Raasay, and Calum's Road

December 19, 2018
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Raasay, east of the Isle of Skye

AFTER visiting the Orkneys and the Shetlands (which I’ll be posting about later), I went comparatively far southwest, to the island of Raasay, which exists in a gulf between the famous Isle of Skye, and the Scottish mainland. I went to Raasay because I was looking for somewhere quiet to write up my travel notes, and I stayed at a great place, for a quiet retreat, called Raasay House. There were a couple of Kiwis who worked at Raasay House, and they showed me some of the attractions of the island.

One of the most famous places on Raasay is Brochel Castle, which once stood much taller than it does today. The great column of rock on which it was built collapsed after it was sketched in 1818 by the artist William Daniell, who we can thank for the sole record of what it once looked like. Amazingly, one of Daniell’s pencils, in an ornamental Indian pencil-holder, was found quite recently next to the castle, which no-one is allowed to approach for fear that the rest of it might come crashing down at any moment.

Sketch of Brochel Castle ('Castle Broichin') in aquatint, by William Daniell (1818). Public domain reproduction of an artwork via Wikimedia Commons.

Like many Scottish islands that are still inhabited, Raasay now only has a fraction of its former population. It’s down to a few hundred from a thousand or so, just like Shapinsay in the Orkneys.

There’s a road on the island called Calum’s Road, named after one of the locals, Calum MacLeod BEM, who despaired of getting a proper road up to the northern village of Arnish, and taught himself the science of road-building to overcome the problem of a shortage of contractors.

With various assistants, Calum MacLeod built the road over a ten-year period from 1964 to 1974. The government chipped in £1,900 for preliminary blasting and shaping of the ground, but otherwise Calum was on his own. He had earlier built a track along the same route with his brother Charles at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s, but a road was an entirely more serious undertaking.

The start of Calum's Road. Photo by John Allan (2008), Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Ironically, the village of Arnish still came to be abandoned thereafter, though the few tourists who come to Raasay find the road convenient, as do local farmers I presume. People from the big city are constantly talking about making a movie about Calum’s labours — Calum’s road is the subject of a play and a song, already — but the movie hasn’t happened yet.

Raasay also has a standing stone, though it isn’t as huge as the Neolithic standing stones elsewhere. It’s a Pictish stone, ornately carved, and can be seen at the southern end of the island close to Raasay House.

This post is from a chapter in my new book A Maverick Inuit Way and the Vikings, published in November 2018.

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