By Robin McKelvie
There is clearly something about Jura. George Orwell may have hailed Scotland’s eighth largest island “extremely ungetatable”, but he chose Jura to write his darkly dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four on. That doesn’t surprise me as Jura is an island swathed in dark and light, bursting with elemental forces; an isle that knows only too well both the darker sides of mankind, as well as the joys of community living that make it such a rewarding isle to visit today.
Mother Nature is writ large in an indelible alphabet on Jura. There are the legendary scree-scorched quartzite Paps of Jura that make arriving boats look like bath tub toys. Jura harbours a drama that Hollywood can only dream of. It is a wildscape of stark mountain, tumbling glen, sweeping bog and craggy coast, where otters and eagles (golden and sea eagles) thrive largely unruffled by the attentions of man. No wonder NatureScot has classified swathes of Jura a Special Protection Area. Orwell felt Nature’s power first hand when he almost drowned in a boating accident in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Were it not for a passing fishing boat the world would never have seen Nineteen Eighty-Four.
For all nature’s grandeur it is mankind that has the left the most striking legacy on Jura, and it is for its people – both past and present – that Jura keeps drawing me back to visit. Orwell was not alone in being bewitched by Jura. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (a.k.a The KLF) chose Jura as the place to (allegedly) burn a cool £1 million in 1994.
The fourth largest isle in the Inner Hebrides also features in Ian Rankin’s ‘Question of Blood’ and Andrew Erwin’s ‘Burning down George Orwell’s house’. It also forges its way into novels by Alexander McCall Smith and Anne Michaels. Capercaillie, Skyclad and The Mekons have all been inspired by Jura to create music, then in 2010 Poets and Lighthouses, an album recorded on Jura by Tuvan singer Albert Kuvezin and Yat-Kha, reached Number 1 in the World Music Charts Europe. Fittingly Jura’s Skervuile Lighthouse stood proudly on its cover.
Not that the population of 7,000, or so deer, takes much notice of this cultural richness. They are too busy roaming the glens, their antlers standing silhouetted against the sunset, seemingly posing for any passing TV wilderness film crews intent on only seeing the nature, but not the people. To be fair mankind has fared less well over the centuries on Jura. Cutting far deeper than centuries of inter-clan warfare, were the baleful Clearances. Jura’s population has never really recovered. Not always helped by what can at best be described as complex land ownership issues.
The 2011 census listed only 196 people living on Jura – and the isle doesn’t even make Scotland’s top 30 most populous – but that is not the whole story. The people that do live here make it count. Today there are serious green shoots for the community, green shoots that impress me even more every time I visit.
There may be only one real road as such, but I always joke you don’t need much more when you’ve got the warm welcome of the Isle of Jura Distillery next door to the equally welcoming Isle of Jura Hotel. Both are in the ‘capital’ of Craighouse.
The Isle of Jura Distillery has roots in the early 19th century, the whitewashed postcard-perfect distillery was closed for years, then only resurrected in 1963. Today the distillery is doing well again, creating sweet malts with little of the peat smoke that fires many whiskies from neighbouring Islay. Once I asked a stillman his favourite amongst their myriad expressions. “Definitely the 16-year-old,” he replied instantly. “We call it the ‘Diurachs’ Own’ as it’s like the island – warm and welcoming with enough fire to keep you wanting to come back for more”. I’ve now returned to Jura over half a dozen times, so I couldn’t agree more.
I love sitting in the bar admiring the sun burning down over the Small Isles, then feasting on boat-fresh local scallops and hill-fresh venison with a dram in hand. I am a fan of other island businesses too, such as the Island Bakehouse and Deer Island Rum.
Lussa Gin meanwhile was started in 2015 by a dynamic trio of women – Alicia, Claire & Georgina – who live at Jura’s north end. They told me “opportunities for work for women are limited on Jura, but we share a love of the place, a love of growing plants and a love of gin that inspired us to get started.” They infuse their gin with the 15 botanicals they grow or gather from Jura’s hills, coastline, woods and gardens. And the result? A delicious premium, award-winning, aromatic gin.
“Running a business on Jura has its challenges. Ferries go off, deliveries are missed and we rely on visitors for distillery sales and tours,” they added. “Equally we can offer a memorable experience here for those who make the journey and give them a glimpse into island life. The community and the landscape are what makes living here special and it’s also what makes our gin unique.”
I also talked to Jura Brewery, a small, family-run microbrewery. “Currently we’re in the depths of building work and to support the start-up of our local business we contract-brew our Pale Ale with pals in a small brewery in the Highlands,” they explained. Laughing Stag is their flagship ale – a light and easy drinking session ale with a subtle hoppy finish and a nod to the Yorkshire roots of Philippa – one side of the Yorkshire-Scottish Brewery partnership. The other is Martin – the Glaswegian builder – who “brings the brawn”.
“One day we hope to be doing more on the island, but for now we’re slowly sharing our ale with residents and visitors alike offering a no-fuss accompaniment to their real Jura experiences. There is booze for the beach, refreshment for the dance-till-dawn ceilidh, beverage for the bonfires and pints to wash down some delicious local pies when our pop-up TrALEr bar is in action.”
Jura Brewery told me the isle offers its challenges and pleasures in relatively equal amounts. The local entrepreneurial spirit is palpable and support from other small businesses is impressive on Jura, essential really when there are obvious hurdles to overcome with logistics, deliveries and hidden business costs.
“The seasonal nature of tourism on Jura inevitably impacts on how busy or quiet things can get,” Jura Brewery continued. “However, with two young children, a dog, the Brewery, a building business, a health and wellness business and a Croft with building projects left right and centre there’s really no rest for the wicked. Island life is unique and special. The rugged nature of Jura offers spectacular adventures and incredible wildlife. Then the village life brings vibrant social community experiences. It’s hard to be anonymous, which brings about a special kind of support that is hard to match elsewhere.”
The Scottish Islands Passport stamp is easy to find on Jura in Craighouse, but ask in the shop, distillery or hotel and you’ll make a new friend. Making friends is easy on Jura. I suggest buying one of the two excellent Scottish Islands Passport travelogues. The choice is between ‘Meet the Makers’ and ‘Shaping Our Islands’. Personally I wouldn’t chose and would just snare both of these handy travelogues, which are useful when planning an adventure to Jura, as well as on the island.
The same can be said for the Scottish Islands Passport app. You can use it to plan your visit, but also remember to download it so that you can benefit from all its information and insider tips when you cannot find a signal on the island. The community, of course, are also on hand on Jura to help out.
Orwell clearly didn’t feel the need to wrap himself in Jura’s community. He forged his magnum opus at the whitewashed, spartan house he rented at relatively remote Barnhill. He spent three years on Jura, leaving for Gloucestershire in January 1949, just months before 1984 was published. Orwell was never to return. Perhaps if he had wrapped himself in the warmth of Jura’s community the outlook of his seminal novel would have been less bleak, perhaps mitigated the darkness. The soaring community spirit of Jura is hard not to engage with and is as much a reason to visit as that epic sweep of nature that Jura paints in such glorious, inspiring giant brushstrokes.