6 Weeks on a Scottish Island
Exploring the hidden gems of The Hebrides | Dan Sharpe
As the ferry pulled away it felt like we were on a Jurassic Park tour, and in some respects we were. Our landing point was on the Isle of Rassay where we would spend six weeks mapping the geology of the island as part of our university degrees. Disembarking, turning back to take in the landscape across the Sound to Skye, this place felt as rugged and as wild as it comes.
The first weeks were spent finding our feet on the island. Covering every corner and learning about the geology from the northernmost Lewisian Gneiss to the Jurassic sedimentary rocks in the south, we were becoming used to the changeable weather, incessant midges, ticks, and bogs.
In honesty the weather that summer was of little concern. Only the most persistent fronts left a couple of days washed out, with the mountains on the east coast of Skye providing a barrier for much of the inclement weather. Most days were spent exploring every accessible outcrop and finding new areas to understand and map. I was indifferent to the prospect at first, but our objective meant we had to find out everything we could about the island and took us into some unique and spectacular places. One day you would be alone in a ruined castle to the north, next you would be taking lunch in an isolated cave in the cliffs.
For such a small island, Raasay has an incredible ability to inspire. Life becomes more exciting when you are there. In reality you can pretty much throw a stone across to mainland Scotland, but the atmosphere is that you are the only people on the planet. Minky Whales dance with Porpoise in the waters of the Inner Sound. Dinners consist of line-caught fish from the breakwater and days are spent hiking in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The wildlife is confident; it has no reason to fear the few residents that live here.
I had a few memorable encounters of this kind. One morning, the weather turned and it was one of the few days where the rain was unforgiving. It was cold, bleak and the entire landscape seemed monochromatic. I took shelter under a small but overhanging outcrop. It was surprisingly comfortable, if a little cramped, and after a short while the most perfectly beautiful Robin joined me. It hopped around at a distance, unperturbed by the downpour, but with the offering of some crumbs from my rapidly diminishing lunch, we shared a moment of camaraderie that can only come in a place like this.
The final few days of the trip were intended to retrace steps in any areas of geological uncertainty. In actuality, we frequently hiked as a group and explored some of the more beautiful parts of the island. I did find myself alone one day, sitting in a steep-sided cove looking towards the mainland. To the left was a waterfall, flowing thick with the overnight rain, and to the right was a small headland that pushed into the bay. I climbed over the still-damp rocks, perching with a view across the bay to the waterfall and as I sat planning my route up into the surrounding hills, a fin appeared in the water. It was quite a distance away at first but gradually pushed further into the shallows. It circled the bay, presumably seeking a food source, and with each rotation it moved closer and closer to my seat. I edged down to the water and sat with my legs dangling on an overhang.
The Basking Shark made a tentative pass at first, but as if I was not there continued to swim directly underneath me for the next hour. The bay was littered with life that day. Sea birds flew overhead, a juvenile porpoise joined the shark in the bay and the glimmer of the silver sides of some unidentifiable fish sought shelter in the little nooks and crannies of the headland. It was magical. I did none of the work I intended too, but achieved more than I could ever of hoped.
The island became less of an experience and more of an overwhelming sense of being. Dreaded hikes up to the 450m high Dun Caan changed into deliberate diversions to take in the view from the islands highest point. The ocean was embraced. We fished, coasteered, skimmed stones, cliff jumped, photographed and drew the water that surrounded us and as we boarded the ferry to leave Raasay behind, the silence said it all. Everything about it is enamouring. The 1940s cottages, the incomprehensible locals in the pub and the isolation were all part of the experience. Even the amount of ticks we had became a contest.
The entire Hebridean island chain makes you feel like you are a part of a mythical novel; it almost doesn’t feel real. But it is. It is there to be explored, and explore it you should. It is a part of this world that will take your imagination and surpass it around every corner. Bring a midge hat, a tick twist, your hiking boots and an open mind, and you will leave with an entirely new expectation of what nature can achieve.