Fladday Path
The three remaining cottages on Fladday, access at low tide

Heading back toInverarish, Red Cuillin in distance

Red Cuillin from Suisnish

Looking west to Skye

Raasay House Hotel

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