“Now, I’d just like to say, I’m not here to disturb you and I’ll try to be as quiet as I can,” I muttered. “If you’d like to talk, that’s fine but please don’t stalk up and spook me.”
As I finished my speech, I looked around the vast, white washed, brightly-lit room to see if anyone else was there. But all I heard was silence. I breathed a deep sigh of relief – for that second at least.
So it was that I found myself talking to the empty air in my room at Jura Lodge, the large living space attached to the distillery. I had heard tales of a ghost that walks the halls, a fact so well known even Jill from the Whyte & Mackay press team refused to sleep in the lodge, preferring the hopefully less haunted interior of the next door hotel.
But this is what the Isle of Jura is all about – stories and legends. With its rough hewn hills, gracefully rising purple Paps and misty, murky nearby waters, Jura makes you want to believe in ghosts and dark superstitions. Just not when you’re off to sleep.
I was there for the recent Islay festival, which next-door Jura plays a part in with its own ‘Jura Day’. The 37-mile long island has only 200 residents, leaving fair enough space for wandering ghouls and plenty of legends. One says the Kinghts of the Templar are buried in the local graveyard, a belief which seems plausible when one views the faded tomb slabs laying in the grass, still showing the remains of an intricately carved sword. Then there’s the tale of George Orwell nearly drowning in the Correyvrecken whirlpool when he was on the island to write his most famous book, 1984. Or, the story of the Jura Prophecy – legend has it that the mean and cruel landowners of the time, the Campbells, tried to raise taxes on an already suffering population. When they refused to pay, the family destroyed all of their houses. A wise woman is said to have cursed the family with the idea that the last Campbell would leave with all of his possessions in a cart pulled by a white horse and be blind in one eye, which is just what happened to Charles Campbell in 1938.
This last tale is, of course, what inspired the distillery to create its whisky called Prophecy. But its history goes back further than when that tale came to pass. Indeed, Jura has been officially in operation since 1810, though there was a distillery on the island going back futher. A ceasing of production took place from 1901 to 1920 due to a dispute with those aforementioned Campbells who owned the land. It reopend but soon had issues when all the men went off to fight in the second world war. Decline continued until 1960 when local landowners got together to help rebuild it. It now produces 2.3 million litres per year.
During Jura day, myself and the Whisky Exchange’s Billy Abbot (aka: @cowfish) took a tour of the distillery with distiller Willie Cochrane, then headed to the tasting rooms to meet with master distiller Willie Tait and finally learn about casks and wood from Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson. It was entertaining and informative, and we tried a range of the whiskies.
My favourite part of the day was going into the warehouse, which oozed with the scents of a woodshop, cool dampness and sour wafts of whisky. “It’s one of the best smells in the world,” exclaimed Billy, and I wholeheartedly agreed.
There Tait took us through Elixir and a 1996 vintage. I found the Elixir rich with a nose of candied pineapple, sticky pine sap, cinnamon bark and Werther’s Original. On the palate, it blossomed with a nutty walnut rind, orange spice, and hay flavours. The 1996 bottling, meanwhile, instantly brought back childhood memories of Easter, with scents of muddy spring grass, the community hall and rubber soled shoes. Hints of oak florboards, fresh wood polish, liquid sugar, mangos and Chardonnay all resonated on my tongue and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
That evening, we dined in the lodge. All night, I had one ear listening out for extraneous sounds of creaking floorboards or whispered hauntings. Like the film, The Woman in Black, Jura lodge got right under my skin. And while I didn’t see any sign of the ghostly lady, I am still glad I gave her my hellos, just in case!