Island of the Month #2 Raasay

When you climb to the top of the highest point (at 443m) on Raasay, the curiously shaped Dùn Caan, you are met with spectacular views on all sides; Raasay sits between the imposing Isle of Skye Red Cuillin Mountains to the south, the Applecross peninsula to the east, and the distinctive Trotternish peninsula to the west.

At 12 miles long and no more than 3 miles wide, and with a population of around 170 people it is by no means the biggest Scottish Island. I spoke to Iain Hector Ross, one of Raasay Development Trust’s Directors and suggested to him that Raasay’s relationship with tourism seems far more comfortable than that of their Skye neighbours.

“I would agree with that – the vibe is totally different. The key thing is you can’t rattle through Raasay. The ferry journeys slow everything down nicely”, he explains before going on to joke that the ferry is like Raasay’s doorman!

Is Raasay similar to Skye?

“It’s a bit like what Skye was 50 years ago, and not in a bad way. It’s 50 years on and people know Raasay still offers that experience. It’s not at 100 miles an hour. You look across to Sconser and on a clear day you see the sun reflecting off all these windscreens as they come belting down the road heading for Portree; cars, vans, motorbikes and buses.”

A flyover look at Raasay’s history over the last few centuries could present you with a fairly bleak picture; the Raasay-born poet Sorley Maclean has the devastation of clearances as a thread running through his work. The story of Calum Macleod of Arnish is a tale of the deaf ears of government prompting one man in his sixties – armed only with a pick, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow – to build a road to his village. Through the decades of decline, multiple landowners mismanaging Raasay was always going to take it’s toll.

Which is why it struck me that within seconds of speaking to that the phrase ‘stewardship of assets’ came up. RDT exists because the community decided they needed a body that would work to manage community land and building assets for the benefit of the community.

The 3 R’s

RDT’s main day-to-day operational project is a wood fuel project, developed into an income generating community wood fuel business. As well as providing the solid fuel that so many homes still rely on, it provides training and chainsaw operator skills and PPE to its volunteers. Just beside the wood storage yard, is the site of a transformer which is part of a run of river hydro project being developed by Raasay Community Renewables (RCR) estimated to generate 520,000kWh of electricity each year.

“On the one hand we’ve got the wood fuel project which is all about burning stuff, and on the other we are developing a hydro scheme which is all about the aim for stopping the need for burning stuff!”

There are three key projects RDT are involved in which have the potential to be transformational for Raasay: housing, pontoons, and the hydro scheme.

Iain describes these three as “long term infrastructure for the younger ones to get their hands on”. The irony for the hydro scheme, despite it being 10 years in the making, is that there’s certainly nothing ‘long term’ about young people being involved: they contain what Iain brands “the 3 R’s” consisting of two Ross’s and Rosie. “There is young talent taking this forward which has been a great positive. All engineers, all young, all Raasay kids getting their hands on a pretty cool bit of infrastructure.”

Earlier this year RCR managed to crowdfund £650,000 in just over a month. This is testament to the efforts of everyone involved, and also to the level of support they have generated not only within the community but much further afield.

Delivery of benefit for the community is a driving force behind the scheme, in contrast to various industrial schemes of days gone by, the relics of which are scattered round the island. A 20th iron mine left some crumbling listed shed buildings and some (far more useful!) housing in the form of mining cottages. However: “The mine closed, the jobs went and that was that.”

The three R’s: Ross Gillies, Rosie MacLeod, and Ross Camilli of Raasay Community Renewables

Affordable Housing

When it comes to key challenges in our Island of the Month series, you’ll likely hear affordable housing repeatedly.

RDT have been working to address the housing shortage by using land available and grant funding to “address a real need for the younger folk on the island who have the jobs now, but who can’t get on the housing market.”  

“If young folk working on the island in the future are having to go off on the ferry at night because they didn’t get a home here then I wouldn’t call it a failure in the community, but how sustainable is that long term?”.

Construction on RDT’s housing project begins this autumn which will provide two three bedroom and three two-bedroom houses which will be available for let in 2022. When combined with work being done by Small Communities Housing Trust and Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association there is clearly good reason to be encouraged: “the housing problem won’t be gone, but there will be quality housing available at an affordable level without people having to pay holiday let rates for a basic house.

Plans for RDT’s affordable housing project

Pontoons

With marine tourism being a key area of growth for the Highlands & Islands, it’s a good time for RDT to be in the process of developing it’s marine tourism offering through a new pontoon facility which will “enhance greatly the opportunities for marine experiences, be it fishing, wildlife, training, visitor services for incoming yacht traffic and more.”

Iain emphasises that for each project, whether housing, hydro or pontoons, the key for RDT is getting support, funding, and the necessary project management to deliver them. While noting the benefits of having a wide range of expertise on the board of directors, he is quick to give credit to RDT’s Development Officer Elizabeth Macleod: “The key person is Elizabeth who has the knowledge and expertise to engage with the community and to progress projects through the different stages.”

What are the key challenges in Raasay?

Healthcare is a huge issue in Raasay and it took a long campaign to get Raasay permanent resident nurse provision, which has made a huge difference locally. The demographic challenge is demonstrated in that there are less than 10 children in the primary school, with a significant proportion of them due to move on to Portree High School. There are, however, reasons for optimism with the next census likely to reflect the fact that a few young people have returned to Raasay with more permanent job prospects, primarily at the distillery.

Infrastructure

But arguably it is transport infrastructure which can make or break both healthcare provision and demographic recovery. Iain explains that the new ferry pier being built in Clachan opened up this part of the island, and enabled Raasay to get the purpose-built diesel-electric hybrid ferry, the MV Hallaig. This in turn opened up new haulage possibilities which made the distillery construction possible which itself brought jobs. When there are potential permanent jobs for partners, it makes it easier to attract applications for healthcare positions.

“You can really trace things back to infrastructure changes, it highlights importance of having reliable infrastructure.”

Reliable infrastructure can be a difficult thing to maintain though; 9 months ago a key road which connects a community to the main village was blocked due to falling rocks from forestry land above. This puts residents at the mercy of a 9 mile diversion along the ‘high road’ across Raasay’s moorland. Iain explains that “the quality of that road is shocking” and that in winter it can be very dangerous if you don’t have a 4×4 vehicle. At the time of writing, the road has only now just opened.

It seems to be a running joke at RDT that their next project should be to build a road themselves as it wouldn’t be the first time!

It took Calum Macleod 10 years to build his road, and in those ten years seven families in Arnish were reduced to one: Calum and his wife. Employment and accommodation have always been crucial for Raasay; Calum once told an interviewer if people from Raasay who have had to move away from the island for work wanted to move back, they should be given the opportunity to build a house and work some land.

Raasay has exciting days ahead, and RDT’s work will doubtless mean more Ratharsich can return to the island with somewhere to live and work.

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