Glengarrisdale Bay was home to the last working croft on the west coast of the isle of Jura, which has long since been abandoned. Like the rest of Jura’s west coast, Glengarrisdale is no longer inhabited. Glengarrisdale bothy, which provides shelter for walkers, stalkers, kayakers and assorted refugees from urban life, is itself an old crofters’ cottage that was inhabited until just after the Second World War.
There are few sights that gladden my heart so much as the red roof and white walls of Glengarrisdale bothy coming into view, having weaved a sinuous route around the craggy west coast of Jura or having crossed the island’s boggy interior. Even though I know it’s there before I see it – across the bay – beyond the next headland, my heart gives an extra little skip of recognition. When out in the hills, there’s always a sense of relief when the bothy or mountain refuge that is your destination comes into view; all the more so in wet and wild weather with the last light fading.
Approaching Glengarrisdale bothy across the bay or from the glen, I look for signs of occupation. Are there deer nearby, is the door open, are there curling tendrils of wood smoke rising from the chimney? It’s almost always the case that the folk you meet in a bothy or refuge are good company. However, I always find myself hoping the place is empty, that I – or we – will have it to ourselves. In around a dozen visits to Glengarrisdale, I’ve not yet encountered anyone else there.
I first came to Glengarrisdale with Fiona, on our first walk around the west coast of Jura. We were still just friends then as we had been for some years. It was this trip that changed all that – and yes we are still friends too! I think sharing the wonderful and challenging experience of this walk couldn’t fail to work its magic. Moving swiftly on…
I’d returned several times with Fiona and other friends before I came here on my own for the first time. I’d wondered at how other visitors managed being here on their own. Peaceful and lovely as it is, it’s also a little bit spooky to my mind, but then my internal scaredy-cat needs little provocation before it leaps out and runs around screeching it’s little head off.
Anyway, it was winter and I needed to be off around the west coast, reconnoitering for the Cicerone guide book. I’d camped the previous night at Kinuachdrachd in freezing, windy conditions and I was looking forward to the bothy’s shelter, getting a fire going and, er… sitting on my own in this silent, dark, stone-built dwelling with the flickering candlelight chasing obscure fleeting shadows around the dark corners of the room, while outside in the storm-dark night the restless spirits of those brutally slain at the Battle of Aros Castle would rouse themselves and stalk across the glen…
Actually it was fine. In fact I think it has to have been one of the most profoundly peaceful experiences I’ve ever had. Those first five days out there on my own were a powerful experience for me; I was surprised at how content I was in my own company and I’ve been an antisocial bastard ever since.
The bothy stands on land owned by the Ardlussa estate, though it is now maintained by the excellent Mountain Bothies Association (MBA), which looks after around 100 such refuges in remote and often mountainous environments in Scotland, as well as a few in northern England and Wales. The bothies are owned by landowners who allow the MBA to maintain them as basic shelters for walkers, climbers and others. Maintenance work is carried out by work parties of volunteers. It is the responsibility of those staying at a bothy to ensure that it is left in good order for the next users.
The bothy itself has two rooms and a tool store downstairs with the attic space given over for sleeping. Some sleeping platforms have recently been installed in the downstairs rooms. One of the downstairs rooms has a hearth, the other a small, pot-bellied stove. There tends not to be much driftwood in Glengarrisdale Bay, so it’s often necessary to wander along the coast a bit to gather some. The water from Glengarrisdale River is perfectly safe to drink and has a wonderful peaty taste
Glengarrisdale Bay is a wonderful spot, whatever the time of year or weather conditions; when it is fair there are fine views out over the bay towards Iona, Mull, the Garvellachs and Scarba and on a clear night the canopy of stars is beguiling. In wind and rain the rocky coastline is magnificent, especially when admired from within the bothy with a driftwood fire ablaze in the hearth. If you hang around Glengarrisdale with your binoculars you’ve a good chance of seeing some interesting birds, such as merlins, short-eared owls, hen harriers and perhaps golden eagles or sea eagles. Common and Atlantic grey seals frequently bob around in the bay and otters patrol close to the shore. Deer and goats come down to the shore in the evening to graze on the kelp and some say that the seaweed in their diet gives Jura venison a distinctive flavour. During the rutting season of late September and October your dreams may be infiltrated by the throaty barking of hormonal stags.
Reading through the visitors’ books at the bothy, it is apparent that there are a number of people (myself included) who make frequent pilgrimages to Glengarrisdale. I always really enjoy Nigel Murphy’s notes in the book. Nigel lives in Glasgow and obviously comes to Glengarrisdale for a few days’ retreat every now and then. His entries include detailed accounts of all the wildlife action going on in the vicinity, together with his thoughtful reflections on his time spent here. Nigel always signs off at the end of his visits with ‘peace and love’ – a sentiment that might seem anachronistic in our sneering contemporary culture, but it doesn’t seem out of place in these expansive surroundings.
Most people look after the place, keeping the bothy clean (in the circumstances) and tidy as well as leaving some firewood for the next visitors. When I was last there in April, the previous inhabitant had been a German woman by the name of Nicole who had literally spent her entire four day stay spring cleaning the place! Not everyone looks after the place though; some people still think it’s okay to leave their rubbish in bothies and refuges. As well as being selfish and ignorant, this encourages vermin and might persuade the landowners to withdraw public access. However, these people are definitely a minority and hopefully exposure to some of Nigel’s peace and love will change their ways.
Although there are no traces remaining today, Glengarrisdale was once home to Aros Castle a stronghold of the Macleans for several centuries. The Macleans once held the entire northern half of Jura, but in 1745 the land was forfeit because of their loyalty to the Stuart cause. In 1647 Glengarrisdale was the scene of a battle between the Macleans and the Campbells and many of the Macleans were killed. A human skull believed to be a relic of the battle sat for many years under a shelf of rock in a cave known as Maclean’s Skull. Local belief held that if the skull was moved it would always return to the same spot. It disappeared in 1976.
Neil McKechnie, who I would guess was the grandson of Angus in the above picture, spent his early childhood years growing up here, between 1928 and 1935. Neil celebrated his 80th birthday here in 2008 and still makes visits to the bothy with friends. Possibly the last permanent inhabitant of the croft was Kate Johnson who lived on the croft during the Second World War. Discovering the body of a German seaman washed ashore, she carried the corpse across the island and delivered it to the authorities. As Peter Youngson records:
She was paid a small bounty for her trouble, and was later asked by a local inhabitant how she had managed such a feat of strength, and how she felt about it all. She was reported as having been unperturbed by the experience, but expressed some disappointment that there had only been the one sailor!1
In May 1946, George Orwell took up residence at Barnhill near the island’s northern extremity, where he wrote what was provisionally entitled The Last Man in Europe, but was finally published as Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell came to Glengarrisdale for camping trips with his young son, Richard – navigating the infamous Gulf of Corryvreckan in his small boat to get here. The Corryvreckan is the narrow strait between Jura and Scarba and the often turbulent confluence of the Firth of Lorn and the Sound of Jura. The tidal convergence of conflicting currents in the Gulf are catalysed by a submerged pyramidal rock, known as Caillich – The Hag, that generates an infamous whirlpool of some considerable power. In August 1947, when returning from a camping trip on the west coast with Richard, his sister Avril, two nephews and a niece, Orwell steered his small boat into the gulf and rapidly got into difficulties. The boat’s outboard motor was wrenched off in the violent tumult of water and disaster was narrowly avoided as the party managed to scramble to safety when the boat capsized. It’s amazing the risks some people will take to visit Glengarrisdale!
After far too long stuck at home in front of the computer, I’ll be off to Jura in a couple of weeks time, with Fiona and a couple of friends. First stop, Glengarrisdale. I wonder if, when the bothy comes into view, there’ll be the tell-tale wisps of wood smoke drifting from the chimney…