A wander on the wild west coast of Jura pt2

by backpackingbongos

Considering the weather I had one of my most enjoyable nights camping for a long time.  Warm and dry and with the wind and rain battering the tent I felt extra cozy and comfortable.  It had been worth the extra weight of taking my full length down mat with me, nearly as good as being in a bed.  The sound of the waves only a few metres away added a hypnotic quality to the camping experience.  It’s not very often that I get to hear the sounds of the sea when wild camping.

Day 3 – 7 miles with 240 metres ascent

I woke just after dawn and just had to get out to do what I had been putting off for most of the night.  You can never describe the experience of putting on wet waterproofs and boots first thing in the morning as pleasant.  Especially when you are exiting straight into wind and rain.  Once out of the tent the rain was not as heavy as it had sounded whilst laying in my sleeping bag, tents always managing to amplify the sound.  The first thing that I noticed was various deer and goats running away as fast as they could, human presence once again causing panic.  Although they must have know that we were there all night, simply hidden under technical nylon.

With business concluded I went and chatted to Rich and set a rendezvous time to synchronise taking down our tents.  Back at mine I went thought the slow process of taking off waterproofs and getting back inside without getting anything wet.  This I managed but a quantity of sand had hitched upon my person and was deposited within my inner tent.  That gave me something to grumble about whilst eating breakfast.

I had my tent all packed away at the rendezvous time but Rich was still ensconced in his so I legged it up to a shallow cave to seek shelter from the elements.  This gave me a great view of a pillar of rock that was towering above the middle of the bay.  It looked like a giant drill bit that had emerged from the bowels of the earth, spiraling out rock and sand as it punctured the surface.

With both of us packed and ready we set off up over a sandy rise where we were faced with another perfect bay, backed by a giant sand dune.  Once again the wild camping possibilities were pretty much endless.  We both discussed returning one day to spend a warm and dry evening in front of a driftwood fire, watching the sun set.

At the end of this bay was a huge rock arch, a tempting place to have a fire during a wet night.  A pile of driftwood and a fire circle showed that previous visitors had done just that.

We were tempted to try to stick as close to the coast as possible, both to remain sheltered from the elements and because the rock architecture was stunning.  However the way ahead looked like it was blocked at the far end of another bay, the possibility of a difficult scramble directly above the water.  With heavy packs and greasy rocks this was not very appealing so we climbed onto the hillside above.  This was also not very appealing in a different way as we were soon walking directly into intermittent wind-driven rain.  My camera remained safely inside my rucksack for much of the day, managing only a few snatched shots when the rain became lighter.

There was a period of about half an hour when the rain became rather intense and the wind picked up even more.  It really was a miserable experience walking directly into it, a matter of simply putting our heads down and thinking of a nice dry bothy later that afternoon.  When rain is being blown directly into your face you realise that waterproofs have a real design flaw.  This being the huge great hole for your face to stick out of.  I soon had the familiar sensation of cold water dripping down my chest, soaking my base layer.  My rucksack started to feel heavier with every passing minute.

We spotted a long section of coast below us that looked navigable, a narrow rocky arête leading us back down to sea level.  The arête turned out to be the roof of large arch / cave that provided some welcome shelter from the weather.  The cave had an old wooden structure built into it, including shelving and that may have been an enclosed room.  I wondered if this was the cave in which the artist Julie Brook had spent three years living in.  An article from the Independent describing her time on Jura can be found here.  I can say that after only spending four days on the wild west coast she must have been incredibly tough and resilient to spend so much time alone in such an inhospitable spot.

Standing around in our sodden clothing we soon began to feel chilled so set off once more into the rain.  We followed the shoreline for a while, tough going on the large slippery pebbles.  We found this rather tiring so once again took to the line of low cliffs, passing under a small rock arch some distance from the sea.

I had heard that Shian bay is one of the jewels of Jura and suddenly it was stretched out in front of us.  As we started the descent from a low hill the coastline was a flurry of movement as numerous deer and goats ran away as fast as they could.  It was an impressive sight, I have never seen so many wild beasts all in one place in the UK before.  A little while earlier we had spooked a stag from a short distance.  As usual he immediately galloped away but managed to lose his footing.  It is not often that you get to see a large stag complete with an impressive set of antlers do a forward roll.  He continued on his way unharmed, leaving behind two very wet backpackers with smiles on their bearded faces.

It had to be said that Shian bay and its surroundings smelt bad, really bad.  We kept expecting to find something very dead and very large washed up on the beach.  It really was unpleasant.  There was a lull in the rain so we had a break behind a grassy bank, soon getting chilled in our damp clothing.  With the rain returning we trudged on round the bay, not managing a photo as my camera was once again back in my rucksack.  I don’t know if my expectations were too high, the weather was too rubbish, or the smell too bad but Shian bay was an anticlimax.  I think that it is the sort of beach that may look its best under sunny skies and without rain water dripping down your chest.

Climbing south out of the bay we walked though probably my favourite section of the coast so far.  The moors were covered in some huge and spectacular raised beaches.  These reflect the changes in relative sea levels as ice sheets advanced and retreated during the ice age.  Some of these massive beaches are up to a kilometre inland.  They are composed of large pebbles and are almost devoid of any vegetation.  From a high vantage point we were able to see just how extensive they are.  They are also very hard to walk across and we picked our way between them, following animal tracks whenever possible.

Throughout our journey along the west coast we had gauged our progress by watching the flat outline of Colonsay in the west.  The weather had started to improve, the wind dropping and the rain becoming lighter.  As the first small patches of blue appeared in the sky above we could feel our spirits rise.  The weather probably had not been ‘that’ bad but after spending twenty four hours exposed to the rainy elements the chance to unzip our waterproofs was exceptionally welcome.  Visibility even improved enough so that the Isle of Mull became visible once again, previously hidden in the murk to the north.

We soon found a good argocat track which appeared to be heading in the direction of Ruantallain, our planned destination for the night.  With the going underfoot now easy and the rain finally stopped we sat and snacked for a while, finally relaxing after a challenging day.  Remarkably for such a remote spot we had full mobile signal, various texts being pinged back home.

The bothy at Ruantallain remained hidden until the very last moment as we picked our way down though a low band of crags.  If we had not known it was there we probably would have passed by without spotting it.  I like how its weather beaten exterior blends in against the surrounding hillside.  It is a row of two cottages owned by the estate, a single room at the end being kept as an open shelter for weary travellers.  I have to admit that I was very excited to have finally reached this spot, it is a place that I have wanted to visit for years.  Two previous planned visits had been thwarted by illness and bad weather.

We dumped our rucksacks inside the bothy and set straight off in search of driftwood, initially heading north, sticking to the water’s edge.  Passing a large cave we entered a fascinating world of rock, finally culminating in a tiny rocky cove, access further up the coast being blocked by cliffs.  There was a strange noise and then we spotted two baby seals close to the water’s edge, one white and fluffy and the other the colour of one of the surrounding boulders.  They were pretty damn cute to be honest, their large eyes watching us.  It was tempting to creep up close to get a photo, but this may have alarmed them so we kept our distance.

With no driftwood found we wandered back to the bothy and headed south to see if there was any there.  There is a small lochan in front of the bothy with the Paps of Jura across the waters of Loch Tarbert.  The environs of Ruantallain are simply magical with the view of mountains, sea and a long sinuous loch.  The light was constantly changing as we walked to the water’s edge, our quest for driftwood quickly forgotten.  The air was full of the noise of baby seals, invisible at first our eyes slowly picked then out along the shore.  They are really well camouflaged and hard to see until they move.  A couple of adults bobbed away close by.

I have to say that this area is one of the most stunning I have ever visited.  It was more than worth the long walk to get there.  I reckon that it could be the spot to ask for my ashes to be scattered when the time comes.  Not only is the place spectacular but it is awkward to get to.  I quite like the idea of making those carrying out my wishes slog through bog for about seven hours from the nearest road.

We eventually returned to the bothy empty-handed.  The open room is cosy with its wood-paneled walls and floorboards. Rich decided that he was going to pitch his tent and sleep in the garden, whilst I decided to stay in the bothy.  There are three ancient rusted beds in there which all looked remarkably uncomfortable and like they would quickly burst an airbed and wreck a sleeping bag.  I made a nest on the floor on a dusty old carpet in the fading light.  I went outside to see how Rich was getting on and was stopped in my tracks by the spectacle going on towards the west.  The sun was setting below a boiling mass of heavy clouds across the northern tip of Islay, bands of rain moving across the island.  It was like a giant spotlight was being beamed through holes in the clouds.  We both stood and watched until the sun finally sank below the horizon.

A most enjoyable evening was then spent in the bothy, a tiny fire with few scraps of wood burning more for effect that warmth.  Before bed we spent a while wandering about outside under a bright moon, the hills silhouetted against the dark sky.  Rich retired to his tent and I went back to the bothy to get another excellent nights sleep.

Day 4 – 10.5 miles with 600 metres ascent

With the aim of starting walking at 7.30am, we were both up at 6.00am.  It was still totally dark outside whilst I made my first cup of coffee.  I went out to watch the moon which was just beginning to set towards the west.  At the same time the sky to the east was beginning to brighten.  The Paps of Jura across Loch Tarbert were still silhouettes against the clear sky, a few wisps of mist hanging over their summits.

As it had been such a clear windless night Rich’s tent was dripping with condensation, making me feel glad that I had spent the night in the bothy.  It was good to be able to pack all my gear away dry for once.  Back outside I was transfixed by the light show to the east as the sun made its slow journey above the horizon.  I need to make an effort to see more sunrises as under the right conditions they are rather special.

We left the bothy more or less on schedule, an early start necessary as we had a lot of rough mileage to cover and a ferry to catch back to Islay.  We climbed the slopes above the bothy and picked up an argocat track eastwards, climbing above and away from the shore.  It would have been good to explore this section of coastline  but were aware that it would add a lot more time and effort to the day.  Our climb however was rewarded by some spectacular views over large raised beaches and across Loch Tarbert.

Despite numerous ups and downs the argocat track gave good easy progress through the rugged terrain.  Then it suddenly deserted us.  One minute we were marching happily along, the next floundering through boggy tussocks.  We had no idea where it had disappeared to and we resorted back to following indistinct animal tracks.  On the ground the landscape was much more complex than appears on the map, I had to really concentrate to locate our exact location each time I got it out to check.

The Garbh Uisge proved too tricky to cross higher up so we descended to the coast where it became wider and shallower.  Although now on our fourth day walking across Jura our boots could not get much wetter or heavier.  An extra boot full of water was no longer a trip breaker.

We were heading for Cruib lodge, somewhere to sit for a while and have a rest and an early lunch.  It was only a short distance away on the map, but it seemed to take an age to get there.  The pebbles on the beach were slippery and extremely difficult to walk on.  We once again found ourselves cutting across small headlands, grateful that the bracken had died down.  Coastal walking on Jura during the summer months would be hard going through the tall jungle like bracken, no doubt dripping with hungry ticks ready to latch on to your intimate parts.  We had actually been really lucky with ticks on this trip.  I had found one crawling across my hand near Ruantallain bothy and Rich had a couple on his trousers near Cruib.  Nothing managed to latch on to us, a welcome contrast to my previous visit to the island at the same time of year.

The newly renovated Cruib lodge bothy suddenly appeared below us as we crossed a final headland.  The MBA has done a fantastic job at rebuilding the place.  I had heard that previously it had been pretty much uninhabitable and in a bit of a ruinous state.  It’s in a prime location right on the shore of a bay on Loch Tarbert.  The two rooms inside fresh and welcoming, large windows making the place light and airy.  Somewhere to return in future to spend a few days picking fluff out of my belly.

Rich pitched his tent in the garden to try to dry it off a bit and I got my stove on for a coffee and hot lunch.  The bothy book showed that the place is already well used despite its remote location.  Hopefully visitors will continue to look after the place.

I think that we could both happily have pottered around there for the rest of the day, we even had enough food between us to last a couple more days.  Unfortunately we had ferries to catch and jobs to go to.  I wonder if there is any paid work to become a full-time bothy bum?

The map shows a track leading from the bothy in a north-easterly direction but after much searching we failed to locate it.  We walked the perimeter of a wooded enclosure and finally picked it up on the other side.  It then set off with purpose below the steep slopes of the mini mountain Cruib.  Once again it became indistinct and patchy before we finally lost it, perhaps confusing it with some animal tracks leading off in another direction.  Somehow we found ourselves on the wrong side of Torr an Lochain, I’m not sure how that happened giving such clear visibility.

We relocated the track which was visible as two grooves on the opposite hillside but when actually walking it was non-existent.  Just like a footbridge that the Ordnance Survey had confidently marked on the map.  Luckily the water levels were low as the rocks in the river were as slippery as ice, good fun though watching Rich do his Bambi impression, a video for you to enjoy at the end.

We sheltered behind a hillock above Loch an t-sidhean Tarsuinn from a cold wind, a few raindrops in the air getting us to pull on waterproofs.  The weather had changed dramatically in the space of an hour.  We stood at the top of steep slopes and surveyed the boggy bowl below us, a mass of streams on the map.  Thankfully we could make out a network of distinct tracks, one of which led us confidently down hill.

We were pleased to find a couple of bridges that were unmarked on the map to take us across the streams.  A trudge up to and then along a forest boundary took us across the boggiest ground of the whole trip.  It was like walking across breakfast cereal that had been left to soak for far too long.

Reaching the thin ribbon of tarmac was like getting onto dry land after being on a boat for far too long.  It was strange not to have the ground wobbling below your feet.  The walk back to the car felt like it went on forever, the day being long and arduous.  Although only ten and a half miles, we had walked ‘Jura miles’, a solid seven hours of walking with the exception of the break in the bothy.  I had taken on the gait of John Wayne, chaffage having taken hold in an unfortunate spot.

A fantastic four days in the wild with great company courtesy of Rich.

As promised here is Bambi on ice.


28 Comments to “A wander on the wild west coast of Jura pt2”

  1. Inspirational…….

  2. What a fantastic trip into the wilderness. Even the rain must have given a sense of triumph to have met it head on a got the better of it. I’ve seen previous photos of Ruantaillain and it looked magnificent, confirmed here. That dawn photo of the paps across the lake is magnificent.

    I know what you mean about sunrises, I saw loads when I used to climb in the Alps a few years ago and it was always a special moment

    I might take my dry suit when I finally get to Jura 🙂

  3. Very enjoyable read, the paps photo at sunrise was lovely, how did you find the navigation? relatively easy, did you use GPS?

    • Thanks Simon. The navigation generally was not too bad to be honest. On days two and three I hardly got the map out, we simply picked the easiest ground in front of us. Hard to go wrong as long as we kept the coast to our right. Whipped out the GPS on a couple of occassions on day four just to confirm our location when we lost the track. Navigation on the northern hills is tricky in mist which I found out when crossing the island a few years ago.

  4. I really enjoyed that. Some grand pics too, especially the sunset on day three. Your views of the seals must have been really special. The mournful calls of these animals in the dark is one of the most wonderful sounds I have ever heard.

    • Cheers David. That sunset was rather impressive, for a while there was just a blazing hole in the clouds, the rest of the sky being dark and brooding. Never seen a baby seal before, so yes rather special, they do make a lovely sound.

  5. What a wonderful trip and how lucky to see some baby seals too. I would just love that! There is a certain satisfaction after battling the elements isn’t there, although I’m sure you wouldn’t have minded if it had been blue sky and glorious sunshine the whole time! Maybe on your next visit…

    • It was good to battle through the wind and rain Chrissie, helped by the fact that the forecast for the following day was going to be good! Yep would have been happy with blue sky and sunshine the whole time though.

  6. Good stuff! I particularly enjoyed the ‘drill bit’ metaphor. Shian Bay is one of those places that is utterly transformed by sunshine – a finer wild camping spot would be hard to find, in good conditions that is. Every time I’ve approached the bay you get that stampede of deer and goats, you’d almost expect to see a few zebra and wildebeest as well… I once found a dead stag that had obviously come down to drink at a burn flowing into the bay; it had managed to get its antlers stuck in the banks either side and then drowned when the water level rose. Doh!

    When you get the chance, I’d recommend a stay for a few days at Ruantallain so you can explore the phantasmagorical coastline and hinterland of hills and lochans; right up your street I imagine. The walk between Ruantallain and Cruib Lodge is a real toughie; in summer the bracken is quite an obstacle. For my money, sticking to the coast for much of the way is the more enjoyable option and full of fine geological extrusions! Does take a wee bit longer though.

    • I feel that we did not see Shian bay at its best Pete, it was a hood up and eyes down sort of day! I would love a few days at Ruantallain, tent pitched by the shore for sleeping and evenings in front of the bothy fire. There are a few walks that I would love to do round there, I reckon that a day walk to Shian and return via the lochs could be good. Cruib is a bit of a cracker now as well.

  7. Echo other comments, really enjoyed both reports. Looks like it was a superb trip (even with all that rain) with some great photos. You are right a sunrise in the correct location is stunning, and Jura certainly looks like one of those locations. Seeing that stag doing a forward roll must have been entertaining. Top marks James.

    • Thanks Phil, yep it was a superb trip, well worth the effort of getting up there. I feel that it is somewhere I will continue returning to.

  8. I’ll go wit Mr Knipe’s comment: Inspirational.
    Ta, James

  9. A challenging trip but very rewarding by the sounds of things.
    Excellent write up and photos as usual James, keep them coming.

  10. Stunning scenery and great photos! I have in mind to revisit to the Hebrides one day. Now I know we mustn’t miss Jura.

  11. Magical. felt like I was there – which is where, of course, I now want to be

  12. Awesome, totally awesome.

  13. Looks fantastic. Visited once for the fell race but didn’t spend enough time there. This inspires me to go back.

    • I would imagine that the Jura fell race is a toughie, especially if you have to go over the Paps, they look like big steep hills. I recommend a return visit David for a slower exploration of the Island.

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