As a fairly peripatetic, urban sort of person myself, I’ve often wondered what it might be like to live in a small and/or isolated town. I was wondering that again last week, when I found myself in a little twin turbo-prop plane, coming in to land on the Hebridean island of Islay (pronounced Eye-la). We drove from the airport to Port Askaig, from where the ferry makes a five-minute journey across the Sound of Islay to the neighbouring island of Jura (pronounced Jyoo-ra).
Jura is a wild and remote Scottish island, populated by a total of 200 people and 27,500 casks of whisky, which, if you ask me, is a truly excellent ratio of people to fine living. There’s one pub, one shop, one bank that’s open once a week, one newspaper called Jura Jottings, and one 180-year-old whisky distillery owned by Whyte & Mackay (pronounced McEye), which itself is now owned, like most objects in the known universe, by Vijay Mallya.
On Jura there are three peaks colourfully known as the Paps of Jura, over which competitors race every May. There are 6,000 red deer and many, many highland cows (pronounced heyland coos) with fetching fringes falling over their eyes; it is thought that evolution probably selected out their eyes centuries ago, but nobody’s ever gotten through enough hair to actually find out. There are colonies of seals, and apparently a pair of otters for every mile of the 115-mile coastline.
A drive down the fabulous coast of Jura features austere mountains presiding over flats of tawny gorse and heather which run down to a cold and choppy sea so aquamarine and twinkling that it might be the Caribbean. The island’s beauty makes it a good site for the ongoing Writer’s Retreat programme. This is where George Orwell came in 1947, to write 1984 in a beautiful solitude. He almost died in the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, apparently the second most powerful in the world, though he lived on to die of TB instead.
The arrival of twelve journalists from India caused a near-catastrophic 16% increase in the human population, but luckily we were just there for the day. Three things really get the conversation going on Jura: whisky, the damned English, and the age-old feud between the McGregors and the Campbells, though you’d think that with 200 people left, they’d try to get along.
At the Kilearnadil cemetery many plague-felled citizens as well as a couple of Knights Templar are interred under grass so thick and soft and springy that I had to lie down in it. Two souls joined up quite recently; one fellow who dropped dead of a heart attack, and three weeks later, his best friend who choked on his food. The latter’s cat Tigger, a plush ginger creature, is now taken care of by the people at the one pub.
Back in Glasgow, Richard Paterson, the theatrical master blender of Whyte & Mackay whiskeys, who has a predilection for flinging whisky into the office carpet and hurling fistfuls of barley across conference tables, insisted that we taste Jura whisky on the pier next to the water from which it is made, in the same bracing air that soaks into the American bourbon and French oak casks. This I did, smiling happily and cretinously into my drink.
Willie Cochrane at the distillery says that when he thinks a cask is “sleeping” instead of actively imbibing the good air of Jura, he administers it a “kick up the arse” by shifting its position. I wouldn’t mind a similar kick if it relocated me to Jura.