Leaving Oban harbour, the water spills out in front of us like a bolt of silk. The general landscape is loosely familiar to me — the chalky light, the veil of Scottish mizzle, the craggy bowls and notches of the reddish inland glens — but not the detail. My parents lived nearby when they were first married. In the 1970s, after they moved further south to Dumfries and Galloway, we sometimes returned to the Inner Hebrides for holidays. I can remember Islay’s long white beaches with no-one else on them, where my sisters and I collected cowries, the flash of mackerel on our handlines, the sour taste of wild bilberries, and the dandelion-leaf sandwiches made with my mother’s crumbling soda bread, which we ate in the rain.
This time I’m headed for the island of Jura where in the late 1940s, George Orwell came from London to write Nineteen Eighty-Four — a book he originally called The Last Man in Europe. He borrowed a farmhouse called Barnhill, tucked into a grassy curve on the island’s north-east tip, and stayed, on and off, for three years. “It is a completely wild place and a bit un-getatable,” he wrote in a letter to a reader in 1948.
Travelling to Jura — 30 miles long, 7 miles wide, with a population of 200 then and now — still isn’t straightforward. There are the public CalMac ferries which connect Kennacraig on the mainland to Islay, and a local car ferry that then runs from Islay to Jura. Or the tiny passenger-only ferry from Tayvallich on the mainland which runs direct to Jura from March to September, with 12 seats. I’m travelling a long way round, meandering through the southern Inner Hebrides over the course of a few days on a beautiful Donegal-green sailing boat a friend keeps in Loch Aline.
We dip in and out of the islands’ main attractions: the candy-coloured fishing village of Tobermory on Mull, the iconic Fingal’s Cave on the tiny island of Staffa, and the abbey on Iona, where the seabirds cast monkish shadows. Nature gives us a full show: pods of dolphins, silver seal pups, and gannets with their wings pinned back ready to dive. We anchor in Colonsay’s blue Bagh Lon, which in the sunshine could be Greece, and read under our boat’s furled sails. We have settled into a pace. My two companions, our skipper, Peter Bazeley, and photographer Michael Turek, both fall asleep.
The slow approach allows me to absorb some of the region’s literary geography. In 1833, Wordsworth visited Staffa, although he found it over-touristed, which it still is now: “We saw, but surely, in the motley crowd,/ Not One of us has felt the far-famed sight;/ How could we feel it? each the other’s blight”. In 1969, the American writer John McPhee spent a year living on Colonsay. In the pages of his evocative short book, The Crofter and the Laird, I drift into the essence of a community surviving on the Atlantic fringes.
From Colonsay, we sail south into the shadow of the Paps of Jura — the three round-topped mountains which weep with scree, dominating Jura’s moody western coast. The island’s famous raised beaches, rising from the water in a series of stony terraces, were formed by the advance and retreat of ice sheets beginning two-and-a-half-million years ago. The beaches’ round stones have been pummelled by Atlantic storm surges into bone-white polished discs.
Loch Tarbert cuts a long gash through the island’s middle. To reach the inner loch we enter the Cumhann Mòr narrows, a channel which feels scarcely wider than our boat, with a three-knot current whipping through. Once inside, there is no-one, not a boat nor a sound. It’s odd, because there’s also a kind of energy to the stillness, a tingling that comes from that rare feeling of remoteness, of crossing into a place where you could disappear under a cloudless sky and no-one would ever know. We wait for the gloaming when the call of stags haunts the moors. The three of us stay up late drinking whisky, my imagination wired.
Turek and I leave Bazeley and the boat to hike for a few days, and meet up with Ian McClelland, a mountain leader who specialises in wild camping trips, from Wales to Greenland. Clients include corporate burnouts who need to get away from it all, and single travellers who want to venture safely into remote territory. For years, McClelland has also worked with disadvantaged children and people who have suffered from substance abuse; he gives his time generously to the belief that wilderness can offer a salve that other therapy can’t. All of us like Orwell, which is enough to bind our motives into a plan to explore the island by foot, at the same pace Orwell took it in when he moved to Barnhill.
We base ourselves at the Jura Hotel in the village of Craighouse. It has a small restaurant serving good beer, whisky from the next-door distillery, and delicious variations on the island’s larder: lobster, mackerel, venison. The hotel is well located on Jura’s south-east coast, along the island’s only road, but McClelland would still rather we camped every night. He is poring over his map in the hotel’s garden as he works out our various routes for the next few days. “Sometimes I wonder why I go so far to Greenland,” he says.
The next morning, we’re up early. We cross the island, venturing to the west coast and back on “Evans’ Walk”, a barely marked path named after Henry Evans, a one-legged deer enthusiast who leased a Jura estate in the late 19th century. He had Evans’ Walk built to make it easier to travel on horseback.
The going is hard. Sedges burst out of damp spots like brushstrokes against blushes of purple heather and puddles as black as Indian ink. Balls of bog cotton quiver in the rain. Shallow runnels glisten with the speckled spines of frogs, and I get soaked crossing a burn in spate. We resist the calling of the Paps in favour of a longer picnic lunch at Glenbatrick Bay.
The flotsam and jetsam is reassuring. Rather than ocean plastic, it is a palimpsest of Atlantic wildlife: bird skulls, broken wings, seashells and deer bones strung with bladderwrack. The day feels stretched. In a poem inspired by Jura, the contemporary Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochhead wrote: “All holidays/ are whole small lives lived somewhere else”.
Our boots are still wet for the next day’s hike, this time on the southern perimeter where Islay brushes up close to the Jura coastline where there are pockets of planted pine forest and those disc-pebbled shores. On another day, we hug Jura’s eastern edge, stepping between rock pools and the stamping hooves of stags. On our penultimate night, we camp on the island’s northern tip. It is one of those clear west coast evenings, as rare as an otter sighting, when the sea is silent.
Our spot is perfectly chosen: a sprung bed of moss and heather a short walk from the cliffs. I can see a run of blue shadows delineating the Scottish mainland. But from the last lip of land where I’m standing, it’s what lies beneath that holds my attention. The ground falls off into the narrow passage of the Atlantic channel dividing Jura’s tip from the treacherous rocks of Scarba. Below me is Corryvreckan, one of the largest whirlpools in the world.
To be honest, I was expecting something more dramatic. My mother used to talk about Corryvreckan in ominous terms, and about how you can never trust a Scottish sea: freak waves, tides that can come in quicker than a galloping horse, bottomless rock pools. In the summer of 1947, Corryvreckan nearly drowned Orwell, when he took out his boat, lost his engine, and got sucked into its swirl of currents. But today, the jeopardy is hidden. I can see a thread of silver moving over the surface of the water. I trace it with my eye, and then it shifts. The line keeps vanishing, then appears in a different place, moving off in a different direction.
I go to sleep thinking of the thud-puck of old typewriter keys at the last home we passed on our walk to reach this end of the island — Orwell’s “un-getatable” white farmhouse. Until a couple of years ago Barnhill was available to rent — and it will be again in future, I’m told by one of the owners. I’ve been in touch because of some research I have been doing for a book, and on our way back the next morning, she invites us to sit in the sun beside an azalea bush in front of the farmhouse’s kitchen. Her daughter’s Shetland pony grazes on the lawn. While she goes inside to make some tea, I lie back in the grass.
I picture Orwell’s pen scratching at his diary, a jar of peaty water and frogspawn standing on his windowsill. Aside from the Corryvreckan mishap, his days were largely mundane: shooting rabbits, putting out the lobster creels, having time to notice a single primrose blooming. He describes the sound of a cuckoo, and the beaks of wild irises coming into flower where the green lea of the garden rolls off towards the Sound of Jura.
It strikes me that in times like these when we’re reaching for perspective in the economic and political flux, Orwell’s startling relevance endures — not just his big ticket literature on abuse of power but his Jura diaries: a quiet reminder that perhaps the luxury of getting away is the chance to go slower, and distil a few home truths in a place where nature, not people, prevails. Jura is still like that. It feels like a strange magnetic anomaly tucked inside unpredictable ebbs and floods, a kind of lost world wrapped by those violent tidal races.
Skippered and bareboat charters are available through the Oban-based Scottish Yacht Charters (scottishyachtcharters.co.uk). Peter Bazeley’s vintage 37-foot wooden ketch, Undine Bay, is based at Loch Aline on the Morvern Peninsula; he occasionally takes others on voyages on a cost-share basis and can be contacted via Instagram: @undine_bay
Ian McClelland (turnwild.com) organises treks from Greenland to England’s South Downs; joining a week’s trip to Norway’s Lyngen Alps, for example, costs from £1,500; bespoke guided wild camping itineraries cost from £500 per day for up to four people
More things to do on Jura
Cycling Wilderness Scotland runs a week-long island-hopping bike trip (pictured above) that includes the chance to ride on Arran, the Kintyre Peninsula, Islay — and along the length of Jura’s lone road. Starting in Glasgow, it uses local ferries and a rib for sea crossings, and includes 35 to 40 miles in the saddle each day. Guided group trips cost £2,195 per person, it can also be run on a private basis; wildernessscotland.com
Running One of the UK’s toughest mountain races, the Isle of Jura Fell Race takes place annually in late May. The 17-mile course runs over seven summits, including all three of the Paps, notching up 2,370 metres of ascent. Entries open in January, the 200 places are awarded on the basis of relevant experience and a ballot; see isleofjurafellrace.co.uk
Drinking Opened in 1810, the Jura Distillery fell into disuse and disrepair but was rebuilt, expanded and reopened in 1963. Today, there is a visitor centre where the various malts can be sampled; guided tours of the distillery are due to restart in September. Come during the Fèis Ìle, an annual festival on Jura and Islay, and there will be live music in the evening (as well as special edition whiskies to try); next year’s event is due to run from May 26 to June 4. jurawhisky.com
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