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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And this is the new-fangled version:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
The sky to the rear of the bothy also turned a fetching shade of pink.
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…