On Friday, myself and Fiona set off for the north of Jura with a plan. Essentially, the plan was to stay at the Cruib Lodge bothy and Runtallain bothy and see what the weather would do. If the weather wasn’t great we’d have a potter around the coast in the Ruantallain area, gathering driftwood, beachcombing and exploring the many raised sea caves above the shore. If the weather was good, we had another plan. Plan B.
On Friday evening we were dropped off at Lagg by Konrad one of the Jura Bus drivers who is also the island’s photographer-in-chief. After looking at a house that’s for sale at Lagg, we walked the few miles north up the Long Road to Tarbert – the narrow isthmus where Jura is almost cut in two by Loch Tarbert. Half a mile up the road from Tarbert a path wends it’s way for over the boggy tussocks to the head of the loch, perhaps a mile distant. This is one of the few actual ‘paths’ on Jura and it also benefits from some waymarkers in the form of white painted stones.
Getting around the head of the loch is always a slightly awkward business and is much easier if the tide is right out, when you can just skip across the mud flats – exercising extreme caution of course. When the tide is in, there’s a rickety old bridge crossing the Abhainn Ghlean Aoistail where it flows into the loch. Happily, the tide was out and we crossed the mud flats and then climbed to the high ground flanking the head of the loch to the west. From here it’s a question of negotiating the often boggy and very tussocky terrain – using deer tracks where possible – and finding your way to the northern end of Loch ne Pearaich. Probably the best route to Cruib then involves heading south west above the western shore of the loch and following it’s outflow – again deer paths are useful – down to the salt marsh at Sàilean nam Màireach. Cross over to the neck of the isthmus to the west and climb over then drop down onto the mud flats and salt marsh at Learadail. Cross Learadail, heading for the obvious deer tracks climbing a gully onto the higher ground flanking the mud flats to the west. Once on the higher ground, follow deer paths south-west above Learadail and make for the southern end of a small, deer-fenced deciduous wood plantation. Cross the burn, making for the bay and there you’ll find Cruib Lodge tucked away. Shouldn’t take more than two hours from Tarbert. Hmm, that all sounds a bit like a guide book.
We had the benefit of beautiful spring-evening sunshine on our walk over, our only mishap being the usual stuffing my leg into a booby-trapped bog scenario, but hey-ho! The bothy’s previous visitors had left plenty of firewood, so we got a blaze going in the hearth, cooked the venison steaks on the trangia and unstopped the Glensainsburys malt. It’s not a bad old life.
The morning was a bit windy and there was plenty of darkly roiling cloud coming in from the west, so after some prevarication we decided to put Plan A into operation – that is, we opted to walk along the coast to Ruantallain at the western tip of the north shore of Loch Tarbert. Sure enough, soon after we left the bothy the rain came in and our decision felt like the right one. We followed Argocat tracks around to the glen through which the Garbh Uisge burn flows and after crossing the burn we climbed south-west out of the glen still following the ‘cat tracks. A little further on we started making our way south-west towards the shore while keeping to higher ground to avoid the worst of the boggy and tussocky terrain. By this point the rain had passed and the weather looked in danger of improving. We arrived on the shore near the navigation pillars at NR543814 and started making our way west to Ruantallain along this fascinating stretch of coastline. Further east the shoreline of the loch is estuarine and makes for difficult and uninspiring walking.
The two hours or so that it takes to walk from this point along the stretch of coast to Ruantallain is chock full of fascinating geological phenomena. Raised beaches, sea caves, natural arches, basalt dikes and rock stacks occur so frequently as to be commonplace. You’ve a good chance of spotting seals, otters and golden eagles along this stretch and you’ll definitely encounter small tribes of Jura’s wild goat population. The walking can be tough though, especially with a heavy pack, as there’s a fair amount of scrambling around involved and there’s very little in the way of even ground to walk on. Hence when we arrived at Ruantallain three hours after leaving Cruib, we’d a had a great walk but were a bit knackered.
Arriving at a bothy is always a great moment. You’ve finished your walk for the day, you can get your pack off, shelter from the weather if it’s inclement and think about getting a fire going. There’s always that thought as well: ‘will there be anyone else there?’ Of course it’s usually fine if there is and the people you meet at a bothy are almost always good company, but if I’m honest there’s always a slight feeling of relief arriving at a bothy and there’s no-one else there. I’d arrived here at Ruantallain a couple of years ago on the way around the west coast with a couple of mates only to find the whole place annexed by something called the Ultra Marathon. The ultra über-mensch were running around Islay and Jura pitting themselves against the landscape and the elements. Live and let live and all that, but it was a bit disappointing the way they’d taken the whole place over.
Anyway, on this fine day we turned up to find the bothy empty as anticipated, so we dumped our packs and got a brew going. The bothy itself is one room, with three old iron bed frames and a hearth, in a long building that was once two houses. The rest of the building is a private bothy used by the estate.
Moments after getting the trangia fired-up I heard an engine and going outside I saw an Argocat appear, descending a declivity in the cliffs behind the bothy. It was Craig Rozga, the Ruantallain Estate’s head gamekeeper, with his two wee girls and another chap. Craig’s mum and dad soon followed on foot looking for shed antlers on their walk over from nearby Bàgh Gleann Righ Mór, where they’d all come in by boat. The were just out for the day checking over the bothy and making sure the Argocat was running without problems as the estate’s owner was over for some fishing the following day. We had a chat with Craig and then left the Rozga clan to their business as we went off on a driftwood gathering mission.
A very enjoyable couple of hours was spent gathering stacks of wood from the shores around Ruantallain and collecting shed antlers. Red deer stags usually shed their antlers around late March and early April. I also relieved a dead stag of his headgear by means of the saw attachment on my Swiss army knife. Just the tool for the job. By the end of our stay we had quite a haul and so we left half a dozen at the bothy for Mr Rozga senior.
Poor Fiona despairs of the number of antlers hanging around our flat so I’ve promised to distribute the surplus among our daft friends.
By the time we returned to the bothy with our haul, the Rozga’s had left. The day had turned out to be fine but breezy so we just spent the early evening wandering around the endlessly fascinating environs of Ruantallain just enjoying being there.
By next morning the wind had dropped and it looked as if we might be in for some fine weather. Finally, the time to implement Plan B had arrived. The plan was to scale a few of the tops in Jura’s northern hinterland, starting with Cruib, continuing on to Rainberg Mór and then seeing if we had sufficient time and energy to tackle any more before heading down to the west coast and walking back along the shore to Ruantallain.
Throwing all the necessaries into one pack, we set off for the Ruantallain interior following ‘cat tracks east towards Gleann Righ Mór. Arriving above the Gleann, we turned inland following another ‘cat track towards Loch Righ Beag (the wee king’s loch). The sun was shining and there was a soft breeze – perfect walking conditions. I felt so relaxed and at one with the world that I didn’t bother to check the map when we reached the loch as I knew where we were heading. Or I thought I did. Well, there was an unscheduled ascent of Staon Bheinn, but it is a very modest-sized hill after all and by way of compensation there were excellent views in every direction – including the one we were supposed to be going in. The stocky bulk of Cruib, with it’s curious oblique striations, sat away to our north-east – exactly where it has always been. Before setting off again, we enjoyed the views awhile and then adjusted our course for Cruib.
We descended Staon Bheinn into a magnificent landscape of blue-black lochs and lochans shining darkly amid the straw-yellow moor grass and rust-red bracken. We negotiated this terrain without further mishap and were soon scaling the southern flank of Cruib. At 315 metres it’s not an especially big hill but our route involved traversing close heather cover and loose scree in places. Anyway, we were soon up at the trig point atop the slightly lower of the mountain’s two tops. The fantastic light conditions gave us pin-sharp views all around so we could clearly make out all the landscape features in every direction. We really had chosen the right day. Heading north-east, we soon dropped into the bealach traversing the mountain from south-east to north-west. We followed the bealach to its north-western end and the contoured around the flank of the hill to the north-east. There were fantastic views over to the west coast, with Colonsay beyond, and our northern horizon was dominated by Rainberg Mór, presiding over its domain of lochs and lochans.
We contoured along for a short while and then descended towards the southern end of Loch Mór Bealach na h-Imriche, which nestles at the southern foot of Rainberg Mór. Working our way around the western side of the loch, the only sounds were the swish and rustle of the dry moor grass against our gaiters and the rapid-fire chirupping of skylarks on the wing.
At 454 metres, Rainberg Mór is something more of a serious proposition than Cruib. However, a wide gully runs up and over the mountain from south to north on an even gradient, making the exercise of climbing it that much easier. As we climbed, the views to the south opened up, with the Sound of Jura, Kintyre, Arran and even Northern Ireland clearly visible to the south-east. Directly to the south, the Paps and southern Jura rose up beyond Loch Tarbert.
We made for the central and highest of the Mountain’s several tops at 459 metres, which is about 750 metres south-east as the crow flies from the summit named as Rainberg Mór on the map. We stopped for a sandwich, but I felt I had to trot along to the other summit while we were in the neighbourhood – it would have been rude not to. Fiona stayed to guard the chocolate. It was a journey well worth making for the fine views, but also for the spectacularly poised rock that has probably looked as if it was just about to roll down the mountain for thousands of years.
We still had some way to go and the day was passing by, so we elected to give Dubh Bheinn – the next mountain on our itinerary – a miss until another time. We descended the main gully to the north, crossing and re-crossing the burn flowing down it. We arrived at the head of Gleannnan Clach Reamhar by a splendid cascade that looked as if it might have been installed by a team of Japanese landscape gardeners. Now that further mountains were off the agenda, we headed west down the glen towards the coast, following the gently meandering Allt an Tairbh. En route, Fiona took advantage of a perfect little plunge pool for a rather heroic dip in the cold, peat-dark water.
Rather ironically, once we were on our way again after Fiona had dried off and got dressed, she promptly fell in the river and got soaked. Still any dampness and discomfort were soon forgotten when we arrived at the transcendentally beautiful Shian Bay, after having sent many dozens of red deer fleeing in every direction at our approach.
After perching on a sea-freighted log to admire the majesty of Shian Bay awhile, we continued on our way, heading south-east along the coast back towards Ruantallain. It’s only seven kilometres or so to Ruantallain from Shian Bay, though it takes a while to walk the distance on account of the raised beaches and other awkward terrain to be traversed, but also because of the amazing caves, natural arches, basalt dikes and other geological phenomena that abound here.
We finally got back to the bothy after nearly ten hours’ walking, tired but basking in the warm afterglow of a truly spectacular day’s outing. After sunset, we got a fire going and sat down to our dinner of tuna fandango washed down with our 100ml ration of Glensainsburys. Tomorrow we would be walking out to the head of the loch and thence back to real life, but for now the world beyond the bothy’s hearth might just as well have been an elaborate fiction.
On the subject of north Jura’s hills, James Boulter’s marvellous blog has a great and occasionally hair raising account of a trip he made there last October.