Barren, wild, windswept Jura: the island on which Orwell wrote 1984
Tourism, which flourishes all through Scotland, never struggled to its feet on Jura. This small sliver of an island, one of the Inner Hebrides, lies 18 miles off the scenic Argyll coast. It hosts no festivals or piping contests. On Jura no winsome lassies dance the fling before solemn, kilted judges. There are no guided tours on Jura through castles or gardens. Thirty miles long, five miles across, barren, wild, and windswept, Jura supports a meager population of about 200, which, come summer, swells as high as 210.
Now Jura is in for a jolt.
In 1984 assault waves of visitors in unprecedented numbers will be swarming across its deserted beaches, fanning out across its empty moors, straining the facilities of the island's only hostelry, (maximum capacity: 35). In fact the first such assault has already come and gone. It consisted of a delegation of Japanese socialists. Nikon-draped, they recently arrived to see - and snap - Barnhill where George Orwell lived off and on from 1946 until his death in 1950. It was in this remote farmhouse, miles from his nearest neighbor, that Orwell wrote his last, maybe his most lasting work, the prophetic novel ''1984.''
Now with the calendar and the book's title on a collision course, devotees of Orwell will be zeroing in on this Hebridean hideaway to pay their respects to the man whose works include ''Animal Farm,'' ''Down and Out in Paris and London, '' and the ''Road to Wigan Pier.'' That their pilgrimages will be taking place this year is, in fact, pure chance: At a loss for a title for the book he completed just before he died, Orwell simply inverted the last two numbers of the year 1948 when he was at work on it. In so doing he determined the travel plans that 36 years later are about to be carried out by his admirers all around the world.
It's impossible to visit Jura and not come away with a sense of wonder. Life there is invested with a degree of isolation most of us would never imagine, much less experience, unchanged since Orwell lived there. In fact, the trip from the Scottish mainland to the island has, as they say, become a wee bit more trying since the end of direct ferry service, a convenience available in the late 1940s.
The trip today requires not one but two ferries. The first of these departs three times a day from the dock at Kinnacraig, which is hardly more than a pier surrounded by meadows. A two-hour, seldom smooth voyage ends at one of two villages on the island of Islay (eye-la), which lies just 31/2 miles south of Jura. On alternate trips the ferry puts in at Port Ellen on Islay's southern extremity or at Port Askaig 20 miles up on Islay's northeast coast. The tiny ferry for Jura departs Port Askaig three or four times a day or not at all, depending on tide, wind, storm, and demand or lack thereof.
Although Islay and Jura are each about 210 square miles in area, they are as different in every other respect as siblings in a fairy tale. Islay is fertile and prosperous. Its fields are dazzling green, filled with sleek cows and well-grazed sheep. Its tidy farmhouses sit smugly amid flower beds and kitchen gardens. Its roads are comfortably wide, well maintained and sensibly laid out. Its shops are well stocked. It has half a dozen thriving hotels, plenty of pubs and churches. It has banks, butchers, bakeries, and an airport. It even has tennis and golf.
In contrast with so much pink-cheeked prosperity, Jura is wild and empty. All along its western coast clouds and mist shroud the rounded summits of its mountains, the Paps. In 1812 their place in Scotland's history books was earned for all times when Dr. Walker of Edinburgh scaled their 2,571-foot height to conduct the experiments that gave the world the degree difference between the boiling point of water at sea level and at altitudes.
Jura's west coast is also noted for its raised beaches, a geologist's delight. Standing 30 to 50 feet above the edge of the sea, they were formed eons ago when the ice cap receded and, relieved of its weight, the earth's crust rebounded upward.
The 15-minute ferry ride across from Islay to Jura deposits a visitor at the Feolin Ferry landing, which consists of nothing grander than a rough shingle of beach. It's an unceremonious landing and no sooner has the last Land Rover, truck, or tractor rolled ashore than the ferry backs off and hurries back to its picturesque port on Islay.
From Feolin Ferry, the view of Jura is not for the love of creature comforts. There are only moors, the sea, sky, and a scrap of broken road. Overhead the gulls hang bickering in the wind. If the sun is shining here, the chances are that somewhere out across the glens of blanket bog it's raining. Rain and sunlight come in such swift succession that it's a rare day that doesn't bring a rainbow, sometimes a double, arching across the island.
The drive from the ferry landing, eight miles up the road to Craighouse, Jura's only village, requires a car and two persons:
* One to ease the car in first gear through the potholes, hugging the weedy center of the road lest a wheel skid off into a ditch knee-deep with the peaty water that rushes off the mountains.
* A second person to spot the golden eagle hovering over the moors, to note the stag and four hinds trotting along a nearby ridge, to count the sheep in black wool socks and the milk-heavy cows that wander freely back and forth across the road, to identify the ringed plovers, terns, and cormorants, the herons and lapwings, and the occasional billed duck that feed along the kelp-lined shore.
The village of Craighouse consists of one distillery, one gas pump, one elementary school, one small but surprisingly comfortable hotel, two fishing docks, and one general store.
When Orwell - on the island, he used his real name, Eric Blair - came to Jura he had just lost his wife. He arrived from London accompanied by his two-year-old adopted son, Richard. Everything that anyone would need for survival in a farmhouse had to be purchased in the island's only store, a one-room affair that also is the Jura post office.
Today Orwell's landlord remembers his arrival and marvels still that he was able to manage, given the circumstances.
''He knew virtually nothing about farming and of course everything was still severely rationed,'' the landlady said. ''My husband and I did what we could to make the house habitable. We laid fires and patched the roof, but there was hardly any furniture in it. No central heating of course, no electricity. It was scarcely the ideal spot for a city-bred writer with a lively infant.''
Eight miles south of Barnhill at Ardlussa, the estate to which Barnhill belongs, 74-year-old Margaret Nelson remembers Eric Blair with a firm respect both for his determination and his accomplishments.
''I was a young mother then, trying to cope with four small children of my own. Both my husband and I warned him how difficult life here on the island would be. He had no transport other than a secondhand motorbike which was forever breaking down. Often he would appear at our door, rather terrifying looking, dripping in black oilskins and in need of a spanner with which to repair his bike broken down out there on the road.''
White-haired, soft-spoken and handsome, Margaret Nelson is unmistakably to the manor born. And yet on Jura she is the socialist Orwell's most eloquent spokesman. To most of the islanders, fishermen, farmers, shepherds, and stalkers , Orwell or Mr. Blair is remembered, if at all, as ''just one more Englishman.''
Proper recognition will, in the months ahead, be accorded Orwell's memory, his works, and his four brief years on Jura. On April 21, the Jura Hotel will offer the first of several one-week package plans entitled ''George Orwell and Jura.'' By day visitors will be escorted up to Barnhill and on beyond to the cliffs that overlook the whirlpool of Corryvreckan where Orwell once overturned a rowboat while attempting to cross with Richard from Jura over to the island of Scarba.
Anticipating a demand, the hotel will reschedule the GO&J week June 2, July 21, and Aug. 11. The cost for seven nights accommodations, three meals inclusive , will be $98.50 (US). Children up to the age of 12 will be charged half price, and under the age of three, no charge.
Writing to a friend, Orwell described Jura as ''an extremely un-get-at-able place.'' His words are not one whit less true today. Yet those who undertake the trip, juggling the ferry schedules, managing the wretched road, the limited accommodations, the absence of a daily paper, and myriad other ''necessities,'' will, for their troubles, discover a wondrously wild and unspoiled place, scarcely marked by the hand of man. The beauty of Scotland, its Highlands, its Great Glen, its peaty rivers, and heathery hills is undoubted and easily grasped. Jura's beauty - and beautiful it is - is subtle and forbidding. But like good Scottish porridge, it sticks a long while to the ribs.
If you go: Information regarding ferry schedules, fares, and accommodations on Jura can be had by writing the British Tourist Authority, 40 West 57th Street , New York, N.Y. 10019 (212) 581-4700.