More Than Whisky: How the Isle of Jura Inspired George Orwell’s “1984”

The island has a place in literary history

Jura, as seen from the water
Dun_Deagh/Creative Commons

The Scottish island of Jura is located in the Hebrides, not far from Islay. It has a long history, including settlements by the Vikings and Irish. Nowadays, it’s sparsely populated and is perhaps best known for the whiskey distillery of the same name, located in the village of Craighouse.

But Jura has another claim to fame as well: one of the most significant literary works of the 20th century was written there.

In 1946, George Orwell and his son arrived on the island. Orwell believed that its climate might be healthy for his lungs. While there, he occupied a farmhouse and sat down to write what is considered to be his greatest work: the novel 1984.

Ministry of Truth, a new book by journalist Dorian Lynskey, explores the genesis of Orwell’s novel — along with the challenges of working on a book in such a remote location. A New York Post story on the book delves into one of these: “Orwell lived on the island off and on for 2¹/₂ years. As “1984” neared completion, he was unable to find a typist willing to come to the remote farmhouse.” This in turn led him to move back to London, where his health problems worsened until his death in 1950.

More impressions of Jura can be found in George Packer’s 2009 New Yorker article about Orwell’s son Richard Blair. While he looked back on his memories of his father warmly, some of the situations in which they found themselves sounded more than a little nerve-wracking. Consider:

One fishing expedition to a shepherd’s hut on the remote part of Jura ended in a storm, with Orwell, Richard, and his three cousins nearly drowning in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Orwell, struggling in the whirlpool that had capsized their boat, noticed a seal watching them and remarked, “Curious thing about seals, very inquisitive creatures.”

Packer also recently weighed in on Lynskey’s book for The Atlantic, saying that it “makes a rich and compelling case for the novel as the summation of Orwell’s entire body of work and a master key to understanding the modern world.” Sometimes books begun in modest spaces on tiny islands can have an influence that helps reshape the globe.

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