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Issue 37 - Corryvreckan whirlpool

Scotland Magazine Issue 37
March 2008


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Corryvreckan whirlpool

Hannah Adcock takes a cruise to see one of Scotland's natural wonders.

Corryvreckan is one of the world’s most powerful whirlpools, located between the Islands of Jura and Scarba. Although notorious for its near fatal attempt to drown George Orwell and its gelatinous appearance in the Powell and Pressburger film classic, I Know Where I’m Going! it has been renowned as a source of power, myth and wonder for centuries.

Whirlpools have always held a special place in the human psyche. Homer, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe were inspired by them; 16th century map makers were obsessed; even the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie pays tribute to their monstrous charms. However, artists rarely let something like factual accuracy get in the way of a good story and real life whirlpools are very different from their fictional counterparts. Many whirlpool enthusiasts prefer to call them ‘maelstroms,’ suggesting sound and fury, rather than one perfectly shaped vortice.

The surface appearance of whirlpools continually changes depending on tides, winds and underwater topography.

Since the days of St Columba and before, the Gulf of Corryvreckan has struck fear and awe into the hearts of maritime travellers. Even today, the dangers of the gulf are well documented on both naval and civil maritime charts, but it is navigable by skippers with experience – and local knowledge.

I had always wanted to see a whirlpool, without really knowing what they were, so I was delighted when I discovered that not only did Scotland possess one, but also that it was reputed to be the third most impressive in the world, after the Old Sow in Canada and the Moskstraumen, off the coast of Norway.

I set off for Crinan, a beautiful village on the west coast, where old vessels bob picturesquely in the harbour and the Crinan canal concludes after a nine-mile journey from Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne.

It is from here that Hamish, an experienced skipper, and his wife Heather, take tours out on their catamaran-hulled vessel, Gemini.

It was choppy as we left the basin and it soon became apparent that my decision to wear waterproof trousers and jacket was unusually sensible. The first hint of maelstrom-type excitement was at Dorus Mor, ‘the Big Door’, a gap between Craignish Point and the islands of Garbh Reisa and Eilean na Cille. Small whirls and strange patches of glassy stillness combined in a strange and slightly eerie fashion.

After a stretch of fairly ‘normal’ water, Hamish told us to look out for Corryvreckan. In the distance a long wave seemed to wait. It was only a foot or so high, although in the ‘right’ conditions it can reach 15 feet – a fact that I would not personally care to verify. Hamish steered the boat around the edges, letting us admire whirls and small whirlpools, unexpected waves and areas of calm.

It is the perfect setting for a legend.

Although there is much debate over the particulars, the most popular story involves a Norse Prince called Breakan who falls in love with the Lord of the Isles’ daughter. Her father will only consent to the match if the Prince proves his courage by anchoring the boat for three days and three nights in the whirlpool. Sadly, things go wrong and on the third day he is drowned. His mooring rope, made out of the hair of virtuous maidens, had snapped. Yes, you guessed it; one of the said maidens had been more wayward than she had let on. A morality tale for another era, perhaps, but it is still an entertaining story.

As we nipped and tucked around disturbances, I tried to imagine the seabed far below to which the poor prince was dragged. It was not a particularly pleasant picture. The most disturbing object is a tall pinnacle of rock, part of a 200 metre ridge extending into the gulf from the Scarba shoreline. The pinnacle rises within 29 metres of the surface, whilst its outer edge sinks to 130 metres, making it effectively 100 metres high.

When the water comes through the gulf on a flood tide, it swirls down a massive hole at its mouth and then, about 1200 metres later, meets the pinnacle – causing a massive upthrust of water which bursts to the surface. On an ebb tide, the results are less obviously spectacular, but vortices are more consistent.

Gemini felt comfortably stable as we ventured up a small flight of damp stairs to the very front of the boat. The view was slightly better, but you felt exposed.

Soulful-looking seals appeared briefly in the distance, their sleek heads just breaking the surface. We left behind the excitement of the maelstrom for some more wildlife spotting, as Hamish steered the boat closer to the northern tip of Jura. Feral goats sprang athletically near the shore, although Jura’s famous red deer showed little sign of appearing. Dolphins also, on this occasion, stayed away – though they have been spotted playing in Corryvreckan’s standing wave.

Gemini’s next stop was Barnhill, onetime home of Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. It was in this remote and beautifully austere house, that he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, the crashing of the whirlpool intruding on his reveries.

Familiarity must have bred contempt, for in 1947 Orwell ventured out into the gulf in a small, unsuitable vessel, with his young cousins and without paying any heed to the tides. After the motor was ripped from the vessel and Orwell had turned in desperation to the oars, the boat apparently capsized and the young children – and reckless writer – only just made it to a small island, from where they were rescued by a lobster boat.

“You never really know how it’s going to behave,” said Hamish sagely, eyes trained on the turbulent water. “Its mood can change really quickly.” I’m not sure if Orwell ventured out to view the Gulf in a more benevolent mood, but I’m keen to go back. I don’t think you could ever get tired of Corryvreckan’s capricious and awesome personality.