Orwell & Bike


"Four wheels good, two wheels better."

To Orwell Today,

Hi Jackie,

FYI, I stumbled across your site with great interest, as I am an avid fan of both Orwell and motorcycling. There is a very touching article circulating among many (mostly underground) motorcycle circles you may want to know about. I'm not sure of its use to you, but here it is:

George Orwell's Bike, Sport-Touring.Net, Jan 29, 2007

Take care, and thank you for your website,

Greetings Greg,

Thank you so incredibly much (doubleplusmuch) for that magical story about Orwell's motorcycle. It answers questions raised by a previous reader in ORWELL MOTORCYCLE MEMORIES.

I'm sharing your story with "Orwell Today" readers. It's like a gift from the doubleplusgreat man himself (who was also a doubleplusgreat rider) to all of us -- the future, or the past -- to whom he wrote his diary, his masterpiece, his "1984".

All the best,
Jackie Jura

PS - I took the above "Animal Farm" adaptation quote - "four wheels good, two wheels better" - from one of the posters to your forum - it's so appropriate!

by Jock Mackneish, 2006

(George Orwell, renowned author of Animal Farm and 1984,
lived and worked for some time on Jura, off the coast of Scotland.
JOCK MACNEISH went looking for his motorbike)

DID you know that George Orwell was a biker? Do you know that his bike is supposed to be just where he left it, in a clump of bushes on the Scottish island of Jura? Would you like to go and track it down?

I had returned to Scotland to visit the Clan Macneish and my two motorcycling brothers Donald and Iain were keen to show me around. A cartoonist can get overly attached to his drawing board, and the chance of a bike tour with a "Quest-for-the-Holy-Motorbike" was too good to miss.

Orwell had left London to live on Jura in 1945. He retreated to an abandoned farmhouse called BarnHill to write 1984. He would have had few interruptions. BarnHill is a remote and isolated building, 10 kilometres from the nearest neighbour and 40 kilometres from Craighouse, the one village on the island. Orwell's only transport was his bike and I can assure you he was some rider. Just getting there was an epic trip.

We set off from Clan headquarters, Lamlash on the Isle of Arran, my brothers on Don's rare Honda 650 Four and myself astride something even rarer, a borrowed, brand-new K755. Who, you may well ask, who lends anyone their brand new BMW? My brother-in-law, the remarkable J. Stanley Anderson, that's who. May the world take note and pay homage to such Highland generosity.

The first leg of the trip was a ferry crossing from Lochranza to Claonaig. It was rough.

I was torn between spectacular scenery, sea-sickness and worrying abut the bike falling over. I huddled beside the bike and watched it rocking gently on its forks. We both survived.

The short ride to Kennacraig, and the next ferry trip to Port Askaig on the island of Islay were smooth. Too smooth. The ferry's steel plate floor, soaked in diesel oil and sprinkled with salt water, makes an extremely smooth surface for the motorcycle tyre. The extra weight of all that camping gear on the back of the bike was all that saved me.

We stayed that night on Islay, near a beach. I encouraged damp driftwood into a campfire using motor spirit while Don and Iain encouraged each other with the distilled variety. There was a lot of laughter. We visited the pub at Port Charlotte for fresh supplies. On the wall was a map of the island, its coast decorated with the last hundred or so shipwrecks, showing the year of impact and the number of lives lost. It made the roads seem suddenly a healthier place to be.

Riding back to the campsite, glowing with inner warmth, I came across an unhealthy phenomenon in the middle of the road. Grass. Yes, grass. The green stuff, quite common really. It's just that I wasn't expecting it to be growing in the middle of the bitumen. It did terrible things to the front wheel when my thoughts and my bike went drifting out on a sweeping curve.

I took longer than normal to fall asleep that night.

The morning brought the final ferry trip, from Islay across to Jura, and I started to get that "This is the place" feeling. We alighted on Jura at a place with no name. Just a pier, and a road. It's a place with no place.

Just a road. The road is not easy to recognise. The black-faced sheep certainly don't recognise it as a road. They stand there, watching the approaching motorbike with hesitant curiosity, but the idea of moving out of the way is slow to dawn. When the penny finally drops they are apt to suddenly change their mind about which way to run. Left? Right? Left again?


We made it to Craighouse and stopped for petrol. "Aye, we sell petrol," they said in the only shop. "Go away up the road a wee bit(!) turn left and there's a pump in the bushes. I'll be there in a wee while"(!). He was; and then it's back to the shop. "And I'll be there in a wee while te tak yer money(!)

From Craighouse, the road gets rapidly worse. The weedy grass bit in the middle of the bitumen gets wider and wider till the whole road is weedy grass bit. Then it turns into stony creek bed with lumps of moss and finally, peat bog with occasional boulders. About three quarters of it is now under water.

I wondered how Orwell had coped. He had learnt to ride with the British police force in Burma where he gained quite a reputation astride his huge American motorbike. (Henderson? Indian? Harley?) With his mate Roger Beadon, Orwell scandalised the colonials by going tiger hunting on the bike, armed with a Luger Parabellum pistol. There is a questionable story about one of Orwell's more spectacular step-offs outside the gates of Fort Dufferin, but he could certainly handle the rough going. He was renowned for riding along tracks which the locals claimed were "unfit for bullock-carts".

However, writing from BarnHill in 1945 Orwell described the road on Jura as "Hell."

Hell, is what it was. I loved it. Yet out on that lonely road there was also a feeling of desolation. In the 18th century there were 100,000 people living on Jura. When Orwell went there, there were only 300. Today, maybe less than half that. When we arrived at the crest overlooking BarnHill, it was a long time before any of us felt like speaking.

The house sits at the head of a narrow valley, leading down to wild and windswept Jura Sound. To the north, one of the largest whirlpools in the world, to the south, the full power of the North Atlantic. A place that puts politics into perspective. A place for writing 1984.

"If you had a bike and it wouldn't go, where would you bump it to before giving up?"

We looked through the bushes down the valley. At the point where what-had-been the farm gave way to what-still-was the bush, there was a lone alder tree. It was old and gnarled and in the bracken at its foot -- was George Orwell's motorbike.

The man of words would have said something fitting. We could only manage gestures, nods and an overwhelming sense of occasion. I knew: "This is the place".

Of the bike there was not much left. Forty years of exposure to the salt air had left only the engine, frame and forks. A major restoration project for the devoted. Our devotion was perhaps more reverent.

We left it where it lay.

It was a 499cc Rudge Whitworth four valve single, built sometime in the 1930s. There are probably quite a few still going. The lack of rear suspension would have made for hard going on that road. I don't expect the handling was all that wonderful either. It was what we would now call "agricultural". In the 1930s it was an elegant street machine. At no time would it have been easy, but I bet it was fun.

We took photos, paid our respects, replaced the vegetation and left. The long road back to the ferry offered spectacular glimpses of the island's huge herd of wild deer, its three stately mountains and its windswept valleys. But our minds were back in Barn-Hill, back in 1948, and back with George Orwell and his faithful Rudge.

In the cramped comfort of the hotel bar back in Port Askaig, we joked about my being the eldest, Donald the strongest and Iain the tallest. Who should be Big Brother?

On the mainland, the heavens, which had been kind, decided that the party was over and we arrived home cold, tired, soaking wet and very happy.

Did you know that George Orwell was a biker?

Do you know that his bike is still just where he left it? Wouldn't you like to go and see it too?

~ by Jock Mackneish, 2006

Orwell Bike The 1930 Rudge Whithworth

update...new website EXCAPE TO ORWELL'S BARNHILL

update: ...Reader Nigel is writing an article about Orwell's relationship with motorcycles & asks to use the illustration found on Orwell Today


Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

email: orwelltoday@gmail.com
website: www.orwelltoday.com