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Issue 80 - The Gulf of Corryvreckan

Scotland Magazine Issue 80
April 2015

 

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The Gulf of Corryvreckan

Dangerous Waters

Those readers who have been fortunate enough to see the 1945 black-and-white Powell/Pressburger film classic I Know Where I'm Going, will recall the heart stopping incident when the protagonists are caught up in the Corryvreckan whirlpool between the islands of Jura and Scarba. In 1946, the author George Orwell (real name Arthur Blair) made his home at Barnhill on the north east coast of Jura to write his epic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is said that he was lulled to sleep at night by the distant roar of Corryvreckan, and, while on a sailing trip, his boat lost its outboard motor and the occupants had to be rescued by fishermen.

Taking its name from the Gaelic ‘Coire Bhreacain,’ meaning ‘cauldron of the plaid,’ this extraordinary natural phenomenon, created by Atlantic currents and the quirks of underwater topography off Scotland's west coast, is the third largest and potentially most dangerous whirlpool in the world. Tides from the east and west of Jura meet off the northernmost tip of the island, funnelling into the spot with overwhelming force. A steep sided buttress of rock projecting from the Scarba shore, and known locally as ‘The Old Ha,’ pushes the tidal water upwards to create a maelstrom of swirling liquid.

Under certain conditions, the vortex of tidal currents can run at over 85 knots with waves higher than ten metres. While few fatal incidents have been reported, the world's first passenger paddle ship
PS Comet was wrecked at Craignish Point after attempting a crossing in 1820.

In Hebridean mythology, the goddess of winter uses the Corryvreckan as her wash tub. And then there is the Norse legend of Prince Breachan, son of the Scandinavian King of Lochlin, who fell in love with a princess of the isles. As fate would have it, the lady's father would only consent to the match on the provision that Breachan anchored his boat for three days and three nights in the whirlpool.

Accepting the challenge, the young prince hastened back to Lochlin to consult the sages who directed him to equip himself with three ropes: one of hemp, one of wool, and the third to be twined from the maiden's hair in the belief that the purity of his beloved would protect him. Thus armed, the suitor returned to anchor in the whirlpool. On the first day, the hemp rope broke; on the second day, the woollen rope snapped. The third day dawned and Prince Breachan remained confident.

Alas, the hair rope also broke and Breachan and his craft were sucked into the void. His body, recovered by his faithful dog, is allegedly buried in the King's Cave on the north side of Loch Tarbert.

As for the princess, it was subsequently revealed that she was not nearly as innocent as her unfortunate admirer had assumed. You may draw your own conclusions.