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Journey to Jura: Connecting with Family and Clan

by Elizabeth Buie (copyright notice)


The Isle of Jura

The Paps of Jura, triple peaks, welcomed me as I crossed the Sound of Islay. The tiny ferry from Port Askaig deposited my tinier Peugeot onto Jura's only road, a single track that snaked southward along the rugged coastline. I was headed for four days with possible distant cousins I had never met, in a little-known part of Clan Donald territory. It was my first trip to Scotland.

Graphic showing the shape 
         of the Isle of Jura DThe Isle of Jura, about thirty miles long and five wide, lies like a lazy script-J between Islay and the Scottish mainland, about 50 miles west of Glasgow. Except for a narrow strip along the south and east, the land is wild, unspoiled, and uninhabited — and inaccessible by car. Thousands of red deer roam the hills, giving Jura the continuing right to its Old Norse name Dyr Ay — Deer Island. And only 230 humans live here.

I had been warned to expect bleakness and boredom. Instead I found pristine beauty, peacefulness, and abundant wildlife.

(See external links to info on Islay and the Isle of Jura.)

Clan Donald territory

Jura's relationship with its nearest neighbor has always been close. It belonged entirely to the MacDonalds of Islay until the dissolution of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493. Many Juraichs were related to the MacDonalds, and many others called themselves MacDonald for convenience. (The surname Buie is thought to have begun as Buidhe MacDonald -- blond MacDonald.) Even today, one reaches Jura by first going to Islay.

(See external link to info on Clan Donald and the Lordship of the Isles.)

Clan Donald badgeDIn 1493 the northern half of Jura was given to the Macleans. MacDonalds and Macleans disputed their boundaries for many years, until in 1585 the hostilities erupted into war. The final battle occurred at Gruinart on Islay, ending when a Jura archer named Dubhsith found an opening in the armor of Lachlan Mór Maclean.

Clan Donald retained jurisdiction over the more populous southern part of Jura until 1607, when it was given to the Earl of Argyll. The Campbells then gained control of that area, first as Argyll's bailiffs and later as landowners. Today Jura comprises six large estates.

I arrived on Jura about lunchtime on a sunny but somewhat hazy day. Armed with a local guidebooklet, I wound my way along the sinuous road and kept an eye out for landmarks. The first one I found was Damh Sgeir — The Rock of the Stag's Crossing — where, the book said, Buies had lived until the 1930s.

I had come home.

Landmarks along the road

Photo of Fraoch EileanDNot far from the ferry landing, I crested a hill and spotted tiny Fraoch Eilean, the Heathery Isle, just offshore. Here had Somerled's Claig Castle served Clan Donald for centuries, first as a fortress and later as a prison. Indeed, this was the very Fraoch Eilean of Clan Donald's ancient battle cry. Near the shore stood the stone called Camas an Staca.Photo of Camas an StacaD

About five miles further on, I descended into the village of Craighouse, nestled at the southwest end of Small Isles Bay and home to most of the islanders. Passing Jura's one hotel, one distillery, and one food store, I stopped at its one tearoom/gift-shop to buy some postcards and plant my feet upon the ground.

Proceeding north, I passed Tobair an Easbuig -- the Bishop's Well -- long a bone of contention between the ministers and the Campbells. (Both wanted the land, and the ministers got it.) I finally arrived at Knockrome, a wee crofting community about four miles from Craighouse at the other end of Small Isles Bay. Here lived one of Jura's last two Buie families, who had invited me to share their home.

Photo of KnockromeD

Alexander (Sandy) Buie, looks at least 10 years younger than his real age. Having purchased his croft some years ago, he maintains his physical and mental health by continuing to work. When I arrived, he had just finished cutting his peats and was making a walking stick with a deer-antler handle. Sandy shares his croft house with his daughter Isabell and her family. His three grandchildren, he told me, are the sixth generation in the house.

Discovering Jura

Photo of Jura DistilleryDPhoto of boat and pier in Small Isles BayDExploring Jura was fun. I toured the distillery and photographed the boats and lobster creels in Small Isles Bay. I strolled through the gardens of Jura House with Isabell and four-year-old Eilidh. With two English vacationers I drove to the north end of the island. We parked just past Barnhill (the house where George Orwell wrote 1984) and hiked two miles over moorland to see the treacherous Whirlpool of Corryvreckan.

(See external link to info on Isle of Jura whisky.)

Best of all was the conversation. Language provided much enjoyment — the Juraichs teased me about my wording and I entertained them with American slang. We shared our concerns and hopes about the world's future. We talked of our lives, our families, our native lands. I showed slides of America; they told stories of Jura. We became friends.

A pirate story

My favorite story concerned Lowlandman's Bay. At the top of Ardfernal Hill, just behind Knockrome, I looked down at this bag-shaped bay while Sandy told its tale.

"Pirates were coming down the Sound of Jura," he began, "and they saw that the government boat was making up on them. And when they came to the point, they slid up beside the shore and entered the bay, thinking the government boat wouldn't see them." But the boat full of government lowlanders did see the pirates, said Sandy, and trapped them inside the bay.

"So the pirates went ashore," he continued, "and buried their treasure in Leargy Hill. And to mark the spot, if you stand at the place you'll see the bay like a loch the size of a bedspread."

He leaned close. "And it's a Buie that's supposed to get it," he confided.

Fond farewell

Photo of Sandy BuieDSandy Buie looks like my father's father. He has the same straight nose, high cheekbones, thin lips, and bright blue eyes. He's even the right age. Our exact relationship has not been determined — we're probably something like tenth cousins twice removed — but to me he is a grandfather. And he says I look like a Buie.

The Paps of Jura wished me farewell as I crossed the Sound of Islay once again. On the flight home I searched the receding landscape for familiar shapes. Just before the clouds closed in over Scotland, I caught sight of Lowlandman's Bay.

I remembered Sandy's tale of pirates' treasure. Next time, I thought, I'll bring a shovel.

For more pictures of Scotland,
see Æsthetic Images Photography.

Note: Sandy Buie died in about 2000, in Islay.

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(This article was published in the Fall 1987 issue of By Sea By Land, the newsletter of Clan Donald USA. Copyright © 1987, 1997, 1998, Elizabeth A. Buie. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to print this page or link to it, as long as such use is personal or educational and is not for commercial gain or profit. This article may not be republished or redistributed without permission.)
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Other articles I've written on travel to Scotland

Last updated 29 April 2006, to revise the visual design