Do not disturb
The remote Scottish island of Jura offers the ideal escape
For a quiet escape in August, Barack Obama heads to the golf courses of Martha’s Vineyard. Europe’s top politicians unwind on the Mediterranean coast or by Tuscan vineyards. But British Prime Minister David Cameron, travels to the lesser-known holiday spot of Jura, in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides archipelago. One sunny day recently, I set off for the misty, rugged island in search of solitude and an adventure.
Known for its secluded beauty and single-malt whisky, this little island is where George Orwell holed up in a farmhouse, far away from the distractions of London, and finished his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In a 1947 letter, he described the island as “completely wild” and “un-get-at-able”.
These days, it’s possible to get from London to Jura in about four hours, flying to the airport at Islay and then taking a quick ferry to Jura. But I am eager to take in some beautiful Highland scenery, so I take a more leisurely train-bus-ferry-ferry-bus route, ending up 22 hours later at the Jura Hotel, a cosy, family-run white lodge on the windswept southeast coast of the island.
I awake early but refreshed on my first morning. In the hotel’s dining room overlooking the coast, I eat a hearty vegetarian cooked breakfast and listen to the pitterpatter of rain against window.
The weather is brisk, but I am eager to explore, so, bundled up in sweaters and a waterproof jacket, I head out towards the walking trail recommended by the hotel welcome book. On a bicycle rented from the Jura Bike Hire shop near the hotel, I ride along the coast, pausing for a rest under a canopy of treetops, which shield me from the rain, and to breathe in the scent of flowers and fresh air. I have heard that thousands of red deer live on the island but, as I cycle, birds are my only company.
After a few kilometres, I leave my bike unlocked on the side of the road (the hotel receptionist has assured me it will be perfectly safe) and set out on a trail signposted as Evan’s Walk. I hike for an hour or so, past banks of wildflowers and over a small stream, and make it as far as one of the island’s three daunting mountains, known as the Paps of Jura, before admitting defeat and turning around. The track is so boggy that my shoes sink deep into the mud with every step.
Back at the hotel, the food is fresh and delicious. I’m a pescatarian, but I fall off the wagon with a thump; I can’t resist ordering lamb sourced from neighbouring Islay. The next night, the waitress shows me how to crack open fresh langoustines, fished from the waters around Jura, which I eat with new potatoes and a glass of wine and feel thoroughly content.
Less than 50km long and 11km wide in some places, with a single main road, Jura is easy to navigate. In addition to the Jura Hotel, Craighouse, the only village, has a church, a tearoom and a pub.
A library materialises every three weeks in the form of a van full of books. “It’s really nice having one of everything,” says Catherine McCallum, the owner of the hotel, who likes the island’s intimacy. “If everyone’s out, you know they’ll be at the pub.”
Alex Dunnachie, a tour guide who lives on the island, says he fell in love with Jura when he first visited from Glasgow three decades ago. “It’s just peaceful,” he says. “I go to bed and hear the last birds whistling, and I wake up and hear the first birds whistling.”
On my second day, Dunnachie and I drive north, past towering cliffs and towards George Orwell’s outpost, spotting seals swimming and deer with giant antlers. We turn onto a smaller road, which ends at a beach, surrounded by rocks, grass and a few stone houses. Our destination? A wooden stand with a handwritten sign advertising Tea on the Beach. In summer, visitors can help themselves to homemade cakes, tea and coffee from the table, for a donation. We both have a mug of tea, and some cake — a delicious lemon drizzle for me, chocolate for Dunnachie. Suddenly, spotting a trout or salmon in the shallows, he leaps to retrieve his fishing rod from the car. While I sip my tea and enjoy the breathtaking views of the cove, Dunnachie pursues the fish. (It gets away.)
Dunnachie drops me back at the hotel just in time for my small group tour of Jura’s whisky distillery, one of the island’s main drawcards. Though the distillery was established in 1810, and rebuilt in 1963, I learn from our tour guide, Danielle Batey, that the people of Jura made whisky in their homes with pot stills as far back as the 1600s. Batey takes us through a series of rooms, with whisky at different stages of production. “It smells a bit like bananas at this stage,” she says as we take turns sniffing the enormous vats of bubbling liquid.
At the end of the tour, I enjoy a dram of one of Jura’s staple whiskies, Jura Origin. On the advice of locals, I add a dash of water, which opens up the flavours and makes it easier to drink. Back at the hotel, the sun finally comes out. The light dances on the surface of the sea, and the dark waves that greeted me on my first day transform to glistening shades of blue and green. A local man plays the bagpipes as a passenger boat pulls away from the shore towards the mainland in the distance.
In the summer of 1946, Orwell wrote to a friend in London, inviting him to visit. “You might find it rather paintable here,” he wrote. “The colours on the sea are incredible, but they change all the time.” • jurahotel.co.uk • jurawhisky.com • visitscotland.com • isleofjura.scot
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Paps of Jura, top; Craighouse pier and distillery, above; Jura stag, below