George Orwell and Jura

A Hebridean island, grow-your-own and boat accidents: Nineteen Eighty-Four’s unlikely genesis

Orwell spent the last years of his life writing his most famous novel in a remote house on Jura. The reasons why have sparked debate ever since.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of those books that forms its own fictions. Along with the modern adoption of terms such as “groupthink”, Big Brother and Room 101, it has conjured the myth that it was born of its own misery. That George Orwell, mourning the tragically multiplied loss of his mother, wife (of a heart attack) and sister (from kidney disease) in swift succession and struggling through the final years of his short life while riddled with tuberculosis, created the dystopia from an isolated house on the edge of a remote and wild Hebridean island: Jura.

It’s a romantic tale, but not an entirely true one. Rather, over the course of three years, Orwell made Barnhill, his home on Jura, a kind of unlikely retreat – not only for him, but for his young son, his surviving sister and many writers and friends who also made the unwieldy 48-hour journey to visit this flint-shaped lump of land estranged from Scotland’s west coast. While there, he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, staring out of the window of his bedroom to the expanse of the North Sea, and the hills that drift into it.

Arguably, Barnhill, the house that Orwell rented, was far from cosy. While it was spacious – five bedrooms, sitting room, dining room, a generous kitchen – the place lacked electricity. Orwell relied on Calor gas to cook and heat water, peat and coal to heat the place and paraffin for lanterns. Margaret Fletcher, owner of the Ardlussa estate on which Barnhill was located and one of Orwell’s nearest neighbours, lived several miles away down the track to Barnhill. “He had only his basic needs - a camp bed, table, a chair or two and a few essential cooking utensils,” she remembered in a booklet called 'Jura and George Orwell'. "We lent him some furniture and gradually more was obtained but even by the end of his time on Jura the house never looked comfortable."

Orwell wasn’t so much retreating from his grief as fulfilling a dream nurtured by the woman he loved.

And it was isolated, too, even by Jura’s standards. Orwell described it as being “in an extremely un-get-atable place”, the journey requiring, from the mainland: two ferries, a 20 mile drive and a further seven-mile ride (on either motorbike or recalcitrant pony) down the dirt track to Barnhill. The nearest shop was 25 miles away. Post, which included Orwell’s complimentary copies of The New Yorker, was delivered every Thursday.

Just what had compelled him to go there? Orwell never answered this directly. A life-long diarist, his entries from the years he spent on Jura are, for all their detail of how he spent his days, noticeably lacking in emotional or meditative insight. His biographers have tussled over different theories ever since. But one, Dorian Lynskey, who last year published The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, has maintained that Jura offered Orwell an escape.

Furthermore, it was an escape that had been long in the planning: final letters from Eileen, Orwell’s wife, show the couple’s determination to leave the fug of London behind for a new life in the Hebrides. “He was quite obsessed with Jura,” Lynskey tells me. “The plans were in place before Eileen died. The fact that he pressed ahead with it seems more like a tribute to her, rather than a reaction to her death.” Orwell wasn’t so much retreating from his grief as fulfilling a dream nurtured by the woman he loved.

'He really liked doing things like gardening and planting vegetables'

Orwell, known to his few neighbours by his real name, Eric Blair, became a familiar – if eccentric – sight. Having been sold a van that managed to reach Jura’s quayside, but no further, he relied upon an ancient motorbike to cover the island’s rugged expanses. This, too, would frequently break down. Whether motoring along or stationery, the bike usually had a scythe lashed onto the back for the purpose of cutting down long grass that would inhibit its journey.  

At other times, he would take long walks exploring Jura’s expanse. After one of them, two weeks after his arrival in 1946, he noted in his diary the discovery of an “old human skull, with some other bones, lying on beach at Glengarrisdale. Said to be survivor from massacre of the McCleans by the Campbells, & probably at any rate 200 years old. Two teeth (back) still in it.”

Where does Nineteen Eighty-Four come in? It’s difficult to know, precisely. While the book was written in Jura, Orwell didn’t record his writing progress, or lack thereof, in his diary, although there is the odd mention of afternoons spent fixing recalcitrant typewriters. But there were reports from the visitors to Barnhill, whose days were punctuated by the clack of tapping on the keys.

'A camping trip nearly ended in disaster when the boat capsized in the current, dragging the author’s three-year-old son underwater'

Because there were a lot of visitors. While some of those who came to Barnhill were often underwhelmed after such a long journey, Orwell nevertheless opened his somewhat rustic home to friends seeking retreat. News of their arrival often arrived at the same time that they did, leading to travel-weary Londoners lingering around for hours on a strange island without any assistance. When they did reach Barnhill, Orwell was often distracted or disinterested: when one friend, Lucy Dakin, turned up, he greeted her presence as if she’d merely left the room for a couple of hours: “Ah, there you are Lu.”

“There were lots of visitors,” Lynskey says, “he wasn’t really lonely, which again flies in the face of the myths around Orwell’s time in Jura.” The author points out that while Orwell’s time on the island inspired two novels and a television series, the latter showed far fewer people turning up than did in reality. Richard Rees, for instance, stayed long enough to paint a picture of Orwell’s bedroom; Inez Holden made an extended visit after returning from reporting on the Nuremberg Trials.

What is better known is the near-fatal sailing incident at Jura’s notorious Corryvreckan, the third largest whirlpool in the world, located off the northern coast of Jura. While Orwell’s nephew and nieces visited, a camping trip nearly ended in disaster when the boat capsized in the current, dragging the author’s three-year-old son underwater. Miraculously, everyone survived thanks to a passing lobster fisherman. Orwell’s main observation was of the seals who had witnessed the disaster: “Curious thing about seals, very inquisitive creatures.”

If it all sounds like more of a dramatic Famous Five holiday than a doom-laden dystopia factory, it’s partially because it was. Aside, that is, from Orwell’s increasingly poor health: in 1947, after years of suffering with various bronchial problems, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Locals reports of him were always that Orwell looked sickly.

Still, he kept writing. “There was no evidence I could find that he thought he was dying, beyond the notion that he thought he was dying,” says Lynksey, pointing out that during his twenties, Orwell never thought he’d see his 30th birthday. In September 1948, he planted peonies, presumably with the determination to see them flower the following May.

When he became too weak to write at a desk, Orwell did so in bed, coughing up blood. “The physical achievement of finishing the book, that was where his health crossed the Rubicon, everyone else seemed to think he was dying except him. Orwell didn’t think Nineteen Eighty-Four was going to be his last book,” Lynskey says. The manuscript was finished in December 1948.

In January 1949, a year before his death at just 46, Orwell made his final trip south from Jura, destined for a sanitorium. “He knew that if he went earlier, the doctors wouldn’t let him have his typewriter, and he was obsessed with finishing it,” says Lynskey.

The book came out less than six months later, and to instant acclaim. Orwell was back in London, falling in love with Sonia Brownwell, who nursed him for the next six months – the last of his life. With his death, Jura became part of the broader Orwell myth; a place so brutal and bleak that it contributed to his early demise. Now, Barnhill is available to let as a holiday cottage, but exists in much the same way as it did when Orwell was there, 70 years ago. The house is barely a museum, the only traces of the writer are where his footsteps may have been, on the dirt path that still leads to the house. None of Jura’s 230 residents remember his time there.  

Image by Ryan McEachern.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more