On a previous trip to Islay, I explored practically all corners of the island. And while the scenery is beautiful enough, when you’re on the west coast, you can’t help but shift your gaze across the Sound of Islay, where the Paps of Jura beckon on the horizon, tantalisingly close. But here’s the rub: while Islay boasts as many as eight distilleries, the Isle of Jura has just the one. So inevitably, most visitors are drawn towards Jura’s more famous neighbour for finding out how the Water of Life is made. While this might make sense from a whisky perspective, there are plenty of reasons to give Jura a visit, particularly if you love the great outdoors. Although Jura is the 5th largest island in the Hebrides, it has a population of only 200 people. Bleak, bare and boggy, Jura is the perfect wilderness, a truly remote piece of Scotland located just 10 miles from the mainland. Not that Jura is lifeless; quite the contrary. At any time you may expect to bump into one of the island’s 5000 deer or see a golden eagle soaring overhead. Suffice it to say, I liked Jura’s whiskies, and decided it was time I explored the island on which they are made. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I undertook this trip as much as three years ago, before I started this blog. But it’s nice to reminisce over a whisky, so I poured myself a dram of Jura Turas-Mara and started writing.
Travelling to Jura inevitably involves a short trip to Islay, since there is no direct Calmac ferry service. It was a lovely boat ride, with porpoises accompanying us part of the way and the Paps of Jura clearly visible across the water. It felt strange landing on Islay and not staying to visit at least a few distilleries, but I had decided Jura was where I would be going. So I got right onto the Feolin Ferry, which carried me the remaining kilometre or so from Islay to Jura. As the bus picked up all the foot passengers and the ferry made its way back across the water, I could not help but feel a little lonely and apprehensive. This was my first time wild camping and I’d set myself the ambitious target of rounding the island all the way to Ardlussa. Most of the route would have no obvious trail, so I’d have to navigate my own way using map and compass.
The first few kilometres were easy going though, on a gravel track running north along the coastline. This presented some lovely scenery, with Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain visible just across the Sound of Islay, their distinctive whitewashed walls blinking in the sunlight. After about two hours, the path started sloping upwards, a fact that was not lost on my calves, particularly given my heavy backpack. The midges were out in force though, giving me all the motivation required to keep on moving. I soon came across my first herd of deer, which would be dotting the landscape throughout this trip.
Having started off from Amsterdam that morning, it had been a long day, and around sunset I decided to set up camp near a small lochan at the base of Beinn an Oir, Jura’s tallest peak. I had envisioned myself leisurely fishing the lake to try to catch some supper, but unfortunately the midges applied their infuriating ability to make life hell. So instead I quickly prepared my instant meal and retreated to my tent for some well-deserved reading and relaxation, accompanied by a generous helping of Jura Prophecy.
I awoke to some pretty awful weather. Somehow the area between the Paps seems to have its own little microclimate with very changeable weather. And today those changes were not for the better… Whereas I could see the sun shining elsewhere, I was being battered by fierce winds and streaming rain. The only upside was that the midges had mercifully disappeared. I also found some deer droppings around my tent, indicating that I’d had some company during the night. Originally I’d had half a mind to climb Beinn an Oir, but with weather like this there really was no point. So I packed up my tent and set off towards (hopefully) drier grounds. The day’s hike took me past the southern slopes of Beinn an Oir and into the glen containing one of the island’s larger lochs. The valley was windswept and utterly desolate, with only one abandoned fisherman’s hut adorning the lakeshore.
At the far end of the lake I stopped for lunch and charted my way onwards. The idea was to go around the base of Beinn Shiantaidh (Jura’s second highest peak) and find the trail locally known as Evans’ Walk. The going had been slow, through boggy, uneven terrain, with the knee-high grass making it hard to gauge my footing. I was relieved therefore when I finally cut across the path, which I was able to follow northwards. Around this time the rain also stopped, lifting my spirits considerably. The scenery along the path was superb, running parallel to a stream with a series of waterfalls, a great place to stop for some warm food.
The remaining few kilometres led down into Glenbatrick Bay, a large sandy beach with a hunting lodge that’s mostly used by tourists but now seemed empty. This was as good a spot as any to set up for the night, and while pitching my tent I almost stepped on an adder; a reminder that I didn’t exactly have the place all to myself.
That night was rather windy, and I have to admit I did not sleep all that well. The tent cloth was being extremely noisy in the wind, and I also felt rather cold that night. I was quite happy therefore when the sun rose, and soaked in the first rays while having an omelette and a cup of tea. I had quite a long day ahead of me, so it was good to get an early start. Glenbatrick Bay finds itself on the shores of Loch Tarbert, an inlet that cuts the island almost in half. Although this results in some spectacular scenery, it also means a long walk to get to the northern half of the island. My destination was Cruib Lodge, a small hut maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association. The idea was to rest there for a day, do some fishing and maybe make a campfire out of any driftwood I could find. Nice plans, but I had to get there first. Although I could see the bothy less than a few kilometres away, I would have to walk the long 18 km around Loch Tarbert. The scenery along the way was outstanding though, with a series of raised beaches and lagoons ringed by steep cliffs. Wherever possible I kept to the pebbles on the beach, which didn’t offer a great footing but were at least clear of the chest-high ferns that seemed to grow elsewhere along the shore. In some stretches of fern I was able to follow some wildlife trails, which made life considerably easier. This led to an unexpected encounter with a stag, who seemed as surprised to see me as I was shocked to have him jumping up on me out of nowhere.
After about an hour, I came to a lake that was surrounded by a sheer rock face, and had to decide how to get around it. I chose to follow the shore, rather than the longer, but gentler way inland. I will never know for sure, but this may well have been a mistake. The next few hours were extremely exhausting, as I entered some very boggy terrain. Soon I was stuck shin deep in the muck, which was very tough considering the heavy pack I was carrying. And not to mention getting my feet wet… I absolutely hate having wet socks! I climbed up to higher ground, but unfortunately there wasn’t a ridge I could easily follow, so it was a lot of up and down from thereon. Eventually I came across a small lake where three men were fly-fishing. They were the first people I had seen since setting off from the ferry, a reminder of how desolate Jura can be. Having arrived by boat, they were quite surprised to see me cresting the hill and coming down to the lake for a spot of lunch.
After lunch I kept walking, and although the high ground was slightly drier, it was becoming very hard to see where I was placing my feet. The ground was very uneven, with large tussocks and dense, high grass, so every step was becoming a leap of faith. I have notoriously weak ankles, and although my high-cut hiking boots had so far kept me more or less steady, my luck had run out. I twisted my ankle, no doubt helped by my heavy backpack and downhill momentum. Although my boots softened the blow somewhat, I could immediately feel that my ankle would swell up the moment I’d take off my shoes. I was still in a secluded area, but fortunately the main road was only about 5 kilometres away, so I kept going as best I could.
Meanwhile the midges had returned with a vengeance, compounding my misery. I located a stream on my map for drinking water and headed for it. I actually ended up walking through the stream and following it, since it was easier to keep my footing that way. My feet were wet anyway, and the cool water was a relief for my protesting ankle. Eventually the stream levelled out into a lush green valley, with lots of level ground. In other words, perfect for pitching a tent. I was exhausted and decided I’d had enough for the day, stopping there and then, despite there being plenty of daylight left. I’d managed to cover a measly 9 km in over 6 hours, far short of what I had hoped for, but the fact was that I was spent. I had severely underestimated just how demanding Jura’s wilderness could be. Although I look back on this trip very fondly now, the truth is that I suffered quite a bit in Jura’s unforgiving environment. I settled down in my tent with an exhaustion that even my Jura Prophecy couldn’t shake.
When I left my tent to prepare some dinner, I found out I only just avoided getting all my stuff wet. Although the waters of Loch Tarbert were quite distant when I pitched my tent, the tide had come in and flooded the grassy plain to within a few metres of where I was camped. Although this did make for some grand views while I was eating, I had to rush my meal. The midges had decided that it was feeding time for them as well, with me unwillingly on their menu. I retreated to my tent and spent the remainder of the evening reading and recuperating.
By morning time, my ankle had swollen up quite badly. I strapped on my boots tightly and waited for the tide to drop. I was then able to follow the shoreline, and as long as I stayed clear of the seaweed, it was a blessedly easy walk. After two kilometres I came upon the gravel track I had been looking for, which took me the remainder of the way to the main road. There I was able to hitch a ride back to Craighouse with a very friendly gentleman who worked for the Scottish Islands Explorer magazine and was visiting Jura to write a piece about it. I was quite lucky too, there isn’t much traffic on Jura, and the bus wasn’t due to arrive for another five hours.
I was allowed to pitch my tent on some prime real estate in front of the Jura Hotel, a mere 50 metres away from the distillery! After a distillery tour, I spent the evening in the pub, enjoying my first good meal in days. Accompanied of course by a few drams of the impressive range of Jura whiskies on offer. The next day I packed up and left Jura. Truth be told, I was sad to leave. I would have loved to complete my trip around the island, but given my physical state that was simply not possible. And in all honesty, I had probably been too ambitious for a first time wild camping, especially in a place as remote as Jura.
The experience had been exhilarating. Jura’s nature is gorgeous, its wildlife prolific and the solitude staggering. I explored not only the island, but also my physical and psychological limits. I’m fit but fragile, that much I knew already. I also thought I was good at being by myself, but Jura’s isolation was something else entirely. Despite all the setbacks and challenges, I look back on this trip with a big smile on my face. I never did made it to Cruib Lodge, but that just provides me with a good excuse to return to this breathtaking island sometime in the near future.
I spent the next few days on Islay, hitchhiking my way from distillery to distillery and camping out on the beautiful campsite next to Kintra Farm. Not a bad alternative for a whisky fan like me!