The Debatable Land #26: George Orwell's Jura
The author had good reasons to think the Hebrides a better place to live than London
I’m on the Isle of Jura this week and also on holiday. This is a piece from the archive, then, about George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four, and the farmhouse on Jura where he wrote his last great work. Many people seem to think Orwell’s decision to move to a Hebridean island was deeply eccentric but in many respects Jura offered him everything he needed.
Much has been written about George Orwell and Barnhill and the Isle of Jura and Nineteen Eighty Four and plenty of it, I am afraid, is the most awful rot. Almost all of it is coloured by one indisputable fact: Jura was his principal residence in the final years of his life until he died, on 21 January 1950, aged 46, from tuberculosis. As a result, and on account of Jura’s remoteness, its allegedly inhospitable climate, the hardship of living there, and the pressure of writing, and revising, Nineteen Eighty-Four, it has typically been assumed Orwell’s time on the island was some kind of desperate folly and, by any reasonable measure, a mistake. If Jura did not quite kill Orwell, it certainly did not help him live.
One critic, Jeffrey Meyers, decreed that Orwell’s life on Jura was a ‘mad and suicidal sojourn’. Another, T.R. Fyvel, Orwell’s successor as literary editor of Tribune, wrote shortly after Orwell’s death that ‘Forty years of conflict had burnt him out . . . And as for his uncomfortable life in the rough Atlantic climate – totally unsuitable for a consumptive – and the accidents through which his health finally broke down, it seemed to me at times as though some force in him were driving him to complete the drama.’
Other assessors have agreed, condemning the ‘harsh Hebridean air which blew into Orwell’s ailing lungs and killed him in the most literal sense’ or noting, as another put it, that ‘It was almost as if he had signed his own death warrant: the climate of Jura and the primitive conditions of life on an isolated farm, damp as a delta, were the worst possible for a consumptive.’ So there you have it: Orwell wrote himself into a premature grave and did so, moreover, alone in a bleak, unforgiving, landscape almost unimaginably distant from London. There was, clearly, something perverse about this.
One can only wonder if, had Orwell remained in London – then a city of smog, it might be recalled – and had his health deteriorated on an identical timetable, London would have been blamed for the great writer’s untimely demise. It seems unlikely.
Ever since, however, Jura has loomed large in the burgeoning world of Orwell mythology. In recent years at least two novels have been written which were inspired by, or drawn on, Orwell’s time on the island; and pilgrimages to Barnhill have for years been a staple of weekend newspaper supplements. In all of these, you may discern the hope that, by following in Orwell’s footsteps, even unto the ends of the British isles, something of his magic may be absorbed. Come to Jura to understand Nineteen Eighty-Four; come to Jura to catch a faint whisper of its creator.
It will not quite do. Jura is where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four but beyond that straightforward reality the island has no connection to, or bearing on, the novel.
Despite occasional claims to the contrary, little in the book draws on or is otherwise inspired by Jura and a visit to the island, while always worthwhile, conveys no fresh appreciation for, or understanding of, the novel. Perhaps it is unfashionable to insist upon a separation between a place of work and the work itself but in the case of Nineteen Eighty-Four no convincing connection may be made between them.
And yet, despite that, the heart-breaking but magnificent portrait of the fast-ruining novelist sacrificing his life for his art persists. Orwell must be made into a doomed romantic figure even if doing so requires the reality of his experiences to be so thoroughly rewritten they lose contact with their source material.
Orwell’s decision to move to Scotland was not necessarily a sudden or impulsive one. On 20 June 1940, Orwell wrote in his war-time diary that he was, once again, ‘Thinking always of my island in the Hebrides, which I suppose I shall never possess nor even see’. If this was a manifestation of wishful thinking it was also a seed, albeit one which would not sprout for some years yet.
Four years later, something had to be done. On 28 June 1944, the flat in which Orwell and his wife Eileen were living suffered bomb damage rendering the house uninhabitable. The couple moved to new premises in Canonbury Square in Islington, then what might now be deemed a shabby-chic, marginal neighbourhood. They were adamant, however, that as soon as the war was finally over they would depart London for the country, thinking a rural upbringing better for their young adopted son, Richard.
But where? Orwell first visited Jura in 1944, courtesy of his friend David Astor, proprietor and editor of the Observer, whose family owned – as they still do – the Tarbert Estate on the island. Orwell had, at last, discovered his Hebridean island. That first visit prompted further enquiries about the possibility of making a more substantial, quasi-permanent move to the island. Astor put Orwell in touch with the Fletcher family, who had bought the Ardlussa Estate, north of Tarbert, from the Astors some fifteen years previously. Eileen began a correspondence with Margaret Fletcher, impressing Ardlussa’s young owner with the good sense and practicality with which she prepared for a possible move to the island.
Eileen would never see Jura. In March 1945, while Orwell was in France working as a war correspondent for the Manchester Evening News and the Observer, Eileen died on the operating table while undergoing a hysterectomy. A little over a year later, Orwell’s sister died too. In three years he had lost his mother, sister, and wife. A second visit to Jura in September 1945, again arranged by Astor, allowed Orwell to visit Barnhill, a four bedroom farmhouse at the far north of the island, and an agreement was reached to rent it from the Fletchers the following summer.
Margaret Fletcher was an accidental landlord. She had inherited the Ardlussa estate following the death in October 1944 of her brother Sandy, a Scots Guards officer, killed in Belgium. Another brother, Hugh, had died earlier in the war. At the time, her husband Robin Fletcher, formerly a classics master at Eton, was incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, having been captured at the fall of Singapore.
On Robin’s eventual return from the far east, the couple decided to make Jura their home. Living on Jura would, they felt, be easier for Robin and, in any case, the estate needed to be reimagined too. The Fletchers were, at least by the standards of the time, ‘progressive’ landowners, keen to do what they could to stem, and reverse, the island’s population decline and improve its economic viability.
And so, on 22 May 1946, Orwell arrived at Ardlussa en route to Barnhill. Eric Blair’s signature in the house’s visitor’s book is one of the few remaining touchable reminders of his life on Jura. A reminder, too, that George Orwell was not yet ‘George Orwell’.
Though Animal Farm had been published, and become a considerable success, the previous year, Orwell was a journalist and pamphleteer of perhaps middling renown; a writer for small magazines and small-circulation newspapers, not the world-famous figure he would become. The Orwell industry had not yet been conceived, let alone built. On Jura, in any case, he was always Eric Blair and there was a strict demarcation between Mr Blair the gentleman crofter and Mr Orwell, the writer.
As the great myth of Orwell’s Jura has grown, Barnhill has become a place of literary pilgrimage. It remains a place hard to reach and that, for many visitors, is precisely the point. Were you to depart Glasgow at 9 a.m. you would be doing well to reach Barnhill by 5 p.m. First you must head north, along Loch Lomond, then through the Arrochar Alps and over the Rest and Be Thankful pass, before hugging the shores of Loch Fyne as you progress south through Inveraray to Lochgilphead and beyond, to the ferry at Kennacraig. A Caledonian MacBrayne ferry will take you to Port Askaig on Islay in just under two hours, before you hop aboard a tiny, council-run ferry for the five-minute crossing from Islay to Jura.
Even now you are a long way from your destination. The single-track public road – possibly Britain’s worst A-road – winds its way along Jura’s eastern shore for twenty-five miles, passing through Craighouse, the island’s principle conurbation en route to Ardlussa in the far north. Three miles north of Ardlussa, the public road comes to an end, giving way to a private Land Rover track that even off road vehicles must treat with a certain measure of respect. Four miles later you will, at last, arrive at Barnhill. Though certain particulars of the journey have changed since Orwell’s time its essence is much the same. This, as he put it himself, is an ‘unget-at-able’ place. There was no electricity, no telephone, and mail had to be collected from Ardlussa.
That remains the case today, though some concessions to modernity are evident. A new mast on the mainland has brought a 4G mobile phone signal to Barnhill, while the recent installation of a handful of solar panels allows a freezer to be plugged in on a full-time basis. Heat is provided by a coal- and peat-fired Rayburn and cooking is on a stove powered by 45kg Calor gas canisters. What further electricity is needed may be provided by a clattering diesel generator. Few signs of Orwell remain, though in truth this matters little for Barnhill is a place of atmosphere. Yes, Orwell stood here, walked this road, pottered around in this garden, shot rabbits on this hillside, fished in those waters, bathed – except in periods of summer drought – in this very bath but these fragments of connection are useful only to the extent they prompt consideration of a deeper, imaginative, link between past and present.
No one has ever accused Barnhill of being a warm house but, perched above a cove, it possesses an austere splendour of its own and when the sun shines, and the sea sparkles, and the long summer nights stretch on and on, it offers something rare and valuable: distance. That is a matter of geography but also of the mind. Above all, like Jura as a whole, it is a place of both stern beauty and deep peace.
It is quieter now than it was in Orwell’s time. Of the many misconceptions about Orwell’s life on Jura, few are so grave as the idea of the writer as hermit, locked away in a Hebridean bolthole. In the first place, Orwell had company. He arrived with Susan Watson, who was to be Richard’s nanny, though the arrangement foundered on a personality clash with Orwell’s protective sister Avril, who insisted on her prerogatives as, first, Eric’s relative and second, his housekeeper. Paul Potts, the novelist, also arrived and stayed for several months as did the writer and editor Richard Rees. In 1947, more help arrived in the form of Bill Dunn, a one legged ex-serviceman who, wishing to escape Glasgow and become a farmer, was engaged by Robin Fletcher to farm at Kinuachdrach and latterly Barnhill on a profit-sharing basis. (Following Orwell’s death, Dunn would marry Avril and the pair would bring up young Richard.)
A near constant stream of visitors from London arrived that first summer. Barnhill was not an empty place and the Orwells were not alone. A mile north of Barnhill, the neighbouring small farm at Kinuachdrach was occupied, first by the Darroch family and subsequently by Tony and Betty Rozga. Tony Rozga was a Pole, taken prisoner by the Germans, who subsequently walked across Europe before washing up on Jura. The Rozgas deemed Orwell ‘a peculiar and kindly gentleman’ and they named one of their sons Blair in honour of the man they, like the other islanders, only knew as Eric Blair.
Still, Orwell’s guests were, as Bernard Crick, perhaps Orwell’s most comprehensive biographer (and one more sympathetic than most to Orwell’s Jura choices), put it: ‘different from the sort of people the islanders had seen before’. There is a hint of condescension here, just as there is in Crick’s subsequent suggestion that ‘the islanders, slow, gentle, stubborn, kindly and reserved, did not mingle, but observed and remembered’. One such neighbour, Francis Boyle, whose relatives, like those of the Darrochs and the Rozgas, still live on the island, remembered Orwell as ‘a kindly man’ who ‘kept himself to himself and interfered with no one’. This may fairly be thought high praise. As a matter of temperament, Orwell possessed some of the qualities required to make a success of Jura life: determination, patience, and perspective.
On his third day at Barnhill, Orwell recorded the start of his new existence: ‘Started digging garden, i.e., breaking in the turf. Back-breaking work. Soil not only dry as a bone, but very stony. Nevertheless there was a little rain last night. As soon as I have a fair patch dug, shall stick in salad vegetables. This autumn shall put in bushes, rhubarb & fruit trees if possible, but it will need a very high & strong fence to keep the deer off them.’ That set the tone. Life at Barnhill was one of constant labour but Orwell, at least at first and while his health permitted it, threw himself into gardening and small-scale animal husbandry. By his calculation, the Barnhill policies amounted to sixteen acres or so and his Jura diaries are almost exclusively concerned with domestic matters, offering little hint that he was embarking on what would become his greatest, longest-lasting project: Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Indeed, progress on that front was almost as slow as growth in the Barnhill garden. Orwell, usually a quick and fluent writer, chiselled away at his novel but, having written more than 120 articles in the year before he arrived on Jura, there is a sense too of a writer taking an opportunity to breathe, forsaking the demands of weekly journalism and embracing the procrastinating possibilities inherent in tackling a ‘big’ novel. The success of Animal Farm – the first American print run was of 50,000 copies, delivering royalties Orwell considered ‘fairy gold’ – offered the tantalising prospect of leaving Grub Street.
George Woodcock, Orwell’s friend and author of The Crystal Spirit, a penetrating study of Orwell’s politics, felt that Orwell’s insistence on over-wintering on Jura in 1948 was motivated by ‘that infatuation with the semi-idyllic life of remote and fairly primitive communities which, at times, seizes demandingly on city-tired intellectuals’. This does Jura and Orwell a disservice but, more revealingly, Woodcock, writing in 1954, suggested: ‘I do not think Orwell was entirely indifferent to comfort, but he certainly set no great store by appearances, and his times of hardship had given him an easy contempt for the trappings of the bourgeois life’. Richard Rees agreed, arguing that ‘I fear that the near-impossibility of making a tolerably comfortable life there was a positive inducement to Orwell’.
Once again, this is a view founded, in essence, on the notion the metropolitan life is the life which counts and deviations from it are, at best, eccentric and more probably folly. Life on a Hebridean island might be fine for those who knew nothing else, but for a man of the world? Surely not. But Jura was not an affectation for Orwell. ‘Jura was a wonderful place to be a child’, Richard Blair told the Guardian in 2019. ‘But this wasn’t a holiday for us. Everything my Dad wrote and said indicates that he wanted to be here full time. For him, Jura was home.’
‘I never imagined that he’d stay there’, David Astor once said but as he conceded, when Orwell reached Jura, ‘it must have been like a blinding flash of recognition, discovering that the place suited him, because he did settle there extremely happily’, even though ‘very few people could possibly have lived in that house’.
Orwell wrote little about Scotland, per se, and indeed given his previous low-level but confirmed antipathy to Scotsmen – a product, in part perhaps, of his imperial days in Burma – there was a small irony in him washing up on a Hebridean island at all. But in his ‘As I Please’ column in Tribune he wrote that ‘Up to date the Scottish Nationalist movement seems to have gone almost unnoticed in England . . . It is true that it is a small movement, but it could grow, because there is a basis for it. In this country I don’t think it is enough realised – I myself had no idea of it until a few years ago – that Scotland has a case against England’. Although it was not a ‘very strong case’ on economic grounds, Orwell onceded that ‘many Scottish people, often quite moderate in outlook, are beginning to think about autonomy and to feel that they are pushed into an inferior position’. His Jura days informed some of this, certainly, not least in persuading Orwell that Gaelic, still then spoken by around half the island’s population, should be promoted and protected. A daily programme on the BBC (radio, of course), rather than two or three ‘amateurish’ if ‘eagerly listened to’ shows a week, would ‘buy a little good-will’.
Still, ‘In some areas, at any rate, Scotland is almost an occupied country. You have an English or Anglicised upper-class, and a Scottish working-class which speaks with a markedly different accent, or even, part of the time, in a different language. This is a more dangerous kind of class division than any now existing in England. Given favourable circumstances it might develop in an ugly way, and the fact that there was a progressive Labour Government in London might not make much difference.’
‘I think we should pay more attention to the small but violent separatist movements which exist within our own island’, he told his readers. ‘They may look unimportant now, but, after all, the Communist Manifesto was once a very obscure document, and the Nazi Party had only six members when Hitler joined it.’ Since writers on both left and right have mined Orwell for the gold that will substantiate their own authority, it seems only appropriate that, more than seventy years later, supporters and opponents of Scottish independence can find succour for their positions in Orwell’s brief, almost off-hand, evaluation of Scottish politics.
His only other significant account of Scotland came in a letter to George Woodcock, detailing his life on the island. ‘The crofters have to work very hard,’ Orwell asserted, ‘but in many ways they are better off and more independent than a town labourer, and they would be quite comfortable if they could get a bit of help in the way of machinery, electrical power, and roads, and could get the landlords off their backs and get rid of the deer.’
‘These animals are so common on this particular island that they are an absolute curse. They eat up the pastures where there ought to be sheep, and they make fencing immensely more expensive than it need be. The crofters aren’t allowed to shoot them, and are constantly having to waste their time dragging the carcasses of deer down from the hills during the stalking season. Everything is sacrificed to the brutes because they are an easy source of meat and therefore popular to the people who own them.’ Much of this analysis is still echoed in certain left-wing, and environmental, quarters today.
It is true that, on Jura, the deer population had boomed during the war but Orwell’s own landlords were more interested in sheep than stags and not just because there was then little commercial demand for, or opportunity in, deer stalking. Most of the deer at Ardlussa were shot by the estate’s employees. (It might also be noted that the name Jura is believed to be derived from the Norse for ‘Deer Island’; perhaps it is humans who are the interlopers here.)
‘I suppose sooner or later these islands will be taken in hand,’ Orwell continued, ‘and then they could either be turned into a first-rate place for dairy produce and meat, or else they would support a large population of small peasants living off cattle and fishing.’ It is telling, I think, that this letter was written in the first blush of his Jura romance and even Orwell later appreciated this was romantic tosh, there being neither opportunity, means nor value in turning Jura – with its marked paucity of tolerable, let alone lush, grazing ground – into a dairy-farming stronghold.
But ‘In the eighteenth century’, Orwell confidently told Woodcock, ‘the population here was 10,000 – now less than 300’. In fact, Jura’s population probably peaked around 2,000 and by 1831 had already declined to 1,300 people. There were never any forced clearances on Jura but a paucity of good ground and attractive opportunities, combined with intolerable rent increases, meant there didn’t have to be.
Orwell was neither the first nor the last outsider to envisage a crofting revival on the islands, though in this regard the islanders themselves have always disappointed those who would have them lead a largely self-sufficient – or, put more harshly, a subsistence-based – existence.
Accounts of Orwell’s time on Jura necessarily pay great attention to his health. Even Orwell’s neighbours allowed that living so far from a doctor was, as one of them put it, ‘not wise – but of course we all felt that, particularly those with old people or children in the house’. Orwell, then, endured privations in this regard that were no different to those accepted by his neighbours and considered a deprivation worth bearing, being of less importance than the advantages to be accrued from living at the northern end of the island. If it was folly for him to live at Barnhill, it was folly for them to live in such an isolated place too.
There were consolations to relative isolation too. As Orwell wrote to one correspondent, ‘These islands are one of the most beautiful parts of the British Isles’. Of course, he added, ‘it rains all the time, but if one takes that for granted it doesn’t seem to matter’. As, indeed, it does not. Visitors to the Hebrides may be divided between those who can hack it and those who cannot; Orwell was an emphatic member of the former group.
Context matters as well. The winter of 1947, for instance, was exceptionally harsh. In January and February temperatures of -20º Celsius were recorded even in south eastern England and almost the whole of Britain was covered in a thick blanket of snow. Rationing of fuel and food compounded the misery felt by millions; electricity was shut off for five hours a day; the BBC’s Third Programme shut down for a fortnight; weekly papers were cancelled, including Tribune. Many Britons scarcely dared to venture outside at all. Much of the country existed in a locked-down state of frozen animation. Unemployment quadrupled to 1.7 million in a matter of weeks.
In Canonbury Square, Orwell ran out of coal. As Avril later recalled, ‘We had no fuel, and Eric has been ill on and off during the winter with one thing and another. We even got to the point of chopping up young Richard’s toys and putting them on the fire in Eric’s room to try and keep him warm while he was writing.’ Orwell, likewise, noted that on one occasion he was ‘kept going’ by setting a ‘blitzed bedstead’ ablaze and ‘wrote an article by its grateful warmth’.
This London, not Jura, forms a backdrop to Nineteen Eighty-Four: the grime, the misery, the clapped-out build ings and the rotten food and the heavy hopelessness of everything. As Dorian Lynskey, the novel’s own biographer – it is a mark of Orwell’s standing that even his books now have biographers – observes: ‘The prole district, “to the north and east of what had once been Saint Pancras Station”, is Islington.’
In such circumstances, the Hebrides offered a real alternative and not just the happy prospect of an imaginative release. As Orwell had written to George Woodcock, ‘I can work here with fewer interruptions, and I think we shall be less cold here. The climate, although wet, is not quite as cold as England and it is much easier to get fuel.’ Far from being a daunting proposition, life on Jura was an enticing one.
Here he could work. Writing to Anthony Powell in September 1947, Orwell confessed: ‘I know that if I return to London and get caught up in weekly articles I shall never get on with anything longer.’ Jura’s isolation, its spiritual and physical distance from the London literary and journalism worlds, was wholly the point, not some demonstration of authorial eccentricity.
Even so, Orwell was realistic about his health, telling Powell, ‘One seems to have a limited capacity for work nowadays and one has to husband it.’ The following month, he reminded Powell that, ‘we’ve got a lot more coal here than we should have in London, and this house is a lot more weatherproof than my flat, where the water was coming through the roof in twelve places last winter’. Again, there is a marked discrepancy between Orwell’s actual life on Jura and what others thought that life must be like.
That contrast also informs analysis of one of Orwell’s more dramatic misadventures on Jura: the time he, and his son, together with their companions, nearly drowned following a boating mishap in the Gulf of Corryvreckan, home to Europe’s third-largest whirlpool and a place of corresponding drama and danger. Orwell’s diary for 19 August 1947 – his second summer on the island – is almost comically phlegmatic:
‘Time to Glengarrisdale [a bay on the northwest coast of the island] about 1 hour 45 minutes. On return journey today ran into the whirlpool & we’re all nearly drowned. Engine sucked off by the sea & went to the bottom. Just managed to keep the boat steady with the oars, & after going through the whirlpool twice, ran into smooth water & found ourselves only about 100 yards from Eileen Mór [despite its name, a small rocky island in the gulf], so ran in quickly & managed to clamber ashore. HD [Humphrey Dakin, Orwell’s nephew] jumped ashore first with the rope, then the boat overturned spilling LD [Lucy Dakin, Orwell’s niece], R [Richard] & myself into the sea. R trapped under the boat for a moment, but we managed to get him out.’
Three hours later the party were rescued by a passing group of fishermen from the nearby isle of Luing. Orwell noted that he had attempted to pass through the gulf around three hours after high tide and ‘It appears this was the very worst time, & one should time it so as to pass Corryvreckan on slack water. The boat is all right. Only serious loss, the engine & 12 blankets.’
The diary entry then continues: ‘Yesterday fished Loch nan Eileen & a Bhúrra. 12 trout, mostly small. There are a lot of fish in a Bhúrra but I could not catch anything over about 5 ounces. It was very shallow, with a sandy or shingly bottom.’
Orwell’s biographers have typically considered this mishap an act of wanton folly and proof, if it were really needed, of Orwell’s naivety and lack of preparedness for the realities of an island life. And perhaps it was. On the other hand, it seems worth noting that those who knew him best on Jura – his neighbours – took a notably more charitable view. According to Donald Darroch, ‘It could have happened to anyone’ though, admittedly ‘perhaps he might better first have taken advice from one who knew, who would have warned him or taken him over himself.’ Ian McKechnie, the boatman at Ardlussa, who often went lobster-fishing with Orwell, said Orwell knew what he was doing, but simply misread the tide tables, something it was ‘easy enough to do’. Island life is not a risk-free enterprise and the islanders knew something of its inherent fragility. When the bedraggled party finally made it back to Barnhill, Avril asked George: ‘What took you so long’?
By the end of that summer, however, it was obvious Orwell was unwell. The island’s doctor arranged for a specialist from Glasgow to visit him at Ardlussa. Margaret Fletcher, in whose house he had been staying for several days, recalled the specialist warning that subjecting Orwell to the long trip up to Barnhill risked provoking a life-ending haemorrage, ‘but Eric wouldn’t stay’, thinking it unfair – perhaps even dishonourable – for a man riddled with tuberculosis to stay in a house in which four young children lived.
Nevertheless, at the end of the year Orwell entered Hairmyres hospital near Glasgow, staying there until July 1948. ‘When he came out, he looked comparatively fit’, Avril recalled, ‘but he would insist on coming straight back to Barnhill, which he loved.’ Avril came to believe her brother might have made a full recovery had he moved to a convalescent home ‘but as it was he came back and insisted on living a quite ordinary life’. This, she said, ‘really was extremely stupid’.
Manual work at Barnhill of the kind Orwell had previously found so rewarding was increasingly beyond his capabilities. Nevertheless, he told Woodcock that his doctors ‘seem to think I am pretty well cured and will end up perfectly OK so long as I don’t relapse during the next few months’. This proved optimistic; working on finishing Nineteen Eighty-Four – a task made more onerous by the inability to persuade a typist to travel from London to produce a clean and workable version of the manuscript – sapped Orwell’s strength. By September he was in ‘a ghastly state’, admitting, with laconic understatement, that the ‘effort’ of completing the novel ‘didn’t make me any better’.
But at long last the work was done. As Avril remembered it, ‘I remember him coming down from his bedroom, where he did his writing. He got out the last bottle of wine that w had in the house and he and I and Bill Dunn had a drink to celebrate the new book.’
His health continued to deteriorate, however, and even Orwell accepted that Jura was no longer the most suitable place for him. There being no suitable private establishment with room for him in Scotland, he entered a sanatorium at Cranham in the Cotswolds on 6 January 1949. While recognising he would henceforth require to spend winters in a warmer climate, he still hoped to spend his summers at Barnhill, where he could write with greater freedom and fewer distractions than anywhere else. ‘I must try and stay alive for a while’, he told David Astor, ‘because, apart from other considerations, I have a good idea for a novel.’
Even when Bill Dunn and Avril decided it would be best to move to a farm on the mainland Orwell still believed that, unless the Fletchers happened on a new tenant determined to farm Barnhill, he could retain his lease on the house, using it as a summer home.
To the end, he retained a faith in his idea of a Jura he would never see again. But then, how could he not? The final entry in his Jura diary, on Christmas Eve 1948, read:
‘Sharp frost the last two nights. The days sunny & still, sea calm. A[Avril] has very bad cold. The goose for Xmas disappeared, then was found swimming in the sea round at the anchorage, about a mile from our own beach. B[Bill] thinks it must have swum round. He had to follow it in a dinghy & shoot it. Weight before drawing & plucking, 10 1/2 lbs. Snowdrops up all over the place. A few tulips showing. Some wall-flowers still trying to flower.’
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Sublime hymn to Hebrides in general and Jura in particular. I once spent 10 days walking down the west coast of the island, sleeping in goat caves with a bivvy bag & noting flotsam debris on each beach for a DoE expedition. Those long sunsets, with peace and calm ring true through your writing as they do in my own memory.
We look forward to reading your own novel in due course!