by John Krich
The New York Times, 10 May 1998
Is there any form of travel less reliable than the literary pilgrimage? Based on a murky urge to honor some vanished authorial idol, such an expedition can spin out of control as soon as you've left your library.
I knew it wasn't going to be easy to reach Barnhill, a farmhouse on the inaccessibleend of the island of Jura in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. To get as far as he could from the horrors of city life -- ''noise, motor cars, the radio, tinned food, central heating, 'modern' furniture'' -- Eric Blair, pen name George Orwell, had journeyed here in 1946 to write his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Chronically tubercular, yet doggedly self-sufficient, this lost son of Edwardian England came to Scotland partly to flee doctors and literary critics, mostly out of his stated belief that ''retaining one's childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and . . . toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.''
Considering its proximity to northern England's sludgy factory towns, Scotland's southwestern coast remains remarkably peaceful and pristine, astonishingly Nordic. Straight-edged swaths of forest descend steep hills and plunge into steely water. Each town on the bus ride out of Glasgow is freshly whitewashed. The chimneyed row houses, the cacophony of kilt and tea shops ooze quaintness. While Orwell himself would have delighted in all the lace-curtained frippery, the courtly politeness of the shopkeepers, I doubt he would have approved of whole towns turned into bed-and-breakfast fairy tales.
On the ferry crossing to Islay, Jura's larger island neighbor, weekend explorers repair to the cozy cafeteria. ''Hamburger, chips and beans ... shepherd's pie, chips and beans ... lasagna, chips and beans.'' The lunch orders come out like a Monty Python skit. My second ferry is less Pythonesque than Lilliputian. The open-bed boat that holds fewer than 10 cars heads over to the last home of an English satirist often compared to Swift, zipping through the strong currents between the two islands in about five minutes.
The tip of Orwell's refuge meets the sea in one foreboding, glacial descent. In the distance are two of the legendary Paps of Jura, a central row of three peaks. Only one stone block near the slip -- the Feolin Ferry House, once an inn -- suggests the possibility of further human habitation. In fact, the current population hovers around 200. One islander tells me that folks had a good laugh when a Korean reporter, come to mark the year 1984, announced the number as 2,000. Far more populous are the red deer that roam the interior of Jura may derive its name from the Norse for ''deer island'' -- and lure seasonal high-end hunters to the six lordly estates that claim the lion's share of Jura's territory.
Thanks to prearrangement by the bed-and-breakfast I've booked from London, our half-hourly crossing is met by ''the Jura bus,'' a minivan that carts children to and from grade school and doubles, when necessary, as a tourist conveyance. Four of us are soon traveling on the A846, known to the islanders as the Long Road. Going up the east shore from the ferry slip almost to the island's far northern cliffs, this 32 1/2-mile highway is well-maintained blacktop most of the way. But people like to joke that their one concession to modern transport is still ''impassable'' -- the width of but a single car.
Standing stones in the green meadows attest to a more ancient culture. At one wooded turn is the shrubbery-choked entrance to Ardfin, a restored estate with organic gardens that serve as Jura's sole paid attraction. A few curves farther and we come down into Craighouse, the island hub, set around a tranquil bay. Within a hundred yards are the Jura Stores -- the island's only grocery-bait-postcard shop -- its one church (Presbyterian, built in 1775), the blunt, white ends of the sheds of the Jura distillery (legal since 1810 -- weekday tours by arrangement). Just across the road, with perfect sunset views of shallows strewn with sailboats and rocky islets, is the flower-bordered Jura Hotel. About half of its ground floor is given over to Jura's only pub.
I'm staying up the road in one of several semidetached row houses that take the spillover. What the architecture lacks in local color is more than made up by my host, Davie Gilmour. This bushy-haired handyman keeps football matches going on his living room telly and keeps the tins placed on every lamp stand well-stocked with ''biscuits,'' mostly bite-sized chocolate bars. At all hours, he pushes these chocolates and caramels along with cups of white tea. Nationalist to the core, Davie explains how Jura was depopulated during the 19th century's Highland Clearances, when lairds dispossessed crofters (many of whom immigrated to the United States) and replaced them with income-producing sheep. He is also a fount of good advice on hikes up to the 2,000-foot-plus Paps and of describing an annual race in which mad runners from all over Britain try to scale them.
Excited, my host phones his neighbors at once to spread the news about a writer arriving in search of Orwell's lair. But he's not sanguine about my ever getting there. On weekdays, I could catch the Jura bus on its 7 A.M. run out as far as the end of the paved road at Ardlussa. Tomorrow being a Sunday, I don't have that luxury. I can hitchhike, a somewhat iffy prospect since no more than three or four cars go the full length in a day. When another of the boarders volunteers to give up his prior claim on Davie Gilmour's mountain bike, I unthinkingly accept the offer.
It seems providential -- and if I've hardly been in training for a 50-plus-mile ride, the challenge will be in perfect keeping with the classic counterphobe I've come to honor -- a man of intellect who picked hops with tramps and fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Beyond nightfall, there's nothing to do in Craighouse but fortify myself in the Jura Hotel's pub with such specialties as grilled mackerel appetizers and fresh venison pie, served with mounds of bread and potatoes. Eschewing the local spirits and a late-night game of darts, I fall asleep over a hotel pamphlet entitled ''Jura and George Orwell.'' Though another handout states that ''Orwell does not seem to have made a deep impression on Jura nor it on him,'' the testimony of his nearest island neighbor, Mrs. Margaret Nelson of Ardlussa, tells how this ''tall, gaunt and sad-looking man'' diligently established a life here during a postwar period when gas was rationed, candles were scarce, and the twice-weekly mail took 24 extra hours to reach his end of the island.
At Barnhill, Orwell not only completed his masterpiece but also raised a young adopted son, Richard, hunted rabbits, dabbled in experimental farming, fished for salmon and set lobster pots, hauled milk in jars and made his own furniture. Together with 3-year-old Richard and a couple of summer guests, Orwell was nearly drowned when he jauntily steered his rowboat straight into the nearby whirlpool of Corryvreckan.
I hope my bike ride doesn't prove equally daunting. Though I've asked to be awakened at 8 A.M., Davie Gilmour pounds on my door at 7 AM knowing something I don't about the task ahead -- then fortifies me with eggs, bacon, toast, corn flakes and more milky tea. I estimate the journey should take three hours each way, but that's based on a reasonably flat course.
The first of the Long Road's many rude shocks is a grueling, gradual rise of several miles beyond Craighouse. Blessedly, I have perfect, high-visibility weather. S-curves afford magnificent views of sheep grazing beneath Beinn-an-Oir, highest of the Paps, its peak hidden by a puff of cloud. My Walkman picks up little more than a Sunday sermon in Gaelic. Marked on my map as a major stop, the town of Lagg appears to be a single farmhouse equipped with one surreal-looking royal-red phone booth. This first notch is less than a third of my proposed journey up the island, and I've already used up nine-tenths of my normal energies.
Up and over bare moors, I push on to Tarbert, where I rest by enjoying a view of one lordly mansion that sits at the edge of the Jura Sound's rocky shallows. Another hour gets me to Ardlussa, where I cross a stone bridge over a small, roaring stream. At this point, the public road passes through a gate and the outbuildings of this working farm. Travelers are warned to continue at their own risk but there's nobody out here to stop them. The steep and heavily wooded twists around Ardlussa are the route's prettiest patch. The manor house where Orwell, a declared socialist, was forced to recuperate during one of his lung hemorrhages is among the island's most patrician -- bone-white, with many fluted chimneys, its own boat dock and a tamed lawn as sweeping as the playing fields of Eton, Eric Blair's alma mater.
Overtaken by a single car, I don't bother to hitch a ride because I figure I'm almost there. But the toughest seven-and-a-half miles await, offering a road so rough that I have to walk my bicycle most of the way. At the parking lot, I catch up to the English couple who have driven here. The husband is a motorcycle nut who admits that all he knows about Orwell is the Victor-brand bikes used in the film version of ''Nineteen Eighty-four.'' At the moment, I wish I had access to anything motorized -- though Orwell's own motorbike frequently broke down along the Long Road. I hint about a ride back, but they plan to hike on to get a view of the Corryvreckan Gulf -- and a listen for the sound of its spooky whirlpool, supposedly audible at certain tides. Laying my bike by the side of the increasingly rock-strewn path, I curse Orwell for insisting on such remoteness. But the Englishman beside me muses, ''The gent must have needed a bit of peace and quiet.''
It's taken five silent hours to get my first glimpse down at Barnhill -- a literal translation of the spot's original Gaelic name, Knockintacvill. Viewing the square, white flank of the farmhouse, dwarfed by magnificent expanses of sea and the green Scottish mainland beyond, I have to admit that Orwell may not have been that daft after all. Trudging a last quarter-mile down to sea level, I see that the house is set in one of Jura's more emerald hollows and that its front lawn rolls straight to the water. No wonder Orwell raved in letters about ''the completely uninhabited bays where there is beautiful white sand and clear water with seals swimming in it.'' Up close, the house is a stolid affair, with wings on either side at the back to serve as barns. High chimneys climb both ends of the structure and three windows are set in gables on the second floor. There's little left of the area where Orwell planted his vegetable garden, though there are fallen bits of wooden fencing that may have been part of the stalls where the author of Animal Farm kept livestock.
I see no bas-relief bust like the one that marks Orwell's London residence in Hampstead. As in Orwell's time, Barnhill remains a highly private place, available for holiday rentals. Having come all this way, I take a chance on trespassing. Fortunately, my knock on the back door is answered by a lanky teen-age kid who is tolerant, if not welcoming. He offers me a quick traipse through rooms that are, to put it mildly, unimproved. The walls are dank, the floors unpainted and unswept, the soft mattresses that pass for beds, unmade. The kitchen appliances look to be from the 1920's and the large pantry where I'm offered a welcome glass of water is unfinished concrete. The bathroom barely contains a lion-clawed Victorian tub.
Tacked up in the stairwell are a couple of newspaper articles about the house, and a picture of Orwell's prematurely lined face. Another small portrait sits crookedly on the tumbledown living room's fireplace mantle. An upstairs bedroom, I'm told, was where Orwell generally worked. Guests in the kitchen beneath could hear his furious typing.
Given the wonderful water views from each room, I wonder how Orwell managed to spin his gray vision of totalitarian misery in ''Nineteen-Eighty-Four.''
''A ghastly mess now, a good idea ruined,'' he wrote of the work that would make him world famous. He died in London in January 1950, at the age of 46, unable to savor his new-found success or wealth, on the eve of a trip to a Swiss sanitarium, still dreaming of a return to Jura with his young bride, Sonia, who had married him three months earlier in his hospital room. As I start the return leg, I realize that I'm attempting this Big Brother/Iron Man Triathalon at the same age Orwell was when his lungs gave out.
I've no time to linger; my muscles are seizing up. I find that I can only pedal along the flat stretches. The air is getting cool, the vistas even more bare and chillingly clear. Somewhere between Tarbert and Lagg, a little more than halfway back, I'm passed by a white Land-Rover. Walking the bike up another incline, I curse myself for not daring to ask for a lift. But the car is waiting to rescue me at the top of the hill. Bike stuffed in the trunk by good Samaritans who turn out to be husband-and-wife investment bankers, I'm soon resting my bones all the way to Craighouse.
I'm glad Davie Gilmour isn't at home to see me straggling in, humbled by the Long Road. There are no shower facilities at Davie's; his guests are expected to fill the old-fashioned tub with plenty of hot water, which suits me just fine. Afterward, I hobble toward the hotel to meet my new-found saviors for supper. There I get my first sip of Jura whisky, which is surprisingly smooth. Never have I so enjoyed chips with shepherd's pie, chips with everything. Never have I so savored the camaraderie of a pub.
In the morning, I've got a final social call to make. Davie Gilmour has told me that Donald Darroch, who resides in Feolin Ferry House, may be the last living soul on the island to have known Orwell. Once the Jura bus drops me at the slip, I sprint across the road and gather the courage to rattle the door of the stone house. A tidy old man in a woolen vest emerges from the kitchen, wiping his hands.
''Aye, Eric Blair!'' he exclaims wearily, perhaps hoping that strangers who come calling would inquire about something else. ''He was a nice sort of man. A very kind man.''
How many calories -- and pounds of the monetary kind -- have I expended to hear this bit of intelligence? Nonetheless, I feel proud to be standing before this simple house, in the shadow of the granite Paps, on this island apart. Orwell's original title for ''Nineteen Eighty-Four'' was ''The Last Man in Europe'' -- and that's surely how he must have felt out here. Fifty years later, my pilgrimage on the Long Road has offered the same feeling of divine, unfettered isolation. I am closer to the spirit of Orwell -- his independent thinking, lone conscience, love of common sense and honest effort -- for having come to his haunt. And for having done it his way, the hard way.
''Go on then,'' I hear the old Scot counsel from long years of
experience. ''You don't want to miss your ferry, now do you?''
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