July 2009

Isle of Jura: How the West was Won!

I've always liked the lonely quiet places, I don’t know why perhaps it’s because I don't like to see the commercial machines cashing in on God's natural beauty. Some of the last true wildernesses in Europe are undoubtedly in Scotland’s North West; The Parph, Knoydart, Loch Monar etc, but here is something quite special, Jura's 'Wild West Coast'. In the main it is trackless, cairnless, very tough walking and you won't find routes or general information in any guide books whatsoever. On the upside it is very lonely, peppered with numerous geological features, and is breathtakingly beautiful. With that mindset we decided to give it a go!

Thursday 2nd July 2009

Jura is quite simply a charming island. It will never be a tourist trap, partly due to the fact it takes two ferry trips to get there plus most people will turn their noses up for sure when you mention midges and the local enemy... ticks.

We arrived on the island at 10:15am, stopped at Craighouse to get my wife a Jura hip flask, woe betide me if I forgot! There is a wonderful convivial spirit on Jura. Everyone seems to be so genuinely friendly. Not a soul on the place seems to be in a rush. That’s island life.

Our taxi, Mike, dutifully turned up at 11:15, at the pull in, near the Evans Path. He drove us up to 'Lealt' or the end of the public road. He has only lived on the island for five years but what he doesn’t know about Jura isn't worth knowing. He could write a book and I'd very gladly read it. One of the most interesting 1/2 hour car journeys I've ever had.

12:00pm and according to schedule we're on the road. Its very clammy, the rain has stopped and both our 45lb rucksacks seem to be sitting well. We head down the track to Barnhill for about one mile then we attempt to cross the island. Jura is a very difficult island to cross, the interior consisting of mainly rock, bog, crag and hills. Therefore pinpointing our precise route across was vital. We were pleasantly surprised to find a track of sorts, a 4x4 vehicle's tire marks, and weave its way round to 'Loch Geodh'. All we had to do then was negotiate our way round a couple of small rocky hills before Glengarrisdale Bothy came into view. There we had a bite to eat and relaxed in the summer sun. Phase 1 of our journey complete.

Yellow Ringed Dragonfly

Glengarisdale bothy

Glegarrisdale bothy and original croft

Glengarisdale bay

it could only be a Hercules

Now apparently it has been referred to as one of Jura's greatest enigmas, I'm alluding of course to this skull going missing from a cave on the bay. Well, after putting our heads together for a while it struck me, the answer, like a thunderbolt from heaven... someone nicked it! Yes it may now be laid to rest on someones mantle piece!

Having patted ourselves on the back for solving this awesome mystery, we pressed on and wow, now the fun really did start. I knew it was going to be hard, but not this tough. We both provided a bit of entertainment on the way in the form of 'bog dancing' and 'fern fighting'. I said if I ever do this walk again I wouldn't bring a walking stick I would bring a scythe! This fern was up to my head.

With a route like this you have to make the right decisions regarding navigations or it can cost you dearly in lost time. You have to ascertain from your map "Should I stay low?" "Should I go high?" On occasion it’s unavoidable to go quite a bit inland. I remember being a bit cynical on one occasion, remarking "it’s the funniest coastal walk I've ever been on I haven't seen the sea for 2 hours!" Mostly though we were in sight of the coast and now these amazing geological features were getting more frequent. Caves, tunnels, dykes, natural arches, inland cliffs and yes... raised beaches.

Natural dyke, I think.

Natural Arch

I came across a rather odd problem that I've never encountered before while walking in the highlands, a lack of water (with the possible exception of the Skye Cuillins). We topped up with some rather murky water from river Tarrisdale that I thought would be good just for emergency but I ended up guzzling all of that before we came across a nice water source, river Spiereiy. There we were playing like kids in the water, very refreshing.
the first sighting of a raised beach

Believe it or not we were intending to get to Shian Bay on day one, but because of my slowness and the sheer underestimation of the gravity of this expedition we had to settle for camping on Stac Dearg. Superb spot, we were feeling a bit worn out but the views were commensurate. A very humbling experience.

inland cliffs

If you want to have no bother from midges then use 'Bens 100', its 95% Deet, bit of a paint stripper job but it works. I recall Chris marveling as I relaxed on the heather with a force field around me that the midges just could not penetrate.

What a setting in which to camp, even a little tributary provided to do our washing up. Chilli con carnè for tea the dried stuff didn't taste too bad with extra chilies and coriander added. we had a glass of wine or two, a game of dice and reflected on the grandeur of the scene. Life was good!

Friday 3rd July

When we went to bed that night rain was the last thing on our minds. We popped up our tents, blew up our beds and drifted into the oblivion. It was sublime peace, well it was until about 2:00am when we were awoken by the sound of hammering rain. As I tossed and turned and twisted over the next 4 hours I kept thinking it can't keep raining with that velocity for long but it did!

With 2 energy bars for breakfast it was time to pack up our tents and tog up. I was a little perturbed that I couldn't' locate my boots, I kept thinking that they must be in here somewhere. I was mortified when I realized that I left them outside! I popped my head out of the tent and sure enough they were all but an inch full with water! ahh, the great outdoors.

So off we went. Its surprising what you can learn from walking in heavy rain. It obviously is more difficult underfoot, apart from 'fern fighting' and 'bog dancing,' we now have polished stone walking (as in raised beaches) and clod hopping, the latter was not over bog but plain old H²O. One of the funniest clips from the whole expedition, well, for Chris, was hearing two yelps from me, on turning round, just saw a red rucksack on the horizon as I took an involuntary fully clothed bath!

I also realized that the waterproof housing for my camera unfortunately takes third rate pictures, better than nothing. It really comes into its own when underwater and things weren't quite that bad yet. Chris found out that his rucksack wasn't waterproof! (whipping boy)

In spite of the foul weather the west coast scenery was as dramatic as a Shostakovitch symphony, 'Shian Bay' and 'Corpach Bay' stand out as areas of outstanding natural beauty. As much time and space as you need.

One of the most poignant experiences occurred somewhere between Shian Bay and Ruantallain. Chris was up on a vantage point somewhere looking for me, who was beginning to lag behind a bit. I walked underneath him completely oblivious. Chris must of startled some deer, they were definitely scarpering from somewhere. But as they were bolting down a raised beach at a fair old pace they didn't at first, notice me only about 10 foot away from them! What I found so moving was the height order was like a 1930s sepia group photograph! The highest and biggest, the stag was at the front, followed by the hind then down and down and down until you got to the last of the family, a little baby deer who could hardly put one foot in front of the other. I was awestruck, routed to the spot! They took one look at me as if to say "we don't want to take any chances with you either mate!"

Another highlight was seeing this very strange bird. It had the body of a kestrel and the head of a budgie! It certainly seemed that it didn't belong there. Photos a bit blurred, got it on an 18+ zoom so its a bit shaky. At the moment its still unidentified, searching through bird books and asking around. We thought it might be a 'Yellow Headed Blackbird' blown a bit off course but we're by no means certain.

Yellow Headed Blackbird ?

As time wore on so did my over-trousers, or rather wore out. I think I snagged them while 'fern fighting'. Water got in, the tops of thighs became chapped and inflamed. In consequence of that I had to walk like John Wayne. I applied my own psychology, when we are accosted by these minor aggravations that is to "Ignore it!" I also had to ignore the results of a badly fitting rucksack. But the stops were getting more frequent, the job of hoisting on the rucksack was getting increasingly difficult.

I didn't say anything to Chris but I was thinking by the time we get to Ruantallain Bothy I would have had enough and wouldn't mind calling it a day there. I was nurturing this thought for a while and it became more and more pleasant to my soul. Though there is that drive within us that says "keep going, keep going."

The Bothy was a little difficult to locate at first, it juts out on the head land. There's always something, I think, that's exciting about finding a Bothy, that twinge of excitement when it first comes into view.Ruantallian was typical of that, just when we thought it had disappeared off the face of the planet, going over a small hill a chimney suddenly appears.

Ruantallain bothy

In my experience this was a very tidy Bothy. Wooden walls, no graffiti. We arrived at the Bothy at 2:30pm, we had seemed to consign ourselves to the fact that torrential rain was going to be a permanent feature. By the time we'd dried off, I'd applied Germaline to the relevant places, had something to eat and even a short snooze, I felt at leave a bit rejuvenated. "yeah, keep going, keep going." So off we set for Cruib Lodge. The walk was very pleasant along the shores of Loch Tarbert.

It had now stopped raining, the sun was out and everything exuded vitality. My problem was though, the 'John Wayne walk' was putting pressure on the outer thigh and using muscles I haven't used for a long time, if at all. My shoulder blades and lower back were in perpetual pain. "Ignore it, ignore it" I kept trying to impress upon my mind and obliterate every negative thought by sooner or later the car runs out of fuel and this body was close to exhaustion.

Sadly we didn't make it to Cruib Lodge. I felt a bit sorry for Chris he still seemed to have plenty of go left in him. However we found a nice spot to camp overlooking the Islands on Loch Tarbert, an idyllic setting. Gone is another summers day!

we were totally organised

5:00 am Tarbert bay!

Saturday 4th July
Again Chris provided me with an early morning shot of caffeine. I crawled out of my tent, it seemed like the good weather was setting in. I remember looking out across Loch Tarbet at 5:00am and thinking "Am I really here?" bit of a difference from a council estate and the geography of Lincolnshire which I am accustomed to for about 47 weeks of the year. As we kitted up Chris put my rucksack on, I thought, is he just testing it? No he had voluntarily swapped rucksacks, what an altruistic gesture! In fact it was the masterstroke because as I slipped on Chris's sack I could immediately tell not just a small difference but a massive improvement, it didn't feel like I had anything on, compared to mine, as much centre of gravity as a sack of potatoes on your back.

The fact that my sack was hampering my true performance was confirmed a little while later when Chris could no longer tolerate my rucksack. We did take it in turns though, and I can honestly say that it made all the difference. Trying to be upbeat I reasoned that maybe I'm not slow and unfit, it was all down to the rucksack! Chris could not quite buy this one but at least it gave us a good laugh.

Anyway 'Cruib Lodge' was another nice Bothy. It was less than a mile from where we camped, made me wonder whether I could have possibly made it. Well, too late for "could have's". Now here is the sting in the tail; we thought that Cruib Lodge was just a hop and skip and a jump away from the road, not so. Although we made some really good decisions, not meaning to sound corny, when we went "right" we went wrong at a tributary near River Tarruin, we went right too early.

Cruib Lodge

We found it beneficial to take a long detour inland at this point to circumvent bog mudflats and rivers. Found a good track which presumably was a stalkers track up 'Glac Mhor' before we decided to strike north east for 'Loch a Bhalaich'.

Again we were walking for 6:00am but it wasn't until 2:00pm when we reached the road. Incredibly tough walking. Some sensational river crossing, Chris is actually worse than me. I can really dither and hesitate just before I commit but once I'm committed, that's it, straight across. Not so with Chris, half way across he hit 'suspended animation'. In fact, he was in a freeze frame for that long, the rock his back foot was on moved, that being the jolt he needed to make the rest of the maneuver.

Some of the tributaries were surprisingly deep. I remember testing the depth of one with my stick, it went half the way up my arm and still didn't hit the bottom! Went past a couple of very pretty Lochs, Loch an Sidean Tarsuin was partially covered in water lilies. A perfect reflection of surrounding hillside in Loch Bhailaich.

As we approached the woods we came upon a very rickety bridge. It wasn't the decaying wood and the 20 foot drop into the river that captured my attention no, here was the first sign of civilization! We had now gone 3 days without seeing another human being, this didn't surprise me, I had said to Chris that I would be amazed if we even caught sight of a person in our 3 day sojourn.

We soon reached the road from here, but not before Chris did his final bit of 'bog dancing'. In fact for a moment he could walk on water! It was just like in cartoons when the person doesn't fall until he realizes that he's walking on air, I swear he took a couple of steps and skimmed over the top...before he sunk.

Nice feeling to reach the road. Apparently observation has never been one of my greatest assets, but I didn't see the road or even appreciate how near it was, until I was actually stood on it! We got changed on the road, yes on the middle of the public road. It was the only smooth surface around. Anyway I don't think they get too many cars past Craighouse.

We had planned walking down the Evans path, hence that's where we left the car, but because we had to curtail our expedition, this now meant a change of plan and walk a further 11 miles to the car. I assured Chris that this would be no problem as we could thumb a lift. Another good idea from Chris was that we leave out sacks just off the road. This is Jura, we reasoned, it's not as if anything is going to get pinched.

So we hit the road. It was lovely hot weather, even my feet felt hot on the road, however this was not a pleasant sensation. Chris was about to water the flowers (he thought he was safe) no less than 3 cars were at our behest! Not being too concerned about embarrassing Chris I seized the opportunity to thumb a lift and it was granted. A very pleasant lady from Islay who runs a walking club picked us up.She made very congenial conversation and we were so thankful for the lift.


As I sat drinking a pint of lager looking out the new windows of the Jura Hotel, over looking the pier, I felt the obvious satisfaction of having had a great hike. I always regard it a privilege to have had the opportunity to do such things. Yet I could not believe that what we had just done compared to the scene that was set before me was on the same island. We'd just observed scenery more dramatic than Cape Wrath, and here was sleepy Craighouse, a few yachts motionless in the bay, all the old (and some young) Jurach's sitting in front of their houses enjoying the soft evening sun, not a care in the world. Enchanting place.

They've got a very good chef in the Hotel at present, had a gorgeous meal at a reasonable price. After a few jars went to pop my tent up for the last time in the field in front of the Hotel to get my obligatory 2 hours sleep. There were a group of Scots laughing and yawping about still way past daybreak, don't know whether they were drinking or having a good time, or both! I wasn't at all offended by this, it just suggests to me that some people have got a different more relaxed attitude towards time, and, well maybe they've got it right.    

The thought of getting into my own luxurious beautiful bed was a pleasant thought. I should think it was for Chris too, it must be nice for him to be able to get into bed without having to put his waterproofs on! When I did get home my wife gave me a thorough body inspection and found 8 ticks! Apparently Chirs had 10!

On reflection of the title of this blog "How the west was won" purists might say 'Well you haven't conquered all the west, what about from Corry-Vreckan to Glen Garrisdale? Or the southern half of the island?" (althought we did do part of this 2 years ago) well to be honest they're absolutely right. We did, I think its fair to say, do the lions share of the west coast but there is still a bit that we didn't get done. That's not a bad thing thought really is it? It just means that we will have to go over there again some time and give it another shot!

Well I'm up for it if anyone else is!
Mark Ingram.

 (Please leave a comment)