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An ‘Extreme Sleep’ on Scotland’s Isle of Jura


‘Right hand down!’ came the cry and I looked to see the ferry meeting the dock with a clang. A boat ride was necessary to take me to the first of my Scottish sleeps. After Ennerdale, my perceptions of what makes a place feel wild had been challenged and I as hungry to find more in places I wouldn’t previously have thought possible.

Scotland is an easy place to go wild in. Camping the way I had been doing up to this point was not only legal here but encouraged too.

I had imagined I could piece together some really extreme wilderness experiences here with endless days out in the highlands. First though, I wanted to try something a little different, a sleep in a place that was wild first and foremost because of its distance from the rest of Britain. An island sleep.

Extreme Sleeps book coverIt was reading 1984 that made me single out the Isle of Jura as my one sleep away from the mainland. The author is of course George Orwell and the book is a tale of dystopia set in a world in the grips of post-war fallout. In it are phrases and ideas that have permeated as sayings into popular culture, as well the TV shows Room 101 and Big Brother. Of which the latter Orwell wrote, ‘is always watching you’, prophetic words that bear scary parallels to the world we live in today.

All that paranoia, constant surveillance and the Thought Police keeping an eye out for anyone having an unauthorised viewpoint would make you think that to conjure up such a bleak view of the world, he must have penned it in a sprawling city with the early guises of CCTV cameras poised for launch. So I found it surprising that the place where he actually wrote this seminal text was on the Isle of Jura.

For anyone who likes to seek out wilderness, the Scottish islands are something of a Graceland. Not only are their landscapes rough and untamed, shaped by the unforgiving tides and coastal winds and storms, but they are truly isolated, places where you feel physically as well as mentally removed from the rest of society. Though not ridiculously far-flung in geographical terms, Jura is not accessible by plane – as many of the other Scottish islands are. It’s not even reached by ferry directly from the mainland. To reach Jura you have to take a second ferry from another island, the Isle of Islay. In winter, it becomes even less accessible and I thought it the kind of place that if you were to scream, not a single person would hear you and that, in my book, made it properly extreme.

I felt the salty breeze in my hair and the occasional unruly splash of water leaping up onto the deck as we moored up.

The trip takes no more than about twenty minutes, but it’s this lack of easy access, this extra effort it demands, that – to me at least – makes Jura all the more special.

Moments from the shoreline, the rugged fringes of the island seemed to extend out to pull you close. Its three mountains – the tongue in cheek named Paps of Jura (paps being Gaelic for breasts – the Scots it seems think three is the magic number when it comes to mammaries) – grew closer, the shale and scree adorning them like lacy underwear and the purple heather looked vibrant and glimmering in the
light.

I took the local bus that was waiting for us into town. The town – the one and only town on the island – is called Craighouse, but there are villages on the mainland that feel busier. It is a small cluster of cottages and houses gathered around the only pub, the one main road and the village store and post office. It felt very odd, but yet very friendly all at the same time, almost like stepping back to another era.

As I walked from the bus stop to the shop to pick up some snacks for my night ahead a car passed me and the driver offered a big cheery wave. I automatically looked behind me, convinced that a local was there who knew him well. I swung around – no one was there but me. I shyly lifted up my arm and gave a tiny wave as he passed by, still less than sure it was me he meant to greet. A few steps on, two people walked past me and struck up a conversation asking me how I was, where I was headed and if they could help me with anything. It was quite bizarre. Like being in The Stepford Wives or something where everyone is robotically nice to everyone else.

Fearful I would encounter yet more shiny, happy strangers I ducked into the local store to escape. The bell rang as the door shut and I spotted two ladies deep in conversation. They stopped and turned to look at me – I half expected the record on the metaphorical jukebox to suddenly scratch to a pause – as I wandered through the baked bean and tinned fruit aisle.

‘Good morning,’ chirped one and they both beamed warm smiles at me. They launched into a series of heartfelt conversations about my plans, asking me if I’d checked to see what the weather was doing, if they could help me with anything at all and offered me advice on the best walking to be experienced on the little island. This made sense, I thought, as they started to try to ply me with supplies, recommending more than I needed, but then, unexpectedly, they began to swap items to get me cheaper deals. Then the oddest thing happened. The woman who’d been helping
me, wished me good day and left, excusing herself as she ‘had to get to work’ – it turned out she didn’t even work there, she was actually just another customer.

Leaving on a high from encountering such genuine and nice people I began walking down the road again. The island is a miniscule 46 kilometres long and only 11 kilometres at its widest point. One main road works its way from the ferry dock in the south-east of the island and weaves its way from there into the town and out of it again for several kilometres before coming to an abrupt end. Anyone who needs to go any further or explore the western side where I was heading has two choices – either on foot, like me, or in a hardy 4×4. The latter is the usual choice of hunting parties.

The name Jura is believed to come from the Norse meaning ‘Deer Island’, on account of the native red species that call the place home. It’s the main draw for those who like to spot native species in all their glory, then promptly obliterate them for fun. But then they argue that with a deer population now numbering around 6,500, there’s enough to go around, especially in comparison to the human population on the island which is currently less than two hundred. Although, I proudly thought, I had helped boost it to a whopping 201.

Lost in that thought, I saw a young lad on a cycle coming towards me. He was dressed head to toe in a tracksuit and I, dressed in my walking gear, had an idea what was coming my way – a torrent of smart comments or perhaps outright abuse. I braced myself for his words. But he didn’t jeer, he didn’t swear, he didn’t do anything offensive whatsoever. Instead, he smiled and waved. I couldn’t believe it. I must have looked an odd sight as I stood there looking at him with the most puzzled expression I’ve ever had on my face… ever.

Extreme Sleeps book coverI continued down the road and just as I was recovering from my shock a car coming up behind me stopped and asked if I needed a lift. I was slightly taken aback; this was feeling more and more like The Twilight Zone as time went on. I didn’t accept the offer – but I did feel like I had to explain that I really was in no rush. He didn’t seem concerned or offended, just wished me a good day, remarked on how the weather was good for the time of year and the midge count low, and continued on his way.

It was as if I’d stepped back in time, almost like the 1940s when Orwell visited, a time when everyone spoke and helped out everyone else, where politeness was the order of the day and people were genuinely pleased to see other people. The best thing was that it was pretty obvious that I was heading out to camp there and everybody seemed very happy about it. At the road end a few kilometres ahead, it is totally uninhabited and the options for finding a spot away from the view of a single soul are limited only by your fitness. I truly believe that no one would care if you set up camp and lived there for several months on end – as long as you smiled and waved when you came back into civilisation.

A car was heading towards me and, now initiated into this other world, I instinctively lifted my arm and gave a cheery wave. The driver stared at me oddly. They looked confused and did not wave back. Had I inadvertently offended with some rude gesture? No, the car continued past and I saw a car rental company logo emblazoned on the boot. It was a tourist and clearly they were heading back to the ferry to hurl themselves back into the twenty-first century.

Thankfully I wasn’t on the road for very long. A path simply stating ‘hill track’ pointed me off the tarmac – and just in time I reckoned, as there couldn’t have been that much more of it left. The ground was soft and springy under my boots and at first I was disappointed that there was even something that resembled a path at all. I felt too well directed in what I’d hoped would be a wild place and wondered if I might find another corner shop just over the rise. Then I saw them.

My first sight of the Paps from that angle. I had noticed them from the ferry of course, you couldn’t miss a trio of giant mammary-like lumps of granite rising up to the heavens encased in their very own heather-clad, silvery, Jean-Paul Gautier-designed boulder holders. I was in luck. Despite the time of year, all of them were in full view with very few clouds in the sky at all. Due to the small landmass, these three hills – which by no means even begin to rival at least several hundred on the mainland in terms of height – looked like giants.

I hurried along the path which had started to peter out. I didn’t need it anyway, I now had my goal firmly in sight – this giant trio. The furthest away from me was Beinn an Oir, which means mountain of gold and, in the light as it was now, certainly looked dazzling.

As I neared it, I reached the massive loch that sits at the base of all the Paps. Today it was placid and serene, reflecting each one of those giants perfectly. From the look
of the clouds I could rely on the weather sticking around for most of that day, so in no rush at all, I walked down to the water’s edge, enjoying the feeling of being the only person for miles around.

The track was slim and snaking and had more signs of being hoof beaten (courtesy of the native deer population) than boot beaten. It forked and looked like it twisted along
both sides of the pristine pool. I decided to stay on the lefthand side, where I could easily enjoy the view of the silvery peaks and their reflections.

The ground splashed noisily, holes filled by previous rainstorms revealed themselves as ankle-sucking impressions. I moved closer to the water, the pebbles in the shallow fringe gave me a welcome solid surface to walk on as the water lapped at my soles, diluting the mud on the edge of my boots. On the opposite end of the loch where I was heading, sat a little tin bothy; a green hut in what must rate as one of the prettiest spots in which to locate an overnight shelter I’d seen. The closer I got, the more it looked oddly well kept amid the wild scenery. With every step I was heading west, but all human life on Jura gathers in the east around or very close to Craighouse. In the west and also further up north where the island looks like it has been nearly ripped into two distinct halves during its geological make-up, it is uninhabited, a true wilderness with no real roads to follow. A place where discovery has to be on foot, yet very few people dare to tread or even camp due to both the absence of paths and the presence of bogs.

When Orwell came to Jura in 1948 to write his book, he called the island ‘an extremely un-gettable place’ in reference to the faff required to reach it. If it’s hard now, it was even trickier then. Add the fact that he based himself in the north in a place called Barnhill, a good 11 kilometres further on than the road end and his phrase is perhaps well founded.

It’s now possible to rent the place, which is billed as a bit of a tourist attraction. It had been a tempting prospect, but now as I stood with nothing but a little bothy reflected in the loch, I wouldn’t have traded locations.

Extreme Sleeps book coverThe bothy was actually a fisherman’s hut and because of that had its own wooden jetty that stretched out into the water. On either side of it streams trickled by. I edged nearer and peered in through the big windows – someone had clearly designed this to let the views in, rather than keep the outside out and I loved it immediately. I opened the door and saw a table and two chairs with spare ones folded away in the rafters above. By the window it had some basic mod cons in the form of a cooking stove, some rusted pots and pans and some left-over supplies. In the corner, there were two old fishing rods which looked almost antiquated, perhaps even pre-dating the bothy itself. Like most outdoor buildings – and especially those by water – every window had its own spider’s web. In a location like this, midges always come out when you’re about to watch the beautiful sunset by the water’s edge and so these clever arachnids were ready to spring into action using their webs like fishing nets.

I decided that the spot was so idyllic I had to stop for a drink. It would have been easy to sleep there, a perfect boathouse to make home in, but I wanted to experience things as Orwell did. Even though he’d opted for the four walls of a building when he arrived, he had TB and had believed that fresh air would be a cure (in fact it probably
made him worse more quickly, and eventually killed him); so he opted to sleep outside in an old army tent instead to be much closer to the island’s wilderness – and I wanted to do the same.

In the meantime, I rummaged in my pack for a tea bag and my stove. I had visions of dangling my feet off the edge of the jetty into the water whilst waiting for the stove
to boil, but as I stepped out onto the planking, I found it to be covered in chicken wire and uncomfortable to sit on. However, to the side of the bothy was a rowing boat – the perfect alternative.

I gingerly put one foot into the boat and immediately felt it wobble. Carefully placing my other foot in, I quickly grabbed hold of the seat with both hands to stop from tumbling straight back out the other side. I plonked myself down clumsily waiting for the rocking to subside. It was then that I realised I’d left my water bottle on the jetty.

Not wanting to go through the balancing act again I had a brainwave – I would use the lake water. With the stream trickling into it fairly fast, as long as the water was boiled,
I would be fine.

I leaned over the side of the boat and submerged my cup thinking how great I was at concocting such a well-devised plan. Unfortunately, I came back up too quickly and my unstable vessel rocked so violently back to the other side that it flung all the water I’d collected in my mug, up into the air, which then landed all over me. I couldn’t believe it – I was soaked. How so much water could come out of one mug is, I believe, one of life’s greatest mysteries. I would have probably stayed drier if I’d jumped in the lake.

Not only that, but as I leaned down again to retrieve more stream water and began to boil it, pleased that at least everything would dry quickly in the sunny weather,
I realised that my sunglasses had come off my head. They were lying broken on the bottom of the boat with one of the lenses sitting several centimetres from the frame.

What a disaster. The sound of bubbling water alerted me to the fact that I could at least enjoy my hard-fought for brew so I made it quickly hoping I wouldn’t have any more accidents in the process.

Extreme Sleeps book coverAs I sat there supping my drink in complete silence I imagined, not for the first time on this journey, what a sight I must appear to any onlookers, drifting in a boat covered in water, looking like I’d been caught in a raging sea storm and then marooned on this tiny island for several weeks. It only needed the final touch of putting on my broken sunglasses – complete with one lens – and the seamless transition into full-on pirate would be complete.

Just then I thought I saw movement on the mountain slopes above. Scanning the clusters of jagged rocks, purple heather and clumps of moss I tried to pick up what it was that was moving. It was as if the landscape itself had come alive. Then I realised, it was deer. The locals were all coming to take a look at me, the newcomer to their island. At first I only spotted one, by its tail – a shot of white fur amid a warm auburn-chestnut coat. From spying that, I could make out its neck, then head, some small antlers above and finally its eyes transfixed on me, as mine were on it. Neither
of us dared to move. Then I spotted the second one, only a few steps away from the first, another pair of eyes looking right at me. This one looked like it had a strange growth emerging from its behind – then I realised the ‘growth’ was the head of another deer behind it, its fur blending into the colours of the hillside. I looked to the left of them and there was another, then another – and another. Suddenly, like one
of those Magic Eye pictures back in the mid-nineties (where a series of coloured dots would ‘hide’ an image that you had sit and stare at for hours to train your eyes how to see it), the picture within the bigger landscape emerged in glorious 3D. A whole herd of deer were on the slopes of the most inland pap – all looking right at me.

And there we were, in a kind of man versus mammal staring contest, neither wanting to be the first to look away. I felt like I was in a trance and the funny thing was I wasn’t in any hurry to get out of it. The sun warmed my face, the hot drink cupped in my hands made me feel all cosy and snug and the gracious animals emerging from the stunning mountainscape looked like an elaborate tapestry.

Suddenly our game was disturbed. Something higher up the hill dislodged a pocket of scree and small stones sending them sliding down, coughing up a powdery dust – the deer were spooked. One by one they looked about them as if asking the others what they should do, then one started to run and that was all it took. Being pack animals if one goes they all go and they began to disappear over the col between the two peaks, no doubt heading further north, away from the multi-coloured stranger who made them so uneasy.

This felt like a cue for me to make a move too – and yet I was so happy to be sitting there, languidly listening to the water lapping against my boat, it was easy to see how time would slip away without you even noticing. I tilted my head back and rested it on the stern of the boat, thinking about enjoying my extreme sleep right there after all, although not sure it would really count. Then I caught site of the summit of Beinn an Oir from out of the corner of my eye and it looked perfect, not even a cloud in sight and the views from the top – surely they would be amazing.

Resolutely I heaved myself up and carefully stepped out of the boat on the shoreline side straight into the shallowest part of the loch hoping the splashing of the water and urgency of getting to dry land would spur my lazy legs into action. It worked. Minutes later I had stashed away my equipment, stowed my broken sunglasses in the side pocket of my rucksack and was on my way, following the deer, to the mountain’s col.

Extracted from Pheobe’s very excellent book, Extreme Sleeps.

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