To orient you, the Isle of Jura’s next door neighbor is Islay, off the West Coast of Scotland. You probably recognize the latter’s name if you’re at all a fan of scotch whisky. For all of the popularity Islay enjoys, we preferred our time on Jura. It’s smaller, more soft-spoken, less accessible, and an all-around great destination.
The island’s tiny in terms of industry and population. Jura Distillery and construction on a new golf resort are the main, immediately obvious employers and there are only between 150 and 200 people on the island. It’s medium in terms of size, about the same size as the aforementioned Islay. The distillery and hotel are located in the village of Craighouse, which, between it and Keils next door, house a good portion of the island’s residents.
You’ve had plenty of scotch. You know it well and probably would even know where to get your hands on a bottle of Jura 10 year. Plus, we’ve already talked about the cocktails we were treated to during our time on the island. What would be far more valuable to you would be travel tips and stories. Motivation to get you to Scotland and hopefully run into some of the same unique people we did, as well as some of the same breath-taking locations.
We were invited out to the island to get to know the Jura Distillery and its surroundings, as well as the people who make the whole operation work. While we were there, we took in as much as we could of the island’s offerings, and we’re now confident we can recommend the Isle of Jura as a great off-the-radar vacation spot.
These are the reasons you should consider Jura for a quiet getaway this year.
Try the Deer
When you’re on an island where deer outnumber people almost 25 to 1 (there are 5,000 deer on the island), there’s going to be a plethora of venison dishes. Since we were only there for a few days, we didn’t get to try them all, but of the ones we did get to try, our favorite was the burger.
We ate lunch in the Jura Hotel every day we were on the island, specifically in the pub attached to it, and it was here that we got our hands on the venison burger. It was easily one of the juiciest, most flavorful burger patties we’ve ever eaten. The juices soaked into the bun and by the end, we looked like cavemen. Animal juices running down our chin, utensils left unused, distrusted.
The meat was easily and confirmably the freshest we’ve ever eaten. One of the running jokes among island residents was they saw their dinner sprinting across their backyard that morning. It doesn’t really get old either. It’s always worth a chuckle, especially when you get to watch it happen first hand. Granted, this story was with a lobster, but the principle’s the same, so it’s going in the deer section.
On the morning of our boat tour of the island, we were expected on the docks around mid-morning. As we walked up, an islander was coming off his own boat, proud of whatever was in the bucket he was holding (we already spoiled it, didn’t we). Eager to show off his catch to anyone and everyone, he pulled out a dark blue lobster and raised it above his head. You have to respect a man who catches his own lunch. Which, he made clear, was exactly what he considered that lobster.
Coming off the boat, we were exhausted (see next section). Whipped by wind, cold, and red-faced, we walked our way into the small pub attached to our hotel. At the counter, eating a healthy bowl of chowder, sat the same man. When he saw us, he exhibited the chowder with almost exactly the same gusto as the soup’s main source of protein.
We don’t know if he paid for the soup or if the kitchen kept the rest of the lobster as compensation.
When You’re on an Island, Ride a Boat…
Spending time on a boat is pretty much required when you’re vacationing near water, especially on a tour up the coast of an island whose entire population would have a hard time filling a Catholic grade school.
The island wasn’t always so unpopulated, by the way. The modern population might be fewer than 200 people, but around the 1700s, the numbers were much higher, hovering somewhere around 2,000. That means there are sites scattered up and down the island’s coast with one or two occupied houses where there was once a small, bustling village. From the boat, it wasn’t always easy to estimate how many houses were in the villages, but it was always easy to find them. Modern concrete structures stood side by side with crumbling stone walls. It’s a picturesque decay that somehow makes living on the island more appealing, not less.
We also saw all kinds of island life on our boat trip. Seals were a fairly common sight, with a handful of them lounging around on rocks just off the island, and a few were in the water and heads would pop up here and there. The day we took our trip was unseasonably cold, so they were fairly lethargic. On warmer days, they’ve been known to indulge their curious personalities and come right up to the side of the boat.
Jura is also home to some extraordinarily uncommon birds. They have a few rare eagle species on the island, with the locals most proud of their nesting sea eagles. We got a great look at an eagle in flight when it dropped out of a tree to move up higher on a hill on the island.
Other notable parts of the boat tour were George Orwell’s house farther up the island, deer grazing along the coast, and the whirlpool on the east end of the island. For the last one, we didn’t get to see the huge whirlpool that’s known to form, but small ones would show up at seemingly random places. The whirlpool itself is formed by what’s essentially an underwater rock ridge, as well as the meeting of the two very different water systems on either side of the island. Along with the whirlpool, the water’s meeting place is also known to form a wall of water, with an impossible sounding ten foot size difference between the two. Jura boat pilots have been able to run alongside the wall with water towering above their vessels, sometimes for tours.
The ride back to town was a wickedly cold one. We were riding into the wind on an already windy and cold day, and more than one of us curled up inside the provided protective clothing. Beer, whisky, soup, and hot sandwiches (see previous section) were quickly provided and enjoyed.
…But Don’t Ignore the Road
The one problem with the boat tour was the distance it put between us and what we were seeing. The abandoned villages, deer, and geography of the island were beautiful to look at from the water, but we couldn’t actually touch anything. That wasn’t the case on our van tour with our guide and Jura resident Alex.
Our tour took us from the small village of Craighouse, where we were staying in the hotel and lodge, and took us to a small self-serve tea cart about two thirds of the way up the island. The cart wasn’t open when we were there, since it was a business for more pleasant weather and every day we were there was windy and cold. But we we’d been supplied with a bottle of Jura 10 for exactly this occasion, so we weren’t disappointed.
Where the boat tour taught us all about the geography, flora, and fauna of the island and its surrounding water, the van tour was our time to get to know the history of the island. That history is densely packed too. The earliest evidence for human settlement comes from roughly 10,000 years ago, making the island continuously inhabited from roughly the end of the Ice Age all the way up to today. It’s far too dense a history to do justice to in an article like this one, though we did have a few favorite bits.
The first favorite has to be the gravestone stolen from the Knights Templar. It sounds like a grand conspiracy theory, but remember, the Knights Templar was a real organization. They have confirmed appearances in reliable historical sources, especially during the Crusades.
One such man was buried on the Scottish mainland in roughly 1250. Not long after, islanders from Jura decided that the only way to truly honor one of their fallen Buie (pronounced Buoy) fighters, a well-respected island clan known for their prowess as warriors, was to steal the grave marker of another great warrior. So they plucked the Knights Templar stone from its original resting place and used it for the Buie man.
Another great moment in the island’s history is connected to a simple stone bench right outside the door of the Jura Parish Church. Historically, the English aren’t known for their acceptance of native languages, and Scotch Gaelic paid a heavy price under English rule. Eventually, the English cut out the middleman and outlawed the language completely. It wasn’t allowed to be used for anything, even on isolated islands like Jura, where islanders were more likely to be monolingual in the direction of Gaelic. The stone bench comes into the story after church services were no longer performed in Gaelic and a few island men built and used it to protest the outlawing of their language. The men sat outside during services, pointedly speaking Gaelic, and, as the story goes, they didn’t return to the service even after their language was re-legalized.
Hang Out at Your Hotel Bar
We’re happy to see the slow return of the hotel bar as a worthwhile place to hang out and we have to give extremely high marks to the Jura Hotel bar. It’s a small, warm, welcoming area with simple yet substantial food, beer, and spirit offerings. The food specials are delicious, the beer is free flowing, and the distillery makes sure the bar never runs low on great scotch.
We should mention, scotch isn’t the only spirit on the island. Lussa Gin is made a few miles down the road from the Jura Distillery and it’s absolutely wild to us that a limited product in an isolated place could have that slick of a website. That trip was the first we’d heard of it, so we don’t know how far it’s made it from the island, but we suspect it’s not stateside yet. The distillery was tiny and no one talked about the gin as if there were big plans to expand. For right now, the only place we can say you can get it for sure is Jura.
Beyond the great food and drinks, the Jura Hotel bar was an excellent pub filled with welcoming people. We got to the island after a long, long, long, long day of travel, going from New York to Amsterdam to Glasgow to a cafe in Glasgow back to the airport to Islay to a boat to Jura onto a van to the Jura Hotel. By all rights, we were exhausted. We wanted dinner, some whisky, and to collapse into bed while jet lag finally whisked us off to the dead sleep only it could.
But very quickly, “just one pint” turned into another and another, with whisky the whole time. It was a casual, easy atmosphere and you’d think everyone in the pub had known each other for years. If you’re on Jura in the future, you’ll find the exact same thing.
Photo Credit: Gregory J Buda