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magic of raasay

The Magic Of Raasay

Is the magic of this small island off the coast of Skye its emotive history and captivating scenery, or its engaging and resourceful residents?

BY TERRY WILLIAMS

The Isle of Raasay and its people have always been extra-ordinary. No passing scribbler with a camera can do them justice. No matter how many times I visit, there's always something new to discover. No matter how long I stay, it's never long enough.

The island is about 13 miles long by three miles wide. It lies in a deep trough between the Isle of Skye and the Applecross peninsula on the Scottish mainland, with no more than a handful of sea miles on either side. The ferry crossing from Sconser in Skye takes just 15 minutes. It wasn't always so. There was a time when the islanders depended on steamers passing between Portree and Kyle of Lochalsh, at one point even sharing a ferry with the Small Isles (Eigg, Rum, Canna and Muck). Only in 1976 did Raasay finally get its own direct ferry link to Skye, with regular sailings several times a day.

This is one of Caledonian MacBrayne's lifeline services. Without the ferry, it is difficult to see how a 21st-century community would survive on Raasay. Most of the crew are resident on the island and the ferry itself is stationed there, on call at all times for birth, death, accident, fire.... It brings visitors, mail, supplies, refuse collectors, coal lorries, emergency services -- and books.

I once shared the crossing with Highland Region's only sea-going mobile library. Every three weeks, Sheila Matheson and her big, yellow van bring a fresh stock of books to the readers of Raasay, squeezing the vehicle on board the Loch Striven with precious little room to spare. Apparently, this is one of the library's busiest ports of call. There's a thriving population of around 200 and a well-filled primary school where pupils wait eagerly for the library like a flock of cheerful sparrows. We landed that day at East Suisnish, near the pier that was built to serve the iron ore mine of William Baird and Company between 1913 and 1919. The remains of buildings and a small railway track can still be explored. During the First World War, German prisoners were put to work here, hauling stone out of the heart of Raasay to furnish the assault against their own fellow countrymen. In the process, and despite the circumstances, they became part of the island community and many friendships were made. It's a poignant story.

A mile of single-track road leads north to Inverarish, the island's main village. My first impression was of twin telephone boxes, a post office and shop, a tiny fire station, boats drawn up on the shore, rhododendrons in full bloom and a backdrop of mature woodland. Across Churchton Bay, the original harbour snuggled into a sheltered corner below the imposing grey façade of Raasay House.

Sheila's first customer that day was the postman. He wanted to change his library books before collecting the incoming mail from the ferry. Then he'd be off on his rounds, delivering letters, parcels and the latest news to all corners of Raasay. He had a long day ahead. Although most of the population now lives in the south of the island, there are isolated settlements along the narrow winding road that leads north to Brochel and beyond.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2009 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Owning A Scottish Castle by Jim Gilchrist.

Photos © Terry Williams