“You Can’t Get to Barnhill from Here”: In Search of Orwell’s Scottish Retreat
by Sylvia Topp
First published: The North American Review, March-April 1994
Ever since I fell in love with George Orwell I’ve been fascinated by his choice of a remote Scottish island named Jura as his refuge from being “constantly smothered under journalism” in London. He needed to have enough uninterrupted time to write the book he thought, in his characteristically understated way, “had an important message,” Nineteen Eighty-Four.
But why did he choose Jura? His friends were astounded. How could he possibly live in such a place, they moaned. One even went so far as to accuse him of having an “enthusiasm for adversity.”
First of all, Barnhill, the house on Jura which he occupied off and on from April 1946 until his death in January 1950, was amazingly inaccessible. None of Orwell’s biographers agrees on exactly how long it took to get there from London (anywhere from 24 to 48 hours) or on the number of boat rides necessary, or on the proximity of Craighouse, the nearest town (somewhere between 20 and 25 miles), or even on the distance of the walk along the rugged lane after one is deposited by vehicle at Ardlussa, the nearest neighbour’s house (five to eight miles). But they all agree it was too far.
Orwell, however, made light of all this. He wrote warning friends that since his “old car was forever getting punctured on the potholed road” they would “have to walk the last eight miles, so can you make do with a rucksack?” Apparently not many of them could. Only a few close friends made the trip. But maybe that’s exactly what he wanted.
He’d been dreaming since 1940 of escaping to “my Hebridean Island” and now, with the Second World War ending and the success of Animal Farm, it was finally possible.
Years of writing three or four articles a week had made him feel “tired and jaded” and he didn’t enjoy being hounded as a famous author. “Everyone keeps wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc. – you don’t know how I pine to get free of it all and have time to think again,” he complained to a friend.
Also he had his young son to think of, especially with the sudden death of his wife so recently. He wanted a place where Richard could “run in and out of the house all day with no fear of traffic.”
I have no trouble understanding why he chose a place that was “extremely un-get-atable” where he couldn’t be telephoned to” and where the mail was delivered only twice a week. I also love wild and empty countryside and occasional absolute privacy. Inaccessibility is a great way to weed out the unwanted.
Another constant complaint of his contemporaries concerned the discomfort and general dreariness of his “gloomy-looking fortress of a house” and its surroundings. His nearest neighbour said, “Even by the end of his time on Jura the house never looked comfortable … it was fairly bleak.” Others decried the lack of electricity and other amenities, accusing him of being unable to enjoy “a comfortable holiday.”
But once again Orwell contradicted everyone. His letters all glow with his obvious love of the place. The house he thought of as “lovely” and he described a land of wild beauty, 20,000 acres of heather and no end of red deer, “daffodils all over the place,” completely uninhabited bays” with “beautiful white sand and clear water with scals swimming about in it,” even a disused shepherd’s hut “where one could picnic for a day or two” and “lochs full of trout but never fished”.
Sounds perfect to me.
But what about the weather? The general belief seems to be that, in the end, it was the cold, damp, bleak sunlessness of Jura that did him in.
He had strong beliefs about this too. “It’s funny,” he wrote, “you always think Scotland must be cold” in the winter, but “the islands I should think decidedly warmer on average” than London. His house on Jura he described as a lot more weatherproof than his flat in London “where the water was coming through the roof in 12 places last winter,” and he wrote that fuel was much easier to get on Jura also.
In fact, he never accepted that living in Scotland had a bad effect on his health. Instead he blamed his latest “show” of tuberculosis on “that beastly cold” of the winter of 1946-47 which he spent in London.
I spent a winter in London. I can believe this.
Then there were those who could only conclude that he was suicidal for choosing Jura. At least in the summer of 1948, when he was discharged after six months in the hospital, he should have gone somewhere warmer, they believed.
But he was still in the middle of “that bloody book”. Most of his time in the hospital was spent in bed and he’d only been able to revise a few chapters. He was angry he hadn’t got it to the publisher early in 1948 as planned. Now that he was pronounced cured, with no need for checkups even, his first priority was to finish it. All his belongings were in Barnhill. He loved it there. He called it “home”. So back he went.
I still want to understand.
But now it starts to get harder. Should a man with tubercular lungs have returned to such a retreat? If he’d only gone to London, might he still be alive?
Was he “a man who did very badly want to suffer”? I emphatically say No. One of his close friends also dismissed the idea of a death wish: “Now he passionately wanted to live,” the friend wrote. “He had become a famous writer, his financial worries were at an end.”
During those last months Orwell asked various friends if they thought a person could die if he still had an unwritten book in mind. Because he had lots of them, including “a stunning idea for a very short novel”, a three-volume non-political novel “dealing with personal relationships,” and articles on Joseph Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, and George Gissing, among others.
He even remarried, in his hospital room, believing that having a wife would help him stay alive longer, believing that he’d actually get to use the fishing rod he kept at the end of his bed.
Yet, when his sickness developed again, why was he so dangerously stubborn? Why didn’t he escape when he could? Surely he wasn’t able to make light of his illness. He kept writing about being a “deathshead.” Did he really believe he could be endlessly cured?
The contradictions go on and on.
In the end I decided to believe in George. Surely he chose Jura because it was beautiful, serene, irresistible, a paradise of a place. I had faith in him. I had to. After all, Jura killed him.
Last summer I set out to prove that George and I were right.
My first step was to buy a detailed map of Scotland. I had no idea where Jura was. I’d seen pictures of Barnhill, standing alone on a barren, treeless hill, a many-roomed, solid-looking house, not pretty but kind of majestic. Now I had to figure out how to get there.
When I spread the map out on the floor I was surprised and relieved to find Jura quite close to the southwestern Scottish mainland – not nearly so remote-looking as I had expected. In fact, the northern tip of the island is only a few miles from the mainland. I assumed cheerily that forty years would have solved some of the access difficulties and that Barnhill could now be reached from Edinburgh in a couple of hours.
I proceeded to make my plans: 10 days at the festival in Edinburgh, a day (I decided to be cautious) to get to Jura, a day looking around Barnhill, including a walk to those clear bays to watch the seals, and a day to get back to the airport for my unavoidable return to New York.
In the meantime I tried to find out something about Jura. No one I knew had even heard of it. Most of the travel books didn’t mention it. The one that did described only the red deer. Eventually I found out that today it has a population of 180, down even from the 1940s, and way down from its population of 1500 in the 18th century. It’s 35 miles long with only one road and Barnhill is at the far end of it. For some reason the ferry still doesn’t cross at the nearest end.
Obviously Barnhill continued to be remote, but I still assumed I could get there.
Once in Edinburgh, in moments between plays and movies, I examined the train and ferry schedules. I was amazed. The most direct route I could come up with included four ferry rides, stopping at and traversing two other islands and a peninsula on the way. Oh well, it sounded like fun. The islands were small and I love ships.
It was lucky I’d planned a day for this trip, though, because it ended up taking even more. Leaving Edinburgh by train at 11:30 in the morning, and popping on and oft ferries and buses all day, I arrived at Port Ellen, on the island of Islay, by 10:30 that night, still an island away from my destination. I might have to give up the beaches, I figured.
Port Ellen was gorgeous, a tiny village with one street curving around the half-circle harbour, the two-storey stone houses mostly joined to preserve the heat in the winter.
I found my Bed and Breakfast by looking for the yellow door that Mr. Gray had described when I phoned him from Edinburgh – he wasn’t sure if there was a street sign anywhere.
I began to understand what Orwell had loved.
Next morning, over a typical Scottish breakfast, I quizzed the Grays about bus schedules to the Jura ferry and on to Barnhill. I was still pretty naive, but they quickly cured me. Although there were occasional postbuses on Islay, there was no public transportation at all on Jura – well, that’s not exactly true. The school bus schedule they showed me listed erratically timed trips partway up the island that didn’t quite connect with ferry arrivals and didn’t come back till the next day. Clearly I would need a car.
Mrs. Gray went off to call Craig’s Car Hire for me, though somewhat unenthusiastically, since it seemed Craig was notorious for never answering his phone. “There’s no hurry on Islay,” she informed me.
In the meantime Mr. Gray proceeded to alarm me with some details of the ride to Barnhill. Seems that if I did succeed in getting a car, I would have a fairly easy one-hour drive to the Jura ferry on the other side of Islay, a five-minute crossing between islands, then a 30-mile drive on a one-lane road up the east shore of Jura to Ardlussa which, with all the stopping at “Passing Places” and my tentative enthusiasm for driving would probably take another hour at least, concluding with – guess what? – a six-mile walk on a lane too rugged for anything but a four-wheel-drive vehicle. And then of course I’d have to do all this again on the way back. The only positive part was that I wouldn’t have to worry about remembering to drive on the left side of the road.
Just as I was absorbing all this, Mr. Gray let go with the killer – the house wasn’t open to visitors. “Barnhill is at present let on a long lease and it is regretted that access to the inside is not possible,” as I later read in a little Jura pamphlet. And I’d been half expecting to be repulsed by some tacky shrine.
So, after three terrifying hours of travel, without any boots to fend off the snakes on the path that I vividly remember Orwell’s visitors being warned about, I wouldn’t even be able to see inside the house.
I had a bitter lunch digesting these foul facts. It seemed to have been easier to get there in 1946.
Early in the afternoon, still unable to reach Craig, Mrs. Gray had a new idea. She sent me up the road to talk with Angus MacMillan. “Don’t bother phoning,” she said. “In this town we just knock.”
Mr. MacMillan came to the door in his stocking feet and shocked me pleasantly by looking exactly like a brother Sean Connery might have left home. We easily shared wishes and wit on his doorstep for over an hour and I left with his assurance that he would somehow find me a car for the next day. I hoped I’d be brave enough to use it.
That evening I spent a few hours in each of the two local pubs testing most of the eight brands of unblended whisky distilled right there on Islay, and went to bed finally in warm and pleasant confusion.
As I tried to fall asleep, my mind replayed Orwell’s last month on Jura. It was November of 1948 and he’d finally finished correcting and rewriting the first draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He was practically completely bedridden by this time and the “blasted novel” needed to be clean-typed. “It’s an unbelievably bad MS,” he wrote a friend, “and no one can make head or tail of it without explanation.”
He requested that his publisher send a typist to Barnhill for a couple of weeks. “I’m rather flinching from the job of typing it,” he explained, “because it is a very awkward thing to do in bed.”
How hard the publisher looked, how seriously he took Orwell’s plea, is difficult to tell, but no one was found who was willing to travel to the wilds of Jura in the wintertime. So Orwell did the “grisly job” himself.
With no one to help deathly ill, he spent that November propped up in a fever, typing 5000 words a day while his lungs were slow collapsing. He couldn’t even enjoy the pleasure of seeing his son because he worried that Richard might catch tuberculosis from him. And when the final word of the Newspeak Appendix was typed on the final page of the final draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he was carried off to a sanitorium and he never emerged again.
I felt furious. I’d been with Orwell shooting elephants in Burma, starving in Paris, struggling to grow up in London, crawling through the coal mines of Wigan Pier, fighting fascists in Spain, and I would have been thrilled to share any other adventure he might have chosen for me.
I had made this exotic journey because I wanted to see his hillsides of heather. I wanted to walk through that fateful house. I believed that then I would understand why he stayed.
And now I couldn’t. I knew even before I fell asleep that I wasn’t going to make it to Barnhill this time. Even if Mr. MacMillan indeed found a car for me, I knew my sober morning head would never allow me to set out on a six-hour adventure with no time to spare.
As I was moping over breakfast, unable to overcome this show of common sense, Mrs. Gray tried to commiserate. “At least you stayed close to where Orwell once spent the night,” she offered. My spirits started to perk up a little. “See that building across the street,” she went on, pointing to an unmarked square box of a house with no windows. “That’s the town jail. Once Orwell arrived in Port Ellen with nowhere to spend the night. He went to the police with his problem and they put him up in a cell.”
That’s just the kind of folks they were around here. I’d become very fond of Port Ellen. I knew I’d be back one day. I delayed leaving as long I could.
When the time came, I piled into the postbus with seven other assorted travellers, a strange collection of mysterious tourists, and headed across Islay to catch the afternoon ferry toward the Scottish mainland.
It debarked from the same port as the Jura ferry did and while I was waiting I stared across to the island that had eluded me. Nothing to be seen over there but the landing dock and one white building to the right, then the road winding off over the hills on its way, ultimately, to Barnhill. I felt infinitely sad.
Too soon I was on the ferry and heading back to New York. I gazed at the Isle of Jura as we sailed away from it. Through the mist I could see the famous “Paps of Jura” – rounded treeless hills looking like a giant sea camel with three humps. I squinted at the horizon, hoping for some infinitesimal glimpse of Barnhill, remembering the fruit trees and rose bushes Orwell planted one year during a special winter visit, dreaming of the glorious garden he managed to carve out of the “jungle”, reminiscing about the afternoon “the whole of the nearest village” arrived in lorries to help harvest the corn, regretting the beautiful white beaches that are now never used for swimming.
As I watched the island disappear behind me, I started to shed my despair. I thought of how all Orwell’s books are about people trying to escape the necessary, the humdrum, the horrible. They manage to get away for a while but in the end they go back – they always fail.
I knew then that Orwell’s choice of Jura was a similar escape. Maybe by staying there he refused to fall.