Mark Beckwith and I did our unplanned leg-and-core workout in advance of The Great Outdoors Challenge with three hours of standing of a four-hour train ride from Arrochar to Lochailort, our embarkation point.
Perhaps the gods of the Challenge, knowing we were underprepared, did this to give us a final toning. Or to mess with us—hard to tell.
My friends Deborah and Paul Richard, who live in Argyll at the Kyles of Bute on the west coast, had graciously hosted us for three days. On the day we arrived we squeezed in a visit to the ruins of St. Blanes Monastery on the Isle of Bute, a short ferry ride from Colintraive, the village where they live six months of the year.
I’d been to St. Blanes on a previous visit. It’s where some of the earliest Christians in Northern Europe lived and prayed in the 600s, until the place was sacked by the Vikings. Living there, and being valuable enough to be destroyed—it’s all a bit hard to believe.
There is nothing from the monastic days left but piles of stone that might have been the walls of monks’ cells. The ruins of a church from much later telegraphs to visitors that this is a site where people thought about God.
We visited in part because my walking partner is a man of the cloth, the former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey, and before that a parish priest in many places.
Deborah and Paul delivered us to Arrochar to begin our journey north. We had the jitteriness of kids being delivered to college for the first time. We were sorry to part company, but it was getting close to time to walk.
When we disembarked at Lochailort—a stop you have to ask for, as it’s so obscure—we walked to the Lochailort Inn with a man who became, Challenge-style, a great friend in under 24 hours. His name is Ole Hollesen. He’s a 59-year-old Dane who looks minus-10 his age, a Challenge first-timer.
Ole lives just north of Copenhagen, and is a military veteran whose current job is to handle finances and logistics in movies. He even had a bit part in one that won the Academy Awardin 2021 for best foreign film. It was called “Another Round.”
Ole has done a lot of walking. Brief conversation and a look at him reveals he’s somewhere between an ultralight and ultrafast walker. He walked across Iceland—500 kilometers, or 310 miles, in 19 days, with one resupply (which means he carried food for half the trip with him at the start). He’s hiked in Columbia, Majorca, and all over Scandinavia. He speaks nearly accentless English, along with the other Scandinavian languages, German, French, and a little Italian.
He has a tough route, going alone. We hope to run into him again.
We signed out on a register at the hotel, as required by Challenge rules, and began our walk at 10.23 a.m. on Tuesday, May 10. Here is Mark and me, the picture taken by a fellow Challenger at the inn who was outside for a smoke.
We proceeded down the road and then off to the left on a path, past a crew doing some sort of digging with heavy machines. We walked along a stream, gaining elevation. The weather was good and the sun was out, but we took no solace. It was going to rain, it was just a matter of when.
The route I chose for this walk was borrowed—actually taken, with permission—from two people I’d met on a previous Challenge, Andrew Walker and Alan Sloman. The photographs of it on Andrew’s website were spectacular. Eager to please, I chose it for Mark’s inaugural, and probably only, walk across Scotland. This may turn out to be trying to please too much.
The route involves miles and miles of no-path walking. In other words, navigating by a route laid down electronically on a topographical map, or by interpolating on a paper map, but with no visible path underneath your boots.
It requires all sorts of things to go off trail as much as this route requires. The big three are: knowledge of navigation, good judgment, and perseverance. It turns out Mark and I had only the last.
After a while of walking up the stream—or “burn,” as they’re called over here—Mark and I turned 90 degrees and climbed up a treeless, heather-and-grass covered hill. I’d call it a mountain in a land of small but endless mountains, like Scotland’s Highlands.
It’s easier to describe the next five hours if you see where we were. Here are few pictures.
It’s immense open space, empty in a conventional sense, but clearly not in a historical sense. It’s surprising the amount of metal one encounters (mostly remains of fencing), and the inexplicable piece of garden hose-size pipe sticking out the peat every once in a while. It’s hard to believe anyone needed to move water around up here.
The pictures don’t do justice to the conditions we encountered. The day’s route was meant to be 8.5 miles, by the mapping app used. We ended up walking, by the Apple watch calculation, 17.03 miles.
Who cares which was less accurate? What’s clear is that we walked a great deal longer than we planned to.
This was because neither of us had studied the paper maps closely enough to have topological “handrails” in our minds as we looked at the hills and cliffs around us. We also (and more embarassingly) didn’t have adequate facility even with following a course on the GPX route on my phone.
Mark was unprepared in both regards. I’d done insufficient review of both skills, assuming they’d come back in real time. They did not. We walked in the equivalent or circles (although not actually) for a long time.
The idea was that we would ascend the side of a hill at the river-end of a long chain of hills, and then walk along the tops for miles. “The tops,” of course, isn’t what it sounds like. It’s up and down, up and down, not just across.
But that wasn’t the biggest problem.
It began to rain, and then it began to blow. I would say steady at 40 mph, gusts to 50 mph; Mark said 50 mph, gusting to 60. Whatever, it was hard to stay upright at times. Twice we thought we’d encountered hail, but it was just the force of the raindrops hitting our jackets and hats.
We couldn’t seek shelter by moving lower because lower meant going down cliffs on either side. There were, to my surprise, few outcrops that provided real lee from the wind. The only way out was through. I had to cinch my hat tighter to keep it from blowing away.
There are no pictures of all this because it was too cold and difficult to do anything but move forward.
We were forced into diversions around the equivalent of tide pools, here at the top of the Highlands. I’m glad I did a lot of rock-hopping in Maine as a kid.
In places there were undercut banks of peat forming what are called “peat hags” in these parts.
We walked and we walked, twice the distance we planned, and finally descended.
Only when we got into the protection of a forestry plantation—the ugly monoculture of pines—did we escape the wind and cold. We had been rained on since just after lunch. We made camp at the side of a forestry road about 8 p.m.
Both Mark and have tents that are erected with trekking poles. They’re a way of saving weight—in my case, three pounds over my trusty Hilleberg Akto, the wonderful Swedish solo tent that served me so well in previous crossings.
We found a grassy turnout on the forestry road and pitched camp. Even in minimal wind, the tents were saggy and loose. And of course totally wet, as were we; we’d been walking in the rain for most of the day.
I bought my tent on the high rating provided by the gear-tester of The Great Outdoors Magazine, the UK’s equivalent of Outside, and the original sponsor of The Great Outdoors Challenge. But I won’t use it again after this event.
I should have known—expert opinion aside—that the middle of a tent is where the action is. The idea that you can put trekking poles at one end, and a small arch-like pole at the foot end, and pull them tight enough to keep the middle of the tent up—minus ridgepole or center hoop—is pure fantasy. My tent, by Alpkit, is well made. The problem is the design. It will never work.
I got in, sopping wet and exhausted, and managed to boil water and make an in-bag dinner of spaghetti Bolognesi. It was delicious. If the water pot had fallen off the stove, or the stove had fallen over, I would have either been scalded or burned alive. It seemed like a reasonable risk.
It rained all night. The ceiling of the tent sagged, so I slept as if I were in a burial shroud two sizes too big—and wet. But the gods were not entirely without mercy. In an all-night rainstorm, it’s possible to kneel in prayer in such a structure and urinate in a Nalgene.
Call this particular tent a “penny saved, pound foolish” purchase. Or in my case, three-pounds foolish.
My father’s cycling companion on his bicycle trip through Scotland, England, and Wales in the summer of 1936 was John Gaylord Brackett, Jr. He was 18, my father was 19.
They’d gone to Deerfield Academy, in Western Massachusetts, together for high school, and both had just finished their freshman year at Harvard College. My father refers to John Brackett as “J.B.” in the journal he kept that summer. Whether that’s what everyone called him, or was just to save time and space in the writing, isn’t clear.
Sometime when I was a teenager, my father had told me that the person with him on that memorable adventure was later killed while training to be a pilot, someplace in the Deep South. Not surprisingly, he never said how this death had affected him. Surprisingly, I never asked, even when I was mature enough to realize it must have been a great loss, and an emotionally complicated one.
My father didn’t serve in the armed forces in World War II, although 80 percent of his classmates at Harvard College did. He’d had a kidney removed because of chronic infection, and was rejected by both the Army and the Navy when he tried to enlist. Late in the war, after graduating from Tufts Medical School on an accelerated schedule, he worked in a laboratory in Berkeley, California, doing high-altitude physiology research for the military. In the early 1950s, soon after I was born, he served stateside in the Army as a medical officer.
What was it like to spend the war out of uniform? Were there quizzical or accusatory stares? How often did he have to give a rehearsed explanation?
I have answers for none of those questions.
Of the 866 men who graduated in Harvard College’s Class of 1939, 30 died in the war, according to the 50th Reunion Report. How that number was calculated isn’t explained. Memorial Church, in Harvard Yard, lists 27 dead from the class. That was fewer than the adjacent classes recorded–31 in the Class of 1938, and 38 in the Class of 1940. (Curiously, among the names on the marble slabs is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Class of 1904.)
There were distinguished soldiers among my father’s fallen classmates.
William Edgar Huenekens flew secret night flights into France to deliver supplies to the Resistance as part of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Leroy Adolph Schreiber was a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot who shot down three German fighters and damaged two others on a mission over Hanover, Germany, one night in February 1944. (He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.) Wells Lewis, the son of novelist Sinclair Lewis, fought in North Africa, Italy, and France, winning the Bronze and Silver stars (and also publishing several short stories) before being killed on October 29, 1944.
John Brackett never deployed, but was still, of course, considered a casualty of the war. He’s listed as “DNB” in official lists–Death, Non-Battle.
He’s among what’s surely the saddest and most overlooked of the war’s victims–those who died not in the good fight, but in preparing for it.
From 1939 through 1945, the United States Army Air Forces–the precursor to the United States Air Force–suffered 6,500 fatal accidents in the continental United States. In all, 15,530 people were killed, and 7,114 airplanes wrecked. There were, on average, almost 40 accidents and 10 deaths in training each day of the war. In the peak year, 1943, there were more than 5,600 fatalities.
Those astonishing statistics are from a 2013 doctoral dissertation by Marlyn R. Pierce, at Kansas State University, called “Earning Their Wings.” He dedicated it “To the 15,530.”
The study documents how the demand for pilots and flight crews grew as the U.S. military prepared for, and then entered, the war, and how the evaluation and training of recruits changed as a consequence. It’s fascinating, and full of incredible numbers. Here are a few more.
In 1939, the number of people in the Army Air Forces was a little over 22,000–12 percent of all Army personnel. In 1944, it was 2.4 million, or 31 percent. In 1939, there were 7 fatalities for every 100,000 flying hours; in 1943, there were 19 for every 100,000 hours.
The risk of dying increased as flight training progressed. The rate was 27 per 100,000 flying hours in small, “basic” aircraft, and 55 during “advanced” training, when crews were in larger, more complicated, and more recently designed planes.
This appalling mortality was far from all attributable to pilot error and inexperience.
The demand for aircraft was so great that companies such as General Motors and Packard that had never made airplanes were suddenly making thousands. Some had poor designs, with airframes and engines barely able to carry their armament. Some were inadequately tested. The number of engine fires and mid-air explosions was shocking.
John Brackett had just been commissioned a second lieutenant when he was killed on August 13, 1942 a mile west of Key Field, in Meridian, Mississippi. He’d left his third year at Harvard Law School and enlisted, taking flight training in Florida, and at two other bases in Mississippi.
Brackett’s father was a “special justice of the Boston Municipal Court,” according to a four-paragraph story in the Boston Globe. His paternal grandfather was John Quincy Adams Brackett, who’d been governor of Massachusetts in 1890, when gubernatorial terms were one year.
Brackett was flying a Douglas DB-7B “Havoc” light bomber. He was in the part of training called “night transition”–learning how to take off and land in the dark. In combat conditions the plane had a crew of three–pilot, gunner, and bombardier–but as this was just flying practice, only the pilot was on board.
An online data base of thousands of aviation accidents lists the cause of this one as “take off accident due to engine failure.” That same night, flying from the same airfield, the same type of plane crashed, killing the 23-year-old pilot, 2nd Lt. Walter J. Miers, of Crowley, Louisiana. The cause of that crash was “engine failure and fire.”
An Associated Press report said: “Witnesses said Brackett’s plane exploded immediately after clearing the landing field and the other accident occurred a minute after Miers took off.”
The official report of the crash, which I obtained from a website called Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Reports, tells a different story.
The cause of the crash was judged “100 percent Pilot Error,” and in that category it was judged to be 100 percent due to “Poor technique.” John Brackett had overshot the airfield in an attempt to land and was going around to make another approach when he lost air speed and crashed into a patch of woods off the base.
One part of the report said he “dumped his flaps too low to the ground.” I’m not sure what that means, but it was clearly a mistake. He’d had 235 hours of flying since enlistment, and 24 hours in the model in which he died.
Here’s a picture of the crash site, and some of the wreckage. The destruction is total. One hopes death came quickly.
John Brackett was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, the resting place of Boston bluebloods, and many famous people (Nathaniel Bowditch, Winslow Homer, Mary Baker Eddy, Fannie Farmer, Bernard Malamud, Felix Frankfurter). My father was one of the five honorary pallbearers. After that, Bruce Brown kept his grief to himself. Or at least from his children, which I realize is not the same.
As it happens, the land I’ll be walking across in the next two weeks with my friend Mark Beckwith is sacred ground.
Scotland was the training ground of thousands of airmen in World War II. About 5,000 airplanes crashed there during the war, mostly in the Highlands, which are open and treeless. Wreckage of about 300 remain visible today. I passed one site in 2015, on my second crossing. All that remains of the Audax Harrier is part of the airframe and scattered pieces of metal.
The two people in the plane survived the crash in 1939, but not the war. One was killed in 1940 in the Battle of Britain. The other disappeared in 1942 in a bombing run to Flensburg, Germany, no trace found.
The deaths of young men learning to fly is part of the collective memory of northern Scotland, and in the individual memories of some of the people still alive from that time.
In 2016, when I walked along the Moray Coast I met and interviewed a man named Donnie Stewart. He grew up in Lossiemouth, a fishing town where an airbase was built in 1938. He was a preteen during most of the war. To him and his gang of friends, watching the fortification of the coast (and helping in small ways) was a great adventure. So was watching the airplanes come and go–and occasionally crash.
“We regarded this as entertainment,” he said ruefully.
A long time later a stranger came to Lossiemouth and inquired whether anyone recalled a crash that killed three Australians, including the man’s uncle, Ed O’Dwyer. Donnie did.
All on board died, as did a would-be rescuer who tried to swim out to a rocky island where the fusilage landed. Donnie described in detail what he’d seen. That gave the man some solace, and it assuaged somewhat Donnie’s decades-old guilt.
He knew the numbers. “Three-hundred eighty-four people died learning to fly out of the Lossie aerodrome,” he told me.
The psychological stress of being a novice pilot in wartime was clear when I interviewed a man named LaVerne Schaaf in a small town in Iowa in 2007 for another project. He’d been on the ground crew at an airbase in Alaska for two and a half years. It was hard to know which was more dangerous in the Aleutian Islands, Japanese fighters or the weather.
“We lost over a hundred men out of our outfit. They’re laying there in the bottom of the Bering Sea, up there. I don’t know how many pilots we lost,” he said, the sadness and disbelief still evident six decades later.
“The last guy, I felt so sorry for him. I put him in a plane–that was when we were on Amchitka–and helped strap him in. He was shaking so bad. He was a warrant officer. It was new to him, first time in combat.
“I told him: ‘You’re shaking so bad, you don’t have to go. You can turn yourself back in.’
“He said: ‘Well, they’ll court-martial me.’
” ‘I know. But you’ll be alive.’
” ‘Yeah, but my Dad and Mother are proud of me. I’m a pilot in the air force. I’m going through with it.’
“I said: ‘Well, all right.’
“What he did, he never gained flying speed when he took off. He got a good half-mile out there and he lost flying speed. He went down, to the bottom of the ocean. There’s where he’s laying today.”
How many people are alive today who knew John Brackett? There can’t be many.
His parents are gone, of course. He had two sisters, so I suppose there could be a niece or nephew still alive who may have met him. My father, who could have told me about what he and John did in Scotland–beyond what’s in the journal–is gone, as is everyone else from the Harvard Class of 1939.
Soon, John Brackett will recede into the deep silence of history, where we exist only as names, stories told no better than second-hand, and (if we’re lucky or had been so inclined) maybe an object or piece of writing or music that’s survived.
It reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson:
I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth–the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said..
And so as kinsmen, met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.
The moss has almost covered up John Brackett’s name, as it will ours in due time. As I walk across Scotland, maybe for the last time, I will keep him–little as I know of him–in mind.
My father, Bruce R. Brown, spent the summer of 1936 riding a bicycle around Scotland, England, and Wales. He went with a friend from high school and college named John G. Brackett. You will hear more about him later.
They had both just finished their freshman year at Harvard College. How the trip came to be, what they carried, how they found the bikes to rent, how much the whole thing cost—all this is unknown to me and lost to time.
My father kept a journal and wrote in it many days. Consequently, it’s possible to chart the route he and his friend took with a fair amount of certainty. The Scotland part of their trip is in blue, below. It was 352 miles, all on bike except for two short hikes. The route Mark Beckwith and I will take (in red) crosses their path twice.
My father grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts, the only child of older parents. His father, Charles Albert ”Bertie” Brown, was born in 1863 and had had an entire life before he married my grandmother.
My father and his friend took a steamship from Boston to Britain. Its name and where it landed are unrecorded in the journal. They were much taken with two young women about their age, whom they spent deck-time with.
They also met a Jewish family heading to the People’s Olympics, in Barcelona—an event I’d never heard of. It was a protest against, and alternative to, the Hitler-hosted Olympics to be held later in the summer in Berlin. Here’s a bit about it.
Barcelona had been the runner-up to Berlin’s bid for the 1936 games. Spain’s new Republican government said it would boycott those games. It was joined by several other delegations (notably the Soviet Union, but not the United States) as well as teams of exiled Jews. About 6,000 athletes planned to attend.
The event was cancelled two days before the opening when the so-called Nationalists began a revolt against the popular government. It’s said that 200 of the athletes stayed and fought in the Spanish Civil War.
That’s it for the voyage out.
Somehow they got to Glasgow, where they rented bikes. Here’s my father on his. It seems a bit small. There are paniers over the rear wheel, and he may have a small knapsack on his back.
Here’s John Brackett on his.
Early in the ride they spent a night in Spean Bridge. We will too. They spent a night in Newtonmore, which I walked through on my first crossing, in 2014. The Challenge coordinators Ali Ogden and Sue Oxley run a hostel there; it’s the beating heart of The Great Outdoors Challenge. They got as far north as Inverness–Macbeth country–which I passed through on my third Challenge on a route along the Moray Coast, where the first rehearsals for D-day were run.
The photographs that exist are unrevealing. Most are distant views of hills and lochs. There are several of castles and old buildings. Only a few have people in them. Here’s one of a sheep-shearing session they passed.
This is a man wheeling a cart that appears to have milk cans on it. It also looks like he’s wearing wooden shoes, which I don’t associate with Scotland.
They saw a lot of rain. We may also. You lose money betting against rain in Scotland (although my previous visits were blessed with lots of sunny, beautiful days, too).
Despite the rain, cold, and uncomfortable foul-weather gear (“those damn rubber nightgowns”), my father loved Scotland.
A. favorite place was Kenmore, where he and John spent several nights, one at a hotel where Robert Burns wrote a poem, in pencil, on the wall above a fireplace. It was visible then, as it is now. During the days, they explored a nearby castle and hiked up Ben Lawers, the highest mountain in the southern Highlands, and the 11th highest in the British Isles.
One night, my father wrote in his journal: “This evening I sat on the old bridge leading over the River Tay and drank in an everlasting silence, Ben Lawers in the distance and the Loch calm . . . If one wanted a more absolute sanctified place I don’t know where he’d find it. If I marry I’d like to spend my honeymoon in this country.”
He did marry, in 1943, but by then a honeymoon in Scotland was out of the question. He and my mother, Sally Mosser, spent theirs in Sea Island, Georgia.
He had another wish that summer.
“If I ever saw God-made land that was it,” he wrote rapturously about a day spent in Glen Coe. “Down through sloughs cut in the rocks the road wound. The Three Sisters sat on our left–huge rock-armoured hills with here and there a landslide showing like a cut. A stream ran a race with us on the left. On our right the Three Brothers guarded . . . with clouds shutting off their summit from view.
“Such a ride down I never expect to have again. No houses, nothing but heather, rain, mist, clouds . . . Down we flew into Glen Coe and on past slate quarries on the ever narrow road and finally here to the Ballachulish Hotel at 11 o’clock. 54 miles, most of it in the afternoon and evening. I hope my children see this country–it makes one small but exultant.”
I’m back in Scotland for another running (actually walking) of The Great Outdoors Challenge.
This event is a two-week walk across Scotland that I discovered by chance and did for the first time in May 2014. I can’t say it was life-changing, but it was interesting and enjoyable enough for me to come back and do it three more times.
I was signed up for a fifth crossing in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the event. I couldn’t do it last year for various reasons. But I’ve managed to summon the energy to do it again this year. Of course, I’m writing this before I’ve walked the first mile.
I’m going with someone else, a college classmate named Mark Beckwith. He heard me talk about it on a canoe trip another classmate organized a few years ago. We didn’t know each other terribly well at college, but we’ve become friends in recent years (thanks to two more canoe trips.)
Solitude was one of the appeals of Challenge. In the last one, in 2019, I took a route at the southern edge of the allowable territory—there are lots of rules—and didn’t see another Challenger until the last day. I saw lots of other people, of course. But it was a bit more solitude than I was prepared for.
This year will be different.
The route is 178 miles–shorter than some of my previous crossings, but with a lot of elevation gain, especially at the beginning. As a concession to age, and to give Mark a break, we’re going to be staying in B&Bs or hotels a little more than one-third of the nights. Challenge traditionalists would be appalled. Forty years ago, I’m told, the convention was you could only stay indoors one night a week.
There are Challengers from 16 countries outside the United Kingdom—26 percent of the walkers in all. Thirty-five are from the United States. Normally the event is capped at about 300 walkers. This year the field was been opened to about 400, to accommodate people who had to defer because of covid.
You can walk from one of 14 villages on the west coast. Lochailort, mid-latitude, will host 31 people, including Mark and me.
Here’s our route.
I’ve made a concerted attempt to lighten the load this year. I bought a tent that uses trekking poles as tent poles. It’s tiny; it will be interesting to see if I can sit up and type. But it saved 2 1/2 pounds.
I’m carrying a bigger pile of electronics than in the past, about seven pounds in all. This presumably will allow me to write blog posts in real time, and also learn a lot of irrelevant information my Apple watch insists on telling me.
I had foot pain in my last crossing, and put my beautiful Italian hiking boots back into the stream of used footwear at Montrose’s Salvation Army showroom. (They were accepted without hesitation.) This time I’m wearing a new design of flat-bottom, wide-forefoot boots I got at REI that makes me look like the GEICO gecko.
My hat, which I didn’t wear in my last crossing, is back, with its Challenge campaign pins on it. One of them got ripped off bashing through forest-fire regrowth on Parramore Island, in Virginia. I replaced it with a pin of one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s chairs, a nod to a great Scotsman.
The crossing will also have some backward looking. (Anybody surprised?)
Among the events of the past I’m interested in is a bicycle trip my father took through Scotland after his freshman year in college. He went with a friend. Somewhat to my surprise, he also kept a journal. It’s possible to chart where the two teenagers went 86 years ago. That’s the subject of the next post.
As in the past I’ve also done a little exploring before the walk. I want to tell tell you about that too.
The American Scholar magazine published a version of this story, about one-third shorter, in the Spring 2019 edition. This is the original version. Think of it as a “director’s cut.”It was a “Notable” essay in both Best American Essays 2020 and Best American Travel Writing 2020.
It’s hard to know what would be a good place to imagine a future of bad smells and no privacy, deceit and propaganda, poverty and torture. Does a writer need to live in misery and ugliness to conjure dystopia?
We’d been walking more than an hour. The road was two tracks of pebbled dirt separated by a strip of grass. The land was treeless as prairie, with wildflowers and the seedless tops of last year’s grass smudging the new growth.
We rounded a curve and looked down a hillside to the sea. A half-mile in the distance, far back from the water, was a white house with three dormer windows. Behind it, a stone wall cut a diagonal to the water like a seam stitching mismatched pieces of green velvet. Far to the right, a boat moved along the shore, its sail as bright as the house.
This was where George Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” The house, called Barnhill, sits near the northern end of Jura, an island off Scotland’s west coast in the Inner Hebrides. Given that it was June 2, sunny, short-sleeve warm, with the midges barely out, it’s fair to say it couldn’t have been more beautiful.
Orwell lived here for parts of three years, the last of his life. He left periodically (mostly in the winter) to do journalism in London and, for seven months in 1947 and 1948, to undergo treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis. Although he rented Barnhill and didn’t own it, he put in fruit trees and a garden, built a chicken house, bought a truck and boat, and invested numberless hours of labor in what he believed would be his permanent home. When he left it for the last time, in January 1949, he never again lived outside a sanitorium or hospital.
I came to Jura after a two-week backpacking trip across Scotland. My purpose was to drink single malt on Islay, the island to the south, and enjoy two nights of indulgence at Ardlussa House, the estate house where Orwell’s landlord lived. I was not on an Orwell pilgrimage. Barnhill is not open to the public, and no one among the island’s 250 residents remembers him.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think of him here. With a little work, a person can almost retrace his steps day by day.
Orwell kept a diary from at least 1931 until four months before his death in January,1950. In his introduction to a 2012 edition of the diaries, the late Christopher Hitchens—Orwell’s biggest contemporary champion—wrote that they “enrich our understanding of how Orwell transmuted the raw material of everyday experience into some of his best-known novels and polemics.”
The entries from Jura, however, are an exception. They offer no look into Orwell’s mood, thoughts on politics, or difficulties with his novel. The only hint he might be a writer is the entry of August 31, 1947, when he wrote: “Most of afternoon trying to mend typewriter.” Instead, they’re an account of seedlings planted, eggs collected, fish caught, and gasoline lost from a leaky tank; of the depredations of birds, rabbits, deer, and slugs on the garden; of his walks, his guests, and their outings.
The conventional wisdom is that Orwell’s years on Jura killed him and almost robbed the world of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” None of his biographers or friends seem to consider that Jura, despite or because of its harshness, might have extended his life and given him the psychic space to imagine a place utterly unlike it.
The island is just as empty, and life only a little less difficult, than when he was there. The 21st Century has moved closer to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” than it has to Jura.
* * *
George Orwell didn’t like the Scots and was embarrassed that his real name—Eric Blair—led some people to believe he was one. Nevertheless, he’d had the idea of moving to a Hebridean Island for at least five years before he set foot on Jura in September 1945.
The place was recommended to him by David Astor, an editor at a London newspaper, The Observer, for which Orwell wrote reviews. Astor’s family, wealthy as few others, had a summer estate on the island. (On holidays, his father, Viscount Astor, brought a cow from England so he could have the milk he liked). He arranged for Orwell to stay with a farm family. While there, the writer made plans to rent a vacant house near the northern end of the island the following year. “I was horrified when I heard this,” Astor later said. He called Jura “just the most remote place you could find almost in the British Isles.”
Orwell wouldn’t seem the best candidate for life there.
He was tired from work as a broadcaster at the BBC, as a war correspondent in France, and a member of the Home Guard, during World War II. He had a chronic form of tuberculosis; nearly everyone remarked how thin and ill he looked. In a few months he would suffer a pulmonary hemorrhage. His wife had died in surgery earlier in the year. He was raising their son, a year and a half old, with the help of a housekeeper.
At the same time, Orwell was famous for love of adversity. He’d made his name living rough with migrant farmworkers and coal miners in England. Destitute, he’d worked as a dishwasher in Paris, and almost died in a paupers’ hospital there. He’d fought in the Spanish Civil War. Less known to his admiring readers was a fondness for gardening, do-it-yourself furniture-making, and rural life.
The house he rented was part of a 20,000-acre estate, Ardlussa, that comprised one end of the island. The estate was owned by Margaret Fletcher and her husband, Robin, who had moved there after the war and were trying to restore its economic viability. They were happy to have another tenant even if he wouldn’t be a farmer. Fletcher had been a housemaster at Eton, the boarding school Orwell had attended, which gave the two men a bond beyond the obvious one.
What must have been most striking, however, was not what the war had done to Jura but to its inhabitants.
Robin Fletcher had been in the Gordon Highlanders, was taken prisoner in Singapore, and had worked on the Burma-Siam Railway (of “Bridge On the River Kwai” and “Narrow Road to the Deep North” fame). His wife received three postcards of 12 words each—the limit the Japanese allowed—during his three-year captivity. Three weeks after the war ended in August 1945 she received word he was alive. Her two brothers had died during the war. One, a worker in a Glasgow aircraft factory, collapsed mysteriously at 22. The other, who had owned Ardlussa, was killed in Belgium.
Among the estate’s tenants were two men who landed at Normandy, two who’d fought in Italy, and two who’d also been prisoners of the Japanese. At the end of the island near Barnhill lived a single man, Bill Dunn, with a below-the-knee amputation from a war wound. He’d placed an advertisement in the Oban Times seeking a farm tenancy that Robin Fletcher had answered. In a nearby croft was a former Polish soldier, Tony Rozga, who was married to a Scottish woman.
Orwell hadn’t been wounded in the war, but he had been in its rehearsal. He took a through-and-through sniper shot to his neck in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bullet damaged his right recurrent laryngeal nerve and the C7 nerve root, but miraculously didn’t kill him. Its only permanent effect was on his voice, which people reported was high and soft. (Curiously, despite Orwell’s long employment at the BBC, no sound recording of him is known to exist.)
Jura had one store, one telephone, and one physician, at a village called Craighouse, 16 ½ miles south of Ardlussa House. Mail was delivered to the settlement there three times a week and forwarded on to Barnhill, seven miles farther north, each Thursday. Food-and-fuel rationing was in full-swing. The store in Craighouse kept the ration books and island residents put in their orders by mail.
Orwell spent one night at Ardlussa House after a 48-hour trip from London. Interviewed decades later, Margaret Fletcher remembers that “he arrived at the front door looking very thin and gaunt and worn . . . a very sick-looking man.” The next day she and her husband took him up to Barnhill and, worried, left him alone in the four-bedroom house. They’d scrounged up a little furniture to tie him over until his own was shipped up from London. But the place was cold and almost empty.
Orwell got to work.
On May 24, 1946, in his second diary entry on Jura, he wrote: “Started digging garden, ie. breaking in the turf. Back-breaking work. Soil not only as dry as a bone, but very stony. Nevertheless there was a little rain last night. As soon as I have a fair patch dug, shall stick in salad vegetables. This autumn shall put in bushes, rhubarb & fruit trees if possible, but will need a very high & strong fence to keep the deer off them. Shot a rabbit in the dusk & missed him.”
A few days later, his sister, Avril, five years younger, arrived. She’d spent the war as a factory worker and was ready for a long vacation. Soon she decided to stay for good, too.
Many people, both friends and biographers, have speculated about why Orwell decided to move to Jura. They came up with a list of reasons, although Orwell himself never addressed the question.
He sought a place lacking distraction, which would let him write a book he’d been thinking about for a while. He was pessimistic about the world’s ability to avoid nuclear war and a Hebridean island would be far from first-strike targets. He wanted to raise his son where the boy could run around outdoors. Some people also thought he feared Soviet agents might try to kill him as they had Trotsky, another of Stalin’s sworn enemies. He always kept a loaded Luger close by.
Richard Rees, the editor of a magazine that published Orwell’s essays and reviews, saw in the writer a streak of self-punishment that a Hebridean island satisfied perfectly. Years after Orwell died, he told an interviewer: “I fear that the near-impossibility of making a tolerably comfortable life there was a positive inducement to Orwell to settle in the remotest corner of the island of Jura.”
Perhaps his neighbor Tony Rozga summed it up best.
“I didn’t ask him why he came to Jura, but the impression I got was that he came for much the same reasons I did,” Rozga said. “Hiding from people, fed up with the war, fed up with people. Hiding oneself in a corner and enjoying life.”
* * *
The current laird of Ardlussa is Andrew Fletcher, the grandson of Orwell’s landlord. He’s 46, wiry, and not afraid to wear pink running shoes around the house.
He and his wife Claire, moved to Jura from Glasgow in 2007. He’d been a landscape gardener and she a programmer at a radio station; together they have four daughters, all still at home and in school.
The house is a cream-colored, vaguely Georgian structure with a forest of chimney pots on the roof. (Parts of the building are older, dating from the 1600s). The front hall is what you might expect from a Scottish estate house—the resting place of dozens of rubber boots and waxed cotton coats, with houndstooth hats and canvas field bags hanging on hooks and a bouquet of bamboo rods sticking out of a bin.
Inside the big doors is a bookcase filled with bound volumes of agriculture and estate management periodicals from another century. Farther in is a 3-D relief map of the estate in a glass case, two shelves of Orwell literature, and a tray holding a bottle of single malt that’s always open for business. Upstairs are rooms down little corridors that seem not to connect to other parts of the house.
Orwell had spent time in the house. After finishing the first draft of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in October 1947, his health worsened. A physician in Glasgow was called. Orwell came to Ardlussa House for the consultation, which lasted several days. There is no plaque denoting the room where Orwell sojourned in bed.
In truth, there’s almost no mention of Orwell on Jura today. So, it’s not surprising there’s little Orwell memorabilia. Barnhill (which is owned by Andrew Fletcher’s aunt and uncle) has a rusting claw-foot bathtub that reputedly dates from Orwell’s occupancy. But the writer’s motorbike was junked more than a decade ago because—Andrew recalled his uncle saying—“It was damaged beyond repair.”
Like Andrew’s paternal grandparents, Andrew and Claire are trying to reinvent Ardlussa as a sustainable business. Hunting (“stalking” in local parlance) and a small hydroelectric plant (“hydro scheme”) are the main sources of income. The estate also gets a conservation subsidy as a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” (mostly because of its mosses and lichens), and an agricultural subsidy for 65 head of cattle.
The land supports about 1,000 red deer, a large elk-like species, and hunters take about 130 a year. The estate charges £600 to hunt stags and £400 to hunt hinds, or females. That doesn’t include room-and-board charges. Most hunters stay a week, and there’s no shooting on Sundays. The estate keeps the meat. The best cuts are sold to London restaurants, the rest to supermarkets. Clients can keep the heads, although getting them home may be difficult.
Stalking is all about the experience, walking the hills or, if the weather is bad, going over them in an ATV. (“If the deer are in the pouring rain, we should be in the pouring rain,” Andrew says).
My companion, Judy, and I were there a half-year off hunting season and we didn’t see a single deer. Jura’s latitude is above that of the Aleutian Islands and the days were arctic-length. It was sunny and warm, but not so warm that a fire in the fireplace wasn’t welcome as we dined on the estate’s venison and salmon. Quilted window coverings blotted out the sun, which was up until 10 o’clock. We were there for the best part of the year—the cozy winter nights of June.
When the sun woke us early the next morning, we looked out one window and saw a red-haired girl leading a pony. Out another, her red-haired sister was herding ducks. The daughters are also in charge of 25 sheep. Jura is a place where you take responsibility.
Andrew has a 22-year-old Massey-Ferguson tractor, “the last one you can get spare parts for on eBay,” he declared. He’s learned to repair other machines too, and roofs and drains. “You either learn or it doesn’t go.” Claire Fletcher and two other women recently opened a one-pot distillery. They make gin from grain alcohol flavored with 15 botanicals they gather or grow on the island. The enterprise, Lussa Gin, has made living in the middle of nowhere more interesting.
Nevertheless, to stay on the island a person must have a sense of destiny as well as something to do. Or so believes Alicia MacInnes, a 40-year-old Australian, one of Lussa Gin’s partners. She has a broad, smiling face. She remembers the evening when she arrived long ago.
“It was absolutely pelting rain. The woman picking me up, from the Jura Hotel, had backed the car down to the ferry. The boot was up. I could see her smiling face,” she told us one evening. After a pause, she switched to the second-person, as if she were describing someone no longer herself. “You’ve been on a long journey. The car’s warm. Soon you’re traveling along single-track roads, exactly where you wanted to be.”
Her memory might be called Orwellian, in a pre-“Nineteen Eighty-Four” sense of the word.
* * *
The road from Ardlussa House to Barnhill is seven miles. The last three were what Susan Watson, the young woman who’d been Orwell’s housekeeper and nanny to his son in London, called “impassable to normal traffic.” While the mail delivery from Ardlussa, and Orwell’s motorcycle and a pick-up truck (neither of which worked reliably), traveled it regularly, walking was the default mode of travel.
Orwell walked the track—like all non-American dirt roads, it’s always called a track—many times. A few weeks after moving in, he returned to England to get his son and Susan. When they returned they walked the last three miles, Orwell carrying Richard on his shoulders. When Susan’s lover, David Holbrook, visited in August 1946, he walked the last miles carrying his luggage, fending off biting midges and listening to the bugling of deer in the rut. “I kept walking and half-running and then walking, and eventually I came over a little hill and there was this fellow shooting this goose,” he recalled.
It was Orwell.
You can now drive to a dirt parking lot four miles from Barnhill and seven miles from Corryvreckan, the headland overlooking Scarba, the next island to the north. Both are worth the walk. There’s a whirlpool below Corryvreckan, in the strait dividing the two islands, that’s the second biggest in Europe and the third biggest in the world. The Corryvreckan Whirlpool is as much a tourist destination as anything Orwell-related on Jura today. It was a destination for us, although we were looking to get a non-windshield tour of Barnhill enroute.
We parked the car and headed up the road. We soon came to a padlocked gate. The gate was not attached to a fence, but with ditches on each side there’s no need for one. You can’t go off-road in Jura in a car. Even on foot it’s a slog, given the exuberant grass and ferns. Orwell, however, enjoyed bushwhacking.
Two weeks after moving to Jura in June 1946 he walked across his end of the island, a round trip of 10 miles. At that point in his life he had an eye for menace. One wonders what he thought about a relic he found on the far side.
“Old human skull, with some other bones, lying on beach at Glengarrisdale,” he noted in his diary. “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. Quite undecayed.”
Soon we passed a rusty pavement roller whose drum was as wide as one of the ruts. The ruts were as hard as concrete, although there was a grassy strip between them. Had Orwell tread here? It seemed unlikely the road had been moved. He walked to Ardlussa, he noted soon after arriving, in “exactly 2¼ hours,” a healthy pace for a seven-mile trip, and given how he was described, a surprise. So the answer was, “Probably yes.”
The stones underfoot might also have tormented his motorbike, his preferred mode of travel when it wasn’t broken down. His neighbors said he sometimes strapped a scythe to the rear seat in case he had to cut the track’s grassy middle. It must have been a sight—the cadaverous Orwell as the Grim Reaper assigned to an RFD route.
The road rose and fell along a low ridge. When Barnhill came into view it was far off and far below, its whitewashed face looking toward the mainland. A spur road led down to it through a sea of ferns and cottongrass. Stone barns sat on either side. You can’t go up to the house without opening a fence, guarded by a blooming foxglove, which we didn’t do.
Barnhill is available for vacation rental, starting at £1000 per week. We saw no people. As in Orwell’s tenancy, it has a coal-fired stove, now supplemented with electricity from a generator and a gas refrigerator. Trip Advisor reviews and pictures suggest it’s still damp and shabby.
A connoisseur of discomfort, Orwell never planned to leave. He landscaped Barnhill as if he owned it, and with a touchingly optimistic view of his life expectancy.
In his first weeks, he planted a garden with lettuce, radishes, onions, watercress, spinach, turnips, and seven types of flowers. The next month, he ordered four dozen strawberry plants, two dozen raspberry bushes, a dozen black currant, red current, and gooseberry bushes, a dozen rhubarb plants, and a half-dozen apple trees. On January 4, 1947, he planted “1 doz fruit trees” and more currants gooseberries, rhubarb and roses. On September 19, 1948—three months before he left Jura to enter an English sanitorium—he wrote: “Planted peonies (six, red) . . . Pruned raspberries. Not certain whether I did it correctly.”
The house is back from the water. One renter said it was a 20-minute walk, but you wouldn’t guess that from Orwell’s diaries. He and his sister, and later Bill Dunn, the amputee farmer who married her in 1951, spent a lot of time messing around in boats. Fishing was particularly good at dusk, which in June lasted until after 10 o’clock. Some hauls were gluttonous. One evening in 1947, they caught 31 fish. But this wasn’t for sport.
Orwell’s Jura diary reads like a survivalist handbook. In his entry from August 18, 1946, he described the method of preserving pollock.
“Gut them, cut their heads off, then pack them in layers in rough salt, a layer of salt & a layer of fish, & so on. Leave for several days, then in dry sunny weather, take them out & hang them on a line in pairs by their tails until thoroughly dry. After this they can be hung up indoors & will keep for months.”
We imagined Orwell digging in the garden and hanging his fish out to dry. Then we headed back to the main track. We had a way to go.
* * *
Hillwalking is Scotland’s national pastime. It knows no age limits. A mile up the road we ran into four people, age 67 to 74, who were lounging in the grass eating snacks. They, too, were on their way to see the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, but were more ambitious than us. A day earlier they’d visited Jura’s other natural oddity—three bald, scree-sided, 2,500-foot hills called The Paps, a Norse-derived word for breast.
“The highest one, funnily enough, is the easiest to walk up,” said Kate Robinson, a teacher of dyslexic children from the north of England. “Not a total doddle, but if you’re used to mountains it’s fine.” It was 7 ½ hours round trip from the road. They could see Ireland from the top.
I asked if Orwell had drawn them to Jura. The answer was no, but that was no reflection on Orwell. Bill Scott, a retired professor of linguistics from Glasgow with hawkish features and wrap-around shades, recalled that a collection of Orwell’s essays “was the first book I bought when I’d left school and had a few coppers in my pocket. I had it until quite recently.”
We chatted for a while. “You do know this isn’t usual Scottish weather,” Wendy Scott said as we all lay in the noontime sun. We knew that much, and also enough to move on before we were tempted to nap.
Soon, we reached several buildings, the settlement of Kinuachdrachd to which Orwell regularly came to get milk for his son before Barnhill secured its own cow. There, the road ended. A sign lying on the ground pointed us up a trail to “Gulf of Corryvreckan 2 miles.”
As we walked up the hill we saw beyond the last house a rocky cove of Caribbean color and clarity. As we climbed higher, we could make out the incoming tide’s chaotic embroidery on the water. Soon, we could hear the maelstrom itself, a distant sound of water running over pebbles.
The hillside was covered in bright green cottongrass, horsetail, and sphagnum, with dark patches of heather here and there. As we reached the top, we looked to our right and got an aerial view of the Sound of Jura. Rocky, flat-top islands looked like a fleet of battleships lying in wait. Beyond them was the mainland, furrowed by fjord-like “sea lochs.”
We stopped at almost the highest spot, with a spectacular view of Scarba, the next island to the north, which hasn’t had permanent residents since the 1960s. It was impossible to tell whether the grassy terraces lead to the water or cliffs. Birds were gliding in long arcs below us. We took off our shoes and got out our Ardlussa-packed lunches.
In front of us was the passageway between Jura and Scarba, called the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Water moved from the sound on the eastern side of the islands to the Atlantic Ocean on the west, and back, twice a day. Two miles long and three-quarters of a mile at its narrowest, the gulf is some of the most dangerous water in the United Kingdom. The tidal current can reach 10 miles per hour—the same velocity as in the Bay of Fundy, whose tidal height is four times Corryvreckan’s 13 feet.
The speed and turbulence are partly due to the strait’s irregular depth—200 to 350 feet in most places, but with a 640-foot trench and an underwater buttress that near the Atlantic end rises to 90 feet below the surface. Wildly deflected water creates the whirlpool. It is sometimes a picture-book vortex, but more often standing or breaking waves. Even on windless days there’s whitewater. Corryvreckan is a corruption of a Gaelic phrase meaning “cauldron of speckled water.”
Ardbeg, a distillery on neighboring Islay that makes some of Scotland’s peatiest (and best) whisky, has a version named after the whirlpool. “Corryvreckan” is 57.1 percent alcohol and costs about $90 a bottle. The description of its nose begins: “Swirl the glass for torrents of tarry creosote.” Taste? “The first plunge is deep, peppery and chewy with crispy seaweed.”
Sitting there eating lunch, however, the most remarkable thing wasn’t the whirlpool. It was the rest of the stream. The deep turbulence was projected onto the surface in the form of upwelling water that formed areas that looked like giant thumbprints or amoebas, which floated past us out to sea.
Soon, two Zodiacs appeared. Spectators in yellow helmets and orange life jackets sat on benches, like snapped-in Lego people. One boat cut its engine and drifted quickly along the far shore before resuming under power. The other, after detouring into a cove, approached the breaking water of the whirlpool from below. The boats came and went from the edge of the rough water, like children tossing sticks into a bonfire. After 15 minutes, they disappeared around the Atlantic side of Scarba.
“That may have been the show,” Judy said.
Ours was just as good.
George Orwell’s was better than everybody’s, by a long shot.
In the middle of August in 1947, two of Orwell’s nieces and one nephew—the children of his deceased older sister, Marjorie—came to Barnhill for a vacation. Orwell took them, his three-year-old son Ricky, and his sister Avril, to the Atlantic side of Jura on a camping trip. They stayed several days in an abandoned cottage. When it was time to go home, Avril and one of the nieces, who’d been spooked by the boat ride over, chose to walk back. “Uncle Eric” (as they called him), and the three others returned in the dinghy, which was powered by an outboard motor.
Orwell, however, had misread the tide table. They entered the gulf halfway between high and low tide, when the current was fastest.
“Before we had a chance to turn, we went straight into the minor whirlpools and lost control,” Henry Dakin, who was about 20 and on leave from the Army, recalled years later. “Eric was at the tiller, the boat went all over the place, pitching and tossing, very frightening being thrown from one small whirlpool to another.”
The chop bucked the outboard off the transom. It went into the water, and to the bottom. Nobody was wearing a life jacket. “Eric said, ‘The motor’s gone, better get the oars out, Hen. Can’t help much, I’m afraid’.” He pointed to his chest.
Dakin maneuvered the boat to a rocky island called Eilean Mòr, the last bit of land before the open ocean. Tossed against it by waves, the boat capsized. Orwell rescued Ricky from under it. Everything but a fishing rod and a couple of blankets was swept away.
The island was occupied by nesting puffins. Orwell got a fire started after his cigarette lighter dried out. A few hours later, they got the attention of a passing lobster boat by waving a piece of clothing from the end of the rod. The fisherman offered to take them to Barnhill, but Orwell said all they needed was to get to shore, even though he was the only one who still had shoes. A half-century later, his niece and nephew were still stupefied (and mad) at having to walk back barefoot.
Many versions of this calamity have the boat capsizing at the edge of the whirlpool. (“Their motor-boat was drawn into one of the smaller whirlpools and overturned. Fortunately, with Mr Blair’s help, they all reached a small islet . . . ” read the account in the Glasgow Herald 11 days later). However, anyone who’s sat where we did knows that if that had happened, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would have ended in 1947.
There’s one more unusual feature of the Gulf of Corryvreckan.
The water flows with such force that it has swept the bottom down to bedrock. Like a desert wind, the tides have deposited sand and shell in underwater dunes at both ends of the strait. Below a stretch of water called the Great Race at the Atlantic outlet, bathymetry has revealed a lightless Sahara, 400 feet down. Dunes rise 30 feet off the bottom, measure 200 feet from crest to crest, and are three-quarters of a mile long.
Buried in one of them is George Orwell’s outboard.
* * *
If you write in a diary almost every day and are famous enough that all your house guests are asked to record their memories, the world is going to know a lot about you, including some of the embarrassing stuff.
That is certainly true of George Orwell’s years on Jura.
The writer’s diaries provide a record of his daily life in odd and exquisite detail. The entries invariably begin with a phrase or sentence about the weather. Most end with the number of eggs collected that day, and the total since the flock was acquired. The day after the Corryvreckan mishap it was “5 eggs (291).”
Coal, propane, kerosene, and gasoline were rationed. Orwell was frugal. He kept an account of how much of each fuel the household was using, the rate of loss or leakage, and whether the supply would last until the next delivery. He noted when to change the battery for the radio, the only connection to the wider world besides the mail.
He did a lot of tinkering and building, often without the right materials and adequate skill. “Put up sectional henhouse,” he wrote on April 13, 1947. “Wretched workmanship, & will need a lot of strengthening & weighting down to make it stay in place.” Two weeks later, his son recuperating from the measles, Orwell noted: “R. better. Tried to make jigsaw puzzle for him, but can only cut pieces with straight edges as my only coping-saw blade is broken.” When he lost his tobacco pouch, he made a new one out of a rabbit skin, lined with an inner tube.
He was an unsentimental naturalist.
Rabbits were a scourge of the garden. One spring day while digging his recently plowed potato patch, Orwell uncovered “a nest of 3 young rabbits—about 10 days’ old, I should say. One appeared to be dead already, the other two I killed.”
He could show flashes of cruelty.
On a picnic to a nearby island one time the party encountered an adder, Scotland’s only venomous snake. Bill Dunn, the farmer who married Avril, recalled that Orwell held its head down with his foot and “deliberately took out his penknife and opened it and slit the snake from top to bottom. He degutted it, filleted it.” Orwell always disliked snakes, but one can’t help wondering what part of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” he was working on that week.
He could also behave in a way that doesn’t comport well with his reputation as the tribune of the working man and everyone’s favorite socialist.
In 1946, a few months after Orwell arrived in Jura and assembled his household, David Holbrook, the lover of nanny Susan Watson, came for a visit. He’d been a tank commander during the war and had attended Cambridge. He was also a member of the Communist Party, which made Orwell immediately suspicious. During Holbrook’s stay, the owner of the estate and Orwell’s landlord, Robin Fletcher, visited Barnhill to discuss hunting. With him were several “beaters”—hired men who flush game. Orwell’s nanny and her boyfriend were given strict instructions to make themselves scarce.
“The laird was going to be entertained in the sitting room, which was not very often used, and they were going to have tea there, and we were not to appear,” Holbrook recalled in a 1984 interview. “Susan and I had tea in the kitchen with the beaters, and Orwell and his sister had tea in the sitting room with the laird, which we thought was very comic.”
Elsewhere in the interview Holbrook describes his disappointment at meeting Orwell, whom he described as “this miserable, hostile old bugger that we just had to put up with.” He faulted Orwell for giving up on the world, which is how he interpreted the move to Jura. “It was disturbing to see this man shrinking away from humanity and pouring out all this very bitter hopelessness.” That hopelessness, of course, was “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
Orwell doesn’t mention this, or other domestic dramas, in his diary. Nor does he talk about the progress of his novel (although he does occasionally in letters). He doesn’t describe a daily schedule. We don’t know how he divided his time between writing and planting peas, poisoning rats, cutting peat, hauling lobster pots, fixing his motorcycle, and playing with his son. Visitors remember hearing him type in a room over the kitchen many mornings, appear for lunch, and then sometimes return upstairs to type some more.
He came and went from Jura numerous times, for both work and medical care. He spent November and December of 1946 in London doing journalism, returned to the island in January to plant trees, went back to London, and returned (he thought permanently) in April 1947.
By then he was well into “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” He finished the first draft on November 7, 1947, typing in bed because of illness. From Christmas until mid-summer the next year, he retired to a hospital outside of Glasgow, where he was treated for tuberculosis. He started a second draft of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” there.
His strength somewhat restored, he returned to Jura on July 29, 1948. He finished the rewrite in early November. He was unable to find a typist willing to come to Barnhill, so he retyped the manuscript himself, again mostly from bed. He wrote a letter to a friend on November 15 saying that he was so weak he couldn’t pull up a weed.
His final Jura entries are short. They describe no activity. On November 24 he wrote: “Cold during the night. Today fine & sunny, but cold. Wind in the East. Wallflowers keep trying to flower.” Four days later he wrote: “Beautiful, windless day, sea like glass. A faint mist. Mainland invisible.” They’re like Chris McCandless’s one-sentence journal entries as he was dying of starvation in Alaska in “Into the Wild.” Their message was: “I am still alive.”
Orwell left Jura for the last time just after New Year’s Day 1949. He went to a sanitorium in Gloucestershire, England. In September, he was transferred to University College Hospital, London. He died there on January 21, 1950 after bleeding from one of his TB-damaged lungs.
* * *
So, is there anything about Orwell’s time on Jura that informs the book he wrote there? Or is the mystery of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that it bears so little relationship to its creator’s life?
The answer to both questions is yes.
Although “Nineteen Eighty-Four” begins on April 4, 1984 in the dystopian empire of Oceania, its setting is clearly England in 1946. The food is bad and there isn’t enough of it. (Meat was rationed in England until July 1954). Whatever your vehicle, you’re constantly worried about running out of gas. Your house is cold, the plumbing leaks, and privacy is hard to find.
Winston Smith, whose evolution into an enemy of the Party is the novel’s narrative backbone, has more than a little of Orwell in him.
Both have an aversion to sulfurous odors (cabbage, feces). Winston’s first transgressive act—starting a diary—is something Orwell had been doing for years. As Winston stares at his book’s blank pages, it’s hard not to hear the author talking to himself: “For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage. The actual writing would be easy. All he had to do was to transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head, literally for years.”
There are other grains of autobiography.
When Winston goes to help unclog the sink of the woman in the neighboring flat, he hopes he doesn’t have to bend down, “which was always liable to start him coughing.” This was a problem Orwell had when gardening. Winston ruminates early in the novel that “in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy, but always against one’s own body.” Orwell must have felt the same when he twice left Jura to seek treatment for his failing lungs.
The inadequacy of Barnhill’s “paraffin”—kerosene—lamps whispers in the description of how “the feeble light of the paraffin lamp” didn’t permit Winston to see that the prostitute he hired was a toothless woman in her fifties. The trysting place where Winston and Julia first make love is described with a bird-watcher’s eye: “A thrush had alighted on a bough not five metres away . . . It spread out its wings, fitted them carefully into place again, ducked its head for a moment, as though making a sort of obeisance to the sun, and then began to pour forth a torrent of song.”
Even in the famous scene in which Winston is shown the torture device made for him—a facemask attached to a cage of hungry rats—there’s a precursor on Jura. In the diary entry for June 12, 1947, Orwell noted: “Five rats (2 young ones, 2 enormous ones) caught in the byre during about the last fortnight . . . I hear that recently two children at Ardlussa were bitten by rats (in the face, as usual.)”
But that’s about it. Which is no surprise.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is an extreme product of the imagination. It didn’t just render life under totalitarianism (which Orwell hadn’t experienced), it imagined the R&D that would go into the totalitarianism of the future. That included the purging of the historical record, state control of procreation, government surveillance of public spaces by camera, and the invention of electronic screens that both project images and record activity occurring in their presence.
Most of that has come true, which is one of the reasons the novel, despite its wooden characters, still finds readers.
One of Orwell’s insights was that there’s no best place in which to imagine such a world, so you might as well do it where you want. For him, that was Jura.
But if he thought it would be a quiet place without distraction, he was wrong. There were endless chores, things to fix, plans to bring to (literal) fruition, and a child to educate and entertain. Also, endless guests. When he returned to the island in July 1948 after seven harrowing months in the hospital—he’d endured a painful reaction to the drug streptomycin called Stevens-Johnson syndrome—Orwell soon had so many summer visitors that he erected a tent in the garden to accommodate them.
His willingness to persevere on Jura in spite of ill health was almost universally criticized by his friends. Many felt guilty about his presence there. However, Paul Potts, an eccentric poet who met Orwell during the war, idolized him, and visited him on the island, made an observation that gets closer to the truth: “Ever since I had known him he’d been given up as hopeless. During that time he’d lived a fuller life than a whole company of A.1 recruits.”
Jura was a strange choice, but almost certainly not one he made for show.
When I think of Orwell and Jura now, what comes to mind is not the Corryvreckan calamity, or him tapping away in his upstairs aerie, or the image of a pulmonary cripple cutting 150 blocks of peat (which he did one June day in 1947). It’s an event on his next-to-last day on the island, sometime in the first week of January 1949.
He’d been confined to bed for a month. (“Have not been well enough to enter up diary,” he wrote after a 12-day gap in the record). He was once again leaving to be treated for tuberculosis. The plan was to go to Ardlussa, spend the night with a villager, and travel south to the ferry terminal the next day.
His sister Avril and Bill Dunn, her soon-to-be husband, drove Orwell and Richard in Dunn’s ancient Austin. On the way, it slid off the road into a ditch. That’s an accident from which there’s no self-rescue. I have a friend who twice went into a ditch on Jura, requiring extraction by tractor each time.
Avril and Bill walked four miles back to Barnhill and got the “lorry”—a kind of pick-up Orwell owned—and drove it south. Orwell and Ricky stayed in the car.
“We just sat there together, talking,” Richard remembered years later. “It was raining. It was cold, and I do remember my father giving me boiled sweets. He was a very sick man, but he was quite cheerful with me, trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. It was getting dark by the time Avril and Bill got back with the lorry.”
Richard Blair was about to be orphaned a second time. This was one of his last memories of his father.
The lorry couldn’t pull the car out of the ditch. But as it happened, the accident was at one of the few places where a vehicle could detour onto the heath for a few yards. Orwell and his son were rescued and delivered to Ardlussa. From there, Orwell moved onward to Cranham Sanatorium.
Judy and I passed that spot in the road as we walked back from Barnhill on our endless June afternoon. I have no idea where it was. At this point, probably nobody does. But it’s there someplace, a symbol of love and optimism, which are just two of the things defeated by the end of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
A shorter version of this post appeared on the website of The American Scholar in August, 2021, as “A Tall Order.”
“Do you want to go down there and get a better picture?” I asked from behind the wheel.
“Yes,” said Virginia from the passenger seat.
We turned off Montana Route 228 onto a gravel road and drove a few hundred yards to get a better look at a wooden grain elevator rising flèche-like from a sere plain. Its top was narrower than its body and had a single square window, like a window in a cupola.
Most of the building’s skin was made of narrow horizontally laid boards painted white, with half the paint gone. The bottom fifth, however, was barn red and brought to mind the color discontinuity in the Washington Monument that occurred when construction was stopped and resumed with different-colored stone 23 years later.
As I drove toward the elevator and prepared to park a respectable distance away I saw a man disappear around the corner of the building. Virginia and I got out, took a few iPhone pictures. As I walked toward the building, the man reappeared.
“May we take a few pictures of your wonderful building?” I asked. He said we could. His assent began a two-hour encounter too good not to record.
The day before, Virginia and I had come off a four-night trip through the lower Missouri Breaks. Now, we were heading to the Little Big Horn battlefield, with an overnight first in Billings. We were taking non-interstate roads and stopping at any historical marker, visual attraction, or weirdly named burg that caught our eyes. Later that day, we visited Two Dot, a town so nearly abandoned it should be renamed One Dot, or possibly Dotless.
The wooden grain elevator, near Highwood, Montana, was our first detour.
The man who greeted us is named Michael Benzinger. He’s a 66-year-old, mostly retired house painter who’s restoring the elevator as a home for himself and his wife (who’s younger than he, and still working as a house painter). They hope to make a rentable guest apartment in the elevator too; there’s plenty of room.
Mike bought the grain elevator in 2001 for $1. It came with one acre of ground. It’s part of a settlement of a half-dozen houses that’s now occupied by one other person, an 87-year-old man. The place is called Big Sag, which is a reference to its geological history as a former bottom of the Missouri River.
Mike learned of the grain elevator from someone whose house he was painting in Fort Benton. That person was willing to let it go if Mike was willing to try to save it. “They’re burning roughly one of these a day in the West,” Mike said. He later added that was mostly happening in Canada.
With a beaked nose and a mouth that turns down at the corners, Mike bears a considerable resemblance to George W. Bush. He has a brush cut. He was tanned, but not overly so, and wore a white tee shirt with a logo from the California burger chain In-N-Out. He gave off none of the exhaustion or second thoughts one might expect from a person who’s single-handedly repurposing an 70-foot industrial building that had been abandoned for 30 years when it became his.
He’s not certain when the elevator was built, but guesses it was 1911, the date stamped on the lightning rods on the roof. He’s found grain receipts from 1912, so it was in business at least by then.
Mike and his wife have lived in a building next to the grain elevator for three years. It’s 400 square feet and used to be the power plant of the operation. “It’s one open room–and not a lot of room for two people, two dogs, and two cats,” he said without complaint. I asked if it had a wood stove. “No,” he said. “One spark and the whole thing could burn up.” He nodded next door as we stood on the stone deck around the tiny building. You could tell the grain elevator was already a pillar of sweat and blood, almost a child, he’d protect any way he could. They heat the house with electricity.
He took us into the main room on the ground level, which was the full depth of the building. He’d put in three cathedral windows on the far wall; they looked up the brown grass slope to the road from which we’d seen the building. On the left-hand interior wall was a basketball hoop, on the right shelves with objects he’d found in the elevator or gleaned from trips to the dump.
Notable among the latter was a collection of oil cans, reminiscent of (and larger than) a dozen I bought at an auction in Philadelphia in the 1980s. I find old oil cans mysterious and poignant. They’re often all that remains of machines they once kept running. Many are stamped with the names of companies that themselves no longer exist.
Left over from the elevator’s active days of was a sign proclaiming that it wouldn’t accept “treated grain”–referring to it as “poison”–and a set of New York-made weights for weighing samples. The most beautiful objects were paddles with single oval holes in them. Inserted into chutes, they were used to control the flow of grain.
Mike said the building was in surprisingly good shape despite its long vacancy when he took possession of it. Only the top had let in birds (he mentioned flickers) and needed serious repair. The structure had survived because of skilled construction from massive lumber that arid climate and grain dust had dried into the equivalent of petrified wood.
Inside, it appeared as if the walls had been refinished, but all he’d done was power wash them, rappelling from the top through each bin. The only visible wear to the wood was in a few places where gravity-fed grain had inadvertently come into contact with a wall for years, sculpting patterns of flow the way water does to rock. The interior is Douglas fir, the exterior siding is cedar.
The most interesting thing in the main room was a feature still in use–a “man lift” that allows a person to ascend to the top of the elevator. Mike had replaced the cables and refurbished the brake, but it was otherwise little changed.
It consisted of a small, unenclosed platform with cable that went up the to the top floor of the elevator, through a pulley or shackle of some sort and then back down to a counterweight. Without a passenger the platform is at equilibrium. When a person stands on it and pulls a rope that also goes to the top, the platform rises with little effort. Stop pulling, and it slowly descends. It can be stopped anywhere by holding the rope, and can be locked in place for work with a brake.
Mike demonstrated it and then graciously allowed Virginia and me to take beginner spins, up about 20 feet. Neither of us was seriously tempted to take it to the top. The alternative route is on a vertical ladder built into the corner of the main shaft, which is scarier.
Most of the interior space of the building is divided into bins about 10-feet square. Mike is turning those on the two levels above the ground floor into living space, and invited us upstairs to have a look. As we ascended the railless staircase, the treads squeaked. He told us he’d put the squeaks in intentionally.
“Let’s you know if someone’s coming,” he said with a smile.
He’s removed the walls between some bins to make large rooms, but keeping others intact. He likes the intimacy of the spaces, and the fact they telegraph the building’s original use. He showed us the library, and a meditation room for his wife.
“The biggest part of the job was taking out the floors,” he said. Why take out the floors? we wondered. Because they all sloped–intentionally, to facilitate the flow of grain in and out of them. Some bins had three layers of floor, each on a slant.
Of course, the interior isn’t the only part that needs work. Many boards in the exterior siding need replacing. Mike plans to put a new skin on much of the building–tar paper over the wood, and galvanized tin over the tar paper. It will then look a little more like its modern descendants everywhere on view in Montana’s wheat country. On the east side of the building he’s already finished about 30 feet up.
“I got the metal from a farmer on that first farm up on the bench,” he said, gesturing out a window. “I helped him harvest one season. He said I could have it for free, but I wanted to give him something. Plus, I got to learn how to drive a combine, which is trickier than you’d think.” I commented on the amount of scaffolding he has up, and how much, much more he’ll need.
Even when the carpentry is finished there will be more work to do. Plumbing will be a big job. At the moment, Mike and his wife get water from a spring on a rise in the land behind the settlement. It’s delivered by gravity through a hose, and they carry buckets of it into the house. There’s no running water inside and they use an outhouse next to the elevator. On the deck was a black rubber bathtub full of water, warming in the sun. “That’s where we bathe,” he said. I didn’t ask about winter.
It’s a hard life, and sometimes a dangerous one.
A year or so ago, Mike’s wife was bitten by a rattlesnake. She was flown to a hospital in Great Falls. Physicians initially thought the strike had been dry, and hadn’t given her anti-venom. The next day, however, her leg began to swell so much she had to have a fasciotomy to relieve the pressure.
It turns out an underground delivery bin for grain near the elevator’s front door was a cool and damp home for snakes. It took five dumptrucks’ worth of gravel to fill it.
It’s also a lonely life. Mike works alone most of the time, his wife away during the day earning a living. His dogs, a border collie named Smokey Bear and a border collie mix named Arrow, follow him room to room. Two days before we met him, however, he finally got an internet connection. Next task: an e-mail address.
So, he’s happy to have visitors. “I’m kind of proud of it,” he said as we played with the dogs a final time before leaving. “If it inspires someone, I’m happy. It shows what’s possible, even if you’re working by yourself.”
That’s not the only lesson.
Keep the travel plans to a minimum. Turn off the road. When in doubt, stop and look around. There’s always something interesting over the next rise.
This is not a travel story, unless perhaps it’s time-travel. I wrote it for The Washington Post on the 90th anniversary of the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in the Great War. My one-sentence interview with Europe’s oldest man, Maurice Floquet, was a memorable moment in my journalistic career! Revisiting this event is never out of season, I think.
By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, December 25, 2004
Nobody knows where the Christmas Truce of 1914 began. Nor is it certain, even today, whether the truce began in one spot and spread, or broke out simultaneously in many places, the convergent evolution of numberless human hearts.
What is known is that 90 years ago today — four months into what would eventually be called World War I — thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers spent a cold, clear, beautiful Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western Front.
The mysterious beginnings are fortunate. For want of the name of the first person (probably German) who proposed fraternization, or the place where it occurred (probably somewhere in Flanders), the Christmas Truce has acquired the aura of a miracle. In lacking a hero or sacred site, it has kept a single emotion at its core — the desire for peace of the most literal and personal kind.
It began in most places with nighttime singing from the trenches, was followed by shouted overtures and then forays between the lines by a few brave men. There followed, in daylight, a burying of the dead that had lain for weeks on the denuded ground called no man’s land. After that, large numbers of soldiers poured over the front lip of the trench.
Throughout the day they exchanged food, tobacco and, in a few places, alcohol. Some chatted, usually in English, a language enough German enlistees spoke to make small talk possible. In several places, they kicked around a soccer ball, or a stuffed bag functioning as one, although contrary to legend there appears to have been no official, scored matches.
Mostly, the soldiers survived, which is what they wanted from the day. They did not shoot each other.
Almost everywhere the truce was observed, it actually began on Christmas Eve, the high point of the season for the Germans. In many places, it lasted through Boxing Day, the day after Christmas observed by the English as a holiday. In a few parts of the line, hostilities didn’t recommence until after New Year’s Day, a holiday with special meaning for Scots and, to a lesser extent, the French.
War did resume, though. It was a truce, not a peace. What followed was misery, waste, loss and degradation on a scale that is difficult to imagine.
By the end of World War I in November 1918, the dead numbered: 1 million soldiers from the British Empire, 2 million Germans, 1.7 million French, 1.5 million soldiers of the Hapsburg Empire, 1.7 million Russians, 460,000 Italians, hundreds of thousands of Turks, and 50,000 Americans. The political and territorial consequences were numerous and complicated. The certain one is that the Great War did not end war, but instead laid the foundations for another one a generation later.
Against that background, the Christmas Truce of 1914 stands out with particular poignancy. While there had been truces for religious and secular holidays since classical times, the events that occurred 90 years ago this week were a spontaneous, unled cry for sanity before the advent of industrialized war.
“It is the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman,” says Modris Eksteins, a cultural historian at the University of Toronto, who has written on the truce. “As the war goes on, the enemy becomes increasingly abstract. You don’t exchange courtesies with an abstraction.”
There were a few brief, scattered truces in 1915, and virtually none thereafter. The reason was not simply that commanders were on the lookout. The soldiers themselves had become emotionally hardened by years of fighting.
“The ones who survived, who lived to see other Christmases in the war, themselves expressed amazement that this had occurred,” Eksteins said. “The emotions had changed to such a degree that the sort of humanity seen in Christmas 1914 seemed inconceivable.”
What’s curious, though, is that in some respects the Christmas Truce is now moving toward us, not away.
In both Germany and France, where the truce was largely unknown to two generations, it is being studied and celebrated.
A book published in 2003, “The Small Peace in the Great War,” is the first to fully exploit German source material on the truce, including previously undiscovered diaries and letters. A French production company has made a feature-length film, “Joyeux Noel,” that depicts the events. It will be released next year.
Last Sunday, two soccer teams whose members included people from the nations whose soldiers faced each other 90 years ago met in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a village 100 miles north of Paris. They played a match that commemorated the soccer-playing in the Christmas Truce.
An all-star team of retired French players, Varietes Club de France, beat the international team, which called itself the Selection of Fraternity, 5-2 before 2,000 spectators. It was a clear day with the temperature hovering at the freezing point, like 90 years ago.
The game was held to raise money for a monument to the Christmas Truce. The village was chosen because it was where French soldier Louis Barthas, who proposed such a monument in a famous postwar memoir, was serving in December 1914.
“I am very touched by this idea,” says Christian Carion, the writer and director of “Joyeux Noel,” who organized the event. “Because on the Earth there is no monument to fraternization. There is always a monument for victory. And where there is a victory there is a defeat. But a monument about fraternization — there is not one anywhere.”
It’s an assertion difficult to prove. But even if there is, somewhere, a monument to making unapproved peace with the enemy, it’s hard to believe the world couldn’t use a second one.
Hold Your Fire
It appears there are no surviving participants of the Christmas Truce among the roughly 100 living veterans of World War I.
There is at least one man alive who witnessed it from a distance. He heard the silence.
Alfred Anderson was a “territorial” — the British equivalent of a national guardsman — serving in the 5th Battalion of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment in France. On Christmas he was “in reserve,” behind the front lines, part of a complicated rotation that limited soldiers’ time in the front-line trenches to three to seven days.
“It was very cold and very still. He said he could hear these voices shouting, carried over on the night air. What he could hear was total stillness, which he found very eerie,” says Richard van Emden, an English television producer and historian who has interviewed him.
Anderson, who was wounded by an artillery shell in 1916 and discharged, is now 108. He worked as a joiner in a carpentry shop for much of his life. Today he lives by himself in a village near Perth, Scotland. “He is incredibly fit. If you met him you’d think he was about 85,” van Emden says.
Also in uniform in December 1914 was Maurice Floquet, who turns 111 today and is the oldest living French veteran of World War I. He was on the Western Front in Belgium, but his part of the line did not fraternize with the Germans. What he chiefly remembers of Christmas is the menu: bread, soup, a few dates, and a bottle of red wine split among four soldiers. He was wounded twice in 1915 and discharged. He worked for many years as an auto mechanic.
In a brief interview conducted Wednesday via fax machine through a translator, Floquet said he did not learn of the truce until many years after the war.
“Such a thing could not be told to the soldiers, for how would they pursue the war if they knew?” he said from his home in a village near the Cote d’Azur.
Recent research suggests that in 1914 at least 100,000 people participated in the Christmas Truce, directly or indirectly.
Since the start of war in August of that year, German troops had advanced west across northern France and Belgium, expecting to be victorious in six weeks. But they failed to reach Paris and by late September had withdrawn from some of the captured territory and began to dig trenches. The trench line of the Western Front, still under construction at the end of the year, eventually snaked 475 miles from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland.
Two months of fighting in Belgium that became known as the First Battle of Ypres ended in late November. Sniping and scattered efforts to capture enemy trenches continued.
Historians believe that many conditions came together in December to make the truce possible.
Losses since the start of the war were already huge. According to historian John Keegan, the French dead numbered about 306,000 (including 45,000 teenagers). The Germans had lost 241,000, and the Belgians and British each about 30,000.
Except for some Indian troops in the British Expeditionary Force, virtually all combatants came from countries where Christmas was widely celebrated. On the German side, many units were from Saxony and Bavaria, and shared Roman Catholicism with their French and Belgian foes. (German troops from those regions, at least by reputation, were also more open to breaches of military discipline than the soon-to-arrive Prussians.)
Pope Benedict XV, who took office in August, had called for a Christmas truce, which was officially rejected. In France, a prominent bishop called for peace and met with the republic’s president, Raymond Poincare.
“This visit is very unusual,” says Pierre Miquel, a historian of World War I and retired professor at the Sorbonne. “The cardinal immediately had to say that nobody in the clergy can speak for a political purpose.”
Nevertheless, both peace and Christmas celebration were in the air. The German government had sent thousands of small Christmas trees, and candles for them, to the front. On the British side, military shipments were suspended for 24 hours so that 355,000 brass boxes embossed with the profile of Princess Mary, the king’s daughter, and containing a pipe and tobacco products, or candy, could be delivered.
The greatest incentive, though, was the simple misery of the moment — almost continuous rain, foul and muddy trenches, daily killing, and dead bodies in view.
“You couldn’t bury the dead because if you tried, they’d shoot you,” says Michael Juergs, former editor of Stern magazine and the author of “The Small Peace in the Great War.” “So you always had to look on the no man’s land and you can see your own future, which is to lay dead there.”
Merging the Lines
The history of the Christmas Truce is essentially a compendium of anecdotes gleaned from letters, diaries, oral memories, and, to a lesser extent, official military records. The most complete accounts in English are “Christmas Truce” (1984), written by British authors Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, and “Silent Night” (2001) by Stanley Weintraub, an American. Juergs’s book has not been translated from German.
A few generalizations are possible.
Fraternization was much more common in the British sector than in the French or Belgian, although contrary to some early reports, it occurred in the latter two, as well. The initiative appears to have been taken most often by the German side. The closeness of trenches — in some cases only 100 feet — allowed gradual escalation of contact. The fact that most troops knew a repertoire of secular and religious songs — including some in their enemy’s language or in Latin — was very helpful. Cigarettes and cigars were the first items to be exchanged in the initial contacts between enemy troops; it may have been tobacco’s finest hour.
In most places, commissioned officers followed the lead of enlisted men, although there were exceptions where the officers were out front. One was Lt. Kurt Zemisch, a schoolteacher who spoke French and English and was serving in a Saxon regiment. His account is in a multivolume diary found in an attic in the 1990s by his elderly son. The entries were in an archaic form of shorthand that Rudolf Zemisch had to teach himself before he could read what his father had written.
“I have ordered my troops that, if at all avoidable, no shot shall be fired from our side either today on Christmas Eve or on the two pursuant Christmas holidays. . . . We placed even more candles than before on our kilometer-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination — the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake.”
On Christmas Day near the village of Fromelles, members of the 6th Battalion of the Gordon Highlander Regiment met their German enemies in a 60-yard-wide no man’s land and together buried about 100 bodies. A service of prayers and the 23rd Psalm was arranged.
“They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry,” a 19-year-old second lieutenant named Arthur Pelham Burn wrote to a friend. “The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again.”
An English captain, R.J. Armes, wrote: “At times we heard the guns in the distance and an occasional rifle shot. I can hear them now, but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German halfway. They exchanged cigars or smokes, and talked.”
According to various accounts, there was at least one pig-roast, at least one session of hair-cutting (with payment in cigarettes), several kick-abouts with soccer balls, and innumerable exchanges of food and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. At one place on the French line, the Germans carried a drunk French soldier back “as far as the limit of our barbed wire, where we recovered him,” wrote soldier Charles Toussaint.
It didn’t work everywhere. There is evidence that in at least two places, soldiers attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces. Sometimes this was followed by apologies.
Eventually, the Christmas Truce ended and its participants went back to war.
The General’s Perspective
The meaning of the truce has been debated for years.
Perhaps the most eloquent statement came from a British participant, Murdoch M. Wood, in 1930 in Parliament: “The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”
There’s a much more recent story, though, that shows the truce has not retreated entirely to the realm of idealism and stirring rhetoric. Its subversiveness — which every participant recognized — is still alive. In some quarters, the truce is still a threat.
Christian Carion, the director of “Joyeux Noel,” wanted to make his movie in France. He researched many sites and found an acceptable one on a military reservation. He sought permission to shoot there, but after many months was turned down. According to Carion, a general told him: “We cannot be partner with a movie about rebellion.”
He made his movie in Romania instead.
Staff researchers Gretchen Hoff in Paris and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this article.
I have dug up some information about a distant relative, Sydney Arthur Row, that may be of interest to some of you.
Sydney Row (1897-1970) was my father’s cousin. His father, John Row, was the older brother of my father’s mother—Etheldreda Row Brown. The Rows were English Canadians who emigrated from southern England to Montreal, and later moved to Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Sydney Row and his brother (also named John, but called Jack) were World War I veterans of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Syd enlisted on October 29, 1914 and was discharged February 18, 1919. His brother, who enlisted two days before him, miraculously also survived the war.
Syd moved to Framingham after trying farming in Saskatchewan with Jack after the war. He lived with my father’s family on State Street for six years, working as a mechanic at Dennison Manufacturing Co., and later as a salesman for the Simmons Bedding Co. He brought youth and energy to a house full of old people. My father’s father was born in 1863, and his bachelor uncle, who also lived with them, was even older.
I knew that Syd Row—whom I met several times as a child—and his brother had been in World War I. What I learned recently was that a another brother, Frank, and their father, John—a pharmacist assigned to a medical attachment—were also in uniform.
The government of Canada has made most of the military records of its veterans publicly available, and has collected supplementary information from survivors, as well. The latter includes letters from World War I veterans to family members, and to each other. The Row family, with whom I’m not in touch, obviously provided copies of letters to this archive.
Sydney and Jack were both born in Whitewood, Northwest Territories.
This is a photograph of Sydney at age 17 or 18. The photographic paper has sketches of airplanes and boats around the portrait oval, and the printed message “I’m on my way.” This suggests that Forde Photo Studio on Main Street in Winnipeg made lots of pre-deployment pictures like this.
This is Jack Row about the same time.
On May 9, 1918, Jack Row wrote a letter to his mother in which he handicapped each family member’s chance of surviving. It’s an extraordinary exercise in fatalism masquerading as reassurance.
At the time, Jack was 22 and recovering from a wound in England. He noted that “my left arm is not as strong as my right and a little awkward but I can handle a machine gun as good as ever.” Syd, 20, was also recovering from a wound. Their younger brother Frank, recently mobilized, was 19. Their father was about to turn 52. The other two people mentioned in the letter are younger children—Bessie, 16, and Philip, 13.
(“Blighty” refers to a wound and a place where one recuperates from a wound.)
There are four of us in the army, three of us front line men. We have never hunted for soft jobs and have been in as hot corner as any men in France yet we pulled through, two of us with honours . . .
If I go up the line I have a ten to one chance of getting a nice Blighty like I got last time . . .
Syd was marked D(1) when I left Blighty, which means six weeks gymnastics or “jerks” as it’s called . . . . Dad is under shell fire but never goes into the line except at night or any emergency as he is in charge of a water squad of twelve men to test the water which is supplied to the front line and reserves. If anything comes off he becomes a member of the Field Ambulance for duty.
Frank is a brigade runner so he is not likely to be any less than a mile from the front line, so he has twice as good a chance as last summer when they were in and over the top most of the time. I stand a better chance than him with the machine gun. We dig in and don’t move or fire till Fritz is actually coming over. Frank as a company runner had to go through all the shelling, often over the open ground, dodging here and there and Syd was the same but still they came through.
So dear you are bound to have some of us come through all right and believe me this war has made us all more united and after this if one Row is in it the rest are with him.
Bessie seems to have grown into a fine girl and Phil will never be old enough to join so cheer up and never mind.
Love to all, Jack
One of the “honours” Jack Row mentions in the letter is a decoration that Syd had won.
My father knew that Syd had been a trench runner and had seen a medal in his room in Framingham, but knew nothing about how he’d won it. He didn’t ask. Years later, he wrote: “Sydney rarely mentioned the war. I was warned by my parents to not press him about this phase of his life unless he brought up the subject.”
A number of years ago I got a copy of Syd’s military records. The records noted the award, but provided no details, and I didn’t pursue the matter. Recently—inspired, in part by Peter Jackson’s documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old”—I got out the records again and decided to dig deeper.
It turns out the name of the decoration was the Military Medal, which I’d assumed was a generic description. He’d been awarded it on February 14, 1918. The Military Medal was a decoration given to men in Britain and Commonwealth nations below commissioned rank. Approximately 424,000 Canadians served overseas in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War 1, and 12,345 got the decoration.
With help from people at the Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group–an online list-serve and chatroom about Canada’s role in the Great War–I found the citation for Syd’s Military Medal. It read:
For conspicuous courage and devotion to duty on the 21st August, 1917, this runner at great risk made numerous runs to the most exposed positions. In spite of most dangerous sniping, he kept in close touch with the most forward points. Throughout the operation he never failed to deliver his messages. He brought out important information, and by his fearlessness and consistent work greatly aided communications.
Syd was 5-feet, 7-inches, and 125 pounds when he joined up, so he had the body type for the job. Interestingly, on his discharge physicals he was listed as 5’9″ and 5’10” and 155 pounds. Both weight-gain and height-growth were common after enlistment, according “They Shall Not Grow Old.”
The battle was not Vimy Ridge, as my father had thought, but Hill 70. (There’s a long article about it in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hill 70.) On August 21, the day Syd earned the medal, Canadian troops were taking the town of Lens in urban combat, which was rare in World War 1.
I suspect Sydney Row won the award not for running between trenches or in trenches, but for running through streets and plazas to buildings where soldiers were holed up. That would explain the reference to sniper fire in the citation. On that day, the Canadians lost 1,154 soldiers.
Syd was proud of the decoration. People awarded the Military Medal are permitted to use the “post-nominal” MM after their names. On his discharge papers, Sydney Row signed “SA Row MM.” Whether he used it after that I don’t know.
Both Syd and Jack stopped in Framingham and visited their aunt—my grandmother—on their way back to Canada. I can’t find a picture of Syd on this visit, but here is one of Jack. He is holding the hand of my father, who’s 2 1/2. Jack has the haggard look of a veteran in his fifties, but is not yet 30.
In his retirement, my father wrote several pamphlets of personal memories. One of them was about the Rows, and especially Sydney.
He wrote: “I can remember having early morning wrestling matches with him after awakening him in his bedroom. He played baseball with us. He taught me how to throw a curve ball. He joined us in our hockey games at a local pond during the winter months. He was understandably very handy around horses.”
My father, an only child, viewed Syd as an older brother. My grandmother, his aunt, viewed him as an older son. They both missed him terribly when he got married and moved out of the house. My father was 13.
Syd had two children and lived what was considered, in our family at least, an unhappy life. He got divorced from his wife, Caroline, drank heavily, and lost many jobs.
He occasionally visited my parents in Framingham when I was small. He always slept late the first morning. I have fond, if sketchy, memories of him.
My father wrote in his memoir pamphlet: “He always came with a gift. Once he brought a cribbage board and took great delight in teaching the game to our children. On his last visit he presented our two boys with a .22 caliber rifle with shells. He explained they were old enough to be responsible with a gun if they were properly taught. He then took them down into our woods where it was perfectly safe to shoot a rifle at a target. It was a big day in their lives.”
When I eventually learned about the psychological damage of war I concluded that “Uncle Syd” (as we called him) was probably one of its sufferers.
He got a shrapnel wound in his right armpit in August 1916, and suffered several skin infections, including one in his hand from a barbed-wire cut. He had tonsillitis in October 1917. On November 20, 1917–three months minus a day from when he’d won his medal–he was admitted to the hospital for “debility.” He stayed 86 days. Could that have been “battle fatigue,” “shell shock,” or some other mental wound of war?
Who knows what ghosts haunted Sydney Row from three years on the Western Front, or one summer day in the streets of Lens, France?
The 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I is six months passed. The centennial observations are over and the museum shows and dramatic performances marking the end are in their last days.
The Great War is receding into deep history, soon to be beyond the recollection of a single person on earth. Already the millions of dead are names and stories only, no longer brothers, fathers, husbands, or sisters.
The acknowledgment of this catastrophe, however, will continue for a very, very long time, as it should.
Every city, town, and village in Scotland (and in France and lots of other places, I assume) has a memorial to the dead.
I’ve seen them on each of my crossings in The Great Outdoors Challenge and find them moving, although it’s hard to say why. The one reason I can articulate is that they represent the enormous number of people willing to give their lives for a public purpose with little debate or hesitation—something that doesn’t exist in the Western world any more.
For which I think we can say: Thank God.
Of course, there were reasons other than patriotism and altruism for which people went to war in what became known as the Great War. An escape from cruelty and deprivation was the most obvious alternative one.
Readers of the first chapter of “Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village,” (1969), an oral history of a village in Suffolk, England, by Ronald Blythe, will learn that serfdom existed in Britain until well into the 20th Century. The Great War gave young men an opportunity to escape it (at a risk they didn’t comprehend, of course). It gave them enough to eat until they were killed.
I’m in Dundee as I write this, and just learned at a museum at a restored jute mill (Verdant Works) that this city supplied an unusually large number of volunteers at the start of the war. The reason was that so many men were unemployed. They were unemployed not because of economic downturn, but because of rationalized exclusion from the labor force.
Dundee’s dozens of jute mills preferentially employed women and children in their factory force because they could be paid less. When boys reached adult age, they were terminated. Even in intact families, often it was the women who earned the paychecks and the men who tended the babies.
This is what the men of Dundee got for work once the war started–slaughter at Neuve Chappelle. That battle, in March 1915, was full of Dundonians, in the 2nd, 4th, and 5th battalions of the Royal Highlanders.
At the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, before the Challenge, I saw a show of prints that Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) made in 1915 to raise money for St. Dunstan’s Hostel for Blind Soldiers and Sailors.
The monument in Glasgow gave the numbers: 200,000 people from the city serving in the Great War, a number that’s hard to comprehend.
Here are a few of the monuments I passed on my crossing of Scotland.
I saw only one monument that was damaged and not well kept, in the hamlet of Kinnell, next to a church that was going to ruin too. But even it had a few artificial poppies left at its base.
We do not know these people, and many of us—certainly including me—don’t believe they died for a good cause. But we should never forget them.
My last post will be about how the Great War touched my family.
The next day was more of the same, so I’ll try not to repeat myself or show too many more pictures of trails in the heather.
The last night of the Challenge I camped on the grounds of Gardyne Castle.
Castles and other ancient structures are labeled in Gothic script on the Ordnance Survey map. Sometimes they’re denoted “ruin,” but sometimes not even when they are. So it’s difficult to tell whether a castle is an occupied house until you get up close.
Gardyne Castle is occupied, although nobody was around when I got there.
I looked through a wrought-iron gate and saw an formal garden. Somebody is definitely putting money into this place.
There was lawn nearby, but I didn’t want to pitch my tent there and find the lord and lady arriving for a long weekend at 10 o’clock at night. So I followed a recently mowed swath through an orchard and field, looking for a wide spot where I could put the tent and not be in the way in case the hired man decided to cut the path again very early in the morning.
I didn’t find a “turning place,” but I did eventually get to a large mowed circle with a flagless golf pin surrounded by three well-buried arrows. The site of a pan-athletic pagan ritual? Possibly. It seemed strange, but beggers (and squatters) can’t be choosers.
In truth, it was a beautiful spot, next to a stand of oaks and within view of a newly planted field. Here it is at 4 a.m., as it was starting to get light.
In the morning, a tractor with spray booms crossed the field, but I don’t think the driver saw me.
It was hot in the tent by the time I took it down, and it was going to be a sunny day. So I unwisely zipped off the lower legs of my trousers. Poor situational awareness that, as I then walked an hour through high vegetation that had lots of some sort of thistly plant with invisible spines. My legs itched and burned for the rest of the day.
At one point, in a patch of woods, I came across this. You don’t see a lot of standing stones with Christian iconography on them on walks in the United States.
As I passed through the village of Friockheim I saw a lot of people walking from a parking lot to an elementary school carrying camp chairs in bags. I stopped and asked one couple what was going on. They were Hazel and Andy Brown, on their way to watch their seven-year-old grandson, Owen, compete in the school’s spring day of games.
“He’s a wee boy, not so fleet,” Hazel admitted, preparing herself.
The couple has been married for 42 years. They live in the house that Andy grew up in and that has been in his family for 136 years. In previous generations, the family farmed 33 acres. Andy, however, is a car mechanic, not a farmer, still working at 68. The couple has two children, a boy who is also a mechanic, and a girl who’s an administrator at the Glasgow School of Art.
We talked for a while, and the subject of America inevitably came up. I asked if they’d ever been there. They hadn’t. In fact, Hazel has never been in an airplane. Andy has once, in a plane whose engine he worked on.
I trudged on and came to Braikie Castle. This was more like it—a ruin, with birds flying in and out of high open windows. It was built in 1581 and had a roof into the 1950s.
I looked around for an easy way to get over the fences around it. I sorely wanted to go up the tower and look out; it would have been like stepping into a Thomas Cole painting. But that would have taken time and effort, and there was a good chance all the doors would be barred. So I left it for another day. Or life.
As I walked away down a farm road I stepped aside to make way for a front-end loader heading in the opposite direction.
The machine stopped. Its driver was Stewart Nicol, the 55-year-old foreman of the farm. He’d grown up in the hills above Glamis, but had been here for 29 years. The farm grows barley, wheat, oilseed rape (“you call it canola”), and potatoes.
He’d been in Braikie Castle years ago, and up in the tower, too, which even then was missing some landings in the spiral staircase. “Quite dangerous, although of course you don’t think of that as a young man,” he said.
Three huge estates—Panmure, South Esk, and Usan—each running more than 10 miles in different directions, came together very close to the castle. The other two had their own castles, but they’ve collapsed. Not this one. He said: “Those walls are as straight as when it was built.” I asked him to write down the names of the estates, and he did.
I walked on. It was sunny and beautiful, but it was road walking, which is hard on the feet.
Early in the afternoon I stepped off the road onto a dirt track to urinate. I looked up and saw in the distance a hazy, three-shade horizon, not unlike distant views I’d had over the preceding two weeks. This one, however, was flat, and I realized it was the North Sea.
I descended on small roads, following signs for Lunan Bay, which is possibly Scotland’s most beautiful beach. It’s miles long, with cliffs at one end, and the ruins of the Red Castle.
Just beyond a small parking lot was a snack shop with a verandah, and picnic tables in a gravel yard in front. I heaved off my pack at a picnic table. On the verandah were a half-dozen people.
“You on the Challenge?” one of them asked.
“Yes,” I said.
They were the first Challengers I’d seen since leaving Ardrishaig 14 days earlier.
There were three of them, with friends and husband, in one case. The man who’d spoken to me—alas, I forget his name—had started in Mallaig, far north of where I’d started, and walked a 274-mile diagonal to this spot. (That’s more than 30 miles longer than I walked, which was a longer-than-average route). Why? To maximize time in the empty Highlands, he said.
I wasn’t looking forward to trudging back up the hill to the bus stop, and so was grateful when one couple, Barbara and Peter, invited me to ride to Montrose with them in their van. Peter has stopped doing the Challenge; Barbara, about my age, had just finished her 16th.
“Go dip your feet,” one of them said.
So I did.
So that was the end, at least unofficially.
I still had to go to Montrose, sign in, collect my bling, and have dinner with the Friday-finishing Challengers. They’re a smaller—and more select in their own way—group than the Thursday-finishing crowd, which was already on its way home.
I signed in at Challenge Control, the room at the Park Hotel where people have been quietly worrying about 379 walkers for two weeks. (For the record, 38 of them chose to “retire”—the gentle term for quit—this year).
The two people I wanted to see at the dinner both finished on Thursday and had left. I didn’t know anyone, so I sat at a table with strangers.
On one side of me was Graham, a civil engineer who helped create the stage setting for Pink Floyd’s famous concert in Berlin, at the site of the Berlin Wall. Construction uncovered a tunnel for the Nazi leadership that still had food and wine in it, he told me. The Berlin police immediately filled it with concrete so it wouldn’t become a destination for neo-Nazis.
On the other side was Michan, a Dutch journalist and Challenge first-timer. He’d been an exchange student in Green River, Wyoming, for two years in high school. He’d picked the place because of snowboarding.
Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden, the patient and indefatigable coordinators of the event, were there, of course.
So that was it—almost.
I spent the next day and night in Montrose, although to quote Bob, “Anyone with any sense had already left town.”
As I walked down the high street I passed a Salvation Army thrift store. I stepped in and asked the man at the counter whether it accepted footwear. He said yes, but the store was closing in half an hour and wouldn’t reopen for two days.
I hustled back to the hotel and got my hiking boots. They were old friends. I loved them. But we’d grown apart.
“They’ll have to be cleaned up a bit, but they’re still in pretty good shape,” I told the man, showing him the soles. “Do you think you can sell these?”
“Oh, we can sell those for sure. Brilliant!” he said.
It made me happy to think they might one day see the hills again. As for me, it’s an open question.
So that is it for my report on The Great Outdoors Challenge of 2019.
I’ll be putting up two more posts in the next few days. They’re about World War I, peripherally related to the walk. You might be interested.
In the meantime, thanks for reading this. It means a lot.