One happy legacy from my years of living in a Catskills log cabin has been my fondness for stories about writer’s cottages. Elsewhere, I’ve written about Arthur Miller drafting Death of a Salesman in a cabin he built for himself in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. Now here’s one I didn’t know from The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane, an Englishman who visits the far corners of the British Isles. In one of many wonderful asides, he writes about George Orwell:
“Between 1946 and 1948, Orwell spent six months of each year living and working in Barnhill, an exceptionally isolated stone-built cottage set on the tawny moors of the northern tip of the Scottish island of Juna. To reach the cottage from London was a forty-eight-hour journey, ending with a seven-mile walk from Ardlussa, the village at the head of the island’s only motorable road. Flowering rushes flourished on the path between Ardlussa and Barnhill, and after his first visit to the cottage, Orwell bought a scythe with which to cut them back as he walked. What a morbid sight he must have made to any other traveller who met him on that lonely road at dusk! A tall thin cadaverous man, moving slowly forwards along the path, swinging his scythe through the fast-growing rushes…
“At Barnhill, Orwell kept a small orchard and vegetable garden and farmed livestock: sheep, cows, a pig. The sea was only a few hundred yards to the east, over a low rise of moor. A few miles to the north was the Sound of Jura where, during the changes of the tides, the great Corryvreckan Whirlpool sucked and spun. Orwell fished the sea, the lochs and the rivers, and on warm days he swam in the lochs and in the Sound itself. Inside the house, he kept a peat fire burning, and he lit his rooms with paraffin lamps whose flames quickly sooted up the walls.
“It was during those years, seated at a big, scarred wooden table, between walks and work on the land, that Orwell wrote his most visionary book: Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is clear that Orwell needed to be in that wild landscape to create his novel; that there was a reciprocality between the self-willed land in which he was living and the autonomy of spirit about which he was writing. On Jura he found himself able to think and see differently, roused by the country—harsh, graceful, aerial, marine—that surrounded him.
“The price of this vision, though, was his life. For Jura killed Orwell in the end. His fragile lungs, unable to stand the island’s dampnesses and colds, succumbed to tuberculosis, of which he died in 1950.”
Orwell was only 46 when he died. A sad end to a heartening tale. The Wild Places is a gem of a book.