Cave Dwellers of Jura’s Wild West Coast (Part 2)

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During the night the wind picked up and brought with it a few showers from the west; I lay awake in our tent for a while feeling entirely cosy as the rain pattered busily on the rip-stop nylon, my wife and Labrador snoring companionably away beside me. Seeing as we’d turned in at around 9pm I still felt fully refreshed when I decided it was time for tea at 7am. Obviously it was still dark as I lurched the short distance to the bothy; the wee, wood-panelled room still retained some of the warmth of the previous evening’s fire. I lit the candles on the mantlepiece, and got a brew on.

Fiona and Dougal joined me for breakfast and together we watched the ‘changeable’ weather as it passed by the window. Still, weather is always much better when you’re out amongst it so we saddled-up and moved on out on our day’s expedition. Heading north along the glacial cliffs of the west coast we could see bands of rain queuing up behind Colonsay to the west, awaiting their turn to administer a good lashing as punishment for the two days of dry weather we’d enjoyed beforehand; hey-ho, you can’t be being feart of the weather in Scotland.

An angry squall set about us as we descended into Breinn Phort and we briefly hid under an overhang in the cliff. The rain eased and off we set out along the raised shore platform, following deer and goat paths winding between rock stacks and outcrops. We soon passed beneath two cave entrances arranged close together up a slope from the shore platform and I was reminded of a memorable encounter I’d once had here.

It was late spring a few years ago and I’d been mooching along this stretch of the coast, investigating the many caves; I almost passed by these two as I’d seen plenty already, but I was drawn by the curtain of water droplets raining down across the entrance of the larger, left-hand cave. Sunlight lit the sparkling droplets as they splashed off the rocky floor of the cave mouth and when I looked down into the chamber there stood a young stag, sunlit  in its brand-new, fox-red summer coat. The stag gazed back at me with a keen look of fear and I knew that he knew he couldn’t get past me. In this brief, still moment the air seemed to tingle with tension before he lurched into the dark recesses at the rear of the cave. I stood transfixed, my attention focused on the muffled sound of his hooves and before I could think what to do, the stag exploded out of the mouth of the right-hand cave next to me. He shot down the slope and skittered clumsily across the large pebbles on the beach below, like a gangly teenager on ice skates for the first time. I was amazed. It took me a moment before I could bring myself to go and confirm the obvious – that the ends of the caves were connected by a stag-sized hole through the rock.

Anyway, we’d not seen an awful lot of wildlife thus far this morning, but that was about to change. The west coast of Jura is home to around 600-700 wild goats, which are likely descended from domestic animals abandoned when crofters were forced to leave their homes and livestock in the mid-nineteenth century. A more fanciful notion has it that the feral goats of the Hebrides are descended from animals that swam ashore from a couple of shipwrecked vessels of the Spanish Armada that were lost in these waters. Whatever their provenance, I was aware that for unknowable reasons of their own, the goats generally have their kids in January – perhaps they’ve read their Darwin? I was a little concerned how Dougal might react if he encountered any wee kids, but I was surprised that we’d seen none. I was just commenting on this to Fiona when Dougal, a short way ahead of us, suddenly barked.

He was crouching somewhat nervously as a very wee goatlet indeed bleated at him inquiringly. This little critter was so fresh out of the oven that the umbilical cord was still dangling and the placenta sac lay nearby. The kid seemed to be unafraid, which is more than can be said for Dougal. Anyway, we ushered he dog away and spotted the mother watching from a rocky outcrop above us. We moved on quickly so she could get back to her sprog.

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We continued wending our merry way along the shore, staggering across beaches of large pebbles and squelching through tracts of perma-bog. The wildlife was now much in evidence with sizeable herds of deer and tribes of goats fleeing at our approach; it was like a damp, Scottish version of one of those natural history documentaries about the Serengeti. Dougal was a bit puffed-up as if he imagined that all these beasties were scared of him rather than alarmed, as they most likely were, by mine and Fiona’s variously orange and red waterproof jackets.

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Soon enough, Shian Bay came into view; a welcome sight as it was definitely approaching lunch-o’clock and there’s no finer picnic spot than it’s own silver-sanded beach. However, a posse of several large shaggy goats had failed to flee our advance in the standard fashion and Dougal was upon them as soon as they realised their error. He only wished to show them who was boss, but I called him back for a stern lecture on his responsibilities as an ambassador for all Glaswegian Labradors, when on holiday. He didn’t seem all that impressed.

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The rain had gone off, so we sat a while on a large log enjoying the vista from Shian Bay west across the Firth of Lorn to Colonsay and south-west to Islay.

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Further bands of rain were beginning to gang up behind Colonsay once again so we set off sharpish, also aware that we had limited daylight to reach our objective and make it ‘home’ in good time. We continued along the shore platform a while before heading back to the low, glacial cliff-tops once again to aid progress. We enjoyed a slightly tricky crossing of the Allt an Tairbh (River of the Bull) then had a quick look at the Eas Allt an Tairbh – no prizes for deducing what ‘eas’ means in Gaelic.

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A little further along the top, then we descended to the undercliff world once again, clonking across beaches of huge cobbles, sloshing through boggy marshes and poking our noses in caves until a final slope led us up to the rear of the former habitat of Jura’s last full-time cave dweller – the artist, Julie Brook.

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Julie built a shelter in this cave and lived and worked here for several extended periods in the early 1990s, including one sojourn of an entire year. Here’s an interesting article from The Independent. Julie painted a number of large canvases and created various ephemeral ‘environmental’ artworks including my personal favourite, her ‘firestacks‘. At low tide Julie would build a large cairn with a hollow at the top in which she’d place driftwood. When the tide came in she would paddle out to the cairn and light the fire. Good stuff, eh?

We had a good look around the cave and found several traces of her time here: a barley-twist carved stick, a carrier bag from the Tate Modern and a large wooden brace with rusted iron rivets which she’d carved with the words ‘ What seas has the ship sailed’.

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It does indeed look like a ship from a childrens’ fairytale book. We had a good look round and took some snaps, but it was soon time to be on our way.

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We hot-footed it back along the cliff-tops to save time and once we were beyond Shian Bay, the sun emerged in a glorious display of late-afternoon low winter light.

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We were back at the bothy before dusk, though the sun had been swallowed-up by cloud once more.

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A very pleasant evening was enjoyed around the bothy fire before we hit the tent for another early night.

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Up before dawn, a leisurely morning was spent gathering firewood in a variety of weather, including energetic hail showers.

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Around midday we set off back to Cruib Lodge bothy, retracing our outward route. The weather settled down – cold, but only a light breeze and no rain. The walk was surprisingly tiring, perhaps it was a hangover from the previous day’s six hour scramble around the west coast’s nooks and crannies.

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The walk was pleasant and uneventful apart from a few minor dog-goat-deer incidents, but we were glad to arrive back at the bothy after about four hours. Soon after we had arrived, however, we discovered that TLF had lost her gloves, which she’d taken off and clipped to her pack along the way. As we would be leaving before dawn the next day, I was sure that no gloves would be bad news. TLF was sure she’d taken them off after the river crossing at Garbh Uisge, around 25 minutes walk back the way we’d come. I dropped my pack and set off back the way again; Dougal followed then stopped, looked at me as if to say ‘you are joking?’, but then gamely kept me company as I retraced our route. The light was fading and a pair of black gloves could easily be missed. We walked all the way back to Garbh Uisge to no avail. However, when heading back to the bothy again, there they were, yippee! Cups of tea all round back at the bothy!

The next morning was indeed fresh; we set off at ten to eight so we could get back to the car and make the 10.40 ferry back to Islay. The tide was right up so our route back around Learadail and then the head of Loch Tarbert was made more difficult – the dawn light made up for it though.

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Good thing we did leave at ten to eight, though, as we made the ferry with two minutes to spare!

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20 responses

  1. Just love Dougal’s expression there – he looks like he’s got his ears closed to your lecture!

    Superb light in some of those photos, though it looked like it was a touch soggier than your first day. We’ve obviously got to get over there at some point!

    And I don’t want any of Dougal’s ‘goat tips’ getting to Tilly’s ears. We’re only just starting to relax around sheep. Southern Upland sheep seem to especially interest Tilly – must be the accent.

  2. Thanks, Chrissie, actually the weather was really quite enjoyable in a bracing sort of way; much easier to enjoy when you’re not carrying a girt big pack!

    In fairness to Young Dougal, he was merely ‘seeing them off’; as soon after the goats ran away he’d come back, which is a relief, though in an ideal world he’d not be bothered by goats, deer or any other critters. Hmmm.

  3. Good to see that it finally rained Pete, no visit to Jura would be complete without the wet stuff!

    Rich and I were grateful for the shelter of Julie’s cave on our visit, now uninhabitable due to the years of goat dung on the floor. You would end up with lungs full of dried poo if you stayed there now. The stuff on our shoes soon rehydrated when we went back outside.

    Reuben needs to teach that young whipper snapper Doug how to behave………..

  4. Great article and beautiful photographs, Pete. You have really inspired me to go and explore the west coast of Jura. I’ve been going to Islay regularly since 2006 (I live in Edinburgh) and I absolutely love it – the beaches, the cliffs, the lakes. But recently my interest has swung towards the wilderness and mountains of Jura and this winter I’ve spent hours poring over the OS map – even just looking at the map gets my adrenalin going! Just following up the west coast.. raised beach, raised beach, cave, arch, cave, arch etc. Amazing. I have a plan brewing at the moment for an expedition in July (not ideal but that’s when school ends) and I think about Jura every day. I’ve just got back from a week on Islay – the weather was too good to be true – and I climbed Beinn a Chaolais but I wasn’t able to get to the west coast. I was wondering, which bothies on Jura are open for public use? I gather the MBA manages Cruib and Glengarrisdale but you mention Ruantallain – are there others on Jura?

    • Hello Archie, the bothies you’ve listed are the only ones on Jura; Ruantallain is an estate bothy with one room (bed frames, hearth) given over for public use – it really is in a magnificent spot. July isn’t ideal in terms of the bracken, ticks and midges, but so long as you’re well prepared – which I’m sure you are – then there are the advantages of longer days and drier ground. You’ll probably encounter more people – yachties, kayakers and more teachers backpacking!- but there’s plenty of room. I envy anyone making their first visit to the WCJ; try to give yourself plenty of time if you can afford to, the wildlife is abundant and spectacular – otters, golden and white-tailed eagles, hen harriers etc.

      I’d recommend investing in a copy of the wee Cicerone guidebook primarily because it shows where it’s possible walk along the shore, which to my mind is the best bit about the WCJ, because of the caves, beaches, natural arches etc. If you’re after any other info please feel free to get in touch; I hope you have a splendid trip.

      • Many thanks for your advice. It looks like I will be camping as well as staying in bothies. I will definitely get your book as well.

    • Book acquired! I really like it; thank you for including explanations of the Gaelic names and talking about the geology – I find that very interesting. Also good to see the Ardnave-Sanaigmore-Saligo walk – definitely one of the most imposing places on Islay. And I look forward to doing the northern walk too.
      I was wondering if the waterfall on p82 is the one at 458763?

      • Hello Archie, thanks very much for your kind words. It really does make the researching worthwhile to know that someone appreciates – for example – the Gaelic names etc.
        If by the ‘northern walk’ you’re referring to the walk from Bunnahabhain to Rhuvaal etc, then I have to say it’s an absolutely cracking walk – especially from Rhuvaal along the northern coast.
        The waterfall on p82 is indeed the one at 458763 – the outflow of the Allt Bun an Eas: ‘burn at the foot of the waterfall’.

        All the best!

  5. Yep the Bunnahabhain walk does look awesome!
    I was wondering what you do for water at Ruantallain – the map shows that there isn’t a decent stream, but there is a little lake – is the water in that OK? (I usually boil water too). Unless the stream flowing SSW into An Sailean bay is sufficient?

  6. The lochan in front of the bothy is fine for drinking water, though you may want to boil it – I never have and haven’t had any problems, despite once finding a grey seal pup swimming around in it!

    The burn flowing SSW into An Sailean bay at 509830 is usually sufficient, it’s just a wee bit of a walk.

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