The Angry Corrie 37: Jun-Jul 98

TAC 37 Index

Palpably more than the Paps

Graeme Semple

I CAN REMEMBER going on holiday to Ardnamurchan when I was nine. Having trouble with my pronunciation only added to the feeling of having travelled an unutterably long way, to a distantly windy, rocky landscape where people spoke funny in the Spar. The journey was a true epic, in the way that a journey will always be when made in the back of a tiny green Bedford van with the spare tyre and two younger sisters as company. After hours of treeless hillside, we alighted in the baroque blackness and mist of Glen Coe, suitably embellished by Dad's stories about the hairy murderers of yore. Taking the Corran ferry really did represent the transition to a different world. Much later, halfway along the peninsula on some impossible single-track convolution, a small, queasy voice demanded to colourfully ornament the road. Much to our chagrin, it had washed away a week later.

I mention this to illustrate how we acquire the misguided belief that Scotland is a big country. It's not, but to travel, especially around the infinite jagginess of the west coast, will often feel like a frustratingly indirect effort. To stand on top of Ben Chonzie, Ben Lawers can appear disarmingly close - but Loch Tay can only be reached from Strathearn by negotiating a snaking highway, mortally awash with bug-eyed, criminally insane caravanners. To my mind, the definite case of near- distance misperception surrounds the Isle of Jura. It's possible to drive eight hundred miles across Texas in a day, so what do the seventy miles which separate Glasgow and Jura represent when it takes longer to cover them? Is Jura's isolation diminished because of a perception regarding transportation rather than sheer physical remoteness?

Without employing tired distillery guidebookisms about eagles and heather, Jura, it must be said, possesses an atmospheric peace of a very distinct quality. Obviously, by writing this, I'm betraying the island's singular assets, but a few years back somebody reported to TGO, so I feel the damage has been done. Furthermore, I experienced Jura long before any post-Munro disillusion caused by unseemly Ben Lomond style sponsored walks. I think my selfishness may be unwarranted given the effort required to experience the island, but I believe the effort will be well rewarded.

There's more to Jura than its Paps - deep down, you knew it was true, but had always been taken in by touristy pamphlets and The Sunday Post to believe otherwise. Anyone who goes to Jura for the Paps alone will be disappointed. The famous hills are an undoubted aberration in the Hebridean notion of esoteric, low- altitude mountains-in-miniature. After three week-long visits, I've never been near them; these are the curiously overrated hills, after all, which, every May, attract a plethora of malnourished, lycra-wearing midgets who weigh less than their trainers and who spend two days grimacing wordlessly and stumbling anti-socially. If they want to excise a pleasurable piece-and-fag-break from their day, and go a bit faster, very good, but don't expect me to admire such asceticism.

Because the journey to Jura is subject to the vicissitudes of the noble MacBrayne family, it is necessarily leisurely. It doesn't matter how fast you drive to Kintyre, you'll still have to queue in an orderly fashion to be ordered around by some alcoholic jobsworth in an orange bib. There's always one, like the guy on the Arran ferry who'll make you wait with your bike on the car deck until every vehicle has gone, leaving behind a murderous noxious miasma. We reckoned he'd suffered at the hands of a bicycling playground protection racket, so apparent was the vengeance in the theatrical sneer he gave after ordering us to wait till Brodick's supply of the Daily Record was driven off. I think the best arrangement is to drive in the afternoon or evening, absorbing the heightened aesthetic pleasure of a lower sun and longer shadows, and to meditate upon the clarity of Loch Fyne's reflectivity with a fish supper in Inveraray. From there, it's not far to the campsite in Rhu and a sound night's sleep before taking the steamer to Islay from Kennacraig at 7am. I suggest that you take a seat beside an ancient denizen of the islands, returning from his first visit to the city, listen to his discourse about the history of human habitation on Islay, and generally prepare for the Hebridean milieu.

After two-and-a-half hours, the ferry is being supported by the green-blue brine of Port Ellen, the embodiment of whitewashed, maritime, windswept islandness. A visit to your favourite Islay whisky's home might be in order before reaching Port Askaig for the five-minute crossing to Jura, where you will experience the rarity that is the A-class single-track road. The bold red of the map suggests a sheltered, scenic sweep protected from the asperity of the west wind, but the reality is a quaint affair whose centre is frequently and conveniently shown by a narrow corridor of shimmery, waving grass. There's nothing new to say of the only settlement, Craighouse: it is tiny, it features the popular West Highland Post Office / Spar combo, and the bobby deigns to pop over once a week. Nothing ever happens. Or ever seems to happen. I think the two hundred residents are employed by the world's great criminals and despots to formulate some apocalyptic horror, so perfect is the disguise of such soporific smalltown sanctity. We'll see soon enough when the millennium turns.

Northerly progress brings one closer to the mainland; it now feels as if all that should be visible is expansive blue ocean, interrupted, perhaps, by a barely perceivable outcrop on the hazy horizon. But no, it's right there, the road you drove down yesterday. The perversity of such near-distance gives the island's isolation a palpable feel, the fact that a tiny clan can keep their remoteness, keep it to themselves, and turn down the ease of a much shorter ferry connection.

It doesn't really matter where the start is - pass the great split of Loch Tarbert, make sure you have enough food for five days, and start walking west. The essence of your route on Jura is that it is a caprice, has infinite potential variation, and includes something aesthetically unique. The west coast is where all the gems lie. Weeks could be spent meandering over the dozens of fabulously rough, rocky hills, but the constant beauty and variety of the coast is endlessly pleasing. It's on the coast that the definitive Juran experi-ence is to be had; not just something full of sightseeing potential, but the very reason you left the tent behind. The cave. We're not talking dank, greasy, constricted tunnels here, but massive, open, grand, airy arenas, every one perfectly carpeted in an ancient, spongy layer of goat dung. Stick a bivvy bag beneath your sleeping bag and you're sorted. Doubts about the wholemeal colour are short-lived, but questions will be asked in the bar on the ferry home.

The lack of paths, the maddening variety of tortuous terrain, and the chaos of the coast, will make progress surprisingly slow. All seems well, then you're forced up some nasty vegetated rock or round into the drink. The raised beaches can be particularly impressive - vast, bright, bouldery stretches high up the hillside, their edges strikingly sharp against the heather. The beaches, of the sandy variety, are eyewateringly beautiful. Perfect, broad exposures of pale sand, backed by a neat swathe of grass which gives way to a mixture of hillside and cliff, dotted with sweetly verdant waterfalls featuring the kind of plunge pool used in the Bounty commercial.

I feel that Jura would benefit immeasurably from the introduction of wolves and bears and other creatures with claws and teeth. For a start, Scotland needs a place where these chaps can be seen at work, Jura hardly represents the populist honeypot, and, more importantly, the deer there need a proper predator in a big way. They are quite unhappy with the pathological, paranoid mistrust displayed by their mainland brethren, and see fit to gawk insouciantly in herds of fifty as you wander by. I don't know what kind of despicable wretch it takes to admit that a Jura deer is the only one you could be capable of shooting, when the stalk is only likely to involve thirty seconds of brisk marching from the Land Rover, the engine still running. The goats, though, know how to carry themselves and create some mystique, by always knowing where to appear for maximum visual impact. You'll be walking along, checking the view; next time you look up, they've appeared. Immobile, portentously, seven of them stand arrayed about two hundred metres distant, watching. Big-horned beasts, primevally hairy, their coats reach to the ground and make a bizarre silhouette. (No, no, that's The Grateful Dead - Ed.) But, really, Jura is no better than anywhere else in Britain in its lamentable lack of wildlife predisposed to the consumption, or even occasional intimidation, of humans. Even the island's rare spiders aren't the kind which steal your hairbrush. The ticks, however, should be honoured as the world's most determinedly bloodthirsty, and they're none too shy about where they make their inimical incursions.

So, make the preposterous voyage and have your choice: a goat, adder, bird, and spider spotting extravaganza; a great sweep of the coast; an aimless shamble around the interior for the perfect bouldery outcrop; five days of food, drink, and philosophy on the best beach. Whatever, but make a route which is new, which will always be your own, which will never be repeated. And be sure, on your return, to offend and dazzle civilisation with the au naturel complexity of your eau-de-goat fragrance.

TAC 37 Index