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Isle of Jura History

Early History: Although it it safe to assume that people inhabited Britain long before the ice-age, maybe as early as 500,000 years ago, the first real signs of modern men on Jura were around 11000-8000BC, just after the last ice-age. This is also the period that climate changed to the climate we know today. This period is known as the Mesolothic (middle stone age) Period and the people inhabiting Jura are known as hunters and gatherers. These people lived in small groups and moved around Jura, Islay and Colonsay depending on the availability of food resources.

During the Neolithic period (new stone age) around 4000BC Jura was covered by a forest consisting mainly of Birch Trees. This was also the period that people started using more advanced stone and bronze tools and created pottery. Their way of life changed from hunters and gatherers to farmers, although it’s not clear if farming techniques were invented by the original inhabitants or were imported by immigrants from other parts of Europe. Some even think these groups co-existed for quite some time. Around 2000BC much of the original forest was cleared because of agriculture and pastures and later during a colder period peat was expanding considerably and around 750BC many parts of Jura were covered with bogs.

The iron age and early historic period stretches roughly from 750BC to 1000AD and the latter period was also called the dark ages, because of a lack of information. The early historic period begins with the kingdom of Dal Riata and ends with Godred Crovan in 1079. Remains of these periods are the defended settlements on hilltops called forts (Gaelic Duns). Another type of settlement was a Crannog, an artificial island in a loch. It is from this time that the following story took place:

The story of Corryvreckan: The story of Corryvreckan is that of a Scandinavian Prince, named Breackan, who fell in love with a princess of the isles. Her father consented to the marriage on the condition that Breackan showed his courage by anchoring his boat in the whirlpool for three days and three nights. Breackan accepted the challenge and returned to Norway where he had three cables made: one of hemp, one of wool and of of maidens hair. The maidens of Norway willingly cut off their long hair to make the rope for their prince. It was believed that their purity and innocence would give the rope strength to stand the strain. Breackan returned to the Isle of Jura and anchored in the Corryvreckan whirlpool. On the first day the rope of hemp broke; on the second day the woollen rope parted; on the third day all went well until the evening when the rope of hair finally gave way because one of the maidens who had given her hair had been unfaithful.

The boat was sucked under by the currents and Breackan’s body was dragged ashore by his faithful dog and carried to a cave – Breackan’s Cave – where he was buried. Amidst myth and legend there is usually a fragment of truth. When the cave was excavated some years ago, a stone coffin was found. Was it the coffin of some prince drowned in the Corryvreckan Whirlpool? No one knows. Picture, view from Scarba to Jura, courtesy of Tony Page

Lords of the Isles: Although there is no evidence found of viking raids and viking settlements on Jura the island, same as the other Inner Hebridean islands, were under Norse control and ruled from the Isle of Man. This situation lasted until Somerled ended Norse power in the Hebrides. Somerled’s descendants, with their headquarters on Finlaggan Isle of Islay, and known as the Lords of the Isles, controlled large parts of Western Scotland and later became the famous Clan Donald.

The Campbells: The final demise of the Lordship of the Isles follow John MacDonald II’s (the 4th Lord) entering into a pointless treaty with Edward IV of England under which he believed he would become King of all Scotland north of the Clyde/Forth in return for giving allegiance to Edward. This treaty was the start of the downfall of Clan Donald and made way for a longer period of control by the Campbell Clan in the early 1600s from which 11 lairds ruled the island. When explorer Martin Martin visited the Isle of Jura in 1703 he wrote an interesting account of the island and its people. According to explorer Thomas Pennant, who visited Jura twenty years later, the island “carried a fairly large population right through the period of Campbell domination into the era of emigration and clearance.” The Campbell dominance lasted until 1938 when Charles Campbell, the last Laird of Jura, sold the remaining parts of the Jura Estate and houses. The story of George Orwell Here in the north of Jura, in Barnhill, the cottage where Eric Blair, who is better known as George Orwell, lived from 1946-48 while writing his novel 1984. 

Orwell had first visited the island in 1945 and had an almost fatal encounter in the Gulf of Corryvreckan that separates Jura from the smaller island of Scarba to the north. One day in 1947, Blair had taken a break from writing to sail with his nephews and nieces. However, their boat was caught by the whirlpool that the gulf is famous for and, despite losing the boat, Blair and the youngsters managed to reach a small rock where they were later picked up by a fishing boat. Blair returned to Barnhill where he finished his novel, although had things turned out differently on that day in the gulf the world might not have read about Big Brother. The Corryvreckan Whirlpool as it is called is caused by an underwater mountain reaching almost to the surface of the strait causing the whirlpool to activate when the tides change. Especially with a strong westerly wind and upcoming tide the whirlpool is best visible. Jura Hotel runs Landrover trips from Craighouse to Kinuachdrach.