Cave Dwellers of Jura’s Wild West Coast (Part 1)

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It had been over two years since our last visit to Jura. Far too long. We’ve been busily marching around various other Hebridean isles in the meantime, which has been very excellent indeed, but for me there’s nowhere quite as profoundly wonderful as Jura’s west coast.

Four days to rub together and the extension of the Road Equivalent Tariff to the Kennacraig – Islay ferry service meant that we could leave Glasgow at 6.30am and pull into a small parking area near the head of Jura’s Loch Tarbert by 2pm – leaving enough time for the walk out to Cruib Lodge bothy before dusk.

As we set off along the intensely squelchy path leading down to the head of the loch, the sky was overcast, though it was still and didn’t look like raining. As luck would have it, the tide was right out so we could cut straight across the mud flats at the head of the loch – this is safe to do just so long as the tide really is right out, otherwise don’t try this yourselves, kids. This was really handy as the ‘high tide’ route formerly crossed a rickety old bridge fording the Abhainn Gleann Aoistail, which feeds into the loch, but this washed away a while back – presenting the old ‘wet boots right at the start of the trip’ scenario.

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Gaining the higher ground across the head of the loch, we followed a series of deer paths across boggy, tussocky ground to arrive at the head of Loch na Pearaich, a sizeable fresh water loch that lies hidden from all sides unless approached from the north. As we skirted the loch, Dougal was showing something of an interest in this large, appealing body of water; as he was carrying his panniers with his blanket and 4 kilos of dried food, I wasn’t keen on him going for a dip. Every time he tipi-toed up to the loch edge I admonished him with a stern ‘Dougal! NO!’ and he’d slink back along the righteous path.

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However, as I paused to take the above picture near the outflow of the loch, the pesky mutt seized his moment. Dougal is a black belt at the canine belly-flop and the resulting ‘kerr-SPLASH!!’ was all the louder for the inclusion of the panniers.

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Seemingly unable to hear my imprecations to leave the water with immediate effect, he motored around for a couple of minutes looking like he was attached to a pair of outboard engines. When he’d decided that he’d had enough, however, the banks of the loch were too sheer for him to haul his sorry ass out, hence the ‘you sort it out’ expression he’s wearing below.

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We continued on our way with no further ‘amusing’ diversions and after skirting the mud flats at Learadail, the chimneys of the bothy came into view. Cruib Lodge bothy was renovated by the MBA last spring and a mighty fine job they’ve done too. This is what it looked like in 2010:

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And this is the new-fangled version:

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Though Cruib sits by the shore of Loch Tarbert, it’s so far in towards the head of the loch that there’s seldom much driftwood to be gleaned. For this reason I’d carried in a stack of kindling and newspaper. However, in my mind’s eye was a picture of the interior of the bothy that James Bongo had sent me after he and Rich Baldwin passed by the bothy in November; in said image a box near the hearth held a large pile of sawn up fence posts. Of course I knew these would have been used by now… But no, there they still were and the bothy book confirmed that James and Rich had been the last visitors in early November. Hence a fine blaze was enjoyed; if you look carefully you can see Dougal’s head by the hearth gently steaming as he dried out from his earlier swim. Happily his dried food had stayed that way – I wasn’t looking forward to the smell of soggy dog biscuit mush over the next few days

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After a dinner of venison burgers, rice and veg and several mugs of tea we settled down and savoured the profound silence of the still Hebridean night, disturbed only by Dougal’s gentle snoring.

The morning dawned seemingly intent on continuing the theme of the previous day’s weather – this was fine by us as there was only the lightest breeze and though cool it wasn’t freezing. Rain seemed unlikely. Off we set, initially inland following an argocat track that snakes through undulating terrain before descending into the glen through which the Garbh Uisge burn flows.

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A river crossing, a short climb and then we left the track, heading south-west to follow a series of deer paths along low ridges to reach the shore once again. Here the estuarine shore gives gains a more coastal topography and the mud flats give way to pebble beaches and sandy bays. Here too are the first signs of the geological phenomena so characteristic of Jura’s west coast; raised pebble beaches, rock stacks, natural arches, exposed basalt dikes and dozens of large caves. All of these features were once beneath the sea, but were exposed at the end of the last glacial period of the Holocene in a process known as glacio-isostatic uplift. Here’s an explanation should you wish one.

Though I’ve walked this stretch of the shore many times before, I’d somehow failed to notice the structure in the picture below, which we came across soon after reaching the shore. This was a very solid structure built around a sizeable cave with double-thickness stone block walls to the outer room in which Fiona and Dougal are pictured. The outer room had a fireplace and had once had some form of plaster lining the interior walls. The room inside the cave featured the very ancient remains of an iron bed frame; two iron tethering rings fixed to the rock walls inside the cave suggested to me that this was perhaps built as a shepherds’ or stalkers’ bothy.

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We continued on our way, following deer and wild goat paths through the tricky terrain, scrambling up or through rock walls or basalt dikes bisecting the shore like natural groynes. There were plenty of red deer and wild goats around and Dougal was quite keen to see them off lest they should pose any threat to our persons; happily, however, he was happy to leave it there as I didn’t want to have to leash him given that the terrain is quite tough going as it is.

We scrambled around into a wide bay – Bagh Righ Mor – and came to stretch of glacial cliffs dotted with caves including Uamh Righ – the King’s Cave. It is a deep cave and Dougal was feart in case there were bears and wolves laying in wait in the cavernous depths. The paleantologist, John Mercer, excavated the cave in 1971 and noted ‘over a hundred poorly made crosses’  that were ‘battered’ onto the walls. Mercer thought this cave might have been used as a place of worship by islanders living in the area clandestinely after the effective clearance of some of the population during the mid-nineteenth century.

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No wooden crosses remain but there are a number of cruciform etchings visible on the walls to the rear of the cave, giving the place an eerie feel.

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Mercer also discovered tools and animal bones in the cave that pointed to Iron Age occupation. At the mouth of another cave we found a disturbed shell midden chiefly comprised of limpet and oyster shells. This detritus had an ancient look about it and I wonder if its origin might have been the mesolithic hunter-gatherers who’s presence Mercer also traced to various sites around the island.

Hunger got the better of us and we soon stopped for a sandwich though we were only an hour from our day’s destination; we explored a few more caves and enjoyed the wonderful peace pervading our surroundings. Soon enough we continued along the raised shore platform beneath the glacial cliffs for a while before dropping down to the pebble beaches fringing An Sailean bay. The Ruantallain bothy came into view prompting a deep feeling of affection that reminded me that in my own personal universe this is one of my very favourite places.

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We gathered driftwood along the shore and made for the bothy which occupies a third of the building that was formerly shepherd’s cottages and – surprisingly – an inn once upon a time. This bijou little shelter has also been spruced up since our last visit and  a couple of mirrors have been added as have a couple of pictures, including a photographic portrait of a previous Laird of Ruantallain:

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This is all well and good but Dougal isn’t used to mirrors and he seemed to regard them as portals into another dimension; every time myself or Fiona passed one he would start barking until we reassured him by greeting the people on the other side to show they bore us no malice.

Having installed ourselves we went out to sit on the headland to watch the sun set over Islay.

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The sky to the rear of the bothy also turned a fetching shade of pink.

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Fiona and Dougal returned to the bothy, but I went down to the rocky shore on the west of the headland. There I got to watch a large dog otter doing the backstroke at length between hunting sorties. Eventually he was alerted to my presence and cut a dash.  I headed back to the bothy where the pleasing sight of smoke drifting from the chimney greeted me. I put the tent up outside the bothy (the iron bed frames in the bothy aren’t so comfy) and went in to get dinner on the go and plan the following day’s expedition…

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20 responses

  1. What a nice surprise to have a long overdue WOW post land in the inbox…!
    Jura always looks suitably tempting on blogs, would it be a practical place to visit with our campervan Pete? We’ve pretty much decided we fancy a fortnight on the islands this Easter but, having never visited them before, don’t really know where to plump for first.
    Tilly was very impressed with Dougal’s sneaky leap into the water – it’s the sort of thing she does too. I’m definitely going to have to wrap everything in her panniers in waterproof bags!

    • Thanks Chrissie. I’d really recommend the Ooter Hebs for a first Hebridean campervan expedition. If you drive to uig on Skye and take the ferry from there to Tarbert on Harris, the crossing is only 1hr 20mins; with the Road Equivalent Tariff it’s now much more affordable. From Tarbert you can travel around the whole of Harris and Lewis – there’s much to see and some cracking walks. The beaches are superlative and the Long Island has a wonderful atmosphere. There are lots of great places you can park up including a few free spots with loos etc such as Luskentyre and Huisinis on Harris, which also happen to have two of the world’s finest beaches.

      From Harris you can also travel south through Berneray, the Uists and Barra using the smaller ferries; there’s such a thing as the Island Hopscotch ticket which makes multiple journeys between the islands cheaper. You could easily spend two months campervanning around the Ooter Hebs and not run out of new things to do.

      Dougie’s biscuits were packed in the latest high tech outdoor kit – two thick plastic bags. Did the job!

      • Thanks ever so much for all that info Pete. I thought you’d have some good suggestions after the great job you did of helping Geoff plan his recent French jaunt!
        I’ve even printed your reply off and put it with our holiday stuff, ready for when we start firming up our plans! 🙂

      • I can thoroughly recommend Richard Barrett’s Cicerone guidebook ‘Walking on Harris and Lewis’, it has some great routes of varying lengths and strenuousness as well as loads of useful info and good history, geology, flora, fauna sections.

  2. Good to see Writes of way back in action Pete. Its like when one of your old favourite bands decides to reform and you find they can still play……………

    I really enjoy a blog post from the queeen of Jura, having visited a couple of times your writing immediately transforms me back. Surprised to read that Cruib had not been visited since I was there with Rich. A super bothy now eh?

    I do wish that those rusty beds were removed from Ruantallain, they take up too much space and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to sleep on them. I used the floor.

    Anyway, see you in two weeks tomorrow for the next adventure. I’ll keep the desitination quiet as keen not to jinx it.

    Chrissie I have visited Jura in the Bongo before, I spent a night at the road end, although this probably is not suitable for your bigger van. The single track road along the island does have a derth of good wild camping spots, although I did spot one not far from the ferry. There is also one where the main path goes off to the Paps. However the best bit of the island is a long way from the road. Also I probably would not take a dog outside of winter as it is ticktastic!

  3. Thanks, JB. Not everyone writes in the bothy book for sure, but that pile of logs was untouched for sure. Cruib really is a cracking bothy now – I like all the windows in the westernmost room, but the middle room is definitely the cosiest.

    I think the improvements at Cruib were likely undertaken by Craig, the Ruantallain Estate gamekeeper, but it would be a big ask to replace the beds. They are rubbish though – I know, having attempted sleep on them on several occasions!

    No ticks at all this trip; I know it’s winter, but I’ve still managed to pick the blighters up in December and January in the past.

    Yep, two weeks tomorrow, all looking good.

  4. I’ve been going through WOW withdrawal symptoms so good to see you’re back. I keep planning Easter to trips to Jura but my so called mates keep letting me down – they’ve done it again this year. I’ll just have to put up with virtual visits so get that next post up!

    That picture of Dougal trying to climb out of the water is a peach 🙂

  5. Cheers Andy! Who needs ‘mates’ that let you down? How about doing a solo trip? First time I went to spend four days backpacking on the west coast of Jura on my own, I was a bit nervous, but it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Having also been with a group of five, I felt that it was probably a bit much for the context. Two or three tops, I reckon.

    • I know, I’ve told them they’re lightweights. In truth we keep waiting for an Easter when we can all spare a full week so we do full justice to the island and see all the cost has to offer and climb the Paps. Living down in darkest Herefordshire means it’s a hell of trip to Jura so I want to make the most of it. Also having a young family means my “Andy time” is limited. Too many trips without the missus and kids and they’ll be in a jar on the mantlepiece if you get my drift 🙂

      • That they’d be happy to have them on display, if unattached, does at least suggest a degree of affection…

        Most of my mates have kids and proper jobs, so I’m familiar with the Faustian pacts that are sometimes required in order to gain a few precious days’ leave of absence. Still, if you’d kept it on the mantlepiece…

    • Thanks for your comment, Jenny. I sincerely hope you have a splendid jaunt to Jura next month. If you wish to take Dougal with you this can certainly be arranged, though you’ll have to collect him from Glasgow!

  6. Really enjoyable blogs Pete – you guys are hardy, doing the west coast at this time of year!

    We found the remedy for a dog that shows too close an interest in goats: to encounter a big billy. Our dog met his match like that: the goat stood his ground, and it’s made him a bit more wary ever since!

    A note for Chrissie – people often wild camp with camper vans and/or tents at Corran Sands, about two miles north of Craighouse. An idyllic spot if it’s not too midgy.

  7. Hello Dave, I have to say that winter, late autumn and early spring are my favourite times to be out and about on Jura – and the rest of the Hebrides for that matter. In the winter the bracken’s down, the midges, clegs and ticks are in abeyance and you’re almost guaranteed to have the west coast to yourself.

    Myself and Fiona agreed that Dougal would run a mile if a goat stood its ground, in fact we startled one out of small cave and Dougal fled in blind terror – until he realised the goat was actually running away. His ‘seeing off’ goats or deer is just a bit of puff and I’m not concerned that he’d try to chase one down; nonetheless I’m hoping that familiarity will breed contempt in this case!

    Thanks for the tip for Chrissie, I’ll make sure she’s aware of the Corran Sands option.

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