The island of Jura: Inside the big brother house
Sixty years ago, George Orwell travelled to the island of Jura to write 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. Andrew Spooner follows his trail
Sunday 16 July 2006
The vast sky is the purest, deepest blue. Etched against the heavens are a series of meandering rocky peaks, cast from quartz and granite and set into a tapestry of burnished, open landscape. A rippling sea, waves cresting into foam, frames the picture.
Given the usual weather suffered by Scotland's Western Isles, my welcome to the far-flung isle of Jura couldn't have been more auspicious. As the minuscule ferry pulls into the harbour of Feolin on a glorious July afternoon, it's strange to think that this astonishing landscape helped inspire one of the bleakest novels of the 20th century. It was 60 years ago this summer that one Eric Blair arrived on the remote - what he termed "completely un-getable" - island of Jura, seeking inspiration.
"He was known only as Eric Blair to the locals," explains Mike Richardson, a sprightly septuagenarian and Jura's one and only guide. "Nobody ever called him George Orwell." I'm setting out with Mike on an expedition to discover what it is about this beautiful place that moved Orwell to pen Nineteen Eighty-Four, his famous work about a totalitarian future that introduced the world to Big Brother. First, though, I need some supplies.
"You'd better pick up something to eat here," says Mike as we set off from Craighouse, the only village on Jura and home to its one shop. "I'm afraid we don't have much in the way of cafes and restaurants." I grab a bagful of biscuits, fruit, bread and cheese. "Make sure you bring a raincoat too," says Mike, "the weather can turn quickly."
We clamber into Mike's battered Land Rover and head north from Craighouse on Jura's only road - a rough track that follows the island's eastern coast. "We're going to drive up past where Orwell lived to my home at Kinuachdrachd and then we'll walk to the headland overlooking the famous Corryvreckan whirlpool where Orwell almost died," says Mike. Is it far? "About 25 miles. Jura is roughly 30 miles long and five miles wide," he says, as we bounce down the road. "There are only 180 permanent inhabitants, though there are thousands of deer."
In the early 19th century, Jura had a population of around two thousand. Then came the clearances and near starvation. Most fled to the mainland or emigrated to the United States. These days much of Jura is parcelled into vast estates. They are kept mainly as shooting grounds, the thousands of deer and pheasants providing bountiful targets for the wealthy elite who frequent the island.
It was Orwell's connection to Jura's landowners that brought him here in 1946. The family of his editor at The Observer, David Astor, held estates and when Orwell expressed a desire to find an isolated spot to escape the pressures of London and work on his next novel, Astor suggested Jura. After meeting another family of landowners, the Fletchers, Orwell heard of a farmhouse near Jura's northern tip called Barnhill. He decided to make this his home.
Back on Jura's only road, Mike and I are making steady, if slow, progress. "The road gets worse as we go north," says Mike. We pass over vast, barren moorland, the impressive hills of the Jura Paps providing the backdrop, through woodlands, skirting the sea and a string of secret rocky coves. With each mile the potholes get deeper and the grass running up the centre of the road thicker.
Then, as we round a corner of the meandering coast, Mike pulls the car to a halt. "See that?" he says, pointing to a tiny white speck clinging like a limpet to the island: "That's Barnhill. That's where Orwell lived."
The pastoral charms of Jura would not attract everyone. With harsh weather and a lack of amenities - including no electricity or running water in places - stunning landscapes can soon transform into desolate, yawning panoramas. Nonetheless, Western Isles such as Jura continue to attract a certain kind of traveller. For many years this has been epitomised by moneyed Englishmen looking for something to shoot. More recently, visitors have arrived to take advantage of adventure sports - climbing, walking and sea-kayaking - and the soothing calm that islands such as Jura can offer. Indeed the Tory leader David Cameron is a frequent visitor here, though he spends most of his time as a guest of the Astors, rubbing shoulders, no doubt, with the shooting classes.
Eventually, we arrive at a sign stating the distance to both Mike's house at Kinuachdrachd (five miles) and Barnhill (four miles). It also forbids vehicles. "I live here so it doesn't apply to me. We put the sign up because people kept trying to drive their normal cars along this road and they were getting stuck," says Mike. "From here on in the road gets very bad and you really need a proper four-wheel drive."
We inch along the rutted, jarring track, the vista turning more wild and remote with each bump. I spy an adder warming itself on a rock; up above, birds of prey circle on the rising air and the massive hills press in. Then, as we swing round a bend, Barnhill appears. "Now you can really begin to get an idea of how isolated it must have been for Orwell," says Mike. According to Michael Sheldon's authorised biography, Orwell loved the idea of remote self-sufficiency, and even grew his own vegetables. He was, however, a lonely figure after his wife's death and proposed to several women just before he left for Jura; all of them declined. "I would imagine he arrived in quite a sad state of mind," says Mike.
A short path leads down to the proud white house. Mike points out the room where Orwell spent most of his time hammering away on his typewriter. "He used to write in his bedroom, which was just above the kitchen," adds Mike.
By the time Orwell arrived in Jura the TB that would eventually kill him was taking hold. "I believe he used to sleep in a large army tent in the garden," says Mike. "Apparently they thought that a night in the fresh open air would do you good. Heaven knows if it made things worse."
I peer through the windows looking for a vestige of Orwell's past. "None of the original interior exists now," says Mike. "Most of it was burnt when he died." We spend a short time taking in the dreamy view over the Kintyre peninsula that Orwell must have once enjoyed, and then move on.
"I want to show you the Corryvreckan whirlpool," says Mike as we drive the final mile to his home at Kinuachdrachd. After stopping for a quick tea with Mike's wife Joan, we begin our walk across the ridge at the northern tip of Jura.
"The Corryvreckan whirlpool is caused by two currents meeting in the passage between Jura and the island of Scarba," says Mike, pointing from where we have arrived on the cliffs to two thick lines of dark water. "One comes from the south and the other from the north. At this time of year the water isn't at its strongest so the whirlpool is not so big, but keep your eye on it and one will soon appear."
Sure enough, within minutes a vortex of water develops, swirling and foaming the black, forbidding surface. "Orwell took his adopted son and a friend out on a small boat," says Mike. "The outboard engine was sucked clean off and they had to row to one of the small rocky islands near the whirlpool. Their boat disappeared under the waves just as they got on to the rocks. They were rescued several hours later."
I return to Craighouse and the Jura Hotel that evening exhausted from my exploring and enraptured by Jura's beauty. I am bewitched by the island's melancholic allure, and can see what attracted Orwell to one of the most untamed corners of the British Isles. I just hope that, even for a while, he enjoyed the weather.
Andrew Spooner travelled to Jura on a BMW R1200GS motorcycle (0800 777 155; worldofbmw.com). For more information on visiting Scotland or to book accommodation, contact Visit Scotland (0845 22 55 121; visitscotland.com)
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