I’m used to sobbing my way through a packet of tissues when watching the likes of The Notebook or It’s A Wonderful Life, but I don’t normally shed tears over Countryfile. This long-standing BBC television programme, which reports on environmental issues and celebrates the beauty and diversity of the British countryside, has been a feature of my Sunday nights for many years.
I was under substantial pressure in my day job during the winter months, working long hours including Christmas, evenings and weekends. Thankfully work has since returned to normal and I don’t plan on submitting another 90+ hour timesheet again anytime soon. Whilst feeling the pressure in January, I settled down to watch Countryfile over dinner one Sunday evening after yet another day at my desk. Unexpectedly, a short feature on the Isle of Arran appeared on screen. Comedienne Susan Calman set sail across the Firth of Clyde to re-visit her favourite island in search of an otter sighting at Kildonnan. I couldn’t help myself. Tears sprang to my eyes and trickled down my cheeks and, embarrassingly, I held out a hand towards the TV, wishing I could reach through the screen and step on to the deck of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry sailing towards Brodick Bay and Goatfell. Alas, the credits soon rolled and I had to return to my study for another late night in front of my computer.
“I realised that the overwhelming need to get away was more important than the destination itself.”
I couldn’t settle. I promised myself an island trip in February, a few weeks after meeting my deadline at work. I considered various options and gave serious thought to Arran after my reaction to Countryfile. However, it’s only been 18 months since I myself last sailed across the Firth of Clyde and I realised that the overwhelming need to get away was more important than the destination itself. I stood before my large map of Scotland on the hall landing and considered a few locations slightly closer to home. My gaze settled on Raasay, one of a cluster of islands situated between the east coast of Skye and the mainland peninsula of Applecross. I visit Skye fairly frequently but a whopping 22 years had passed since I last set foot on Raasay. Definitely time for a return visit. Out came the debit card and my accommodation in the comfortably refurbished Raasay House was swiftly booked.
I gave a presentation to Inverness Camera Club a couple of nights before the trip, packing eight years’ worth of serious landscape photography into an hour. Whilst preparing my talk, I was reminded of my tendency towards fair weather photography, preferring sunshine and gentle breezes to the stereotypical Scottish weather. I pledged to get out more often during wind and rain. Well, the man upstairs must have been listening! Ironically, I made the booking during a spell of glorious weather when there was even a hint of spring in the air. As my long weekend approached, just shy of the month of March, winter once again tightened its grip with the arrival of Storm Doris. I groaned when I watched the weather forecast and saw that heavy rain was predicted for the duration of my island sojourn. I rummaged through my wardrobe and breathed a sigh of relief when I located my waterproof trousers. I was going to need them. I decided there was only one thing for it. I was going to give the two figured salute to Storm Doris and get very wet.
Dùn Caan, July 1995
Before I go any further, I’ll tell about my first fateful visit to Raasay in 1995. It’s one of my favourite childhood anecdotes. Whilst on a caravan holiday on Skye, my parents, brother and I took the small car ferry over to Raasay on a sunny summer’s day and climbed Dùn Caan, the highest peak on the island at 444m (1,457 ft). By late afternoon, we found ourselves parked up in our red Lada at the old pier, waiting to reverse on to the boat and return to Skye for dinner and a well-earned rest. We waited… and waited. Eventually, my dad stepped out of the car only to find that the ferry was tied up for the night. Completely out of character, he’d misread the timetable and the last sailing to Skye for the day had been and gone. We were stranded! Thankfully we managed to avoid an uncomfortable night in the car and were given the last room in Raasay House (Raasay Outdoor Centre at the time). It was July and the heating was cranked up. Lying there sweltering in our shorts and t-shirts, our minds buzzing, we hardly slept a wink!
Fast forward a couple of decades to February 2017. I boarded the new ferry – a much bigger affair – at Sconser on Skye, and stood on deck for the 25 minute dash across the Sound of Raasay, excited to finally be returning to the scene of this childhood adventure. My memories had grown a little hazy after 22 years and Raasay initially felt unfamiliar. My first impressions told me that things have moved on since the mid-’90s. The accommodation, service and cuisine in the refurbished Raasay House were an absolute delight. The new ferry and jetty, operational since 2010, could knock spots off the old ones. A stone’s throw from the new jetty, construction is well underway on an exciting new development; the Isle of Raasay Distillery in Inverarish, with a visitor centre and luxury accommodation scheduled to open this summer. The landscape, however, hasn’t changed. Raasay boasts magical open views to the Skye Cuillen in the west and the mountains of Applecross in the east (or rather, it would on a clear day), yet retains an intimate feel with its winding single track roads, whitewashed cottages and pockets of woodland. It was very easy to fall under this island’s spell.
“It was very easy to fall under this island’s spell.”
I set myself three goals for the long weekend: 1) walk to the abandoned Highland Clearance village of Hallaig; 2) ‘bag’ the little tidal island of Fladda beyond the northern end of Calum’s road, built single-handedly by a crofter fisherman in the 1960s and ’70s; and 3) climb Dùn Caan in tribute to that fateful day in 1995. I wasted no time in ticking the first item off the list and drove straight from the ferry terminal over to the east side of the island.
Hallaig: In The Footsteps of History
Where Scottish history is concerned, nothing pulls at my heartstrings quite like the Highland Clearances. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, throughout much of the Highlands and Islands, rich aristocratic landowners evicted their poor crofting tenants from their tight-knit communities against their will in order to make way for more profitable sheep farming. Scotland’s cultural landscape was devastated as ordinary men, women and children were turfed off the fertile land of their ancestors. Raasay was no exception. The thriving communities of Hallaig and Screapadal on the island’s lush east coast were ‘cleared’. In common with their counterparts throughout the Highland region, families either settled locally in more challenging terrain and attempted to eke out a living from the land and the sea; or they emigrated to far away lands such as Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Many would never recover from the heartbreak and Gaelic culture would never be the same again. A rich diversity of songs and poems express the sheer desolation felt by those exiled from the lands of their birth.
I didn’t encounter another soul on the two mile stretch of track between the end of the public road and the ruined village of Hallaig. I initially rejoiced in the solitude as I felt myself unwinding from the mayhem of twenty-first century life with every step I took. It was just me and a few sheep. I hesitated. This wasn’t something to celebrate. This enigmatic landscape devoid of human life is the direct result of a brutal and shameful period in Scottish history. In the shadow of Dùn Caan with the wind and rain in my face, my thoughts turned to the human tragedy that unfolded here, commemorated in the poem Hallaig by one of Raasay’s most famous sons; the late poet, Sorley MacLean. Somehow the foul weather suited the mood. On completion of my walk, the significance of retiring to the warmth of the eighteenth century Raasay House, the former mansion home of a succession of landlords who plundered this island, was not lost on me.
Calum’s Road: One Man’s Struggle
After an excellent night’s sleep and a hearty cooked vegetarian breakfast, I set off on a pilgrimage. Five years ago my partner and I celebrated Valentine’s Day on another island, the Isle of Mull. Whilst in the Tobermory bookshop, Mark invited me to select a gift for myself. I chose a map of the remote Scottish archipelago of St Kilda and a copy of Roger Hutchinson’s book, Calum’s Road. Ever since I turned the first few pages of this book back in 2012, it was inevitable that I would make this journey to to the northern tip of Raasay.
When the Highland Clearances hit the fertile lands of southern Raasay, many of those families that decided not to emigrate overseas settled in the scattered communities of Arnish, Torran, Umachan and Kyle Rona in northern Raasay and the neighbouring islands of Fladda, Tigh and Rona. The area became over-populated and poverty-stricken but was home to tight-knit communities. Malcolm ‘Calum’ MacLeod BEM, born in 1911, was one of five children born to Donald MacLeod and Julia Gillies, natives of Raasay and the adjacent island of Fladda. Calum was educated in Gaelic and English at Torran Schoolhouse – now a private property – until the age of 14, after which he embarked on a lifelong vocation as a crofter fisherman in his beloved hamlet of South Arnish. As well as tending to his animals and crops and fishing the seas around northern Raasay, Calum worked as a part-time postman and Local Assistant Keeper of the Rona Lighthouse. He and his wife, Lexie, teacher at Torran until the school closed in 1967, raised a daughter, Julia, who reluctantly left home at the tender age of 12 to board at Portree High School, given that there was no prospect of a secondary education on Raasay.
Over years and decades, Calum witnessed the erosion of his native culture as the older generations passed on and the younger generations, with few future prospects in northern Raasay, left in search of a ‘better’ life elsewhere. The authorities neglected northern Raasay, failing to install electricity whilst the southern end of the island benefited; removing the public telephone box; failing to install a footbridge or causeway to permanently connect the tidal island of Fladda; and, perhaps most significantly, refusing to upgrade the two mile footpath between Brochel Castle and Arnish to allow the passage of cars between these communities. Calum observed a different kind of ‘clearance’ as northern Raasay emptied within a matter of years until, in 1967, he and his wife were the only remaining inhabitants. During the 1960s, when Calum’s repeated requests for a road continued to fall on deaf ears, he decided to construct it himself. Over the next decade, whilst still tending to his other duties, Calum undertook countless hours of back-breaking work to construct – single-handedly – nearly two miles of single track road over steep, rocky and boggy terrain with the aid of a wheelbarrow, pick, axe, shovel and a manual on road building. It is a truly remarkable achievement.
A further battle with the authorities ensued but, eventually, in 1982, a tarmac surface was laid on Calum’s Road, connecting the hamlet of Arnish with the rest of the island and, indeed, the wider world. Calum was awarded the British Empire Medal in the New Year’s Honours List in 1983, five years before his death. His road stands as a fine and enduring monument to his life and triumph over adversity, and literally paves the way for a new future for northern Raasay.
I spent my second day on Raasay following in Calum’s footsteps, exploring his world-famous road and also his footpath to the north of Arnish. Without him, I wouldn’t have ventured this far from the ferry terminal and set foot on the little island of Fladda. On my third and final day, it was time to walk in my own footsteps, and re-visit memories I made in 1995, en route to the summit of Dùn Cann, the highest point on Raasay.
I was grateful for a respite from the Scottish weather on my trek between Arnish and Fladda but the heavens opened once again as I sat in the car contemplating an ascent of Dùn Cann. I know from my travels that this distinctive flat-topped summit is visible from miles around. I should have been rewarded with a spectacular vista from its steep slopes. When James Boswell and Samuel Johnson undertook their famous tour of the Hebrides in the mid-1700s, Boswell was so delighted with the view from Dùn Cann that he danced a jig on the summit. I knew that I would be lucky, given the weather, to see my arm outstretched in front of my face. I locked my professional camera kit in the car, shoved a compact camera in a rucksack with some survival gear and headed off on a three hour round trek, fully clad in waterproofs and, embarrassingly, armed with a golf umbrella!
Footpaths had turned into burns and peat bog into quagmire. It wasn’t long before my walking boots were completely soaked through. Thankfully it didn’t dampen my spirits and I was soon rewarded for my efforts with intermittent views over over Loch na Meilich and Dùn Cann’s peak – the remains of a volcanic plug – appearing through the gloom. Much in the same way as the clouds were momentarily lifting off the summit, the haze was also lifting from my mind and was replaced with more solid memories from that summer’s day 22 years ago. I didn’t dance a jig but I punched the air with my walking pole and golf umbrella as I reached the highest point on the island! Despite the atrocious weather, it might just have been the high point of the weekend too.
Lo and behold, I’ve fallen in love with another island. Sobbing my way through Countryfile and my subsequent visit to Raasay taught me a lesson. As happy as I am on the Black Isle, I have to admit that it’s the west coast that truly makes me come to life. I’m reminded of Howard Thurman’s quote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Not only do I need to venture west more regularly, I also need to drop the pace a little in my everyday life back home. After three days alone exploring this island with a camera in my hand, I felt completely and utterly relaxed despite having had a substantial amount of physical exercise. One thing is certain; I won’t let another 22 years pass by before I set foot on Raasay again. I can hardly wait to return, to finish exploring those bits of the island that I brushed over, to venture as far north as Kyle Rona and Eilean Tigh in Calum’s footsteps, and to climb Dùn Cann once again and soak up the views that I missed on this occasion. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be inspired to dance a jig next time around!