Much has been written about George Orwell’s time on Jura, the remote Hebridean island to which he retreated after the Second World War to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, far from the distractions of London and his work as a journalist. But few chroniclers of this remarkable period have actually visited the place where his great last book took shape and where he finally succumbed to the tuberculosis that he first contracted in 1938. It’s understandable. Jura is a difficult place to reach, and Barnhill – Orwell’s cottage, secreted in the far north of this wild, whale-shaped outpost – is even harder to get to. Sixty years ago it was astonishingly inaccessible – “completely un-getable”, as Orwell had it, and as he took typically perverse pride in recounting to friends. It would be brought home to him time and again during a series of wonderfully botched journeys north from the capital.
I made the pilgrimage to Barnhill this year with a friend. It was an exhilarating trip into the heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The story of how Orwell came to live on Jura, accompanied by his sister Avril and adopted son, Richard, is well covered in the biographies. But the sheer bloody-mindedness of his decision to move there with failing health only really becomes apparent once you set foot there. To do this, you must first go to Islay, the relatively well-populated island famous for its fabulous, phenolic whiskies, which lies across the Sound from Jura. In Orwell’s day, it was possible to take a ferry to Craighouse on Jura directly from Tarbet on the mainland. Today, the short hop from Port Askaig to Feolin marks the start of the journey. From here, it’s a twisting, 21-mile drive on a single-track road to reach a point two miles beyond Ardlussa where the road runs out. The drive itself is mesmeric – a nature-watchers’ paradise. Pairs of golden eagles and peregrine falcons soar across the enormous skies, while majestic stags strut this way and that across the rusty-hued landscape. All the while the island’s resplendent paps (mountains) rise and fall between ancient lochs and churning seas. The real sense of walking in the steps of the writer, however, arrives only once the car is ditched and hiking boots are donned for the five-mile trek to Barnhill. Distractions along the way are firmly of the non-human variety – more deer, a wild horse, a stubby stone tor jutting from the summit of a bleak hill, another warming slug of whisky from the pewter hip flask. My friend and I trade Orwell anecdotes, recalling the one guest who left Barnhill in the dead of night in winter following an argument, weighed down with luggage, to trudge the long miles back to Craighouse alone. We imagine other scenes, many of them comical (Orwell was famously clumsy, a kind of literary Mr Bean): the author swearing under his breath and kicking the wheel of his ancient motorbike as it once again fails him and he is left fumbling with oily tools on this filthy path; or the author suddenly appearing through the rain, a gaunt figure in oilskins, carrying furniture on his back or else, more sinisterly, a scythe to clear the reeds from the potholed track.
There are only a few tantalising clues left along the way and around the house itself, which finally comes into view as a white speck in a valley: a rusting roller; the swollen earth mounds of Orwell’s beloved vegetable patches; and the remains of an iron gate leading to the front door. It’s easy enough, however, to picture him pottering in the garden with Richard, stumbling over an adder, laying lobster pots by the sea, planning a boat trip to the churning Corryvreckan whirlpool, or else peering expressionless from the small room above the kitchen as his fingers work the typewriter and his guests talk and wait in the kitchen below.
The huge effort Orwell invested in finishing Nineteen Eighty-Four at Barnhill killed him, but his death failed to turn the island or the house into a shrine. Thankfully, there is no Orwell industry on Jura – no blue plaques, no signposts, no Big Brother ballpoint pens on sale in the island’s one shop; nothing, in fact, to remind you that the writer lived and worked here. This is perfectly apposite. And you sense that George – whom the islanders knew only as Eric Blair, a “peculiar, kindly gentleman” – would approve.
Gordon Thomson is the New Statesman’s consultant editor