I’d never visited Raasay before and as the ferry ploughed its way through wind-torn waves from Sconser in Skye I settled myself down and read through the lines of Sorley MacLean’s great poem, Hallaig.
Somhairle MacGill-Eain was, of course, arguably the greatest of Gaeldom’s bards. He was born at Ostaig on the Isle of Raasay in 1911 where his upbringing was rooted in the richness of Gaelic culture. Hallaig is one of his best known poems and for years I’ve been attracted by its underlying themes of nature. Indeed, while much of MacLean’s work dwells on the brutality of war and modern exploitation he often uses landscape as a kind of symbolism. His work doesn’t offer much in the way of light reading, and a Gaelic-speaking friend of mine once suggested that reading the poetry of Sorley MacLean can feel like a physical work-out.
In contrast, the walk to Hallaig, situated on the sheltered east coast of Raasay, is fairly easy. Despite the stormy sea crossing and the threat of wind-blasted rain the truncated cone of Dun Caan, at 443metres the highest point on Raasay, offered a degree of shelter from the westerly gales. From time to time the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the golden bracken of the slopes in an uncanny brilliance and beyond the green swell of the sea lay the mainland mountains of Ross and Cromarty.
I left the car at the end of the public road at North Fearns where a single wooden signpost pointed the way to Hallaig. In1919 some crofting families were evicted from Acarsaid Thioram on the island of Rona and came to this part of Raasay where they tried to take some land to live on. They were arrested but were later released following a public outcry. They returned to Raasay and became known as the Rona Raiders. Following this the British government took on the ownership of both Rona and Raasay and the population of the former went into severe decline as most crofters followed the Raiders and moved to the larger island.
Beyond the road end a lovely green track runs along the top of the cliffs. This is the original road built to access the crofting township of Hallaig. Grass and moss have grown over the ancient cobbles just as bracken now dominates the fields that once grew oats or barley. As the path gently curves its way around the lower slopes of Beinn na Leac it begins to rise slightly below a dark cliff below which, with a view out across Hallaig Bay, lies a tasteful memorial cairn to Raasay’s most famous son, Sorley MacLean. It also carried the words of Hallaig, in both Gaelic and English.
“Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig.
The window is nailed and boarded
Through which I saw the West…”
Beyond the cairn, through some ancient woodland, I came across the first of the old buildings, roofless and bare. Through the wood of Hallaig, a large copse of small stunted birches, a bubbling stream gave a hint of life in an otherwise empty landscape, populated only by the ghosts of those evicted or forced to emigrate.
On the hill beyond the wood more shells of buildings lay scattered, monuments in themselves, recalling the hard lives of those who once lived and worked and died here. I sat amongst the cold stones and wondered if those crofters were as thrilled by the blend of sea and mountains as I was. What, for them, lay beyond the blue-tinted mountains that formed the horizon across the sea? What does the next twist of history hold for a place like Hallaig?
Sorley MacLean’s poetic vision transformed the trees of the wood of Hallaig into people – the native rowan, the hazels and the birch became groups of young women, suggestive perhaps of the earth’s regenerative power from which all life springs. Perhaps the poet’s vision of a populated Hallaig is better than reality ever was?
Promising myself that I must return here, perhaps to bivvy down within the protective walls of some old blackhouse and spend a night with the ghosts of old, I followed the track back through the stark woods and along the green trail with the mountains of Skye teasing me through the curtains of windswept rain. This may not have been the hardest of walks in Scotland, but it surely is one of the most evocative.