Isle of Raasay

After a quick ascent of Ben Macdui with a client I got back to my car at 2pm, with plenty of time to drive to Skye for a two day, impromptu trip to the Isle of Raasay. I wanted to explore the island for a potential Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Gold expedition in April. Ambitiously I wanted to walk the length of the island’s east coast – a journey of about 27km – visiting the abandoned township of Hallaig, the castle at Brochel then continuing north, along Callum’s Road, to a bothy called Taigh Thormoid Dhuidh, way up at the north end of Raasay.

After about three hours driving via Inverness and Strathcarron I pulled into a Forestry Commission car park near Broadford on Skye and set off into the dark to look for a spot to hammock camp for the night. Before long I’d found two knarly birch trees the right distance apart to set up my tarp and hammock and hunkered down to sleep.

I woke late and caught the 10:25 ferry to Raasay. The ferry terminal on Raasay is at its southern end, the part of the island where almost all of the islands resident’s live. Roger Hutchison; author of ‘Calum’s Road’, an account of the clearnaces on the island and one man’s monumental effort to single-handedly build  a road between Brochel and Arnish, likens the geography of the island to an arm. The fertile, populous southern end of Rassay is like a muscular forearm. To the north the muscles wither and terminate in arthritic fingers and disjointed appendages: this is norhern Rassay and the islands of Fladda, Eilean Tigh and Rona. North of Brochel the island’s geology changes from Jurassic limstone and mudstones with igneous intrusions to ancient lewisian gneiss; giving rise to a barren, rocky, hard landscape with infertile soils.

The southern end of the island has the best farmland, shops, housing, a community hall, school, new distillery and the imposing and grand Raasay House. Built in 1747 Raasay House was residence of the lsland’s lairds and landowners; men like Charles Rainy and Herbert Wood who, in the ninteeth century, implemented policies that dramatically changed the demography of the island leading to the depopulation of the crofting townships in the south of the island – places like Hallaig, Fearns, Leac, Suisinsh, Eyre and Oskaig. Families were forcibly removed from their homes and land to make way for sheep and deer. People ended up migrating to Glasgow and other Scottish cities. Many emigrated to Australia, New Zealand and Canada and a significant minority were relocated to the north of Raasay, to eck out a difficult life on land that was too expensive to rent and too infertile for sustaining such large numbers of people. At the same time that population of Hallaig fell from 129 people in 1841 to nil in 1891 the tiny island of Fladda in the north grew from 29 to 51 and the barren island of Rona increased from 110 to 181. The hardship endured by the communities of northern Raasay was compounded by the building – by George Rainy – of a six foot high stone wall across the narrowest point of the peninsula. The wall was constructed not to keep livestock out but to keep people in, preventing them from returning to the deserted townships in the south. More of the story of the island’s clearances can be read in Rodger Hutchison’s book ‘Calum’s Road’.

The start of my walk through the south was easy, along quite minor roads. My route went east to the end of the public road at Fearns. From there a track covered in moss leads to the abandoned crofting townships of Leac and Hallaig. Sorley Maclean’s famous poem Hallaig is a lament for the deserted village, his birthplace. Like ghosts, the trees –  the birch, hazel and rowan –  remind him of his people.

The window is nailed and boarded
through which I saw the West
and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,
a birch tree, and she has always been

between Inver and Milk Hollow,
here and there about Baile-chuirn:
she is a birch, a hazel,
a straight, slender young rowan.

When you approach Leac an awsome view opens up before you. The whole east coast presents itself: seacliffs curve round the coastline over which a waterfall drops to the sea; the green fields of Hallaig, with old stone walls and ruined homes, sit atop a plateau; birch and hazel woodland flank the sides of a steep escapment and above that big limestone cliffs rise up 100m;  higher still is Dun Cann, the heightest hill on Rassay; and way in the distance you can see nothern Rassay with its distictive rocky barren landscape.

Looking ahead I could see that the stretch of coastline beyond Hallaig was going to be difficult. I suspected that the path on the map was more of a historical reference, a reminder that at one time people regularly walked between Hallaig and South Screapadal – but not for 150 years.

Beyond Hallaig the plateau extended to the north, bounded to the west by the steep escapment and cliffs and to the east a ridge running parallel to the coastline. This ridge had rock crevasses hidden amongst the heather and streams flowing to the sea disappeared into them. The terrain was complex and interesting to walk along. I followed the ridge north until it droped to the sea. To keep going along the coast I would have to walk along a steep grassy slope with only narrow sheep tracks to follow. My pace dropped to about 2km an hour, sometimes walking over slippy sheep tracks, sometimes walking along the high tide mark along equally slippy boulders. In places I walked through thickets of dense hazel and birch. It was a wild remote place with no sign of people having walked that way in a long time. From time to time I saw sea eagles flying above, easily recognisable by their white tails and huge wingspans.

After 4km of difficult walking I eventually reached South Screapadal where the ground flattens off and a broad track leads to the road. It was 3pm and I had another 9km to go to get to the bothy, 3km on road and 6km on paths.

At Brochel there’s a castle built on a volcanic plug. Built in the early 16th century by the Clan Macleod its now in a ruinous state. It was occupied for about 150 years before being abandoned. The castle also marks the spot where Calum’s road begins. Calum Macleod was a crofter, engineer, assistant lighthouse keeper, avid reader and determined road builder from Arnish in northern Raasay. Over the course of 10 years, between about 1964 and 1974 he single-handedly build a 2 mile stretch of road, over hilly, rocky terrain between Brochel and Arnish. His road-building efforts were a defiant statement against the authorities that for decades ignored the decline and depopulation of northern Rassay.

The background to the story were the clearances in southern Raasay and the overpopulation of the north. The townships of Arnish, Kyles Rona, Fladda and Eilean Tigh were hampered by the absence of a road link to the south and that together high rents and a lack of employment led to povery and hardship. After the first world war returning soldiers took matters into their own hards. The actions of a group of men from the north became known as the ‘Raasay Raids’: they travelled south to the abandoned township of Fearns and re-occupied the crofts. The landowner protested and the men spent time in jail for this defiant act but in the end they won the right to resettle the south. That event led to the gradual resettlement of many of the old crofting townships and the consequent depopulation of the north. Despite repeated calls for support for the northern townships, in the form of bridges and roads, the authorities didn’t act and the population steadily declined until, Calum and his wife Lizzie – the former school teacher at Arnish – were the only two inhabitants left.

At the end of the public road an unsurfaced track continues north to Torran and the old school house. From there the track splits, one branch going to Fladda and the other, 5km further on, the deserted township of Kyle Rona and Taigh Thormoid Duidh bothy. After about 2.5km the path reaches its highest point before descending a steep narrow slot or gully called Bealach a’Chruidh (Cattle gap). Through the gap the old track is cobbled to protect the it from erosion and prevent cattle and people from slipping.

By this time it was dark and raining lightly. After 8 hours of walking I was pretty keen to get to the bothy. I passed Lochan gun Ghrunnd and then a ruined cottage with a partial roof on it called Taigh an Achaidh (the house of the field) – also known as Kyle Rona House. I was expecting the bothy to be just another 500m further on at grid reference NG 612 524 (as per the mountain bothies association website). I paced out the distance to be sure of finding the right place then turned off the path and started looking. I reached right spot and checked by gps to be sure but there was no bothy, only a ruin. I was puzzled by this and searched about, assuming that the published grid ref was slightly off. I visited all of the ruins in the vicinity of the grid reference but couldn’t find the bothy. What to do…. keep searching or find a spot to bivvy? I decided it was pretty futile to keep searching in the dark so I went back to the ruined cottage I’d passed – Kyle Rona House. After a few mintes I got to the cottage and found a corner of the derelict building to lay out my sleeping bag.

Next morning the weather was clear and cold. I set off back in the direction of the bothy, determined to find it. After 15 minutes I found it. It was 300m further north of where it was supposed to be at NG 611 526. Inside I met Jamie and Jen. Over breakfast we chatted about bothies and the mulled wine and chocolate fondue I missed out on last night – had I only made it to the bothy!

After some breakfast I headed on my way – I had a 20km walk to get back to the ferry. The views across to Skye and the Totternish ridge were great and happily, with at least 10km of road walking still to do, Jamie pulled over in his car to give me a lift back to the ferry.

It was real adventure exploring Raasay and I look forward to coming back soon.

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