August 2009

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I’ve decided we need to go to the Isle of Arran, separated from Islay and Jura by the Kintyre Penninsula, part of the mainland. I want to go there because Charles says it’s the best place to see hairy coos. Officially called Highland cattle, hairy coos have shaggy reddish-brown hair and dopey eyes, mostly hidden behind their bangs, and look like they ought to be characters in a Muppets movie.

All this I’ve gleaned from looking at countless postcards of hairy coos wherever we’ve been. Everyday Charles has said, “Dunno’ worry, we’ll find you a hairy coo today.” But I’ve yet to see one on anything other than a postcard. So yesterday we headed for Arran.

Once off the ferry at Lochranza, we drove a GWR along the western coast, watching gannets divebomb for their Sunday brunch in Catacol Bay, before stopping at a cheese shop near Lamlash.

Photos by David Lansing.

Photos by David Lansing.

We are the only ones in the shop, except for the clerk, an elderly librarian-type who, from the way she follows me around, seems to think I’m here to make off with as much Hebridean herb cheddar cheese as possible.

There’s a mustard cheese and a garlic cheese and a claret-flavored cheese, called Balmoral, all wrapped in a green or red or black waxy coating, but best of all there’s a whisky cheese called Islander.


The cheeses are so colorful all stacked up in an open cooler that I decide to take a photo, but when I pull out my camera, the little lady running the shop says, rather snappily, “Here now, what do you think you’re doing?”

I tell her I’m taking a picture…of the cheeses…with, you know, a camera.

She looks at me in disgust.

“Is there a problem?” I ask her.

“I would ‘av thought you’d ask first,” she sniffs, arms crossed over her heaving chest.

“To photograph cheese?”


In the car, Charles smiles and tells me to take no notice of the old gal. “She’s just an old nippy sweetie,” he says. “Scotland is full of them. They’re the ones who don’t like whisky.”


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Curry chips and a bottle of ale

It’s a two-part process getting from Jura to our inn, the West Loch Hotel near Kennacraig. First, we must take the short ferry ride back to Port Ellen on Islay. I notice that as Charles drives off the boat, there is a single sign post with two words on it: ARDBEG, with an arrow pointing right, and BOWMORE, with an arrow pointing left. Islay, then, is a place where directions are defined by which whisky distillery you’re headed towards.

CalMac ferry to Islay with Paps of Jura in the background.

CalMac ferry to Islay with Paps of Jura in the background. Photo by David May.

We then have to wait 30 or 40 minutes in Port Ellen for the Isle of Arran to take us to Kennacraig. I’m feeling a bit washed out for some reason when we arrive back in Port Ellen. Something about the solitude on Jura and my time sitting in a dark, dank farm house drinking tea and listening to the stories of Mike Richardson—thinking of Orwell and the Future Stone and the island faeries has left me feeling reflective.

I’m thinking it might be nice to find a pub near the harbor and Charles tells me there’s one nearby that has several walls covered with excellent murals of island scenes depicting the local people. He says it was painted by an Irish artist, each character being placed in the composition in return for a dram—or two—of whisky.

“They say the chap died of drink shortly after finishing the mural,” Charles says.

Great. If that’s Charles way of suggesting we just sit in the car waiting for the ferry, he’s successful.

The wind has come up and there’s an icy chill in the air as we lumber on to the Isle of Arran, part of the famed Caledonian MacBrayne ferry line—what everyone around here just calls “CalMac.” Without CalMac, it would be almost impossible to get around the west coast of Scotland.

At first I’m thinking maybe I’ll just grab a pint and find a snug corner to read my book, but Charles talks me into getting a bite to eat with him. We both order the curry and chips with tomato sauce. As Charles says, “It the awful sort of curry we used to get in school, with a most unnatural yellow color.”

Just perfect with soggy chips and a bottle of Islay Ale. Afterwards, I do find a quiet corner on the boat where I quickly fall asleep. When I awake, an hour or so later, we are in Kennacraig. It’s a short drive to the West Loch Hotel, a sort of cozy farmhouse, where I find a most inviting fire crackling in the bar and men wearing fishing clothes sitting around quietly enjoying a whisky. I order a drink and stare at the fire. After awhile Charles comes downstairs and suggests we have dinner in the restaurant. I tell him I think I’ll pass.

The bar at the West Loch Hotel near Kennacraig.

The bar at the West Loch Hotel near Kennacraig.

“Are you feeling alright?” he asks.

“Yes, fine,” I tell him. “Just a bit tired is all.”

He heads off for the little restaurant overlooking the loch. I finish my whisky, order another one, and think about the Irish artist and his wall mural. I’m wishing now, for some reason, that we’d gone to see it.

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The storyteller of Jura

On an island where myths abound and the wee people are still thought to be responsible for life’s mishaps and mislaid possessions, I’m not too surprised when our Jura guide, Mike Richardson, a sprightly septuagenarian, tells me as we walk through thick green fields to his croft house about a mile north of Orwell’s Barnhill, that the island is full of fairies.

“I’ve had plenty of dealings with them,” he tells me, and then recounts the time he lost a farm tool and found it, a year and a day later, lying on the very road we’re walking on, just as an islander had predicted.

And then there’s the Future Stone, a huge piece of guartzite on the way to Corryvreckan, that was probably placed in the field we’re crossing some 5,000 years ago. Look at it from a low point towards a cleft in the western hills, Richardson tells me, and it marks the winter solstice.

“But more importantly, they say it could reveal the future.”

Richardson says he doesn’t know about that, but when he was having back troubles recently, he rolled his back on the crystals and “I was as good as new.”



Eventually we make it to an old croft at Kinuachdrachd—truly the end of the road—where Richardson and his wife, Joan, have lived for over 30 years along with a menagerie that includes a herd of goats, two geese, a one-eyed collie, a 40-year-old donkey, and an old ship’s parrot, called Charlie, that’s at least 85 and was given to his mother, he tells me, “by a young sailor heading off to The Great War.”

Over a cup of tea, Richardson points out features of the 250-year-old house, including it’s three-foot-thick stone walls, and the clever way he’s rigged water to flow to the kitchen from an outside well and electricity from a generator.

“When we moved into the house, it hadn’t been lived in for 25 years,” he says. “It was a sad, old house and we had to redo everything.”

While offering us another cup of tea, he tells us stories of the island: of being a stuntman in a BBC movie about Orwell, of his days as a fisherman on the island, and of the great difficulty in raising his three children here. It’s not until Charles clears his throat and purposefully looks at his watch that I realize several hours have gone by and if we don’t hurry, we’ll miss the last ferry off the island. Though Jura is only 30 miles long top to bottom, it will take us a good two hours to get back to Feolin to catch the ferry.

As it turns out, there’s an afternoon wedding going on at the little stone church in Craighouse and we get stuck in the wedding traffic (at least four cars) on our way back. We’re the last ones on the boat.

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We drive for almost an hour along the perilous eastern coast of Jura along a gnarly track, known as “The Long Road,” that has even Charles holding his breath from time to time as the car dances on the edge of one precipice after another out over the sea. Finally we come to the end of the paved road and a gate with a sign forbidding vehicles to venture any farther. Waiting for us on the other side of the gate, leaning against a very beat-up and muddy Land Rover, is Mike Richardson.

“I’ve got to put the bloody sign up to keep igits from taking their rental cars up here,” says Richardson, who will turn 74 in September. “There’s no way they can make it on this road and then I end up having to tow them out.”

The road Richardson refers to is really nothing more that a nasty rough track full of gouged holes a foot or more deep and grass knee-high in places. As we bounce along at 5 miles per hour, Richardson says, “This road is exactly the way it was when George drove his Army BSA motorbike over it 60 years ago. In fact, it might have been better back then.”

George Orwell's house, Barnhill, on the east coast of Jura. Photos by David Lansing.

George Orwell's house, Barnhill, on the east coast of Jura. Photos by David Lansing.

The George he is referring to is George Orwell, who came to Jura in 1946 to write his last novel, a book with the working title The Last Man in Europe (which ended up being published as 1984). According to Richardson, Orwell was looking to get as far away from civilization as possible—which is why he picked the wild and unpopulated stretch along Jura’s eastern coast.

“He was a wounded animal looking for someplace to hide,” says Richardson of the author and war correspondant, one of the first journalists to enter the German concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. “What he saw there made him lose faith in mankind. He couldn’t comprehend the horror. And shortly thereafter he wife, Eileen, died, quite suddenly after a botched operation, and he was quite ill from the tuberculosis that would eventually claim his life at the age of 46 in 1950. So he was a man at the end of his rope, in a way—a bit of the last man in Europe himself as he saw it.”

After about 40 minutes or so we make it the five miles to Barnhill, the old white stone house built in the 1850s, where Orwell lived from May 1946 to January 1949. Richardson takes me upstairs to the bedroom just above the kitchen where Orwell spent most of his time at Barnhill hammering away on his typewriter.

“It was his bedroom,” Richardson says as I look around at the cramped space, “but he didn’t sleep here. He preferred sleeping in an army tent in the garden. Thought the fresh air would do him good. More likely it made things worse.”

Mike Richardson in front of Barnhill where Orwell wrote "1984."

Mike Richardson in front of Barnhill where Orwell wrote "1984."

Later we sit on an old wooden bench in front of Orwell’s house looking out at the stone field walls, probably erected during the Bronze Age some 3,000 years ago, and the cherry trees Orwell planted and the bay from which he launched a 14-foot dinghy and tried to circumnavigate the island only to capsize just up the coast at the treacherous Corryvreckan whirlpool where he almost drowned. Or at least that’s the conventional version of the story. Which Richardson says with a wave of his hand is nonsense.

“Bullocks. He wasn’t anywhere near the Corryvreckan,” he says. “He was with his son and they were headed for a small island along the west coast to collect puffin eggs and when they stepped out of the boat, it capsized and they were stuck on the island for three hours until a fisherman picked them up. That’s the real story.”

Then why, I ask him, do people always talk about Orwell almost drowning at the Corryvreckan whirpool?

Richardson says, “Makes for a better story, I suppose.” He gives me a wink. “And you know how the Scots are with their stories.”

I do.

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Jura has only one road, but it is the ultimate Great Wee Road. The narrow, twisty lane from the ferry landing to Craighouse, where the Isle of Jura distillery is located, seems absolutely indulgent once you see the road north of here.

You’d think that anyplace that actually had a going concern, like a whisky distillery, couldn’t really be called a village, but there’s no other name for Craighouse. As Michael Heads, the distillery manager says, “We’ve got one pub, one shop, and one wee hotel here. That’s Craighouse.”

The busy main drag in Craighouse, Jura, a village with "one pub, one shop, and one wee hotel." Photos by David Lansing.

The busy main drag in Craighouse, Jura, a village with "one pub, one shop, and one wee hotel." Photos by David Lansing.

The Isle of Jura distillery, like Bruichladdich, is another company that has had a tough time of it over the years. Rebuilt in 1963 after being closed for 60 years, they seem to be doing pretty well these days. Michael says the distillery originally made a heavily peated whisky, “but that kind of went out of fashion so when they reopened they started distilling a much lighter Highland whisky that was used mostly for blending with other whiskies.”

But they haven’t given up on smoky, peaty whiskies completely. Charles and I sit in Michael’s office nosing a new expression called Superstition in which the island peat used to make the whisky has to be cut when it has a certain amount of moisture and oil in it. Usually the peat used is only perfect for a couple of weeks out of the year. If they miss the window, the whisky is off. Which is why it’s called Superstition.

It’s a lovely dram. Maybe my favorite of the three dozen or so whiskies I’ve tasted so far on this trip. The smoke in the whisky is apparent, as is the brine. When I mention this to Michael, he’s pleased as could be.

“Most experts will tell you that it’s impossible to have a briny-tasting whisky,” he says. “But look at where we are? Flush up against the sea. In winter, you walk down the lane and you’re licking salt off your lips so I don’t care what anyone says. I say the whisky can’t help but have a taste of brine to it.”

Before heading to the north end of the island, we stop at the Jura store to get a bit of dark chocolate to go with the bottle of Superstition I’ve bought. A red-faced man is leaning against the counter in the tiny shop complaining to the shopkeeper about being the only one at the dance at the community hall last Saturday to wear a kilt.

“Use to be Fib and Morgan would wear a kilt but I guess they’re just too good for the ol’ tartan now that they’ve gone off to Edinburgh.”

“They’re fine lads,” says the shopkeeper.

“Nay, they’re gone,” says the red-faced man, disgusted. “They’ll not be back. And you can bet they didn’t take their ghillie shirts with ‘em.”

“Never mind,” says the shopkeeper. “You wore your kilt. Fib and Morgan are gone. Now never mind about it.”

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