Inside Story

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An island at the centre of the world

3 March 2017

A Scottish island with links to Australia is a microcosm of the modern world

Right:

German POWs were here: the old iron mine and railway above Inverarish. David Hayes

German POWs were here: the old iron mine and railway above Inverarish. David Hayes


It’s the last crossing of the day, a routine twenty-minute trip for the ferry that shuttles between the jetty at Sconser on the Isle of Skye and the harbour at Churchton Bay. A handful of commuters fills the car hold. I squeeze past the vehicles and climb to the empty deck. The breeze on this midsummer evening finds the churn of the wave, delivering a light spray and then a soaking. I barely notice, for as the boat weaves right into Loch Sligachan, and then left, an awesome panorama of mountain, sky and water opens up.

On the port side are scattered houses at the foot of a steep ben – that would be the Skye township of Peinchorran. On the starboard, a bank of green forest rises from the shoreline, and above it a volcanic outcrop with a distinctive sloping ridge. That can only be Dun Cana, landmark of the island of Raasay. After a whole day’s travelling, the destination is in sight. Perhaps this moment, of anticipation on point of fulfilment, is always the sweetest.

London feels not 500 miles but light years away. To get to this corner of the Hebrides, the archipelago off Scotland’s west coast, has taken three trains and a bus – and a lot of waiting in between. Britain’s wonky transport links can help turn an overland jaunt into a mini-epic.

It’s also true that a long haul from urbania to arcadia can be central to the very experience that defines it in those terms. Indeed, Scotland’s “Highlands and Islands” has a good claim to be the paradigmatic region, its combination of distance from the metropolis and dramatic landscape a perfect recipe for the elixir of arrival.

Three trains and a bus: Raasay, east of Skye, in the Scottish Hebrides. Google Maps

As the railside gorges between Inverness and Kyle of Lochalsh become more vertiginous, the heather more purple, the Highland cattle more hairy and Scotland more emblematically Scottish, the outer world plays with the inner sense of reality. You are moving through time as well as space, retreating from the present with all its complexes to a world whose versions of reality and history are the more compelling because they are reduced to essence. The promise of a trip, or pilgrimage, to the Highlands is that it takes you at once back and beyond.


Raasay has a quietly growing place in these circuits of allure. The island might be compared to a cult band whose fans quietly hope that it never makes the breakthrough. Its neighbour Skye has the Cuillin mountains and precious accessibility, distant St Kilda the plaintive echo of the last inhabitants who left in 1930, tiny Iona an aura of sanctity as a site of pilgrimage and burial place of Scottish kings, Lewis the 5000-year-old Calanais stone circle (and, a source of less than welcome attention, Donald Trump’s mother).

Yet among the Hebrides’ fifty inhabited islands, Raasay has a cachet at once distinct and eclectic. That ferry ride puts it at a peaceable remove from the main routes. Its fourteen-mile spine of moorland and rock, with Dun Cana at the centre, straddles a fertile west and a precipitous east, supplying a variousness of ecology and outlook that combines with striking self-containment. Its regular population is a mere 160, around the same as Iona’s speck. (Skye and Lewis, giants of the “Inner” and “Outer” Hebrides, are almost thirty times larger, and home respectively to 10,000 and 20,000 people.)

The visitors who do make it over are a mixed bunch too: geologists, literary enthusiasts, family researchers, naturalists (in search of golden eagles and unique species of bat and adorable vole), industrial archaeologists, Gaelic language scholars, social historians, punk fans and bohemians, and those drawn to quirky heroism. Whisky connoisseurs are expected when Raasay’s first legal distillery opens this year, the latest in a flurry that includes a new community hall, ferry upgrade, reopened hotel, expanded local shop, and belated high-speed broadband.

There is plentiful material in Raasay to keep the potion flowing. Travellers do seem to be entranced by its maverick charms. They may even solicit the reaction Henry Reynolds notes in his history of Tasmania: when “visitors declare that they have fallen in love with the island, as they often do, the locals smile to themselves, quietly confirmed in their faith.”

Off the main routes: the ferry ride across the loch from Skye. David Hayes


In the Highlands, just as a local may well be an incomer in another stage of life or guise, so the traveller’s repertoire of delight may draw on notions that long pre-date the encounter. For what is also at work here is a network of thought and feeling with deep roots. It conspires to see this part of Scotland as radically different in symbolic as well as geographic terms: an elemental place of beauty, majesty, tragedy and authenticity, the very antidote to desiccated modern life elsewhere.

Ultimately a product of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its romanticist alter ego, underpinned by sharp asymmetries of power, interwoven with political and economic change in successive eras, reinforced by an endless flow of words and images of great semantic density, the region’s otherness is invested with singular imaginative power.

The pervasiveness of this network is enhanced by the many variations that embellish it – echoing the pibroch itself, the bagpipe music associated with the Highlands, it could be said, or perhaps the latter’s grand yet fissured terrain. Difference, once established, has endless rivulets for sense to enter, each one watering the core proposition.

Such variations include a rich body of literature, landscape art, cinema, photography, journalese and advertising: from Ossian and Outlander, Brigadoon and Balmorality, to the appropriately sublime I Know Where I’m Going! and subversive The Wicker Man. Annalena McAfee’s prodigious novel Hame, set on the Hebridean island of, er, Fascaray (“a bright hummock of green with a pyramidal peak in its centre”), entwines them all in its astute and witty palimpsest of modern Scotland.

The mystique of the Highlands has been bewitching well-disposed visitors for three centuries, since Britain’s last dynastic rebellion was crushed there in 1745–46, and has acquired along the way “a presumptive and self-validatory power.” But not just its visitors, for the “symbolic appropriation” of the Highland (and, more broadly, “Celtic”) worlds by Anglophone discourse has shaped the latter’s own self-definition, as it recycles and thus valorises the notions projected onto it. The asymmetrical embrace has created “an intellectual structure whose capacities for gathering and ordering reality, and for generating internal coherence, are convincingly total.”

This way of seeing I owe to the social anthropologist Malcolm Chapman, author of The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture, published in 1978, and to his own mentor in the discipline, Edwin Ardener (1927–87). While Chapman’s exquisite book traces the literary aspects of the process, Ardener’s ever up-to-date theoretical paper on “remote areas,” published in 1987, traces the “conceptual geography” of the Highlands, by way of related fieldwork in Cameroon, as “an area where canonical levels of remoteness can be found.”

Their enduring insights begin with alertness: about, for example, easeful reference to those Peinchorran houses as “nestling” into their surroundings (Chapman notes “the power that imagery has for rendering itself apt”); tendentious binaries (spiritual–rational, traditional–modern, community–society, domestic–public, Anglo/Saxon–Celt itself); tropes of melancholy or uplift (Gaelic can only ever be dying or reviving, unless – most spurious of all – it is a “language of resistance”); or indeed, the unremarkability of London’s “remoteness” from places like Raasay.

It is salutary, with the above description of Raasay in mind, to recall some of Ardener’s paradoxes of remote areas. They are, he writes, full of innovators, of ruins of the past (or “the remains of failed innovations”) and of strangers (“whatever their real numbers, there will always appear to be a lot of them”), in constant contact with the world, obsessed with communications, and “from the inside, feel open and unprotected.” He also makes the profound observation that “remoteness persists when it has lost its geographical correlates – that is, when the ‘remote’ area has been reached, and when it should now be merely present.”

The Highland blend is impervious to such detection. A vessel for multiple longings that might otherwise be at odds (British imperial and Scottish nationalist, for example), the effort to separate its elements, or pull it decisively in one direction, can only fail. It also encloses history. Social change has been the norm in the region for three centuries. Great engineering and transport projects have transformed its face, while newer technologies today make it part of the instant, endless global loop. Yet ever-ready formulae continue to fuel the enchantments of timeless authenticity.

For all that, the conceits beguile on the road to the isles, just as instincts can tug in a direction that the mind suspects. And, this being the Highlands, vice versa.


The alchemy starts to work on the single-track path up the island’s west coast. At Oskaig, birthplace of the poet whose monument I’ve come to Raasay to see, is a small Pictish stone incised with a chi-rho cross, tuning-fork symbol, and crescent/V-rod motif. It has been dated to 650–700 CE. That makes it one of the earlier Christian-inflected dynastic markers of the enigmatic Picts, whose carved monuments are the main archaeological evidence of Pictland before its absorption by the originally Irish Scoti in the ninth century. In addition, many place names here are of Norse origin, testifying to a lengthy Viking presence. Raasay’s Gaelic name, Ratharsair, is said to be one of them (denoting “roe deer island”), though the historian John Nicolson suggests a derivation from Irish (“sanctuary to the east”).

Picts were here: a rare stone still standing in Scotland’s west. David Hayes

The Picts are most associated with east-northern Scotland. Their language was possibly an early form of Brythonic, the branch of the insular Celtic family that includes Welsh; the other, Goidelic, has Gaelic as its principal tongue. Of around 350 such stones discovered, only a handful are in the west. These may be the work of Pictish sculptors under the patronage of the Irish missionary Maelrubha, who founded a monastery at Applecross, the peninsula facing Raasay from the east, in 673. Raasay’s rare stone may tell another story that combines power with religious and cultural accommodation.

After Oskaig comes Holoman Bay, with its tidal island, and a lone cottage in the lush hollow of Balachuirn. To the west, Skye’s coastline and the Cuillin above are luminous. Then upwards – and a millennium on – to Glam, which played a supportive role in the 1745–46 drama when the fugitive Jacobite claimant to the throne, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, was hidden for two nights from his Hanoverian pursuers. That was in the wake of his calamitous defeat at Culloden, near Inverness, in April 1746. Brutal persecution was visited on his Highland followers in the aftermath. Government troops pillaged Raasay and burned the three-storey fortress of its MacLeod chief, who had “come out” for the prince.

The topography here becomes notably coarser and more layered. The ground beneath has turned back millions of years, from the striplings of Torridon sandstone and Mesozoic basins towards the Lewisian gneiss of Raasay’s north, among the earth’s oldest rock types. Glam itself stands at the centre of a unique loam, an indication that part of the island escaped glaciation. With its concentration of geological strata, this is a theme park of deep time.

At the top of an incline, by some Archaean whim, the centre of gravity lurches eastwards, as the vast expanse of the Sound of Raasay exposes the island’s thin neck. Ahead is Arnish and the finger of land pointing to Raasay’s northern tip, its neighbour Rona beyond. The road too turns sharply, bringing into view the west coast of mainland Scotland, eight miles across the Inner Sound. On a volcanic plug below is the jagged ruin of Brochel castle, built around 1400. This was the MacLeods’ earlier redoubt, where these mobile buccaneers reinvented themselves as cultivated lairds while keeping Scottish kings and clan rivals at bay for three centuries.


A looping descent leads through a plantation to a steep green slope in the lee of the towering, serrated cliffs of Creag na Bruaich. Just visible across the waters of the Inner Sound are the white sands of Applecross on Scotland’s west coast. The area is dotted with the roofless stone foundations of former cottages and outbuildings. This is Screapadal, one of fourteen Raasay townships whose population was evicted in 1853. Its two settlements, north and south, had 101 people in 1841 and sixty-one in 1851, but after that the census records go quiet. These events, which took place in the later stages of a decade-long, region-wide famine, were the starkest local example of the “clearances” that scarred the Highlands from around 1790 to 1860 and were at their most deliberate in the later decades.

Today, under a scorching high sun, Screapadal is a place of beauty and stillness. These make it hard enough to leave, but there’s also a powerful if inchoate sense here that makes me want to linger: not just of history’s wounds but of its complexities.

For one thing, there is the question of what actually happened here and in places like this, in its granular detail and texture, which can’t be read merely from what remains and its assumed symbolism. For another, there is the way that Raasay’s experience collided with others’ in the post-1746 era, as people from there became part of a worldwide “settler revolution” that promoted thousands of Scottish Highlanders “from history’s victims to riders of the whirlwind.”

Colliding experiences: Screapadal’s Creag na Bruaich. David Hayes

Screapadal may be seen in European or global terms as a “landscape of clearance,” even as a deserving locus of “dark tourism.” But Flinders University’s Eric Richards, author of the best single work on the clearances, makes the general point that “the evidence of the stones is often obscure,” while John Nicolson’s The People Must Go notes how fluid local movement could be: in 1841, Screapadal’s eleven families were native to Raasay, by 1851 they had long emigrated, to be replaced by thirteen new families, eleven from the mainland.

The term “Highland clearances” implies a linear process at a uniform pitch of coercive intensity, a connotation amplified by routine political, media and touristic narratives. Rather, the clearances fluctuated over time and area according to several factors: a new commercial economy and its boom-and-bust cycles, dissolving social bonds, unpredictable disciplines of local power-brokers, and varying elements of compulsion and agency. In the latter case, meagre land that couldn’t sustain a growing population played a role, as did Scotland’s more productive Lowlands as the biggest outlet for Highland migration (and a region whose own clearances are less recognised and not at all sentimentalised).

The larger context was the integration of the region into a Britain wedded to domestic “improvement” and imperial expansion. Across a newly stabilised country, the horizons of possibility were changing irrevocably, including for many living in severe hardship.

That was already so in the bleak era of repression after Culloden. By the seven-year war with France, which began in 1756, Highlanders – by no means all of whom had been rebels – were serving in Canada as footsoldiers of empire, a motif of the decades that followed. And soon as empire’s governors and generals, too, among them Lachlan Macquarie, governor of New South Wales 1810–21, whose island of Mull was to undergo often savage clearances in the mid nineteenth century.

The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, ending also a period of labour scarcity, proved a turning point. Commodity prices plunged, ties of mutuality further weakened, landlords’ desire to keep their tenants waned, and covetous sheep farming spread. Many people were uprooted, their crofts frequently burned. Some were pushed towards emigrant ships, others towards harder ground in the vicinity. In Raasay’s case, this could mean north to barren Rona.

Raasay’s MacLeod chief, descendant of the one who lavishly hosted Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in 1773, spectacularly went bankrupt in 1843, five years after members of his family had begun to decamp for Adelaide. They settled on a property in McLaren Vale they named “Rona,” before moving to Nalang, near Bordertown.

After the MacLeods’ departure, creditors sold the island to one George Rainy, son of a minister in northeast Scotland, who had made his money in Guyana from the slavery-and-sugar trade. (David Alston’s pioneering research into Highlanders’ links with slavery, and the work of other scholars in Scotland and London, are valuable sources here.) Rainy’s callous oversight in Raasay included denying crofters the right to marry and erecting a dry-stone wall across the island’s slender northeast to prevent them and their animals from returning to the south’s more fertile ground.

Such rigours increased the appeal of emigration, which in the case of Australia enmeshed the experiences of Highlanders and Aborigines in unimagined ways. Among them were dispossession and murder, resistance from the invaded, and the spread of racial contempt. Eric Richards says that “the Highlanders were escaping, in part, from the effects of sheepfarming in the north of Scotland; yet they often found themselves pushing sheep grazing deeper and deeper into the Australian outback,” putting “renewed pressure on Aborigines and evicting them in their turn from their ancestral lands.”

This past, in both its overall and localised forms, seems ever on the tail of the present: from Don Watson’s classic Caledonia Australis, published in 1984, to debate on the contested legacy in Gippsland of the Skyeman, Angus McMillan, involving Peter Gardner, Cal Flyn’s bold Thicker than Water and Peter Crowley’s thoughtful review of that book in Inside Story.

That Scots colonists, including many Highlanders, “have almost invariably displaced indigenous populations,” as Richards writes, tends to be less at the forefront of discussion in Scotland, where – despite historians’ findings – emigrants in the century of clearances are still predominantly seen as lacking agency. In part thanks to the pro-independence party’s long hegemony, nationalist narratives that project a sense of permanent resentment and underdog status also have greater currency in public life. If their political drive is to break from London, the intellectual one is to offload responsibility for the British empire and all its works onto the England-dominated United Kingdom. In both respects, the Highlands and Islands will continue to be pivotal.

There is not much “heritage construction” on Raasay. But examples lie a few miles north and south of Screapadal, memorialising two figures who have come to define the island to the world – the lead players in a cult band collaborating now, as they never did in life. For Calum MacLeod (1911­–88) and Sorley MacLean (1911–96), born three weeks apart, were political and personal strangers.

MacLeod, born to Raasay emigrants in Glasgow who soon moved back to Arnish, worked as a crofter, self-taught builder, postman and assistant lighthouse keeper on Rona, while forever digging with his pen. He won late renown for a feat of constructive defiance when, over a decade from 1965, he built a one-and-three-quarter-mile road to give access to his house and land.

Raasay northerners had long petitioned for the public highway that reached Brochel to be extended to Arnish, which was accessible only by a footpath or by trusting to a boat over to Skye. The indifference of the Inverness-based council to the area’s depopulation sparked MacLeod’s scheme of amazing fortitude, its guide a road-making manual published in 1900 by the Scottish engineer Thomas Aitken.

For a decade, MacLeod squeezed this commitment into many others that included prolific correspondence with Raasay exiles, Highland genealogists and enthusiasts, and the letters pages of newspapers (where scorning Harold Wilson’s Labour government was a favourite topic). He also wrote many articles for Gairm, the Gaelic literary magazine founded by the influential Lewis poet and professor, Derick Thomson.

At the start, MacLeod’s pestering had secured some tools from the council and a guarantee of blasting work from army engineers. But the daily grind with pickaxe, shovel, hammer and wheelbarrow against an unforgiving landscape in all weathers was entirely his. So was the moment when he broke through Rainy’s wall. By 1976, light vehicles were able to use the road. A few alert journalists, notably Derek Cooper, had started taking an interest in the epic, and their work – such as Cooper’s BBC documentary of 1973, The Island That Nearly Made It – opened it to a wider public. “Calum’s road” has recently taken cultural wing, MacLeod’s north Raasay patriotism refitted for a new zeitgeist as an inspirational citizen-versus-the-machine tale.


Adding at least equal lustre to Raasay’s brand is the poet Sorley MacLean, whose family of Gaelic “tradition-bearers” with far-flung ties also nurtured his vast knowledge of the region’s genealogies, though in his case it merged with passionate social radicalism. Born in Oskaig, a schoolteacher until retirement to Peinchorran in 1972, he is most closely associated with Hallaig, a cliff-face settlement down the east coast from Screapadal whose inhabitants were similarly cleared in the 1850s.

Raasay’s east coast, towards Hallaig. David Hayes

After he studied English literature in Edinburgh, switching from Celtic with job prospects in mind, the desperate 1930s saw Maclean near consumed by a swirl of currents: inheritance, politics, romantic turmoil, love of the vigour of eighteenth-century Gaelic poetry, disgust with nineteenth-century “Celtic twilight” sentimentality, agonised reflection on the condition of Gaeldom, Spain’s civil war, and hatred of fascism, British imperialism and the fundamentalist Presbyterianism long dominant on Raasay. A new decade saw him fighting Rommel among English comrades in north Africa. From the fusion he carved something new out of Scotland’s oldest living language, then widely seen as at best the realm of the rustic and maudlin: modern symbolist poetry that looked the world in the eye.

The work’s resonance is intensified by MacLean’s mesmeric reading both in Gaelic and his own English translation. “Hallaig,” a lyric of elusive redemption filled with a haunting sense that its subjects are ever just out of reach while insisting that the depth of the poet’s love will unravel time, has become totemic. A cairn at the former township is inscribed with its lines in both languages, while the MV Hallaig ferry working the Skye–Raasay route was launched in 2013. The word’s symbolic load continues to grow beyond place, poem and history itself, as the desire to honour and universalise the experience of many nineteenth-century Gaels takes new forms.

MacLean too had several distinct moments of discovery from the 1970s: via left-nationalist magazines, a selected works, further translations, two documentary portraits, honorary degrees, the Queen’s gold medal for poetry, and younger artists’ and musicians’ promotion. Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock’s brilliant centenary ingathering of the collected poetry, with Whyte’s forensic introduction – tracking, for example, how praise of Stalin was cut or replaced in later versions – is a boon. But elsewhere, the fierce modernist is also, admittedly partly with his own complicity, safely rewrapped for the zeitgeist in a certain Celticist mystique: bard of romantic lament, lovably guileless, emblem and tribune of the ever-vanishing Gael.


After a long interlude on Screapadal, options narrow. I have only one full day on Raasay, and it is already mid afternoon. The coastal path to Hallaig proves impassable. At the entrance to Calum’s road, also marked with a cairn, an occasional vehicle rumbles past in either direction. It’s tempting to walk north. But would that leave time to climb Dun Cana and approach Hallaig from there?

Just then a car pauses on its way south from Arnish, and a friendly Australian voice offers a lift. The blinding sun means I can’t even see the person behind it. There really is no choice.

The travellers – dad, young adult son and daughter, and son’s partner – are from Queensland. One of their relatives is Angus MacKay, the Raasay man appointed household piper to Queen Victoria in 1843 in the dawn of her Highland seduction. They are due that evening to reconvene with Raasay’s formidable encyclopaedist and keeper of its flame, Rebecca MacKay, to fill gaps in the family tree. Jolted from my reverie, I love the air of amused trepidation with which they approach the task.

The hostel where most Raasay visitors stay is the ride’s natural end point. I propose a round of drinks by way of thanks. Overlooking idyllic Churchton Bay, we talk about Raasay, Scotland, Europe and Australia. Their egalitarian geniality is therapeutic. And when son leans over the long table and asks, “Dad, am I fifth or sixth generation Scottish?” it is unaccountably moving.

Rupert and Gina are mentioned. It’s but a hop to online media. “I get one of those in my inbox,” says dad. “It’s called Inside Story.” Baking heat, cold beer, Raasay’s sensual overload, and now this. It’s all too much. The Highlands are after all playing with my sense of reality. Could the tourist brochures be right, and Malcolm Chapman wrong? But how is that even possible?


It is time for my new friends to leave. I head eastwards through Inverarish, Raasay’s main residential area, whose neat little houses originated in huts built for German prisoners-of-war used in the island’s iron industry from 1916 to 1919. The deployment of POWs – a violation of the Hague convention – was kept secret, though it became a political scandal when tensions between workers imported from Glasgow and Raasay men over unequal payments provoked the latter to strike, exposing the matter in parliament and eliciting bluster from the responsible minister, Winston Churchill.

The hefty remains of the mine, firing kilns, crusher and single-gauge railway are prominent above the town. The raw ore was brought downhill to a new pier at Suisnish, and thence to Glasgow to produce munitions. Of the 280 Germans held there, fourteen died in captivity, two during the war (one in a mining-related accident) and twelve in the postwar influenza epidemic. Their legacy in Raasay includes an exemplary site of industrial archaeology, a monument to the two men, and long-lasting folk memories of fraternisation. In a lovely article on the episode, the Lewis journalist Torcuil Crichton mentions too a “contemporaneous account by a rather stunned Australian serviceman, on leave in the land of his forefathers, coming across German uniforms he had last encountered on the Western Front.”

The Great War stands out as a watershed in Raasay, as elsewhere in the Highlands. Just like a century before, social change accelerated. Of the thirty-six Raasay men who enlisted, only fourteen survived. Some faced eviction on their return. In 1921, five crofters reacquainted with the privations of Rona occupied land at Fearns, in the southeast. They were jailed, but after a popular outcry, the “Rona raiders” won the right to settle.

The affair pushed the government into taking direct ownership of the island. Then, after the second world war, state-led regional development took hold. Forestry Commission projects in 1947 and the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board in 1956 provided employment and access to the national grid. From 1966 to 1979, another notorious proprietor froze any progress. Today, its problems are characteristic of the modern Hebrides, which is also to say the contemporary world: demography, land ownership and use, energy, transport, forestry management, climate change, housing shortages amid holiday homes, health services, and indifference or misgovernance from afar – in this case, Inverness and Edinburgh at least as much as London.

None of that will stop people coming to Raasay. A trickle of the ultra-dedicated is even reputed to hike beyond Arnish to deserted Umachan, towards Rona, on account of its connection to Joe Strummer of The Clash. The musician’s grandmother was raised there, the descendant of a stonemason who had arrived in the 1760s to rebuild Raasay House.

In a related key, Eyre in Raasay’s southeast was home to the composer Harrison Birtwistle from 1975 to 1983. His experience of the island left an “indelible imprint” on his string-quartet piece The Tree of Strings, its title from a Sorley poem, and Duets for Storab, which evokes a Viking-era legend. The matchmaker had been Birtwistle’s friend, the sonic visionary and former geologist Peter Zinovieff, who had sold Birtwistle a house at Eyre and then revisited often with family in tow.

Peter’s daughter, the inimitable writer Sofka Zinovieff, fondly recalls those holidays. An Incredible String Band-ish image of a picnic is a fascinating social document of the 1970s in Raasay, vivified in her gleam. (“My father is playing a keyboard attached to a synthesiser. The child of Russian émigrés, he felt quite comfortable dressing up in a kilt – we were just off to celebrate some friends’ wedding – hence the demijohn of Italian wine and the huge loaf of homemade bread in a basket.”)


It is a soft evening. Over the strait from Suisnish a perfect cone looms – that would be Glamaig. On a curve towards Inverarish is Raasay’s own war memorial, a granite obelisk erected in 1920 that lists twenty-eight dead in the two world wars. All but six are from the first. Beside each name and regiment is a very rare feature: the individual’s precise home area. It works as a reminder of Raasay’s status as a mini-archipelago, for two each who lost their lives in the 1914–18 conflict came from the northern tidal islands of Eilean Tigh and Kyle Rona, and two more from Rona.

Remembered in granite: the war memorial at Inverarish. David Hayes

The memorial further underlines Raasay’s mix of local attachments and global connections. Two of the fallen were attached to Canadian regiments, and another is Alexander Graham of Rona, who belonged to the First Australian Imperial Force’s 10th Battalion. “Sandy’s” family, it appears, left Rona for Glasgow in the early 1900s, and he then moved on alone to Exeter, in northwest Adelaide, where he joined the police. He embarked from Port Adelaide in June 1915 and died in Egypt three months later, from dysentery, at the age of twenty-seven.

Across three centuries and continents, Raasay’s circuits of modernity encompass rebellion, wars, eviction and emigration, land hunger and conquest, colonial slavery, agricultural and commercial upheavals, religious and linguistic mutations, human journeys and the search for new forms of community. If writing a history of Tasmania “inescapably means writing about nation and empire” as well as of its “sense of islandness,” that is equally true of Raasay.

By contrast, I have barely scraped a crevice. No matter. After Raasay, the world looks bigger than it did. Of the three things I had in mind to do – visiting Sorley’s Hallaig, climbing Dun Cana, walking Calum’s road – I didn’t manage one. After Raasay, I know where I’m going. I’m going back. •

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Poise regained: British prime minister David Cameron and Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari at Thursday’s anti-corruption summit in London. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/Pool

Poise regained: British prime minister David Cameron and Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari at Thursday’s anti-corruption summit in London. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/Pool