The Hebrides are divided into two regions, Inner and Outer, and across Scotland they are considered a region apart. Many locals still speak Scottish Gaelic and refer in passing to their Norse heritage (the Vikings ruled the islands from the ninth to 13th century). Whisky is a big draw for visitors, but even more so is the land itself. The islands’ complex geology creates a distinct landscape, a series of rugged, windswept isles, mosaics of cliffs, headlands, and rolling hills. Townships are few, and open spaces are many. And while the Inner Hebrides are just a few hours from Glasgow—an easy weekend trip from anywhere in the United Kingdom—they feel more like the edge of the world. Nowhere more so, perhaps, than off the wild coastline of Jura.
Jura supports only one real town, Craighouse; one source of whisky (the Isle of Jura distillery); more than 5,000 red deer; and fewer than 200 human inhabitants. Seen from the waterline, even that census seemed like an overestimate. Our sole companions were hundreds of seabirds, including a lone puffin, and herds of wild goats grazing on kelp across the cobbled beaches. We paddled past rocky coves and intricate basalt formations, the steep walls pocketed with caves. I asked Hammock about a string of gray streaks high on the sloping hillsides. They are raised beaches, he said, created in the wake of melting ice caps 17,000 years ago. Freed of the weight of the ice, the mass of Jura shifted slightly, lifting its western shore as much as 120 feet above the waterline.
The wind rose as we paddled south, gusting to force 5 (19 to 24 miles an hour). The glassy conditions of the gulf quickly deteriorated into three-foot swells and whitecaps. Such "gray and lumpy" conditions are typical, Hammock said, but they made for some pretty rigorous paddling. Before we left, Hammock had mentioned that Scotland offers the full gamut of sea kayaking possibilities. Novices can take day trips on sheltered lochs, visiting ancient castles and learning skills along the way, while intermediates and experts can mount multiday expeditions, landing on wilderness beaches and camping on sparsely inhabited islands. He had told us that our first ever journey could verge on the more extreme side but that there was nothing to worry about. Nothing, provided we disregarded the fast growing waves breaking over the decks of our kayaks. The cost of being pioneers, I suppose.
We reached our beach camp at Jura’s Shian Bay that evening, exhausted after paddling close to 22 nautical miles from Crinan harbor. Before dinner, I rallied some strength to hike up through a field of fern and bog cotton to inspect one of those raised beaches, a hundred-yard-long swath of packed stones piled steeply into a well-defined wall. Could the wind have blown them into such a sharp ridge, I wondered, given enough time? Not stones of that size—nothing could have formed this but the pounding waves. This wall, I realized, had been beaten into shape by storms that struck the beach more than 10,000 years before Christ, more than 7,000 years before Khufu built the Great Pyramid. The stones had sat this way ever since, unneeded and thus undisturbed for more than 400 generations. I picked one up, weighed it in my hand, and set it carefully back in place.