The 8.25am ferry sliced through the cold blanket of morning mist that seems to cling to Skye in the early hours. The ferry was quiet, I could only count four or five cars aside from our own. The trip takes less than twenty-five minutes, yet somehow the island is often overlooked by day-trippers, who whizz past the ferry terminal at Sconser to tick off the sights of Skye before tea time. As tourism grows in Skye at what feels like an exponential rate, Raasay – with its teensy population of 161 – provides charming respite from the buzzing energy of the bigger island, where cafes, mountains, pubs and lochs are all competing for your attention. As the ferry draws closer to shore, the sun begins to burn through the mist and I can just make out the unusual silhouette of Dun Cann, Raasay’s highest peak. Here there is only one hill, one pub and one shop… and as much time as you like.
If you decide to ditch the car in Sconser, a passenger ticket only costs £2.05 one way, and push bikes are available to rent from Raasay House – which is right beside the ferry terminal.
Raasay House Outdoor Activity Centre
Raasay House is a not-for-profit hotel and outdoor activity centre built in 1809. The building itself is stately, but the grandiose is purely aesthetic: the people who work here are down-to-earth and friendly; dogs and children play on lush green lawn while parents sit drinking and laughing on the big stone steps – and there always seems to be someone climbing in our out of a wetsuit. The building became the Raasay Outdoor Centre in 1984, when three friends opened the island to visitors with a sense of adventure – offering activities such sea kayaking, rock climbing and archery. I was here to partake in a RIB tour, which meant hunting for seals, otters, dolphins and whales on the choppy Raasay sound. As soon as we arrived, we were introduced to Davey – our sea-faring guide for the morning – who chucked us some bright orange waterproofs and escorted us off to the jetty in his jeep. As we rolled out of the carpark he pulled a funny face and warned us about his driving: ‘This is the most dangerous part of the day!’.
A small group of us clambered into the RIB, and took our seats – the rows of two remind me of a rollercoaster. I was excited, and the sea safari delivered: we saw blubbery seal pups basking on the rocks, shy porpoises, a mother sea eagle and her chick perched in the treetops. Davey was funny, patient and informative – one would never guess he was tiring of the constant shrieks of DOOOLPHIN after his three years running these trips. It took us a while to find the dolphins, but I certainly didn’t care – Davey was pointing out sights such as Ben Tianavaig on the coast of Skye, and the very north end of Raasay – a now uninhabited, jurassic looking landscape with a chilling history of clearances and hardship. Then we spotted them, and the crowd went wild. The sun had burst through at the perfect moment and we were surrounded by at least fifteen dolphins, leaping and twisting in the air right behind the whitewash from the boat, close enough so that we could see their characteristic smiles.
Raasay House Hotel
Post-RIB, we settled down on the benches outside Raasay House for a coffee and a millionaires shortbread. The sun was beating down and the day was still young. It was never our intention to miss the last ferry home that night and stay over on Raasay. However, we didn’t take much convincing. After all, the journey back to Skye takes no time at all. We checked in to the hotel and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring. The room we checked into was spacious and bright – and with massive windows left open, you could almost taste the sea salt in the air from your gigantic bed. If you stay here, be sure to nosey around the whole building, or ask for a wee tour. The hotel is covered in ornate furniture and antiques and has plenty of secret rooms – from magnificent libraries to hidden gardens – it’s a hide-and-seek dream come true.
Walks Around The Isle Of Raasay
Most hikers will bounce up Dun Caan as soon as they arrive in Raasay. And quite rightly, it’s a brilliantly rewarding viewpoint. If you choose to embark from Raasay House on foot, follow a sign-post for Burma Road (named by construction workers in the 1950s who encountered a ‘jungle’ of trees), which will snake uphill, through a dense forest. As you emerge, views of the sea, mainland and islands open up around you. It was here that we saw a Golden Eagle, resting on a rock. So pack those binoculars. The rest of the walk is well marked out and the ascent to the summit fairly easy. Theres even a wee lochan halfway up if you need to cool off (just watch out for the local dragons).
This time around we opted to head to North Fearns, to explore ruins of the ancient village of Hallaig. Thick, green ferns grow all over the un-cultivated land here, as this part of the island is mostly uninhabited. After what seems like miles of ferny bush, cliffs drop suddenly into the bright blue sea. The grassy footpath is long but well-maintained and flat, so it’s not hard to make it all the way out to the old settlement. Take a minute, with no visible reminders of the modern world around you, and imagine what life would have been like for the people who worked hard to survive out here, before the de-population of these small corners of the highlands left only ghosts and stories.
Raasay Distillery and Visitor Centre was established by two friends; Alistair Day and Bill Dobbie, who selected the island due to the purity of the land, air and water. The distillery is about a ten minute walk away from the ferry terminal and is perched on a small hill, allowing for panoramic views across the Raasay Sound and to the Cuillin peaks on Skye. Windows and glass dominate the aesthetic of the building: meaning that this incredible view is just as visible from the inside. The building itself is centred around Borodale House, a nineteenth century building which was lovingly renovated in 2017, and is a feat of innovative and striking architecture. As well as the distillery, the grounds contain luxury accommodation, a visitor centre and a bar: so one can explore, drink and sleep in the shadow of a working whisky distillery.
This holistic approach applies to the ethos of the distillery too: every drop of spirit is produced, matured, bottled and marketed from the right here on the island – with nothing being sent away to cities or bigger distilleries to be finished off. Many locals who would have had to travel off the island for work now find themselves with excellent employment opportunities right on their doorstep. Historically, the people of Raasay have always been the self-sufficient sort – usually working on crofts or out at sea (or single handedly building their own road from one end of Raasay to the other!) – and there is no lack of creative energy on this island. Creating their own whisky and tourist attraction has given the people of Raasay an opportunity to shine on a stage of their own making.
The wee Isle of Raasay has fascinating history of illegal alcohol distilling and consumption dating back to 18th century, when a combination of high taxes and choppy seas meant that even if deliveries were making it across to the island on boat, the alcohol itself was often too expensive for a predominantly working-class crofting community. A few of the islanders took it upon themselves to hide away illicit stills, filled with home-made ‘whisky’ which as well as sating the thirst of the island, would also be smuggled to markets and sold at high prices. In great neighbourly fashion, legend has it that the people living across the water in Sconser used to alert their distilling friends on Raasay to the arrival of the taxman – by hanging out their underwear as a signal.
Unfortunately, many distillery tours consist of a dull, slow walk past lots of huge, noisy machines – half listening to the science lesson and half dreaming of the dram that (hopefully) awaits you at the end of the tour. What these tours are missing is charm, genuine passion and a story. This is where Raasay comes into its own. The young man who showed us around was extraordinarly knowledgeable, confident and personable.
Born on Raasay, his entire family seem to also work at the distillery and there was a real sense of ownership and pride as he described the processes and the people who are part of the journey. The saying ‘it takes a village’ springs to mind. It would appear that everyone working in the distillery does a bit of everything: from bottling to marketing to mixing drinks and leading tours. The spirit within the bottles being exported off the island and on to shelves around the world contains input from a creative and entrepreneurial community: people who have hundreds of years of experience in the alcohol trade. It is fitting too that the flavour profile of the whisky is designed to emulate whiskies from long ago: a time when preferences were for decadent whiskies that tasted rich, smoky and sweet.