Road Tripping in Scotland Part 1: Inveraray and the Isle of Jura

– By Brittany Seki, Senior Editor –

IMG_9867“It’s so pretty!”

Wendy literally can’t say it enough. We’re surrounded by beautiful sunshine, piercing blue skies and rolling hills of green speckled with herds of sheep. Wendy and I are road tripping through the isles of Scotland, and exploring the towns and countryside throughout (and getting in our whisky tasting). Driving through the Scottish highlands on our way to the Isle of Jura is the epitome of picturesque, to say the least. Having arrived in June, we are so lucky to experience the Scottish summer free from the cloudy, rainy days the country is known for. Traffic is almost non-existent and there are more road signs warning about deer crossings than the speed limit (we’ve concluded it’s about 40-50 miles per hour). Although the drive has been leisurely through the highlands, we had a wee bit of trouble getting going.

We landed in Glasgow at about 10:30am, after a 7.5-hour flight from Toronto (with a two hour layover in London). We were jetlagged and desperate for non-airplane food, but excited to pick up our car rental and head to our hostel in Inveraray for the night. However, we were met with an unpleasant surprise expense – in the UK you cannot use your own insurance with the car rental company like you can in North America. The added expense was about £25 per day, which is quite a bit of money for a 13-day car rental. But we had no other choice, or so we thought. Turns out there’s an option to purchase insurance for 1 year for £50, which of course we didn’t discover until later on. But lesson #1 learned: make sure to research, research, research as much as possible beforehand!

IMG_9843So we took the hit and went on our way. The next challenge was figuring out the infamous UK left-side driving and roundabouts. Since it was an extra £100 to add a second driver, we decided skip the bloody outrageous cost and have Wendy drive the duration. Behind the wheel on the wrong side of the road, she nervously worked out the roundabout technique – with success! However, driving on the opposite side proved to be a bit of a struggle. Just as we began traveling further out of Glasgow, she drove a bit too close to the curb and hit our front passenger side tire. It was blown. Luckily, there was a hotel on the side of the road and some wonderful Scottish lads working in the kitchen came to our aid. Although, I think they wanted an excuse to be out in the sun. They put on the spare tire (it just so happens one of the lads had gone to school for mechanics) and told us of a tire shop just down the street. We very, very carefully drove to the shop and the lovely young men in the shop found a used tire for our Volkswagon Golf (conveniently in someone’s backyard). They saved our wallets and only charged us £20 for the used tire. So far, I’m finding the Scottish are some of the nicest people in the world.

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The Inveraray Castle

With our tire fiasco aside, we were ready to get back on the road to Inveraray. The small town in Argylle and Bute is about an hour and a half drive from Glasgow on the shore of Loch Fyne. The quaint, quiet little town is known for the Inveraray Castle (owned by Duke Argyle, chief of Clan Campbell) and the Inveraray Jail. I was extremely jealous to see all the motorcyclists on the road who stopped in town to rest along the shore of the loch. The curving roads in the hillside are a rider’s paradise. Once we arrived, we settled into the Inveraray Hostel. Neil, our host, was a friendly and well-travelled Scotsman who prefers beer to whisky, unless it’s Jack Daniels. We had mentioned our scotch quest and Neil shared his view about the importance of alcohol to the Scots:

“In America, they have psychiatrists, here in Scotland we have booze.”

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The George Hotel

If you’re having a bad day, a pint or a dram here and there may be all the psychoanalysis needed. On that note, we headed out to explore and get a dram ourselves after a long, crazy day (or two with the time change) – at this point we had been awake for 26 hours. We walked to the pleasant little Inveraray castle, with land surrounded by sheep. The castle looked fairly new, it had been refurbished after a fire in the 1970s. I would imagine it could be the inspiration for a typical princess fairy tale. I think I prefer the older, darker castles of Scotland. Anyway, we walked to The George Hotel for a dram of their local whisky The Loch Fyne (distilled across the street from the hotel). The blended malt scotch whisky helped to wind us down. The bar itself had a massive range of whisky, so large that Shane (our Australian bartender) couldn’t name them all. But the hotel itself was rustic, with fireplaces and old brick walls lining each room. The atmosphere was friendly and inviting, making it a great local tourist spot. Once we finished our drams and pints of beer we headed over to the Inveraray Inn for some grub. It was quieter, a scene more welcoming for the locals than tourists. After about 33 hours of being awake, we crashed heavily in our double bunk bed dorm room.

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Ferry to Port Askaig

The first thing I noticed about being this far north in Scotland is the daylight! The sun doesn’t set until about 11:30pm and rises around 4am. So when we awoke around 4am it was pleasant to have the sun shining through our window. We had an hour drive ahead of us to Kennacraig on the A83 to catch the ferry to Port Askaig at 6:30am. Our mission was to make it over to Jura for the night. Along the A83, our hearts sank as the car’s tire pressure light came on. Could we be losing the pressure in our new/old tire? There wasn’t much we could do at the moment so we carried on and caught the two-hour ferry to Port Askaig on the Isle of Islay. While we were waiting for the next ferry to the Isle of Jura, Wendy struck a conversation with a couple from Belgium who suffered the same fate with a car tire as we did – it’s a common mishap in the UK apparently. We were extremely lucky again! The couple informed us that around the corner was another mechanic who could check our tires for us. Our Scottish hero in this case is named Peter. A man of few words and a big heart, Peter checked our tire pressure free of charge and informed us our tires were fine. However, the impact had damaged the tire pressure sensor. Not good.

IMG_9916We thanked Peter and boarded the short ferry to Jura. The roads were unlike anything I have ever driven on – but at least there were no curbs! The width of the graveled road could only fit one car at a time, however it wasn’t a one-way road. So at various intervals on the road there were small pockets where a car could pull over to let another oncoming vehicle pass by. You’re completely dependent upon the other car seeing you approach and catching a pocket to make room to pass, and vice versa. This is something that could never work for the insane, road-rage infused drivers of North America. But on Jura, with a population of 200, it was no problem. Plus, each time we passed by a car the driver smiled and waved. Again, the island Scots are incredibly nice. Also, there’s only one road, so it’s impossible to get lost.

IMG_9934We arrived in Craighouse, which is home to Jura Distillery. We met Fiona MacDonald who excitedly showed us our accommodation at the Jura lodge. The lodge is the most beautiful place I have ever stayed in. The two-floor house includes four large bedrooms, three of which have a Victorian style bathtub in the bedroom. The lodge itself is like a museum, with old artifacts like an icebox, fur chairs, an old typewriter and even knight’s armor. The living room is full of natural history, including books, insects, antlers and stuffed birds. Every piece of furniture and artwork looked like an antique. The view of the bay from our many windows was breathtaking – I felt like I was in writer’s heaven! It is no wonder George Orwell spent time on this isle, where he wrote his famous book 1984. This is probably the first time I have ever wanted to spend time inside rather than outdoors.

Fiona (a native Diuriach) told us about Jura’s history with whisky, how Diuriach’s (the people of Jura) distilled their own whisky until a ban was placed on personal whisky-making. A large part of the town’s history is based on the Jura Distillery. Laird Archibald Campbell built the distillery in 1810 in an old smuggler’s cave in Craighouse. After experiencing an economic downturn, the distillery was bought by Robin Fletcher and Tony Riley Smith in 1960. The distillery was reopened in 1963 and has continued to be successful ever since. Many of their whiskies are based on tales of the area. One story comes from a prophecy made about the last Campbell to leave Jura. The Campbells weren’t a friendly family, and the day came when one Campbell smelled an old woman cooking venison stew in her kitchen. He approached her house and accused her of stealing the venison. The story goes that she had the gift of foresight and predicted the last Campbell would leave the island with one eye on a white horse. In 1938, the last Campbell (who lost his eye in a war) lost all his money and possessions and only had a white horse left to ride off the island. Fiona’s own grandfather witnessed this event when he was 15 years old.

“All he could hear was the horse’s hooves clip-clopping down the road,” Fiona remembered him saying to her. “It was a happy day.”

If you can ever make it to the isles of Scotland, Jura is one place you don’t want to miss. Between the stories, culture and beautiful landscape you’re sure to leave with a refreshing appreciation of a calm, friendlier way of life.

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