Jura: reinvigorated by adventure

| 15th November 2013
The view upwards toward Beinn an Oir, the highest Pap of Jura.
The view upwards toward Beinn an Oir, the highest Pap of Jura. Photo: Jon Gardner.
Looking for a green holiday amid gorgeous landscapes and unbridled nature? Jon Gardner was inspired to visit Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984. He was not disappointed ...
During our outward and return voyages, we saw dolphins, a minke whale, divers, guillemots and armadas of livid jellyfish, all framed within a vista of scrolling mountain coastline.

Being drawn to a place is often a subtle, instinctive experience, but what took me to the Isle of Jura in Scotland's Western Isles was a particular mix of literary influence and geographic fascination. Roger Deakin's excellent Waterlog contains a chapter focussed on his attempt to swim the whirlpool of Corryvreckan - from the moment I read the Gaelic name of this place, I knew I had to go there.

Deakin's book was also the first place that I learned of George Orwell's connection to the island. After the sudden death of his wife at the end of the second world war, Orwell left London and travelled to Jura with his adopted son. Isolated on the north west coast, he wrote 1984 as his health deteriorated toward an untimely death. With Orwell's house circled in pencil, my map of Jura has been on the bedroom wall for two years as a pledge that I would go.

I finally journeyed from Bristol to Jura this August by car with two friends. We had investigated travelling by air and by train, but calculated that, between the three of us, the car was the most affordable, efficient means of getting there. It took just over four hours to get to Glasgow, where we stocked up on a week's food.

Beyond Glasgow, the landscape soon intensified at Loch Lomond, engulfing us within jaw-dropping mountain ranges and immense lochs. The road then follows the shoreline of Loch Fyne and Loch Tarbert, eventually leading to the ferry at Kennacraig. Getting to Jura was the first revelatory part of our holiday. The ferry journey to Islay takes just under two hours and is a chance to view the land and seascape from a different vantage-point.

During our outward and return voyages, we saw dolphins, a minke whale, divers, guillemots and armadas of livid jellyfish, all framed within a vista of scrolling mountain coastline. The crossing between Islay and Jura takes just five minutes. When we disembarked, we were greeted by several red deer grazing the shore. We drove to Craighouse, and camped in front of the Jura Hotel by Small Isles Bay. There is no charge for camping here.

In the morning, after bathing in the sea, we drew up an itinerary for the week. The first place would be Jura Forest.

Jura Forest ... isn't. We had intended to venture under its dense canopies to shelter from a day of promised rain but, after passing one of the Jura distillery's many warehouses, we found not a forest, but a sparse plantation of firs. Russula emetica littered the deeply needled floor.


Many trees were overturned, their shallow root systems exposed. It was apparent that the saturated peat-bog that constitutes a large part of the island's lower-lying land is not amenable to large scale forestry. Jura Forest turned out to be simply the name on the map of one of the seven estates of the island.

These estates draw a considerable part of their income from deer stalking. The massive population of red deer (eight thousand to a human population of two hundred) ensure that any resurgent tree-shoots or speculative saplings are grazed out of existence. This is not to imply that there is an imbalance in the ecology of Jura, but rather that it is an island where deer are the dominant inhabitants. Its harsh geography forces the human population to live on the fringes, and grants them few opportunities to exploit its untamed beauty for profit.

During our outward and return voyages, we saw dolphins, a minke whale, divers, guillemots and armadas of livid jellyfish, all framed within a vista of scrolling mountain coastline.

After a day watching otters, white-tailed eagles and seals at Lowlandsman's Bay, our night-drive along the island's one meandering road/track is an illustration of its wildness. Frogs were migrating in their hundreds, idling and mating on the asphalt, and adding further levels of challenge to a journey that requires unerring focus. Our full-beams swung through hair-pin corners, reflecting the retinas of many deer moving through the dark. Fierce eyes, low on the road, forced us to stop abruptly.

A stoat. It paused, reared up and, for a few precious seconds, held us in its sharp gaze before vanishing into the fathomless murk. Perched on a wire fence, a tawny owl swivelled its head to register our approach, then leaned into the wind and banked away from the headlights. We now instinctively knew that, beyond our lowly tunnel of light, all was tremulous and keenly alert, hunting, or being hunted.

Traversing the island requires perseverance and stout gear. There are few distinct paths and most walks will necessitate the negotiation of bog. In bog, each footstep must be carefully considered for potential stability and tactical advantage.

Once committed, a footstep should be continually monitored in order to assess the extent to which it has sunken into the bog, and / or is becoming rapidly flooded. Should this occur, the appropriate action must be immediately taken: either leap maniacally away like a Gaelic dancer under fire, or sink heroically, ignoring the creeping ooze entering your shoe.

There are also numerous adders. During an ascent of one the Paps of Jura, we came upon several, one of which was melanistic - that is to say, black. Our climb that day was abandoned due to almost zero visibility and impassable scree.

The view upwards toward Beinn an Oir, the highest Pap of Jura. /></p> <p>We also walked to the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, the maelstrom that had drawn  me to Jura. It is created by fierce tidal races between Jura and Scarba passing over The hag, a pyramidal column of basalt which causes tremendous up-thrusts and vortices.  Even when viewed from the cliff edge half a mile above and away, the seething waters have the power to terrify. The journey to the whirlpool passes by Barnhill, where Orwell wrote 1984, which can now be rented as a holiday retreat.</p> <p><img src=

The day before we left Jura was spent idling about in a small wooden boat around Inverlussa Bay. We were supervised by inquisitive seals, no doubt marvelling at how inept we were, both at rowing and fishing. Beneath clement skies, soothed by gentle waves, there was time to consider what lasting impressions the island had given.

Principally, it has impressed upon this human interloper how magisterial the natural order of things is without man's dominance. Vast heather moors, indomitable mountains and hills, raised beaches, the profusion and variety of mammals, birds, reptiles and flora are each almost entirely indifferent to our existence.

That this land is here, within the UK, and that it will never see a shopping mall or traffic light is intensely gratifying. Being here has also strengthened my belief that holidaying is not about leaving the country, but about being reinvigorated by adventure. Exploring Jura will ever be a thrilling and instructive experience.

Jon Gardner teaches English in a secondary school near Bristol. In his spare time he enjoys writing and visiting beautiful places. He blogs at coppicewithstandards. All photos by Jon Gardner.



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