Like any island, the Isle of Raasay’s story is deeply interwoven with the sea.
Down through the centuries boats have by necessity played a key role in sustaining island life and servicing a fragile economy. Indeed, were it not for a very big boat called the MV Hallaig the Isle of Raasay Distillery probably wouldn’t exist.
Built in 2010 the innovative hybrid diesel and electric battery-powered ferry’s capacity made it possible to ship the bulky building blocks of our distillery across on large HGV trucks. Named after the acclaimed poem penned by Raasay’s celebrated poet Sorley Maclean, the MV Hallaig carried everything from complex brewing and distilling plants, to stainless steel washbacks and finally the copper stills which travelled all the way from Tuscany to their new island home.
Ten years on and the island has adopted the MV Hallaig as ‘our’ boat. We are now used to the regular comings and goings of distillery supply wagons rolling on and off with bulk malt deliveries or trailer-loads of chinkapin oak or ex-red wine casks. It’s hard to believe that until as recently as 1974, there was no scheduled Isle of Raasay ferry and no suitable ferry landing facilities.
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Prior to the arrival of regular Isle of Raasay ferry service in the 1970s, boat-less islanders could cross to Skye aboard a private passenger service operated by Alasdair Nicholson. His 30-foot motor launch, the ‘Dignity’ was licensed to carry 12 passengers and was the lifeline service for many years for islanders leaving and summer visitors getting to Raasay. The Dignity crossed the two-and-a-half-mile route between the rocks at Clachan and the slipway at Sconser Lodge on Skye. In wet and windy conditions passengers could huddle for comfort in the small fore cabin but most of the accommodation aboard the Dignity was open deck.
Boarding and disembarking the Dignity was often anything but dignified. Her elegant lines were not designed for berthing alongside rough, seaweed-covered stone slipways which could be very hazardous underfoot. Also, at low tides the harbour was often too shallow for the Dignity to reach the slips and people of all ages and abilities had to simply drop over the side into the water. Together they would wade ashore, often carrying whatever goods, children and grandparents they had brought with them! During winter months the service was suspended altogether and the Dignity was laid up for maintenance, leaving the population to rely on visits by the passing Kyle – Portree mail steamer the M.V. Loch Arkaig.
Campaigning for a daily Isle of Raasay ferry service took years of community effort and agitation to counter absentee landlord legal wrangling, obstructions and planning objections. Island determination ensured that finally, in 1975, Raasay’s long-suffering population joined the network of island communities served by a lifeline daily ferry service.
Ferry landing facilities were created at the disused mine pier at East Susinish and Caledonian Macbrayne launched the new daily service. The MV Raasay took over the run in 1976. Based on a World War II landing craft design, Raasay was one of eight Clyde-built ‘Island-class’ ferries commissioned by Caledonian MacBrayne. The twin diesel powered 73-foot-long vessel featured a two-part folding bow ramp and open car deck with rear turntable and capacity for six vehicles. Onboard capacity was 27 passengers in the rear saloon below the wheelhouse and 140 in total.
These hardy wee ships were ideal for the West coast with shallow draught ideal for slipway landings and changing tide levels. In an unblemished 20 year-long shift ploughing across the sound of Raasay the ‘Raasay’ never missed a full day’s sailing, only leaving the island for her annual overhaul. Since leaving the run she has appeared on TV screens in a Peugeot car advert, the sailing series Distant Shores and even Balamory. She continues in service to this day on the Atlantic coast of Connemara running cargo from Cleggan to Inishbofin.
Getting here for your gin and whisky distillery tours is easier than you might think.
With regular ferry sailings from the Isle of Skye seven days a week, the Isle of Raasay is one of Scotland’s most accessible islands. Step aboard CalMac’s hybrid ferry in Sconser and enjoy a scenic 25 minute sailing over to Raasay looking across the Sound of Raasay and Cuillin mountains.
Back in 1773 the most celebrated Isle of Raasay ferry boat on the island was that belonging to Malcolm, Chief of the Raasay Macleods. It famously transported Dr Johnson and Samuel Boswell across from Broadford in a voyage colourfully documented by Boswell:
“We got into Rasay’s CARRIAGE, which was a good strong open boat made in Norway. The wind had now risen pretty high, and was against us; but we had four stout rowers, particularly a Macleod, a robust, black-haired fellow, half naked, and bear-headed, something between a wild Indian and an English tar. Dr Johnson sat high on the stern, like a magnificent Triton. Malcolm sung an Erse song, the chorus of which was ‘Hatyin foam foam eri’, with words of his own. The tune resembled ‘Owr the muir amang the heather’, the boatmen and Mr M’Queen chorused, and all went well. At length Malcolm himself took an oar, and rowed vigorously. We sailed along the coast of Scalpa, a rugged island, about four miles in length.”
“After we were out of the shelter of Scalpa, and in the sound between it and Rasay, which extended about a league, the wind made the sea very rough. I did not like it. JOHNSON. ‘This now is the Atlantick. If I should tell at a tea table in London, that I have crossed the Atlantick in an open boat, how they’d shudder, and what a fool they’d think me to expose myself to such danger.’
So rough was the crossing of getting to Raasay that in the turmoil their attendant Joseph lost his grip of Dr Johnson’s spurs which fell overboard and sank to the bottom of the sound where they lie still.
There’s always one way to reach the Isle of Raasay if there’s no convenient ferry – but you might need to take your swimming goggles! Last year wild swimmer James Armour swam from the Isle of Skye to Raasay as part of his training for ‘The Selkie’, in which he swam, cycled and ran the entire length of the Outer Hebrides in under 48 hours!
You might want to spend all your time on the Isle of Raasay relaxing with a dram or a G&T admiring the magical views, but if you can tear your eyes away, this small but mighty island has a lot to offer.