Big Bothy Walk #17
The maelstrom of Corrywreckan can be heard ten miles away. The whirlpool crashes 10 metre high waves around a towering pinnacle of basalt, protecting the northern shore of Jura.
Jura. What is in a name? Often said to have its roots in Norse observing the many deer, but there is another tale. How before Christianity came to the island in the last days of St Colombo, it was a place where human sacrifice still took place. In silence a young man would be cut adrift in a boat, and helplessly plunge into Corrywreckan, his death appeasing a fickle and demanding Goddess. After the wandering saints wandered here and erected their crosses and hallowed the ground, they called it Juramendu – The Cursed Island.
Raised beaches step and judder the west coast, formed when the weight of glacial ice melted away and retreated, quartzite hills keep their brooding secrets under the mist and raptors cry overhead. Those sacrifices were made for good harvest on a largely infertile land, covered in blanket bog where the water runs dark amber through the dense peat, the sound of which is everywhere, but unseen beneath the ferns.
The ferry across from Tayvallich cut across rough water, a stomach lurching journey not for those of sensitive seafaring dispositions. The whitewashed whisky distillery took pride of place in the sights approaching Craighouse, the chimney rising from the left like a church spire.
It was not the only distillery on the island. Despite having a population of only 200, Jura houses three different distilleries of three different spirits; aside from the famous whisky, a gin distillery is found towards the north of the island in Lussagiven, whilst just down the road from the harbour was Deer Island Rum.
The islands appear to all be havens to the drinking connoisseur. There are 12 whisky distilleries on Islay alone (population: 3,000). Even the tinier islands like to create their own beverage, Raasay (population 120) sells its own whisky, and the island of Rum (population 40) has jumped on the suggestion of its own name and brews its own rum. Which, disappointingly, is not called Rum Rum.
I have a theory that the vast amount of booze being brewed on the islands creates an air on them that is heavy with the angel’s share. You don’t even have to drink to start feeling merry and making bad choices because you are just breathing in alcohol all the time. I am told my theory is bollocks. Whatever, it’s not like anyone’s ever run any tests to find out; probably because they’d be too air-drunk to even start.
I was not air-drunk on my first day on Jura. I was drunk-drunk. Having set up my tent in the campsite in front of the hotel, I then met a man in the tiny village shop. Two bad influences together don’t need much encouragement, and Jude and I spent several hours at Deer Island Rum before lurching our way in the rough direction of where a waterfall was supposed to be, tripping over the bracken, slipping in the mud and losing and regaining several of our devices along the way. The waterfall was great (when we found it), but the huge rainbow on the way back was even lovelier. An evening was spent in the tiny Craighouse pub, eventually gathering the majority of other pub-goers to join in a pool tournament. The noise of the establishment became greater and more excitable throughout the evening, and the language coarser and coarser until bells came for last orders and the gathering had to disperse. I don’t think anyone walked away in a straight line.
It was a good thing the Antlers Café served up a ridiculously big and extremely delicious breakfast because I needed it. Jude headed south to get the successive ferries to Colonsay, whilst I started my trudge up along the road.
There is only one road in Jura. It runs along the east coast and becomes less and less of what you might consider a road the further along it gets. It narrows quickly and, past Tarbert, the tarmac starts to disintegrate. Once you get past Lussagiven it eventually just becomes a track and then trails off and disappears. I had ten miles to go before I reached Tarbert, and had hoped to grab a hitch but the scarcity of cars made that difficult. The roadworks truck that sat in the road after four miles told me it was likely impossible. So road walking it was.
The great silver cones of the Paps of Jura were visible from the path, rising from the bracken. Angry, pointed, and accusing, stripped of all greenery to the hard metamorphic rock, pierced by dark basalt, formed by volcanoes 56 million years ago. I always find it interesting that hills named for their supposed likeness to breasts seem to either be singular or triple. I can only assume that early explorers and cartographers spent so long away from home that they not only just started seeing breast shapes everywhere, but forgot how many breasts a woman possessed. The Paps of Jura are not alone in this, in fact there’s an entire Wikipedia article about breast-shaped hills.
I eventually had managed to slog my way up to Tarbert. The island is very narrow here; a wasp like waist dramatically narrows the land to under a mile across. The word ‘tarbert’ is formed of two Old Irish words for ‘crossing’ and ‘carry’. Here it was faster and safer for seafarers to literally carry their arriving boats across to the sea the other side than sail around. There are many places called ‘Tarbert’ here on the western side of Scotland and each one is an isthmus, an old shortcut where boats were dragged or carried across to opposite shores.
After a short stretch of ATV track took me left of the road, I knew it was about to become pathless. I didn’t quite anticipate just how pathless it would become. The standard, repeatedly advised route to Cruib involves making a journey around the north side of Loch Tarbert with the exact path to take up to the individual as tides altered it. It was a lower tide on my arrival, but one about to come in rather than receding. I initially tried to keep to the higher ground, but the bracken and high grasses concealed endless bogs and tussocks. I did not know when I took a step whether I would land on level ground or sink or slam down to my knees in wet peat or between huge, tough grassy mounds. I made my way lower, deciding the shoreline looked more stable, but it was hardly a nice neat crescent. Jagged fingers of land clawed into the water and the map was no great help in indicating how many there would be for me to scramble over. Sometimes the easiest option was to wade into the water itself, up to my hips, gingerly raising my bag high, but this did not seem that sensible in the long run.
It was only about three miles from Tarbert to the bothy, but I had now been at this so long that I was exhausted. I decided it would be better to turn back to the road now, before the water became so high and I got so tired that I became confused and stupid. I camped in an uninspiring spot near the tarmac, out of the wind and plotted another route, opting to head further north and higher to avoid the lochside bogs.
The next day I set off, dressed in more layers than the day before. The mild drizzle of yesterday was now a full stone coloured sky, low and fretting. A Jura under a bright blue sky is an enchanting and beckoning haven; a Jura in grey is, appropriately, cursed.
A landrover drew up next to me and I heard my name being shouted out the window by a man I didn’t recognise. Just how drunk had I got in Craighouse? It turned out that the strange man was not so strange. It was now July and thus deer stalking season on the island; I had previously contacted the head keeper of the Ruantallain Estate about my visit as you are asked to. This was the head keeper in the landrover.
I told him about my predicament the previous day and he summoned me into the car. A young man, probably still a teenager, sat beside him in bright purple waterproof trousers that, it transpired, were his mother’s. An excitable spaniel jumped from the front to the back seats ensuring I would smell like wet dog for a few more days. As we drove up the road I showed them my new route. Both nodded in approval.
“I don’t know why they keep telling people to go via Loch Tarbert” said the keeper “It’s ridiculously technical and not even in a clever way. In a messy, stupid and unnecessary way.”
We turned off the road into the estate land and into the trees. I was dropped off by a fence as the men went off to cut bracken. The keeper had told me I would be able to see the ATV path the whole way. Here it started clear, maintained, orderly, but would soon become simply a vague line of depressed grass. Fortunately, no bracken, no tussocks, and barely any bogs.
Just a deer fence or two and a couple water crossings. I would clumsily clamber over the eight foot high gates, clinging onto small areas in the wire, and be thankful each time that I hadn’t fallen. I passed over the head of a small lochan covered in reeds and disappearing into the mist. I was now winding up around the middle of the hills and turned southwest to weave along the hollows between them. The silhouettes of deer strode and watched me from the tops, their antlers grand crowns as their heads turned. Surprisingly the rain had not made the water crossings as furious as I feared, just a gentle push on my knees and a few feet across.
Oddly, this route of tall wet grass under a judgemental sky in the rain felt peaceful. I enjoyed it. It could be because this time I knew properly where I was meant to go, the glint of flatter grass leading me on, or I could have been air-drunk.
Eventually the path lead through a wall of bracken, and then to the shore where Cruib Lodge stood on the bay. The pebbles in front were dashed red and black and gold with strands of kelp. There were three doors to the front of the bothy and the chimneys were centre-set rather than standing to the ends. Like Goldilocks, I tried all three doors.
The first was locked, a storeroom. The second and third were complete living areas. The middle room had a library shelf (with copies of James Hogg’s books on it), a sleeping platform across one wall, a counter across the other and a fireplace with a large painting above it. The left hand room was similar, but with more windows, no bookshelf, and a picnic bench. Since this one had armchairs in front of the fire, it was just right, and would be my space for the night. It was only a while later I looked up and saw the meat hanging hooks.
Cruib Lodge is named for the lodge that once stood above it. This had been a strange, stilted structure shipped over from America, built to entertain Victorian tourists that sailed over for the novelty of an island visit on a steamboat. That lodge has long since been demolished, and its name given to the building used by the estate’s stalker and ponyman. The right hand room, now the locked storeroom, had been the stables and the central room a living area. My room had been the meat store where the carcasses of deer had hung.
There is a triumphant relaxation that comes with arriving at a bothy on a miserable day. Few things as welcoming as seeing a small stone hut appear out of the fog and know that soon you will be dry and warm and comfortable. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t joined that night.
Since the journey to Cruib Lodge had taken a day longer than I had expected, I wouldn’t be able to take the route up the west coast of the island to Glengarrisdale bothy the next day as The non-refundable and expensive (£20) ferry ticket for my return had already been booked. This meant another quick marching road walk the next day to get to the furthest point north, past where the road that became a track disappeared.
Yet more rain and a lot of pain saw me surrender right at the end of the track. I looked up to the moorland, the ATV track clear up into it. I was only a few miles away, but in the state I was in Glengarrisdale was now a chore. I didn’t want it to be a chore. I had headed back to Craighouse instead, hailing the last of only two buses that run each day from Lussagiven and enjoyed a hot dinner, a warm shower, and washed the smell of wet dog from my clothes.
I would have to return to Jura for Glengarrisdale. And, as I left, I already couldn’t wait.
For more information about bothies, visit the Mountain Bothies Association website
If you are visiting a bothy, please be sure to follow the Bothy Code
When hiking in Scotland, familiarise yourself with the Outdoor Access Code
Cruib Lodge (1997)
Owner: Ruantallain Estate: 01496 820287
Fuel: Driftwood often available, but you are advised to bring your own fuel. The nearby peat cutting is not official, nor was it sanctioned by the estate so you are asked not to cut from it.
Water: Burns run to the right of the bothy
Notes: Open all year. Deer stalking does take place between July and January so you are asked to contact the estate during this time to inquire where the stalking will take place, and alert them to your intended presence.