“Extremely unget-at-able”. This is how George Orwell famously described his attempts to reach the Isle of Jura and amazingly, the island is as awkward to reach today as it was in 1946. The Isle of Jura lies off the west coast of Scotland and is eleven kilometers wide by 48 kilometers long, making it a bit smaller than Cairns. There’s only one road, one pub, one shop and one distillery. It’s believed that Jura takes it’s name from the old viking word “Dhiura” meaning red deer, however, the Vikings weren’t the first people to inhabit Jura. Carbon dating puts some of the earliest settlements on Jura at around 8000bc. Standing stones, ruins and manmade caves dot the landscape serving as a reminder that the island has been inhabited for a very long time.
Whisky making on Jura has a long history. The Duriachs (as inhabitants of Jura are known) enjoyed a long period of unhindered home distillation before this was banned in the Excise Act of the 1781. The islanders, however, thought very little of the ban and many of the estimated 250 pot stills remained active after the imposition, and considering the island’s extreme unget-at-able-ness, it was going to take a very determined excise man to actually enforce the act.
In 1810, seeing a clear demand for whisky, local kingpin Archibald Campbell decided to build a distillery on the Island, initially calling it Small Isles Distillery in reference to the numerous small islands in Craighouse Bay where the distillery is located. Not short of a few bob, the largest landowner on the island created an engineering marvel using only gravity to move liquid between the production areas. Small Isles produced a heavy, smoky whisky similar to those made on neighbouring Islay and took its water from the dark, peaty Loch A-Bhaile Mhargaidh, 300m above Craighouse.
Over time the Campbells, not being experts in whisky production, ran the distillery into the ground and in 1875 they found new professional tenants. Ferguson & Sons Distillers from Glasgow signed a 25-year lease that required them to increase capacity and build and maintain a new pier and a connecting road. In 1900, the Campbells argued with their tenants over the rates on a new lease and the following year Ferguson & Sons ceased production, stripping out all of the production facilities including 4 large copper stills. Things took a turn for the worse when the crumbling distillery’s roof was removed in order to avoid paying tax rates. It is believed that four warehouses still housed whisky until 1938 when the last barrel left the island.
In 1955 Jura’s population had dropped to a dwindling 150 inhabitants (down from over 2000 when the distillery was established in 1810), with the industrial revolution, new frontiers and two world wars among the reasons cited for this mass exodus. In 1958, realising that something had to be done about the dwindling population, two landowners, Tony Riley-Smith and Robin Fletcher, combined their love of whisky and a shared concern for Jura’s declining fortunes and enlisted the architect William Delme-Evans to oversee the rebuilding of Jura distillery. Delme-Evans was so dedicated to the rebuild that he learned to fly a propeller plane and built a small runway near the distillery in order to ease his commute to and from the island. Unfortunately Robin Fletcher passed away before the project was completed and a foundation stone from the 1810 distillery that sits at the entrance of the distillery reads; “This stone from the ruins of the original Jura distillery was laid here by the widow of Robert G Fletcher who with F.A Riley-Smith conceived and instigated the rebuilding of this distillery to provide industry for the island.”
In 1963, the stills at Jura distillery fired up once more and ran with fresh new make spirit. Today, although the population hasn’t returned to the original level, the distillery sits at the heart of the small community and underpins the local economy and environment, not just by providing employment but also via whisky related tourism, attracting over 7000 visitors a year.