Whisky on the rocks

OUTPOSTS OF THE BRITISH ISLES 2: JURA; The Isle of Jura is overpowered by wildlife, not tourism.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Roar of the propellers is so loud, it's impossible to hear anything the pilot is saying. As we swoop low over landscapes full of fearsome looking rocks, the in-flight announcement sounds incongruously like the garbled messages you hear on the London Underground. None of the other 30 passengers from Glasgow seems anxious, however, so I assume our tiny plane is not about to crash into a mountain or fall into the sea. I concentrate on scanning the pattern of islands below for any sign of human life. So far I have spotted a few sheep, some clusters of dour- looking houses and plenty of rust-coloured bracken.

With a resounding bump we have landed on Islay, a Hebridean island miles north of Paul McCartney's beloved Mull of Kintyre. Most of the passengers have that bustling, glad-to-be-home air about them as they step out on to the grassy landing strip, but I still have far to go: another 20 miles by postbus to the other end of the island then a ferry ride. Reeling towards the bus stop on wobbling legs, I hope that the mysterious Isle of Jura - the wildest and most undeveloped major Scottish island - is going to be worth it. There are rugged quartzite hills and deserted white sands to look forward to, along with 6,000 red deer and just 200 islanders. They have only one road and no direct link to the mainland. What sort of people can be living there? They certainly don't make it easy to visit them.

After a night in the comforting chintz embrace of Jura's (only) hotel, I am ready to meet the locals. The main (only) village of Craighouse is a collection of dinky, time-warped cottages, one ancient phone box and a single track road with passing places for anyone mad enough to bring their car along. Over the road from the Jura Hotel, the Jura Stores and Post Office perches a few feet from the sea. There is no one about. Behind me rises the chimney of the Jura Whisky Distillery, which seems a good place to start.

Willie Tait, distillery manager, peers at me from behind his desk. He is a tiny, wiry man with a flinty gaze. It might sound mad, I begin to explain, but I'd like to write something about the island. "You sound mad," he tells me. I persist: Do they get many tourists in the summer season? "Most folk wouldn't know where we are," he says crisply. "It's an adventure just getting here - not a place you can drop in on." It's certainly absent from most of the tourist brochures I consulted, although one or two have a line about the abundance of wildlife - deer, seals, otters, 100 species of birds from partridge to golden eagle. Not a word about the people, though. "We do get visitors," says Willie Tait, "but we're not overpowered by them. They tend to come for the walking or fishing, sailing and birdwatching." He gives me a meaningful look. "They're not looking for a hectic nightlife."

After a lightning tour of the works (sadly, no free sample), Willie introduces warehouse supervisor Duncan Buie - and disappears. Duncan is a bearded, weatherbeaten Captain Had-dock figure in oilskins and a seaman's cap. He was born here, it seems, and his ancestors on the island go back to the Celtic dark ages. He starts to tell me a story about islanders who thought they saw a UFO last year and how (as both volunteer fire-chief and coastguard) he had called out the special constables (there being no real police on Jura), the fire-engine and an RAF helicopter. Just as he is reaching the punchline about a meteorite and burning heather, we are interrupted by the arrival of distillery undermanager, Willie Cochrane.

Willie is not surprised by the UFO scare. In his view, Jura is so cut off from modern life that people here tend to panic at the slightest hint of excitement or novelty. "Jura may be a beautiful and unspoilt place, but the problem is that people here don't want to change anything," he says. Apart from the hotel and a few B&Bs, there is precious little accommodation for holidaymakers. The islanders are opposing a scheme to create a direct ferry link to the mainland. They are so worried about being engulfed by lager cans, cars, graffiti and the other detritus of the late 20th century that they refused to allow streetlights on the 30 mile long island until last summer. "Some people argued that light pollution would spoil their view of the stars," says Willie scornfully.

Other people, however, were getting fed up with groping in the dark and falling into muddy ditches when dressed up for a cheese and wine soiree in the village hall. There was a vote and the streetlights won. But only half a dozen were installed by the hotel before the money ran out. Willie finds this sort of thing rather frustrating. "We shouldn't sit here and stagnate like Brigadoon," he fumes.

Next door to the Antler tearoom, in the Clipping and Dipping salon, hairdresser Elaine Connor is more philosophical. "It's the old story," she says, sweeping up. "More tourists would help small businesses like mine. But traffic and crowds would wreck the very thing they come here for."

Sitting among the lobster pots on the end of the pier in the warm evening air, I can see why the most mule-headed islander clings to Brigadoon. The sea glooping around the granite stones is deep Mediterranean turquoise, the sand beneath it bone white. A few boats moored to mossy rocks bob lazily. There is the old-fashioned smell of smoke from the peat fire chimneys of the houses strung out along the bay. Who in their right mind would want visitor centres, coach parks and toilet blocks? The people here might seem a little eccentric, but is that the only way to hang on to their piece of the past?

"This place does attract unusual people," agrees hotel manager Steve Walton next day. Steve came to live here from Coventry 15 years ago with his wife Fiona. They were attracted to Jura as a safe place to bring up their children. I am telling him about this morning's encounter with Pete the hippy - a former bridge-keeper from Yorkshire who came here last autumn to drop out. With his flowing blond hair and beard, nose-stud and rainbow-striped trousers, Pete stands out from the other villagers in their sensible anoraks. Does he go everywhere in bare feet like a medieval penitent, I ask Steve? It appears that he does. Over rocks and mud, brambles and cattle grids and all through the snow and ice of last winter, it seems.

Steve decides to show me the site of some even more eccentric behaviour. We bowl along the road out of the village in his Landrover, past fields of shaggy-haired cattle and mysterious standing stones. On the back seat, Hamish, the Waltons' Alsatian puppy, pants cheerfully. We drive downhill to the sea and stop at a narrow finger of rock pointing out into a wide bay. Steve disappears inside a tiny stone hut, a few feet from the water's edge.

"This is where they did it," he announces, stepping over some rubble and pointing to a rustic fireplace. This old boathouse, it seems, is the very spot where creative anarchists KLF set fire to a million pounds a couple of years ago - money they had earned from considerable success in the music business - and captured it on video to outrage the world."A lot of people thought it was disgusting," says Steve, as we continue our expedition. On an island out in the bay loom the ruins of Claig Castle, stronghold of the fearsome McDonald clan for centuries.

There is grass growing down the centre of the road as we slow down. At the graveyard at Inverlussa, the air is warm and still. A stream rushes down the hillside and splashes over some rocks nearby. In the far corner of the walled cemetery lies the Campbell family mausoleum, bristling with brass name plaques. This dynasty owned and dominated the island from the 17th century until the last bankrupt member was forced to sell up and leave the island in 1938. They were not a popular family, given to moving whole villages if they spoiled the view from their mansion and "encouraging" their impoverished tenants to emigrate to the colonies. As their land was turned over to sheep and deerstalking, the population bled st.eadily away from a peak of 1,300. The island today is divided into seven estates, their more enlightened owners including the aristocratic Vesteys and Astors. The deerstalking, of course, continues. Without it the deer, which already outnumber people by 30 to one, would take over completely.

We follow the narrow road over undulating moorland, carpeted with brownish-mauve heather and dotted with occasional farmhouses and long abandoned crofts. Climbing towards the hills, the landscape takes a dramatic turn. Far below lie the white sands of Lowlands Bay - according to legend, the place where St Columba's Uncle Earnan landed to found a monastery. We speed on towards Barn Hill at the northern tip to experience the vibes left behind by a more tangible island celebrity. The grass-choked road has petered out and we are jolting over a track comprised of gaping potholes and sharp boulders. Hamish has just thrown up on the back seat. But nothing will stop us seeing the house in which George Orwell wrote 1984.

The track sweeps round in front of a solidly built, whitewashed farmhouse. We step out on to a boggy lawn which was once Orwell's vegetable garden. Hamish relieves himself sulkily in a flower bed. It was in that bedroom up there, says Steve, gesturing at the window, that a dying Orwell tapped out the final pages of his masterpiece. He chose house and island as the most effective escape from the distractions of London. We peer in through the windows. The furnishings are as sparse and austere as they were in Orwell's day - a drab 1930s sofa, gas lights, a heavy iron range in the kitchen. This is the second from last human habitation on the island. There is no electricity and no telephone here and no living soul for miles. Orwell must have felt like the last man indeed. On the way home, I feel strangely serene. Way beyond asking why nobody has bothered to repair the road since Orwell rattled over it on a clapped-out motorbike.

On the last morning, we are waiting for the early morning schoolbus - the only one of the day - to take me back to the ferry and Islay airport. As we peer out of the hotel window at the bus stop, in a scene straight from Northern Exposure, two magnificent stags come strolling down the main street, nonchalantly munching the the flowers in the front gardens along the way. Fiona raps violently on the window pane and they turn to stare with disdain. "They're a damned nuisance," she says. "Eat through your window box in a couple of minutes." Suddenly it's impossible to imagine this strange, vaguely absurd and seductive place ever buzzing with coach parties and clicking cameras. The people here are survivors. They want you to visit them, but not too much. They don't want an easier or a faster life. Like the stags, Jura is just too stubborn to bow to dull reality.



BA (0345 222111) fly Glasgow to Islay daily except Sundays. Return fares start from pounds 78. Return flight prices (via Glasgow) from London start from pounds 203 and from Manchester, pounds 160. Scottish Citylink (0990 505050) buses leave Glasgow for Kennacraig three times daily. Prices for the three-and- a-half hour journey start at pounds 14 return. From Kennacraig there is a two hour ferry crossing to Islay, pounds 10.35 per person or pounds 54 for cars and runs daily except Sundays. From there it is a five minute crossing from Port Askaig to Jura costing 80p or pounds 5.75 per car.


Jura Hotel (01496 820243) costs from pounds 29 per person per night.


Islay Tourist Office, tel 01496810254.