At 5:00am on Thursday an intrusive alarm plucked me from a deep sleep and jolted me into the reality of a cold dark morning in Nottingham. Despite having had just a paltry four hours in bed there was no hesitation in rising, in an hour I was due to be picked up by James and driven way up north to the Isle of Jura, a place where the deer outnumber people by nearly 30 to 1. The plan was to park up on the eastern side of the Island and to explore the rugged western coastline with its raised beaches, caves and sea arches, we would be camping out and also staying in some isolated bothies. This was my first trip to Jura, James had visited the Island about three years ago and our friend Peter had made a number of trips that culminated in the publication of his rather excellent guidebook. When the three of us went backpacking to the small Isle of Rum in 2011, the endless merits of Jura was a frequent topic of conversation, my companions regarded the Island with wistful reverie and that its unique rugged wilderness set it apart from any neighbouring islands. I was keen to finally see it for myself to discover and whether it lived up to its reputation.
James had originally planned to go alone and had already planned a route and made all of the necessary ferry bookings, luckily for me a chance meeting in town during a lunch break led to an invitation to join him, I didn’t need my arm twisting and the idea of tagging along suited me just fine (plus he was doing all the driving). I was relieved to be going at all, in the few days before going I picked up a concussion at aikido and was coming down with a stinking cold. Not to be deterred by mild head injuries and terminal man flu, I’d stoically reproofed my gear, polished my tent pegs and packed a bag with all the essentials to live more than comfortably in the Hebridean badlands for a few days.
Our early start from Nottingham got us past Glasgow with ease and by early afternoon we were amongst the autumnal scenery of Loch Lomond and well on course for the ferry port at Kinnacraig. We stopped off at the charming town of Lochgilphead where I made a last-minute book purchase and stocked up seasickness tablets, my last venture on a CalMac ferry left me a wee bit green about the gills. I also found time to stare through the windows of an estate agent and in my head was already to sign on the dotted line to buy a converted chapel in Argyll……….one day. By dusk we were dining on CalMac’s finest fish and chips and sailing into the sunset, the austere silhouettes of the Paps of Jura became visible on the horizon offering a taste of what was coming over the coming days.
We were due to spend a night on the larger and more populated Islay before catching a ferry to Jura in the morning. We camped next to the sea at a well equipped site at Port Charlotte, ours were the only tents in the otherwise empty field.
Another early start had us packed up by 8:00am and leaving for Port Askaig, I bought a packet of the world’s most expensive biscuits (£2.75 for a packet of chocolate digestives!!!). After a brief calm crossing on the small car ferry we were finally on Jura. The only road on Jura, the A846, tells you a lot about the Island. Most of it is a winding pot holed singletrack lane with passing places, at times grass grows done the centre, there are no other main roads. We weren’t visiting the Paps on this trip but they looked striking against the blue sky as we drove past. The weather was crystal clear today and the landscapes shimmered in a thousand shades of gold.
After a short tour of Jura we left the car off the road and lifted heavy packs on our shoulders, gaiters were strapped on as the terrain is renowned for being soggy and boggy all year round. Our journey on foot began by walking along the road in the direction of Ardlussa, it was a perfect day with the sandy coloured wilderness of Jura to the left and the blue ocean to our right, the sharpened summits of the mainland were clearly visible some 30 miles away. We spoke to a friendly estate worker at Ardlussa who enquired whether we were doing ‘The Peter Edwards Walk’ as a number of people had unsuccessfully attempted to do so this year and turned back after finding it too much of a challenge. Poor old Pete, having a walk named after him makes it sound like he popped his clogs a few years back.
We left the road on an unmarked track and instantly became familiar with the terrain, not exactly terra firma the sound of squelching and boots being sucked out of bogs became a familiar soundtrack, as was the occasional swearing induced by slips, trips and stumbles. The hills on this part of Jura aren’t huge, few summits get past 300m, though as there are no comparatively bigger hills the existing mounds do a fine job of dominating the skyline. We had Cruach na Seilcheig, Beul Leathad and Sgorr Mhor looking down upon us as we marched across the boggy tussocks.
As the afternoon passed we headed further west and deeper into the tucks and folds of Jura’s wild contours. As with any trip to the Highlands, the scores of deer that first make jaws drop soon become commonplace, after several hours seeing the shape of a huge stag gallop across the plains just becomes normal. We climbed a rather blowy Ben Garrisdale where James used a rather fancy piece of kit to measure windspeed and windchill, at the summit the windchill reached a bracing -6. As the light began to dim we made for Glen Garrisdale assuring ourselves that our packs would never be as heavy as they were right now.
Glengarrisdale bothy appeared a lone white speck with an orange red roof nestled beneath us, we fell victim to seeing your destination clearly and believing it to be far closer than it actually is, several more hours were spent working our way off the hills. We spent the subsequent hours placing bets on whether we would have the place to ourselves, and scoured the hillsides for telltale signs of life. An inevitable fatigue tired from walking and travelling was undermined the sheer beauty of Jura which was overwhelming, it was impossible to become complacent about the surroundings. Under a setting sun the tumbling landscape of Jura turned a fiery orange, the dense undulations spreading for miles, a ruptured crocodiles back of rocky outcrops and sloping hillsides.
Night had fallen by the time we reached sea level, though a near full moon was bright enough to cast shadows. After crossing a small stream we arrived at Glengarrisdale Bothy, it always feels so strange to spend hours within the elements to suddenly have a door close behind you and to be within the confines of a shelter. This is one of the smarter bothies I have stayed in, compromising two separate rooms with fireplace and stove and a separate attic space (complete with velux windows). The bothy books dated back to to the late eighties though the comments hardly differed from the more recent entries, grateful messages from previous denizens detailing their journeys and the what the weather had thrown at them. After having a nosey around and thumbing through the old books over steaming cups of coffee we set about cooking and making the shelter a home for the night with a small fire. I excelled myself with a four course meal of soup, chilli and rice, custard and berries and bit of cheese and crackers, what greater pleasures are there than a full belly. We were both sleeping within the hour.
Before breakfast I wandered around the beach and saw the first wild goats of the trip, they are often smelt before they are seen and carry the distinctive aroma of goats cheese. I had a mooch around to try and find Macleans Skull cave, reputed to have once housed a human skull, that of a clan chief slain by a rival in the 1600s. I did find unanticipated quantities of goat poo but sadly no skull, though apparently as recent as 1978 there were other human bones known to be located at this site. All the poo and skull hunting didn’t affect my appetite and I wolfed down a fat mans helping of porridge with pumpkin, chia and sunflower seeds followed by lots of black coffee.
The route James had set for today revolved around hugging the western coastline, dropping down where possible to explore some of the wild rocky beaches along the way. As we gained a small amount of height leaving the bothy we looked back to see the craggy shape of Scarba, an uninhabited peaked island that would probably see far fewer visitors than Jura. More notorious is what lays between Scarba and Jura, the gulf of Corryvreckan is home to some intense tides which frequently cause a large whirlpool which George Orwell apparently came a cropper in whilst sailing with his young son.
Back on land James and I stumbled on under blue skies and a stiff breeze, we remained on cliffsides for much of the morning aware that some sections of the beach became impassable and steep cliffs would give no other option than backtracking. We plodded on through tussocks and dried brown bracken, the blue skies above were losing the battle to increasing amounts of cloud and a very obvious weather front to the west over Mull was approaching.
A brief shower after lunch was nothing more than a false alarm and we removed our waterproofs as quickly as we had put them on though we were both grimly aware that there was a lot more on the way and there was no bothy to hide in tonight.
The detritus that scatters the bays makes for a stark contrast with its resting place, large colourful plastic buoys, bottles, flips flops and all manner of childrens beach toys wash ashore and find a new home on hebridean islands. I wonder what the goat and deer make of it all.
The rest of the afternoon was spent high above the beaches where we made use of the numerous deertracks to navigate our way the wobbly tussocks and bogs. As predicted the occasional spitting evolved to steady showers to wind whipped downpours, The novelty of watching the rain bead and roll off my reproofed Paramo soon passed as the weather forced us both to hunch up and shout to be heard.
It was still light when we reached Corpach Bay, which even in miserable conditions was a stunning place to find yourself. There felt something primeval about Corpach Bay, enormous angular crags jut out towards the sea, waterfalls rage down the cliff sides and stream into the sea. With its extended stretches of flat grass it could not be a more inviting place to pitch a tent, if only you had an equally epic wind break to boot, I cursed and struggled as the rain ran down my face whilst the wind whipped my tent wildly. Getting into a small tent whilst soaking wet is never a pleasure and is best done quickly, it felt like a lifetime to pitch and slump down inside and once I did I lay motionless listening to the rain hammering down and watching my tent get repeatedly squished down by tpowerful gusts of wind, I wondered whether I’d last the night and envisaged crawling into a cave for the night. A cup of tea and six rip off biscuits later the weather subsided a little, I ventured out of the battered shelter and filled up my water bottles at the waterfall and adjusted my pitch to good effect, the wind no longer changed the shape of my tent and it now merely gently rippled rather than violently bowed. What I imagined to be the sleepless night from hell turned out to be a joy, I ate well, drank endless cups of tea, read books, listened to a bit of music and lay content in my shelter. When I woke I felt well rested enough to assume it was dawn, it was in fact 3am, I didn’t feel tired and pulled some boots on to see the bay at night and experiment a bit with some night time shots of the camp before crawling back in and falling back to sleep.