Since its establishment, the Isle of Raasay Distillery in the Inner Hebrides has brought job opportunities to the island, worked closely with other local businesses and become embedded in the island’s tight-knit community - all making sure this special island continues to thrive.
Creating job opportunities and tackling de-population
In terms of investment, £13.5 million has been committed from Chanrossa, whose intention is to build a group of stand out brands from inspiring places. The investment has included building two warehouses, staff offices, vatting and bottling infrastructure as well as the distillery itself, luxury accommodation and the sustainable employment of staff through the years before the distillery started trading profitably. Part of the distillery’s ethos is to produce, mature, bottle and market every drop of spirit directly from the island. This will maximise the influence of the island on the spirit, and the distillery on the island. The investment has been complemented by some grant support from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), particularly during the pandemic.
The distillery employs more than 20 people on the Isle of Raasay at the height of the tourist season. Putting that figure into context, at the last census there were 161 inhabitants on the Isle of Raasay. Over 10% of the population has employment on the island within the distillery, but this is a much higher proportion of the working population.
The average age of the Raasay and Skye workforce is approximately 30 years old, and at least one of the employees is about to become a new parent. This is an early indicator of creating inter-generational values.
A few full-time staff members who had moved away from the island for work were able to return because of the employment opportunities at the distillery. Staff such as Norman Gillies (Operations Director) and Calum Gillies (Distillery Ambassador). Craig Birnie (Operations Lead) and his sister Kirsty Birnie, both worked summers at the distillery before returning to the island to work full-time. Soon, two new members of staff will move to Raasay to work at the distillery. They will be bringing their partners and families, benefitting the wider local economy and boosting the population; with children attending the primary school, more money spent in the community store and at other commercial ventures on the island.
The business is very much part of the Isle of Raasay community and many staff members’ families have been on Raasay for generations. By helping create more jobs on the island and providing opportunities to develop each member of staff both professionally and personally, the distillery has an important part to play in maintaining the area as a thriving place to be.
At the heart of the community
The Distillery’s Gathering Room is a fantastic events space with a dry-stone wall representing the varied geology of the island. This room hosts everything from local lunch clubs, educational events for the community, to regular ‘Raasay Tunes’ nights promoting Scottish artists.
Working with local Raasay crofters and Peter Martin, Director of the Agronomy Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, the Distillery has successfully grown and harvested barley on Raasay for the first time in over 40 years. The intention is to expand this collaboration across the island to enable crafting of annual 100% Isle of Raasay Single Malt releases. Draff is given away for free to local crofters/farmers, with most of the animals around the distillery fed on this excess grain from the distilling process. The distillery will strive to be carbon neutral over the next decade as part of its wider sustainability goals.
There is a collective benefit to the Distillery’s approach to partnering with neighbouring businesses. It attracts out-of-season custom through bespoke whisky, gin, and music events promoted to special interest groups such as cask owners, as well as special barley open days, tourism and hospitality open days as part of Scottish Tourism Month. The Hebridean Whisky Trail, pioneered by the Distillery’s co-founders, also helps promote Raasay as a destination, working with neighbouring businesses such as Raasay House, and other nearby distilleries, including Torabhaig and Talisker on Skye.
With the development of the new pier for the hybrid ferry, and the successful redevelopment of Raasay House over the last 10 years, more people have been able to visit and stay on the island. The Distillery has helped continue this revival by providing more jobs and introducing the Isle of Raasay to many new fans around the world. It has helped other new businesses to start up too, for example The Larch Box takeaway next door, and the increased profile of the island has helped other new projects to raise funding, for example, the Community Hydro Project.
A vibrant place
Between 2015 and 2018, after the Distillery opened, there was an unprecedented 36% increase in Caledonian MacBrayne ferry trips to and from Raasay. This growth represents a mixture of leisure visitors and people coming to work at the distillery, whether it's journalists, Scottish barley suppliers, or builders working on the warehouses.
The ferry journey is promoted as part of the experience and to entice more visitors from Skye and the mainland across to the neighbouring Isle of Raasay to stay overnight, stay longer and experience all that the area has to offer. The Caledonian MacBrayne vessel, MV Hallaig, recorded the most foot passengers to date the night of the Isle of Raasay Gin launch in 2019.
The development of the Distillery has also brought Borodale House back to life. The House was built in the 19th century to house the factor at the time and used as the Isle of Raasay Hotel in the 20th century before it closed its doors. In 2016, Borodale House began to be revitalised into a six luxury bedroom hotel, and became the first distillery in Scotland with bedrooms in the same building as the still house. The hotel picked up a Gold Laurel at the Scottish Hotel Awards for providing a unique consumer experience.
In 2019, there were 1,464 nights booked at the six luxury bedrooms with 97% room occupancy in the busiest months. These guests help contribute to other businesses on the island, and its ‘excellent’ TripAdvisor rating sends a positive message about the Isle of Raasay to people who haven’t had the chance to visit yet. In 2019, Raasay was awarded Tourism Destination of the Year at the Scottish Whisky Awards, which was followed by Best Brand Experience in 2020.
Despite growing up on the Isle of Raasay, I was always forced to move or find employment elsewhere. The distillery is what allowed many of my friends and I to finally move home and live on Raasay permanently. It’s something I never thought I’d be able to do.
How to get involved
Tourism is an economic and social powerhouse for Scotland. It creates wealth and social benefits in every corner of the country and enhances the wellbeing of everyone who takes a holiday at home. For more information on all strands of this project and how you can get involved visit our #tourismforceforgood page.