Welcome to Isle of Jura
George Orwell described the Isle of Jura, his home for much of the 1940s, as “an extremely ungetatable place ”. At Barnhill Cottage he sought refuge in order to write what many regard as one of the most significant works of fiction in the English language: 1984. The peaceful isolation of this magnificent island, so therapeutic to Orwell, remains part of Jura's magic.
Sunset at Isle of Jura
Despite the island's size, about 30 miles north to south and 8 east to west, it has just one road and a population of less than 200 people. Jura has no direct ferry connections with the mainland. Instead, the short ferry link to Port Askaig on the Island of Islay, which in turn is connected to Kintyre Peninsula, near Tarbert, and on to Oban via the Isle of Colonsay to the north. The Isle of Jura, especially its western coast, is broken, rocky and mountainous with hidden caves and sandy beaches. Most distinctive of these mountains are the Paps of Jura. This landscape is a nature enthusiast's paradise; stoats, hares, rabbits, wild goats, otters, seals as well as over 6000 deer and 100 species of bird, including the majestic bald eagle, have made a home on Jura. Meanwhile, fans of Scotland's national drink will enjoy sampling the Isle of Jura's famous single malt whisky.
Since the end of the last Ice Age people have called Jura home too. At Lussa Bay, near Ardiussa on Jura's west coast, archaeological finds paint a picture of an early stone age people whose nomadic lifestyles were not dissimilar to those of their counterparts in Ireland and France. After 6000 BC, development of an agricultural economy led to permanency of settlement and for durable monuments to spring up, including cairns and burial chambers, such as that which lies at Poll a' Cheo in the southwest. There are also interesting standing stones from the Bronze Age, such as Camus an Staca. The later Iron Age saw the construction of numerous duns, or forts, such as An Dunan (above Lowland's Bay) which testify to an increasingly violent society. Sadly, violence would be a characteristic of island history for more than 1000 years as differing tribes and clans fought for supremacy.
A new political force was thrown into the mêlée in the 6th century. Christianity was brought to Scotland from Ireland by St Columba in 563 AD. The church he founded on the Island of Iona would become the leading light of Scottish Christianity for centuries. Jura lay between Iona and the capital of Gaelic Scotland, at Dunadd, and was likely visited often by the Saint during his ceaseless missionary expeditions. Interestingly, one legend links the Saint and the island. On Jura, Columba is said to have been confronted by an angel who ordered him to give God's blessing to King Aedan of Scots. He did so, making Aedan the first king to be given Christian sanction in the British Isles. The Christian political involvement in Scottish affairs evidenced here was to by reflected in the increased interest shown in the subject by the Christian chroniclers over the coming centuries. Predictably, the first secular event recorded on Jura was a battle, between the native Picts and the Gaels who, like much from Ireland in these centuries, were gaining ascendancy.
By the 800s the Gaels may have been on the verge of dominating the bulk of Scotland but the arrival of the Vikings on the west coast would challenge their authority in their island heartland. The young Kingdom of Scotland failed to deal with the emerging threat; Viking raiders and settlers changed the entire political geography of the islands, which came to be dominated by the Norse lords based on the Isle of Man. Not until the Battle of Largs, in 1263, did King Alexander III finally wrest back the islands from Scandinavian control. The real benefactors of this victory, however, were the powerful MacDonald chieftains, the Lords of the Isles, who operated on Jura through supporters such as the MacLeans and Darochs. Based at Finlaggan, on neighbouring Islay, MacDonalds ruled Scotland's western seaboard as a virtually independent kingdom up until 1493, when John MacDonald II forfeited his lands to the king on charge of treason. From then on the MacLeans and the Campbells fought for domination of the island.
If the island of Jura had been within the economic sphere of the nearby capital of the quasi-independent state of the MacDonalds, it follows that the end of their era was a blow to the people of Jura. Indeed, it is from that time many have begun to chart the island's population decline. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support or deny this theory. Certainly, in 1845 the population of Jura was recorded (for the first time) at 1,400. Of course, by then the population had been the victim of numerous famines, economic reform and policies of land clearance. Sadly, such policies were to continue for several decades, although to be fair there are few stories of the atrocities of forced eviction, the torching of crofts or even tenants being sold into slavery, which have emerged from other islands. Whatever the reasons for depopulation, the island has been left rugged and unspoiled, watched over by the ghosts of those who lived in more bustling, turbulent days.