Many are familiar with the wondrous Isle of Skye, and for good reason. It boasts some of the most dramatic scenery in the British Isles. The ever-blackened, multi-humped peaks of the Cuillin Ridgeline accompanied by the giant spidery fingers of The Storr which pokes out of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula and wouldn't look out of place in a Lord of the Rings film, lubricated with a dram or three of world-renowned Talisker, puts the capitisle of the Inner Hebrides most deservedly on the map of notoriety. Danny Macaskill rode his mountain bike along the very same gnarly-as-hell Cuillin Ridgeline to the tune of a Red Bull-backed video that garnered no fewer than 50 million YouTube views. Fair to say a few folk know of Skye.
Danny Macaskill atop Sgùrr Alasdair in the Black Cuillin
The Storr, Skye
Its easterly neighbour on the other hand, despite its visibility from Skye’s mighty peaks, is a nicely kept secret. With a population of 192 people occupying a landmass of 14 miles by 3, Raasay, which means “Isle of the Roe Deer”, lies a very manageable boat crossing from big sister. In some places the more amphibious among us, and those less fazed by rip tides, can enjoy a deceptively arduous kilometre-long flap across the Sound of Raasay and wash up relatively painlessly on the opposing shore's barnacle-bespattered rocks.
Raasay in mid-winter, Skye’s snowy peaks in the distance
Raasay’s population was not always so measly. In its industrial heyday over the first years of the 19th Century, the island was replete with hardy souls (roughly one thousand of them) lugging iron ore from hillside to shore. This industry sustained a thriving community and its relics come no more pronounced than the miners' railway which carves its own ridge from the edge of Raasay Forest right down to the Skye-facing pier.
Early morning view from our nesting place on South Fearns Road. January, 2017
Iron ore may not have been the only metallic substance to spring from the Raasay ground. However many millennia ago, torrents of the molten equivalent may have flown down the sides of the long-extinct Dùn Caan, Raasay’s highest peak, volcanic in origin. The ascent is far from grizzly on a fair day, though if blowing a hoolie, an on-all-fours experience it readily becomes.
Dùn Caan on a very fair day
There is a chance, a small one admittedly, that you’ll have heard of Calum MacLeod. A descendant of the MacLeod clan which ruled Raasay from the 15th to 19th Century, Calum was a crofter, lighthouse keeper, and part-time postman who himself famously built the ‘Calum’s Road’ after decades of unsuccessful campaigning by the inhabitants of the north end of the island. Purchasing Thomas Aitken's manual Road Making & Maintenance: A Practical Treatise for Engineers, Surveyors and Others, for half a crown, he started work, replacing the old narrow footpath between Brochel Castle and Arnish, using little more than a shovel, a pick and a wheelbarrow. Several years after its completion, the road was finally adopted and surfaced by the local council. By then, Calum and his wife, Lexie, were the last inhabitants of Arnish. Calum himself was voiced by the great Ian McDiarmid (Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars) for the BBC Radio 4 drama Calum's Road.
Calum MacLeod himself, shovel, pick, and wheelbarrow in tow, by the now-famous road. Credit: Simon Murphy, ALLSCOTMEDIA.
How to get there:
Ultimately, you’ll be taking the ferry from the far from foreboding Sconser ferry port (on Skye), so a car is pretty essential. If you’re a way-down Southerner not fancying a 10-12 hour drive, take a train to Fort William or Inverness and rent a car. Inverness has a small, beautifully-set airport, but if you want the added bonus of taking in another beautiful corner of this part of the world, train/fly to Glasgow, rent a car, and drive up via Loch Lomond, the Trossachs, Glencoe, the Nevis Range, Lochs Lochy, Garry, Loyne, and Cluanie, Kyle of Lochalsh, and the south-eastern quarter of Skye (all in about 4.5 hours).
Be sure to check ferry times… I’ve slept in my car at Sconser, actually a lovely way to wake up if you’ve brought a duvet, and in a B&B in Portree on Skye.
When to visit:
All year round… it’s as simple as that. West Coast weather is like a Frenchman’s temper, a schizophrenic split between the divine and the downright dreadful. All the seasons have their wonders, but should you arrive in the middle of a low-hanging cloud wondering why on earth you’d come and how on earth you’d forgotten your raincoat, patience will be your ally and its rewards magnificent.
Where to stay:
Air BnB has some interesting picks and the hotel is Raasay House, former seat of the ruling MacLeod clan. If no room at any lodge/inn, enjoy what Skye has to offer and daytrip over on the ferry.