The Early History of Raasay House

The history of Raasay House is, in many ways, synonymous with the history of Raasay itself,  as so much of the life of its inhabitants and history of the house play into important events, accounts and depictions of the island itself. One of Raasay’s most distinctive and recognisable landmarks, this large Georgian mansion and grounds dominates the view as you arrive by ferry, landing at what was originally the estate’s private pier and guarded by a battery once ringed with cannons. First constructed over 300 years ago, the house and those who owned it have continued to influence the lifestyle, economy and perception of the island ever since. Despite extensive renovations and the loss of much of the interior due to a devastating fire, the house retains many of its historical features and remains one of the most impressive buildings on the West Coast of Scotland. 

Second Seat of the MacLeods

Despite the grandeur and a seemingly perfectly suited location, Clachan was not the traditional seat of the MacLeods of Raasay, who were bestowed the island in the 14th century by Calum MacLeod, the 9th Chief of Lewis. It was, in fact, Brochel Castle that was built by the first Macleod chief of Raasay, Calum Garbh (later Calum MacGilleChaluim), to be the primary seat of the MacLeods.

A reconstruction of Brochel Castle by David L. Roberts.
A artists impression of Brochel Castle by David L. Roberts.

Furthermore, not one but two residences have been situated in Clachan: the modern house we know today, and the original residence, described as a small tower that stood in what is now the walled garden. Dean Munro first mentions both Brochel and this original Clachan tower in 1559, referring to the latter as ‘the Castell of Kilmaluok’, or Kilmaluag, probably named for its vicinity to St Moluag’s chapel. Martin Martin, visiting in 1705, also mentions the original Clachan residence (by this time the permanent MacLeod seat) as being ‘adorned with a little tower’ and containing an orchard or garden. This ‘Castle Kilmaluag’ probably started life as a subsidiary residence to Brochel, much in the same manner as Caisteal Camus did for the MacDonalds in nearby Sleat. As the years went on, however, Brochel became increasingly unfit and outdated as a residence. It was the drowning of Raasay’s revered chief Iain Garbh in 1671 (legend maintains his boat was capsized due to an attack of shapeshifting cats, though other sources state it was due in part to drunkenness) that finally sealed the fate of Brochel, and caused the Macleods to abandon it in favour of what would eventually become the Clachan residence that we today know as Raasay House.

A Turbulent Beginning

Raasay House in its current form was built in the early 1700s. It started out as a small, rustic, laird’s house with an entrance, as was then common, on the non-seaward side. The older tower house that Martin mentions was taken down soon after 1746 and was used in the brickwork of this new house. However, the new house itself had to be reconstructed only a year or so later, when redcoats plundered the island in search of Malcolm, the elusive 10th chief who supported the Jacobite cause and sheltered Bonnie Prince Charlie. Malcolm had already conveyed the estate to his eldest son before leaving for war, but on his return went into hiding on Rona to escape government troops. Failing to find him, the government soldiers raided both islands in harsh retribution. It was estimated that over three hundred houses were burned, the growing crops destroyed, upwards of two hundred and eighty cows and seven hundred sheep killed and several horses “shot for pleasure”. In addition, thirty-two boats were destroyed. The house was rebuilt from the remaining burnt shell, and in about 1761 Malcolm’s son John remodelled the house with a new south-facing five-bay front that is more recognisable as the house of today. The core of this earlier building still remains to this day and is still evident in the rear courtyard and older plans of the house. It was in this ‘neat modern fabrick’ – not ‘magnificently furnished’, but with 11 ‘fine’ rooms and ‘silver utensils’ – that Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell enjoyed such vivacious hospitality in 1773, as guests of John Macleod. According to the writing of both men, the island, house and hospitality of the Raasay MacLeods was a particular highlight on their Hebridean tour. 

William Daniells "Raasay Looking Westward" showing what Raasay House and the Old Pier would have looked like in the 1800s
William Daniell’s ‘Raasay Looking Westward’ showing what Raasay House would have looked like in the 1800s. Note the central building, still present in Raasay House today, but with a non-seaward facing entrance, as was common of the time.

Boswell describes much of the House and its grounds in his visit, and it seems both men were very impressed by the sights and pleasantries of the house and island. Boswell was quite taken by the MacLeods, made up of the well educated Raasay himself, along with his wife, three sons, ten daughters and extended family. The house was well stocked for the two men, both suited to a modern lifestyle of the time; preserves, chocolates and fine drink was generously supplied. Boswell describes that “Two parrots in cages were set out before the door to bask in the sun”, as well as observing a decent walled garden growing ‘gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries, currants and apple trees’. This garden would later become renowned during Victorian times for its vineries of ripened fruit, peaches and hot houses. Johnson, so content with his stay, was noted to have said ‘This truly is the patriarchal life. This is what we came to find”. 

Dr Johnson was slightly confounded however as to why the MacLeods had possessed the island for over 400 years but not thought to build a suitable pier: ‘How quietly people will endure an evil, which at any time they might easily remedy… a few men with picks might have cut an ascent of stairs out of any part of the rock in a weeks time.” Despite his reasonable point, the Macleods would not build a suitable landing pier until the mid 19th century. As the decades progressed, modernisation of the house matched with the encroaching gentrification of the west coast itself. Between 1796 and 1805 an imposing seven-bay ashlar facade was built in the ‘modern’ style built  for James Macleod, and the house took on its iconic appearance that we recognise to this day. 

raasay_house_600
An artist’s impression of Raasay House, as it would have looked towards the end of the 19th century. Note the original central house, now surrounded by extensions, and the original entrance facing the garden. The wing on the left was built as servants’ quarters. Credit Clan MacLeod history.