And now daylight savings time has ended and the world is dark by 4pm, and I have pulled out the gloves, hats, and can’t leave my flat without two pairs of socks. November has set in. It has been awhile since I have posted, but as the winter comes i can’t help but think of our lovely summer vacation. There were beaches, but instead of bathing costumes, we wore raincoats, jumpers and wellies. We traveled to the farthest, most remote place I have ever been – the Isle of Raasay. My son’s best friend since moving to Cambridge three years ago is the daughter of some of our favorite neighbors. Those neighbors happen to have a family home on this romantic and far-flung island, with scanty cell service, variable weather, loads of sheep, challenging trails and breath-taking scenery. We were delighted and grateful to be invited along for their yearly Scottish adventure.
Nestled along the eastern coast of the Isle of Skye, Raasay is part of the Inner Hebrides, an archipelago off the western Scottish Coast consisting of 79 islands, 35 of which are inhabited. The rugged landscape is alluring and somewhat terrifying as it is very remote yet completely breathtaking. One former researcher to this far-flung corner of Scotland remarked that these island landscapes proved theories of deep history when the sea shores were much higher than they are today. Indeed, this is part of the world where you feel magically small as a human being. Crafted from eons of geologic curiosities and “mountain building” events including the volcanic activity that coincided with the splitting of Europe from North America, the landscape of Raasay is reason enough to make the journey.
The Hebrides get a shout-out from Pliny the Elder in 79CE and were likely inhabited for a millennia before then. Recent archaeological research on Raasay revealed early Mesolithic stone tools in Clachan Harbour, placing human habitation in this remote corner of the world 11,000 years ago, which is pretty amazing. In this ethereal, other-worldly island you get the impression that the people who have chosen to settle here are a unique breed, gritty, simultaneously committed to building a community but embrace the solitude of living on the edges of the civilization grid.
Raasay is roughly the size of Manhattan at roughly 60 square kilometers. However, unlike Manhattan which is home to 1.6 million residents, only 161 people live full-time on the island. Not completely secluded, Raasay has a shop, a pier with a connecting ferry to Skye, intermittent 3 and 4g service (obviously better the closer you are to the pier), a hotel and the new Isle of Raasay Distillery. We enjoyed an afternoon whiskey tasting, and although I have never been much of a whiskey gal perhaps Raasay has changed my mind.
However, most of the residents and visitors are drawn to its beautiful landscapes, views of Skye and isolation from centre-of-the-universe places like Manhattan. When we lived in the Lower East Side, I took a course on Mesoamerican archaeology. In our lecture on Tenochtitlan, a busy, overcrowded city, not unlike Manhattan, the professor said “you may ask yourself, why would anyone want to live in such a shithole? Well, I will tell you why, because it’s the center of the universe!” Well, for those who seek to live in places that are far from the center of the universe (not that New York or Tenochtitlan were actual shitholes, New York is an amazing place to live and I am sure Tenochtitlan in its heyday was as well) Raasay is the exact opposite.
However, for over a millennia Raasay has attracted those who want to live at the edges of civilization. From the Gaelic Kingdom of western Scotland, to Vikings, to later the Kingdom of Scotland, the story of Raasay in the worlds history remains at the edge of the universe. Needless to say, I did not expect it to be so remote and far off, but in the end I was grateful for the experience.
How does one get to the edges of the universe? We took a train to Edinburgh and then hired a car and drove across northern Scotland to the Isle of Skye. In Sconser, we boarded a ferry and disembarked on Raasay. Our journey took place on a sunny August afternoon, and the drive was a prelude to the beautiful landscape and majestic mountains that awaited us at our destination. However, the sunshine does not always hold. The climate is variable with clouds rolling in and out along the breezy sea air with intermittent showers. Even in August, the temperature does not rise much above 16/60 degrees (C to F), so coats and layers were necessary. Needless to say, beach days did not involve a splash in the water; rather enjoying the view, collecting interesting rocks, picnicking and skipping stones. It was completely lovely.
We even came upon one beach with rocks home to sea mussels and foraged for dinner. The view from our cottage allowed us to gaze upon a small valley and the sea, catching views of different birds and sheep. Crofting is a main feature of the island with loads of sheep roaming around. I managed to squeeze in a few runs, up and down the hilly terrain, through wind and rain, confusing the sheep. Although my pace was much slower than normal, those runs were some of the best of my life, completely exhilarating soaking in the amazing views.
During my stay, our generous friends and hosts shared with me an amazing book documenting the construction of a road to the northern extent of the island. Calum’ s Road was constructed by Calum MacLeod – a man frustrated by the Inverness council’s refusal to build a road connecting the northern settlements of Raasay to the southern edge of the island. So, he built a road himself. By hand. In the 1970s when he was, well older than I am now. I had my partner drive us along that bit of road that hugs along steep cliff sides as the landscape becomes more rugged and less welcoming to cars. It is a testament perhaps to stubbornness or tenacity or ingenuity, but it’s amazing to think that Calum’s Road – which seems like any other road on Raasay only skirting more difficult terrain – was single-handedly built by one man.
All in all our stay was pretty low-key and relaxing. There were beaches, glorious hikes, home-cooked meals, and we had the pleasure of visiting one of the island’s residents for a proper afternoon tea complete with the best Victoria sponge cake I have ever tried. I would definitely return, and attempt to fight off my fear of heights and try some of the more challenging walks Raasay has to offer. I highly recommend spending some time at the edge of civilization every now and then – if you can – it’s a wonderful way to reset and remember that we are mere specks in the grand history of the planet and the universe.