Walk on the wild side

Walk on the wild side

Dave Broom and company survived a hike up the Paps of Jra to tell the tale. Just...

Travel | 16 Nov 2002 | Issue 27 | By Dave Broom

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Sheltering from the rain and the wind in the doorway at 7am, I was already wondering if this was such a great idea. The storm had been blowing for most of the previous two days, the wind had groaned against the house for most of the night, waves were being blasted across the Port Charlotte pier, yet I and four distillery managers were going to walk the three Paps of Jura. Still, the idea of walking the land near to distilleries to find a new way of talking about whisky is a potent one, and hard to resist. Lagavulin’s Donald Renwick picked me up, already shaking his head. “This is madness,” he said, with a slightly nervous laugh. “Still, it might clear.” There speaks a man who knows the hills, knows the fickleness of Islay and Jura’s weather and how it can change in a second. It’s the blind optimism of the Scot, typified by the Islay catch-phrase “Ach, it’ll be fine.”We picked up Caol Ila’s Billy Stitchell from the distillery and met Aberlour’s Alan Winchester at the ferry. Across the sound, the tops of the Paps were already wreathed in cloud. Our sherpa Mickey Heads, (Jura’s Manager) met us on the other side. The fact he was already entirely clad in waterproofs indicated that he wasn’t overly optimistic about the weather conditions. “Looks like it’s setting in,” he said cheerily. “Still, let’s give it a shot. We can see how it looks after the first one.” A look of mild panic flitted across Billy’s face. No one had mentioned to him that we were intending to do all three.While there are any number of ways to climb them, none of the Paps are particularly easy, thanks to the fact that there are no real tracks and any assault involves not just a long walk to them but a near-vertical climb. We set off, the heather and myrtle snagging on our boots. The rain was starting to fall, the cloud getting ever lower. It was a long, relentless climb, the moor giving way to a jangle of sharp edged quartzite scree, which as Alan pointed out would have given great traction. If it had been dry that is. We scrambled upwards and the higher we went, the stronger the wind and the lower the cloud. “It’s like the Bahamas,” said Alan. “In a tornado.” He wasn’t far off it. The wind was now so strong that it was impossible to turn round and retrace our steps. The only option was to reach the summit and come off on the other, hopefully more sheltered, side. By the time we reached the small saddle that leads to the summit of Beinn a’Chaolais visibility was diminishing rapidly. I looked behind me and through the skidding sheets of ripped cloud caught sight of Donald, bent 45 degrees, looking like something out of Scott of the Antarctic. The top was reached with muted celebration and an instantly diluted dram of 36-year-old Jura. “If you look closely,” says Mickey. “You can see Colonsay.” The wind was gaining in ferocity. “Let’s get off,” says Alan, “The mountains will always be there tomorrow.” He and
Mickey plotted the escape route and we headed down a small valley, smack into a wall of wind. Walking through it was impossible, the wind just picked your leg up and waved it in the air. We were jet propelled back the way we had come. Bearings were taken and another route was worked out. Getting off the mountain was one thing, but going too far north-east would take us deep into the heart of the island to the foot of Beinn Shiantaidh (whose name, appropriately enough means Peak of the Storms) and miles from the Land Rover.The gale screamed. It was as if the mountain was playing games with us. One minute it clutched us in its grasp, the next it was trying to spit us off. We were blundering on, inching our way down in whatever way we could, like crabs, on our behinds, hands and knees. I became quite intimate with Jura’s lichens, one of which looked as if the rocks themselves had been bruised. We cowered behind ridges which gave us some respite from the gale which was hurling the rain into our faces like buckshot. To make matters worse, Billy’s trousers began to fall down.The mountain was winning. The wind seemed to be spiralling round the exposed peak forcing us to turn, retrace our steps, go left, then right, just to get out of the wind. This wasn’t a walk, this was becoming a fight to get off the hill. “This is turning into an epic,” said Alan getting the right bearing. Donald tried his GPS (Global Positioning System), but there was no signal. As far as the satellite is concerned, Jura doesn’t exist. How appropriate is that? Somehow Billy remained upright through all this, one hand on his breeks, still cracking jokes. He’s looked out on these hills from the warmth of his stillhouse for 28 years, but admits that he’s only been on Jura three times in his life. At this point I can see
why. Who would want to live here? Earlier, Mickey was telling us how the ferry often didn’t run for two weeks or more at the winter. The 200 or so people who live here are simply cut off.Is this really about whisky I remember thinking as I slid on my backside down the scree. Yes. There’s enough water falling today to supply Mickey for a year. There’s sufficient wind, Donald suggests, to run a wind-powered still. Yet that water that flows through the peat bog and moor doesn’t have magical properties to give to Jura’s whisky. The peats which smother the island aren’t used in its making. If whisky terrorists are to be believed, this island of quartz, peat and rain would make a spirit which reflected its location: a rugged, wild, peaty dram with a fair lashing of salt. It doesn’t. The plant makes a light ‘Highland’ style because that is what its owners want. The connection between Jura and its whisky is deeper than that. It is down to the distillery being reopened in order to try and give employment to this isolated community. The fact it has hung on since then isn’t surprising. This island is about being adaptable, resourceful, stubborn even, accepting of what the elements fling at you. It is a place for loners, for people who are happy to lose themselves in its trackless heart, wander its west coast, camp in caves. Places like this force you to be self-sufficient. The weather, the rocks, the land all impacted on which crops and which beasts (and which people) could survive here. Jura formed the spirit which was made here and the spirit of the people who made it. It’s an older, better way of reading the landscape and man’s relationship with it and through that a new way of talking about it. Call it geopoetics.Our corkscrewing descent was almost over. The mist began to clear revealing a chain of cold lochans, the first landmark for what seemed like hours. The wind had died down. Then we crested a small ridge. “When we got to that ridge,” said Billy later, “the wind just hit me full on and down I went. ‘Christ they’ll all be laughing at me now’ I thought. Next thing I know, Donald rolls past me, heading downhill. I looked up and the rest of you were all lying on the ground as well.” We all lay there, cackling. It was the final trick, the last absurdity of what had been a truly insane experience.“You’ll have to come back and do them all,” said Mickey almost apologising for the island’s bad behaviour. It’s part joke, part challenge but mostly it comes from his pride in the place he has called home. He tells me of the ways to walk Jura, to find its secrets, its raised beaches and abandoned towns, the views he has seen from the peaks: deep into Perthshire, up to Mull, to Ben Nevis, the whole of Islay’s coastline laid out in front of him. Of course we’ll return … well, Billy might not. Not to have another scrap with the hill but because this is what Scotland is like. It may be vile at the moment but suddenly the sun will come out and it will be the most beautiful place on earth. It’s appreciating and living in that balance and on days like this having utmost respect for the hills. It is finding joy in rain showers, the way the rays of sun slant through bruised clouds and light up the moor and loch. Days like this remind me of a poem by Derick Thomson, Meall Garbh:ach seo mi
air mullach an t-saoghail
‘s hun bhata ‘na mo laimh
dad ach facail …
is cuimhne a ghleidheas cuimhn’ air
na clachan
‘s air na gathan greine
air cho garbh ‘s gam bi am meall.but here I am
on the top of the world
without a stick in my hand
nothing but words …
and a memory that remembers the stones
and the rays of sunshine
however harsh the shower may be.We reached the safety of the Land Rover and headed back for the ferry. By this time we could see great lumps of water being hurled up the Sound. There’s no way that the little ferry would attempt to make it across. Like any sensible people we headed for the pub. There we found out that the ferries from the mainland have already been turned back, and that winds of 75mph have been recorded at Bruichladdich. That’s sea level. We were 2,400 feet higher. “How nice,” says Donald, as an impromptu lunch is brought. “A cup of tea and a scone.” It was already becoming one of those trips where when you meet again you smile, shake your heads and say “Remember the day on the Paps?” A call comes in that the wee ferry is going to make a dash for it at the turn of the tide. We make it across. The next day the Paps are still shrouded, gathering their grey shawl discreetly around themselves, but as the sky brightens it lifts. By dusk they are clear once more, huge, soft, maternal … inviting. Next time, I say to them. Next time.
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