This summer, Country Life's Steve Ayres travelled across Scotland by motorbike. This latest instalment of his adventures sees him visit the spectacular island of Raasay, where he finds the island's first legal distillery and a road built single-handedly by one man over the course of a decade.
I will happily confesses that from the moment I turned the key on my Triumph early that Friday morning and rolled out onto the tarmac to start off the trip, one thought in particular has stood out in my mind: arriving at Raasay and riding Calum’s Road.
Now I find myself at Sconser waiting for the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, jacket unzipped, welcoming a cool breeze and already feeling yet another glorious day ahead. Petrol tanks have been brimmed – there are no filling stations on the island – and I while away the time chatting to a local who is headed home back to the island. Barely 160 souls reside on Raasay, and trips off the island have to be carefully thought out; often, neighbours collect essentials for each other and everyone in the community looks out for one another.
No need to strap the bikes down on this short, mill pond crossing so we take in the air on deck and look out to Raasay. I’ve been told to look out for mountain hares on the tight twisting roads and keep an eye to the sky for the eagles as well. Certainly a different kind of hazard perception to the hectic lifestyle of South East London.
25 minutes pass and it’s time to disembark. I take note of the billiard-table-smooth road surface as I ride off the ramp and begin to question my pre-trip research, which warned of barely passable gravel roads and switchback turns. It’ll turn out that all this was still to come – and then some…
Immediately ahead is the Isle of Raasay Distillery which will be our overnight accommodation. It opened its doors in September 2017, and has been beautifully done up inside – but for now, after a warm welcome from the staff, all we did was drop off the bags and set off on the coast route towards the thing that occupied thoughts my six days ago: riding Calum’s Road.
There is a single track road running pretty much the length of the tiny island and turning the first corner gives a stunning view of Skye on the left before cutting right into the spine of Raasay and continuing up towards the remains of Brochel Castle.
Until 1982 the castle, which is not far short of 5 miles from the northern tip of Raasay, was quite literally the end of the road. Those who lived beyond either had to walk or travel via boat, effectively cut off from the rest of the island. However, since 1982 the road North has been extended for two miles thanks largely to one man: Calum Macleod. He single-handedly built what is now known as ‘Callum’s Road’ between the mid 60’s and mid 70’s whilst working as a keeper in the Lighthouse on Rona – a smaller island off the north tip of Raasay – and tending to his animals and crops at Arnish. His story is documented thanks to Roger Hutchinson’s bestselling 2006 book Calum’s Road.
Even getting as far as Brochel Castle is challenging enough. I don’t get out of second gear, with the road surface constantly changing from reasonable tarmac to scattered gravel, and yet the Triumph Tiger reminds me of a previous trail bike I once owned, eager to change direction with a push on the wide bars or pressure on a bootleg. I even stand upright on occasion to gain a better view of the road ahead, the bike completely compliant. My riding companion, however, struggles on what is effectively a motorway-munching touring bike, certainly not designed for these roads. Slower progress is called for and, to be frank, I don’t mind whatsoever – it gives me more time to take in the scenery.
Arriving at Brochel Castle we switch off engines and park the bikes. Views such as these are simply not to be passed by without stopping – and that is saying something, considering the natural beauty I’d already seen.
Heading off again and within 100 metres we find the road sign identifying the beginning of Calum’s Road, with a rusted wheelbarrow and spade resting at the base. Obligatory photos taken, we follow a steep rise snaking left to right that gives an indication of what is to follow, and that effortless engine torque just swallows terrain like this. Hills, grassland, valleys and even mountains – you name it and chances are I’ve ridden it but this road, this road… I’m lost for words. This is why I ride, moments just like these.
I drop back to take more photos and when I finally catch up to Steve his bike is parked, a road sign declaring the end of the public road. Azure skies coupled with the sort of blue sea you’d expect in the Mediterranean dominate the horizon; the view over the bay below will live long in my memory. Scotland’s natural beauty is not surprising but the weather is: with temperatures pushing 80 degrees Fahrenheit we could be in the south of France.
Porpoise, minke whales, orcas and basking sharks are often seen in the surrounding waters, and the Norse name ‘Raasay’ itself means Isle of the Roe, or Red, Deer. Quite apt, as on the ride back a mother and juvenile deer are grazing by the roadside, eyes fixed on me as I ease slowly past. Once again I find myself falling behind and capturing landscape shots and a brief short clip of Steve, disappearing as he negotiates another corner way up ahead. Kicking myself, I remember to turn on the Go Pro camera fixed on top of my crash helmet, store my phone away and just simply enjoy the ride.
As I continue I find the stone monument dedicated to the man who was responsible for this road, Calum MacLeod himself. It’s only fitting to take the time to read the thoughtful plaque and offer up some personal words of thanks. The entire experience has certainly left a lasting impression on me.
Rolling into the Raasay Distillery parking area, warm engines cooling off, the afternoon is glorious. After a very welcome shower in the tasteful, modern hotel room we head to the bar where a good spread of local and more well known drinks are available on the honour system – we settle for fruity IPA. The bar and dining areas are stunning, with floor-to-ceiling glass making the most of views that are just the most beautiful imaginable, and we sit back and enjoy watching the ferry crossing back and forth. Supper at the Distillery is served at weekends only – for now, at least – so Raasay House is our destination tonight, a short stroll away.
The day’s warmth still with us it’s a welcome walk and en route we stop at The Silver Grasshopper, a jewellery and gift shop with a pleasant difference. It is owned and staffed by Fiona Gillies, assisted by the delightful Saba, an islander who returned after experiencing life away from home.
With a qualification in jewellery making, Fiona set about designing and creating her own brand of pendants, earrings and suchlike and I can’t think of a more suitable place to purchase gifts for my teenage daughters. Her story brings home to me the simple fact that a community such as this needs the youth to survive; it’s heartwarming to hear that friends of hers are also employed on Raasay and making a decent living.
On to Raasay House. Originally a clan house belonging to the Macleod Chief of Raasay, it was burnt to the ground after Culloden and, in 1747, work commenced on the building which still stands today – the same place which Samuel Johnson stayed in, and on which he remarked about the Scottish tradition of downing a dram of whisky at breakfast. Today, the place is a hotel and hostel with restaurant and bistro, offering outdoor activities in a natural playground for those who seek to explore the outdoors. The car park alone tells the story: it’s full of vehicles with mountain bikes and kayaks mounted on top, showing the attractions of using the place as a base for adventure seekers.
We’ve an hour or two to kill before dinner, so we while away some time supping a couple of beers, soaking up the rays and discussing the days riding. We both agree the Triumph Tiger performed superbly on the often demanding roads, with much respect given to Steve’s skills on his touring machine as he reined in the heavier bike on some seriously loose surfaces.
I’d had the luxury of selecting the ‘off-road’ suspension setting which gave the Triumph just the right amount of freedom to cope with very changeable road conditions. Once back on more consistent tarmac I simply switched back to ‘road’ setting via the handlebar toggle switch. An invaluable option and yet another tick in my list of useable features that not only work in the real world but are necessary on a machine designed to cope with practically any conditions.
The conversation continues in the same vein over supper, which was every bit as impressive as the building itself, and then it’s back to the distillery to enjoy a night’s sleep in a plush bed, draped in White Company linen – quite a welcome change from the sleeping bag we’ve been used to. There are six rooms, at the Distillery, three overlooking the production yard and the other three pointing across to Skye; all are comfortable, spotless and cosy.
The following morning we awoke and enjoyed a superb breakfast and a tour of the distillery that was fascinating. Being able to not only observe the process of mixing and blending but to see locals employed and running the whole show gave a personal touch the larger distillers can’t hold a candle to.
While many of the distilleries that have opened in Scotland recently have actually been old distilleries taken out of mothballs, Raasay’s is the first to exist on the island – or at least the first legal one, since illicit distilling was once apparently common on this rugged, windswept island. They’re doing things a little differently, keeping things as local as possible: the barley is being grown by local crofters in a nearby field, the water used at every stage of the process is being drawn from a well that has been in use since Celtic times, and it’s even Raasay peat that will be used in the drying process.
The distillery only opened last year so it’ll be a while before this entirely Raasay whisky will be ready, but they’ve made a ‘While You Wait’ blend in the meantime which is expected to give an idea of what the finished article will be like. We tasted what we could, but sadly the need to get back in the saddle stopped us from enjoying more of it; in a few years’ time, when the distillery have produced their own home grown whiskey I’ll make up for it and certainly order a bottle.
Thanking the staff for a wonderful stay, the short ferry crossing takes us back to Sconser and, in no time, to the campsite on Skye where a quick cuppa is in order before the ride north. Today’s destination is Uig on the A87, yet another road switching from the east to west of Skye, cutting through the centre of the island Drumuie with a series of smooth, sweeping corners that thin to single tracks with passing places. I have to say this was pure Tiger territory, third gear and riding the smooth torque from apex to apex on the more open stretches.
Even the semi-off-road tyres give plenty of feedback on precisely what is happening on the road surface, only mildly protesting when the brakes are called into action as a motorist drifts out of lane towards me, calling for swift evasive manoeuvres. It’s a sad fact that no matter which road you take, you’ll always come across someone who things using the dreaded mobile phone while driving is still acceptable.
Arriving at Uig and feeling peckish, we find a cafe and tuck into a sausage sandwich washed down with another cup of tea. The weather continually raises a smile as the temperature is still rising – the cafe owner reminds us to ‘enjoy while it lasts lads, won’t be long before you experience a proper Scottish summer’ with a wry wink. Fair point, I think, so we fire up the bikes one more time and turn south to spend our final night at the campsite, taking in the views at a relaxed pace.
Skye is without question a truly picturesque island, full of hidden beaches, hill walks and hospitable folk, but it has to be said that it’s almost too good – because even out of peak season, the road network seriously struggles to cope with volume of tourists, in particular on the single track sections further north. It’s bearable for me simply because I was riding on a nimble motorcycle – in a car I’ve no doubt that, come the holidays, gridlock must be a common and frustrating experience for all.
The rising visitor numbers are certainly making themselves as we pull into the campsite later on: the number of motorhomes has at least doubled from the morning, and tent space is now at quite a premium. Still, we have a very enjoyable evening in the bar, even if the wait for a drink is longer, chatting about the wonders of Raasay and Calum’s Road – a journey on two wheels I shan’t forget. Next up in our journey we’ll be riding to Blair Athol in Pitlochry, at the bottom of the Cairgorms, where we’ll have a chance to say a proper goodbye to a dear friend.
Doubles rooms at Raasay Distillery start from £140 in low season and £240 in high season – see raasaydistillery.com for more details.
Country Life's Steve Ayres has long had a dream: to traverse Scotland on a classic British motorbike. Now, he's making…
Country Life's Steve Ayres is taking a trip that's a biker's dream: touring Scotland on a Triumph Tiger XRX 1200.…
Country Life's Steve Ayres is taking a trip that's a biker's dream: touring Scotland on a Triumph Tiger XRX 1200. In…