A Description of Raasay from 1819

William Daniells "Raasay Looking Westward" showing what Raasay House and the Old Pier would have looked like in the 1800s
William Daniells “Raasay Looking Westward” showing what Raasay House and the Old Pier would have looked like in the 1800s

 

“Near the house at Raasay, is a chapel unroofed and ruinous, which has long been used only as a place of burial. About the churches in the islands, are small squares enclosed with stone, which belong to particular families, as repositories of the dead. At Raasay, there is one for the proprietor, and one for some collateral house. It is not only in Raasay that the chapel is unroofed and useless; through the few islands which we visited, we neither saw nor heard of any house of prayer, except in Skye, that was not in ruins.”

This is an excerpt from The European Magazine, a publication printed in London from 1782 until 1826. In this January 1819 edition, Thomas Stringer writes about his journey to Skye and Raasay, in his ongoing accounts ‘From Jedburgh to the Hebrides and return to Carlisle: With Scottish Customs, Characters and Manners‘.

Here are some interesting observations on Raasay, lifted from the article (and I have corrected some of the historical spellings and placenames for ease of reading):

“The Third of forth day after our arrival at Armadale, brought us an invitation to the Isle of Raasay, which lies east of Skye. To gain a commodious passage to Raasay, it was necessary to pass over a large part of Skye. We were furnished, therefore, with horses and a guide. In the islands there are no roads, nor any marks by which a stranger may find his way.”

When Stringer arrived on Raasay, it would have been owned by the MacLeods of Raasay, who had the island since it had been bestowed to them by the MacLeods of Lewis in the 16th century. By this time, they were based in the house in Clachan now known as Raasay House (the historical Macleod seat being Brochel Castle in the north). Arriving by boat, he mentions the same problems in landing on Raasay that Dr Johnson had complained about in 1773:

“We saw the laird’s house, a neat modern fabric. We had, as at all other places, some difficulty in landing. The crags
were irregularly broken, and a false step would have been very mischievous. Our reception exceeded our expectation. We found nothing but civility, genteel hospitality and plenty in the house of Macleod.”

He goes on to mention that Raasay “has wild fowl in abundance, but neither deer, hares, nor rabbits” which may indicate that some of these animals weren’t yet present of the island (it was said to be the estate that somewhat thoughtlessly introduced rabbits in the 1800s)

He also mentions what is probably the prehistoric souterrain (or ‘Oars Cave’) located near the telephone exchange, and the interesting belief held by the islanders:

“On one side of [the island] they show caves, into which the rude (primitive) nations of the first ages retreated from the weather. These dreary vaults might have had other uses. Stone heads of arrows are very frequently picked up. The people call them “elf bolts”, and believe that the fairies shoot them at the cattle.”

Finally, before leaving to continue his travels, Stringer makes mention of the islands population. Although he says it “has never been counted by its ruler”, he estimates it to be “near to a thousand”, very large number by today’s standards but in keeping with our population records of the time.

You can read the full text here. There’s also a fascinating description of the colony on Prince Edward Island, a place that many from Raasay and the islands had and would be emigrating to in the future, especially with the onset of Highland clearances in the years to come.