Paps in a Diaphanous T-Shirt
Last summer, my friend Fiona worked as a SYHA warden at the Port Charlotte youth hostel on Islay. When I visited her there at the summer’s end, we made the short ferry crossing of the Sound of Islay to explore the isle of Jura for a few days. When we arrived, the riotous Jura Music Festival was underway in Craighouse, the Island’s main settlement, which is home to some 180 souls.
For all of this fixture’s raucous entertainment value, however, the highlight of our trip was a day spent traversing Benin Shiantaidh and Beinn an Oir – the highest of the three dome-like, quartzite mountains comprising the strikingly beautiful Paps of Jura. Characteristically of the island, we had to make do without paths for much of the walk and struggled through tussocky bogs to reach the foot of the mountains. Such inconveniences were forgotten as we scrambled and clambered on the mountains’ scree-strewn flanks. A strong wind and fast-moving low cloud meant that our view of the world beyond our immediate vicinity was intermittent and fleeting. However, to the north, occasional snatched glimpses down through Glen Batrick to Loch Tarbert – a body of water that all but bisects the island in its middle – offered a tantalising vista of sunlit white sand and glittering blue water.
After our draughty day on the Paps, Fiona launched her aspiration to walk Jura’s remote west coast into my orbit. I immediately nominated myself for the post of walking partner in this enterprise and we set about planning the trip for the following spring. However, despite extensive research, we failed to turn up any guide-books or articles covering the West Coast of Jura walk, excepting one hugely amusing though almost entirely uninformative account in The Angry Corrie – the Scottish online hill-walking journal. One thing we did know for sure, as the Ordnance Survey Explorer map confirmed, was that there were no footpaths to follow around the west coast, marked or otherwise. To the uninitiated it might seem that all one needs to do to walk along a stretch of coastline is to keep the sea on one side of you. Not so – as we will see.
At the end of the following April, we arrived at the start of our walk on a warm and balmy afternoon, having taken a coach from Glasgow’s Buchanan Street bus station and the ferries from Kennacraig to Port Askaig on Islay and from there to Feolin Ferry on Jura. The local bus, which we had had to pre-book, collected us from the ferry and drove us via Craighouse to the head of the road at Ardlussa, which comprises a handsome manor house with an agglomeration of farm buildings and estate workers’ houses, situated several miles above Jura’s wasp-waist on the east coast. The journey can’t be much more than 15 miles, but it took us around two hours, partly on account of the rustic, single-track nature of the road, though more because the bus also serves as a milk float, delivery van, school bus and mobile community news dissemination medium. This enthralling, multi-faceted cultural experience cost us all of £3.50 each.
Shouldering our loads – camping kit, food and fuel for five days – we began the nine mile walk north to Kinuachdrachd, our destination for the night. We began walking under a clear blue sky at five o’clock and the hills and sea lochs that made up our view were imbued with a warm ochre-tinged evening light. Our path (on the east coast where they have such things) was essentially a land rover track, the going underfoot was good and we reached our destination in under three hours.
A mile before Kinuachdrachd, just off the track and lying in a small valley that slopes down toward the Sound of Jura, sits Barnhill. This rather charmless house – definitely not cottage, as I’m sure I’ve heard it described – is where George Orwell lived between 1946-48. It is here, in the years before his death in January 1950, from the tuberculosis that had seriously debilitated him for several years, that Orwell wrote 1984. Here, all but completely removed from mid-20th century society, it is hard to know how he conjured the claustrophobic dystopia of Airstrip One and the malign, omnipresent gaze of Big Brother. On such a mellow evening no answer presented itself, so we stepped on toward our billet for the night.
Our accommodation turned out to be an old outhouse – a satellite of the farmhouse at Kinuachdrachd. The owners are friendly people, but the ‘bothy’ is actually a miniature bunkhouse and it put me in mind of a dwelling from The Hobbit. The night we stayed there was also a herd of nocturnal mice in residence. Still, we made the most of the evening light and sat outside to cook our tuna and rice fandango on the trangia. As we ate, a family of domesticated goats came by and a rather cuddly kid-goat hung around us soliciting for food, affection and a space in our billet for the night.
We woke early. It had been a windy night. We crawled from our sleeping bags, brewed some tea and I cooked some fancy Sassenach porridge – which involved raisins – much to the outrage of Fiona’s austere Caledonian sensibilities. Our host came to collect payment and warned us that gale force winds and driving rain had been forecast to hit the island around the middle of the day. We packed our rucksacks and, with mild trepidation, stepped out on the last vestige of path, which runs north for two miles from Kinuachdrachd. As the path climbed a little, the island of Scarba, which lay directly ahead of us, gradually began to detach itself from the bulk of the northern end of Jura. The Gulf of Corryvreckan, a narrow strait separating the two islands and the often turbulent confluence of the Sounds of Islay and Jura, came in to view. The tidal convergence of conflicting currents in the Gulf are catalysed by a submerged rock, generating a whirlpool of some considerable power, which poses a real threat to any craft navigating the channel. In August 1947, George Orwell, when returning from a camping trip on the west coast with his three-year-old adopted son Richard and a nephew and niece, steered his small rowing 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 forestalled as the party managed to scramble to safety on a small island when the boat capsized. Several hours later, they were rescued by a passing fishing boat. As we looked down on the Gulf, Fiona and I were hoping to spot this infamous, aqueous vortex, but we were disappointed. However, the sinuous power of the crosscurrents and undertows tugging and twisting through the strait was evident; the thousand yards of open water separating Jura and Scarba present a formidable obstacle.
Turning west, we left the path behind; this was a bit like losing the script and being let off the leash at the same time. Paths, particularly the way marked variety, offer the walker a certain amount of navigational security, especially in challenging environments such as mountains and jungle, but the challenge of reading the landscape and employing one’s navigational skills to forge a route can also be quite liberating. We had five days of orientational autonomy ahead of us.
The first route-finding issue to present itself to us was the need to remain vigilant in a terrain that is chock full of bogs with varying breadths, depths and degrees of, well, bogginess. A practical lesson in the perils of inattention soon arrived. I was some 20 paces in advance of Fiona, when I heard an anxious yelp. I turned to see that she had marched right into a particularly boggy bog that I had myself neatly sidestepped seconds before. She was stuck, right up to her knees, wearing a look which I can only compare with the dumb terror of cattle catching the first whiff of bovine blood on the air as they are herded into the abattoir. Placing Fiona’s arms around my shoulders and my arms around her middle, I gave her a good yank. She was really stuck. We took off her rucksack to reduce the unhelpful effects of gravity and attempted a variety of holds that owed much to a combination of Astanga Yoga and all-in wrestling. Finally, one leg at a time, I managed to pull her free. Resisting the impulse to photograph Fiona in her predicament, borne of a composite of respect for her human dignity and fear of the likely consequences, cost me dear.
For the next couple of hours, we were able to continue our walk in an incident free fashion. Keeping one eye to the weather – it had become rather blowy and we were anticipating the threatened gales – we marvelled at the great natural beauty of the landscape we were passing through. We forged a route beneath low cliffs, through rocky outcrops, around sandy bays and across raised pebble beaches. We passed a great many natural caves, including some of impressive dimensions; indeed, several showed signs of recent or continuing occupation by wild goats. Others had clearly been inhabited by men at some point; most likely fishermen or hunters. Dry stone walls enhanced the natural shelter of one, in which we found various fishing related equipment. Fiona also told me about an artist who had recently lived in a cave on her own here for an entire year, making ephemeral artworks employing natural materials and the elements.
After a lunch of bread, cheese and salami, we headed on toward Glengarrisdale, our destination for the night. The sky darkened as thick grey clouds bubbled up from the south, though the forecast gales had yet to materialise. The weather held for a further hour, then a steady rain began to fall just as we caught our first sight of the white-walled and orange-roofed bothy at Glengarrisdale. We negotiated our way along a spectacular, rocky stretch of coastline and, within half an hour, stepped on to the beach where the Glen opens out to meet the sea. The bothy sat 250 yards away, at the southern end of the beach. No smoke rose from the chimney, but we wondered as we approached whether we would have company for the evening. It is also possible to walk to Glengarrisdale from ‘Road End’, between Ardlussa and Kinuachdrachd, a distance of four and a half miles, as Fiona had herself done the previous summer. On that occasion she had had the bothy to herself when she arrived, but was joined later by four lads from Glasgow armed with guitars and plenty of booze. A convivial evening ensued.
This particular afternoon, however, the bothy was unoccupied – excepting the ubiquitous herd of mice – and, on account of the weather, we thought it unlikely that anyone would turn up later. The bothy was an old crofting cottage with two rooms and a tool store downstairs with the attic space given over for sleeping. A couple of netting arrangements slung from the rafters served as beds. One of the downstairs rooms had a hearth, the other a small, pot-bellied wood burning stove. It was cold and damp, so there was no option other than to head back out in to the rain and seek some firewood. An hour later, I returned laden with drift wood and got the stove going. We sat gazing at the flames and tucked in to our supper, which we supplemented with pasta and tinned kidney beans left by previous visitors.
The promised gales failed to put in an appearance and in the morning the sun was shining, the sky was blue. After a wash in a nearby stream and removing a deer tick from Fiona’s leg with her special Danish tick-remover, we shovelled down a plate of austere Caledonian porridge, packed-up and continued on our way. In truth it was a little cold for shorts, but Fiona valiantly persisted in exposing her pale limbs to the elements even after they had developed an interesting abstract arrangement of red and purple blotches.
We cut across the neck of a small promontory, to avoid what we had decided was an un-navigable stretch of coastline and tiptoed through some rather boggy old peat-cuttings before descending to the shoreline once more.1 We steered our way through broken, rocky outcrops, climbed grass-bottomed gullies and clambered across rocks on the shoreline. We were finding that forging a route beneath the cliffs was becoming difficult in places and on a couple of occasions we faced the choice of backtracking or extricating ourselves from an impassable stretch of coastline by means of some precipitate sea-cliff climbing. Obviously we opted for the latter. It was not always possible to tell from the map which stretches of shoreline were un-navigable, so we decided that if we were unsure we would stay above the cliffs; which we did for the greater part of the morning. Atop the cliffs, the going was generally easier and we were afforded some wonderful views across the hills in the interior as they tumbled down towards the sea.
We had discovered that goat tracks often made for the best routes along the cliff tops; many such tracks had been worn into very distinct paths, perhaps by generations of goats literally following in the footsteps (or hoof prints) of their predecessors. We were constantly putting groups of wild goats and red deer to flight; they probably don’t encounter many people and most of those that they do would be hunters. We were also frequently encountering goat and deer carcasses; the smell of putrefying flesh keeping in check our reveries about the great natural beauty of the environment we were walking through.
By noon, it had become a very beautiful day indeed. The chill had gone from the air and the clean, clear light rendered colours acid-sharp. The sea shone metallically – blue-black, permanent. Last year’s ferns, now rust-hued and buckled, swathed the hillsides and cliff tops in an orange-brown cloak. In summer, this stretch of coast must be a fecund riot of green as the new ferns unfurl. However, as Fiona observed, the new growth would make walking here very challenging indeed. As we continued on our way south, the low-lying northern tip of the isle of Colonsay appeared to the south-west and would stay with us for the next day and a half.
In the early afternoon we dropped below the cliffs once more and strode out along beautiful sandy strands and clonked across pebble-beached bays strewn with maritime detritus, including lobster pots, marker-buoys and fish crates. Eventually, however, we had to take to the cliff tops again to avoid an un-navigable stretch. We were rewarded by fine views of a spectacular stepped waterfall, the kind of cascade you might expect to find in Iceland. Further on, we encountered the first of a number ‘raised beaches’ – huge expanses of pebbles lying, inexplicably, up to a kilometre inland from the shoreline.
Descending again, we plied a route through gullys and between rocky outcrops until we rounded a promontory and were delivered into the northern end of Shian Bay, which ran away from us in a mile-long, sandy-shored curve. Shian Bay is outrageously beautiful and, of course, there was no-one there – except a herd of Red Deer, which, upon our arrival, galloped off in a hectic blur of elegant but impractical headgear. To get to Shian Bay you have to take a boat (or sea kayak) walk at least eight miles from the nearest road or take a convoluted and challenging land rover track, which would wreck most so-called SUVs. Small blessings. We were happy to have the bay to ourselves. We pitched the tent and gathered fire wood. As night descended, the air grew cold and the fire we built served more than a merely decorative function. We looked out to sea and, at some length, gazed at the lights twinkling on the east coast of Colonsay.
The following morning dawned overcast and with the threat of rain in the air. After tea and porridge, we struck camp and continued on our way. We stayed atop the initially low-lying cliff tops and steered our way between a number of raised beaches as crossing these pebbly expanses makes for hard-going; it is, however, a truly remarkable landscape. After a couple of hours, we picked up some disjointed sections of old land rover tracks, which made the going somewhat easier. The wind had risen and we kept up a good pace to keep ourselves warm. A little further on we arrived at the bothy at Ruantallain (Rubh’ an t-Sàilean ) not far from the south-western tip of northern Jura. Ruantallain has a beautiful location; looking down on the western reaches of Loch Tarbert, across which lie the Paps of Jura. This morning, the Paps were capped with purplish-blue, rain-swollen clouds. We took shelter from the wind awhile in the rather forlorn bothy and fired up a reinvigourating brew.
Revived, we decided we should crack on to the bothy at Cruib Lodge as it wasn’t yet midday and the rain had held off. The wind was building and, zipped and poppered-up, we attempted to navigate a course that avoided too much height-loss or gain. Again, excepting animal tracks, there were no real paths to speak of, though a land rover track plotted a route higher up between the hills. Our route was servicable though not an unqualified success and we had to do a fair amount of up and down. The going was tough, often boggy and tussocky, and Cruib Lodge kept failing to appear over the next hillock. Eventually we spotted the bothy just above the shore in a small bay and descended toward the coast. Cruib Lodge is on one of Jura’s big estates and from a distance we could see that there were a couple of estate workers building a deer-fence around a coppice of young trees. They were the first people we’d seen for three days. Just as we arrived at the bothy it started to rain. Providence. Cruib Lodge is another example of the forlorn bothy; it and we both needed cheering up with a fire. Fiona retired for a wee disco-nap and I set about foraging for wood.
I returned shortly after, damp and virtually empty-handed. There are few trees on the island, excepting some coniferous plantations, and the drift wood that we had been able to gather on coastal beaches didn’t seem to drift this far up the loch. Outside it was wet and windy, inside the bothy the air was damp and chilly; a fire would be a great help. From outside the sound of an engine thrummed towards the rear of the bothy and stuttered-out close by. Moments later, a pair of oil-skinned figures passed the rain-streaked window. There followed a knock at the door, which I opened to the two men who’d been working on the deer-fence. Here were two of the finest examples of weather-beaten, horny-handed sons of the sea and soil you’d ever be likely to meet. ‘I don’t know if you’re planning on firing’, says the first man to me, ‘but there’s some kittens in the back of the vehicle if you want them’, jerking his thumb behind him. I thanked him very much and off they went to haul in their small motor-boat. I felt sure that he wasn’t offering me a batch of small cats, but I thought I’d better check. I walked around to the rear of the bothy, where their moon-buggy like forestry vehicle was parked, in the back of which was a pile of fencing-post off-cuts – ‘kittens’ – obviously! So we did have a blazing fire in the hearth after all and very welcome it was too.
The next morning was dry, but rain still looked a distinct possibility. We decided that we’d follow an old land rover track inland for a bit to avoid more of the ups, downs and difficult terrain that we’d experienced the previous day. The track climbed steadily and after a while we had splendid views back across the loch to the Paps. The track continued inland and we decided to drop down across a river valley and forge a route to the head of the loch. The morning sky had cleared somewhat and we were in good spirits as we negotiated a slightly tricky river crossing. We hopped across on large stones and kept our feet dry. We climbed up and over a spur and then kept our height for a kilometre before descending a diagonal path down a steep bank towards the marshy mud flats at the head of the loch. Crossing this area called for a little improvisation, but while attempting to jump a bog I stuffed my leg in up to my thigh in wet bogginess. This didn’t interact with my deterioating personal hygiene in a positive fashion.
Having reached the head of the loch, we had in fact completed the West Coast of Jura walk, however, we’d planned to continue along the southern shore of the loch to Glen Batrick Bay, which we’d espied from atop the Paps the previous summer. Initially, our route around the south of the loch was fairly straightforward and we were able to follow a trodden path for a while. Inevitably, this petered out after a while and we were back to route-finding by sight, using the map to keep on course. The terrain made for hard going – undulating hillocks gave way to tussocky bogs – and I was beginning to feel a bit weary. We narrowly avoided losing each other when I’d gone ahead a little to scout – a reminder of just how easy it can be to get into a pickle when you let your guard down. The rain had held off thus far, but it threatened to tip down at any time. The wind had picked up and we sheltered in a tor-like rocky outcrop to munch on our rye bread-cheese-salami lunch.
Continuing on, we dropped down to the loch shore and walked around a series of small beaches. Arriving at a larger pebble beach we had to cross the sluice-gate of a small dammed loch; this was a little hairy, though accomplished without mishap. Cutting across the next promontory we looked down on and marvelled at an impressive natural feature – a huge, banked pebble beach separating a large freshwater loch from Loch Tarbert. We dropped down and crossed the beach, then had to remove our boots for a chilly river crossing. Re-shod, we took on the last mile or so to Glenbatrick Bay.
Glen Batrick and its eponymous river descend for three or so miles to Loch Tarbert from Loch na Fùdarlaich which lies at the foot of the north-eastern flank of Beinn Shiantaidh, the eastern-most of the Paps. River and glen meet the loch at golden-beached Glenbatrick Bay and this is where we planned to camp for the night. My first thought on arriving at Glenbatrick Bay was: ‘what’s a bloody great house doing here?’; for there is a very large Victorian house perched in the middle of the bay, just yards from the loch shore. It’s a mite incongrous in its wild setting and rather impractical looking; a forlorn bothy would seem more appropriate to the location. Access to the house requires a six-mile walk in from the Craighouse-Ardlussa road or, more practically, a boat. Anyway, when we arrived, the house was shuttered-up and looked as if it had been for a while; so we felt at our ease to take advantage of its improbable front lawn to pitch our tent. Why is it that the British – and our Antipodean and North American cousins – always seem hell bent on nurturing a patch of lawn at all costs, even in the wildest or least conducive environments?
Tent pitched, we went about the evening ritual of wood gathering and fire building. Glenbatrick Bay was festooned with drift wood so we soon had a roaring blaze going in an elaborately fashioned hearth. After the evening’s business of eating and gazing out across the water had been conducted, we retired to the tent. Shortly after, it started to rain heavily. We both lay awake listening to the rain pummelling the flysheet and playing I-spy – which is a rather limited pastime in a tent.
The morning brought us fine weather once more and we marvelled at how we’d managed to stay dry all week, given the quantity of precipitation. We struck camp and headed up the Glen. Typically, the ‘path’ was a little inconsistent as we gradually climbed towards the Paps. Earlier in the week, there’d been big talk from both of us about knocking off a Pap or two on the way out, but we were both a bit knackered and the thought of showers, dinners and beers steered us straight past those lovely hills and then on down to the Craighouse road. On reaching the road, there’s a further four miles to be walked to Craighouse, so we put our heads down and strode onwards to our destiny with dinner. Fiona suggested taking a room at the minister’s house – which is a mile before Craighouse coming from Ardlussa – as he took in bed and breakfast guests. Unfortunately, it turned out that the minister was off on holiday that very afternoon – or so he said he was; perhaps our wild appearance and collective odour were too hideous a proposition. We stomped the last mile in to Craighouse and secured a room at The Jura Hotel, which is a comfy and inexpensive billet with good food, fine views and a convivial public bar attached. What’s more, the hotel’s cooked breakfast is excellent and plentiful.2
1 On a subsequent visit, we found that this stretch, initially north and then south-west of Glengarrisdale, is in fact navigable and very beautiful; there is a fine natural rock-arch two kilometres from the bothy. However, the going isn’t easy and it will take an hour or more to the next bay – Bàgh Gleann Speireig.
2 It’s also possible to camp on the lawn in front of The Jura Hotel for a small donation; showers and washing machines are also available for campers’ use.
If you enjoyed reading about the west coast of Jura there’s an account of a more recent trip I made with my friends Andy and Jen entitled A wet, wild and windy west coast wander, and another visit to Jura is described in Rainberg Mór – The Great Rainy Mountain has its day in the sun.