Any reader who knows the Island of Raasay will give Norma MacLeod’s Raasay:the Island and its People a warm welcome. That is no doubt particularly true of those who have ancestral connections, near or distant, with the island’s families, for they will find here an unrivalled store of information with many details not otherwise available. And for those who have visited the island and got to know it well or have settled there and made it their home, the work will open fresh perspectives on the history of Raasay throughout many centuries.
Eight chapters and an epilogue cover that history. It begins with a review of the archaeological evidence from around 8000 bc and moves rapidly to the late Middle Ages. Successive chapters take us from c.1450 to the mid-twentieth century. This stretch of time naturally throws up several intractable problems for the historian, but the author tackles them all conscientiously, aware that some of the questions they raise may never be answered with complete certainty.
The second part of the book consists of genealogies, centred on the lines of descent of the MacLeod chiefs of the island and their kindred. Norma MacLeod is herself a professional genealogist and her assessment of the historical sources commands attention. Although there is a lot of information about the MacLeods of Raasay:Each source in itself appears to make sense but when they are read together, there are discrepancies and contradictions that have not so far been resolved.
There are discrepancies, too, in accounts of relatively modern times. For instance, so far as I am aware, Raasay tradition used to maintain that Clearances only began after George Rainy bought the island in 1846. It now emerges that the process was underway well before John MacLeod, the last chief, emigrated to Australia in 1843. But another fact emerges also. Although MacLeod had encouraged people from Skye or elsewhere to settle in Raasay, these incomers were from Gaelic areas of the community and the island remained culturally and linguistically homogeneous. Rainy, on the other hand, brought in employees from the Lowlands and even from London. As Norma MacLeod says, this was a definite break in tradition… Now both the owner and those he took onto the island came from completely different backgrounds. Naturally, this would have given rise to some suspicion and apprehension among local people about what the future might hold. Thus there were now two groups of people on the island, the local people and those employed directly by the estate.
Whether this cultural divide coloured memories of that period or not, the author’s succinct comment on the situation in Raasay rings true:There can be no doubt that none of the lairds of Raasay after 1745 made any attempt to match their spending with their income. It was the people of Raasay who paid the price for that, and a heavy price it was.
One of the appendices is a section on the place-names of Raasay and Rona. This is a valuable collection, drawn from a variety of sources, but the names require to be regularised in orthography and in some instances corrected.
A short notice cannot do justice to a work which is so packed with information. The book, with its delightful photographs of people and places, will, one hopes, be brought to the attention of descendants of Raasay folk throughout the world. Whether their ancestors left the island voluntarily or through forced emigration, they, like us, will find it fascinating.
Raasay: The Island and its People by Norma MacLeod (ISBN 1 84158 235 2) is published in hardback by Birlinn at £25.
Copyright John MacInnes 2005.