Caught between the west coast of Argyll and the Isle of Jura is one of Scotland’s hidden treasures – if, that is, you consider a deadly killer a treasure. As with all things terrifying you can hear the sound of this beast before you see it. When the conditions are right its mighty roar carries over 20 miles. It has taken many lives and it is rightly feared. If you’re feeling brave, then you too can visit, and take on the might of, the Corryvreckan Whirlpool.
She (for she’s a lady) is the third largest whirlpool in the world, and one of only seven in existence. She is formed by the narrowing of the straits between Jura and the mainland, where the bruising waters of the Atlantic are pushed through a small channel. Add to the mix a 200-metre pinnacle of underwater rock, spiking up to just below the surface, and you have all the ingredients for one of nature’s most awesome sights.
The Royal Navy warns that it is one of the most dangerous stretches of water in Britain. Although they stop short of saying it is un-navigable they do consider it “very violent and dangerous’, warning no-one to try and pass it unless they have local knowledge.
The whirlpool is associated with many myths and stories. One holds that the name derived from a Viking prince called Breacan who was courting the Lord of the Isle’s daughter. In order to prove his strength, and win her hand in marriage, he was challenged to hold his boat steady in the maelstrom for three days. His father advised him to gather three ropes: one woolen, one hemp and a final one made from the hair of local virgins. The first night the wool rope snapped; the second, the hemp. But Breacon looked to be OK as the hair rope held. Then on the third night it snapped too – which suggests that one of the villagers was no longer a maiden. For want of her virginity, a local lady caused the death of the poor prince.
A Scottish myth links the whirlpool with the Goddess of winter, Cailleach Bheur who washes her blankets in the waters off Jura. She scrubs them violently for three days after which they are a dazzling white. This she then spreads across the land as a blanket of snow.
Stuart McHardy, in his book On the Trail of the Holy Grail, builds further on this pre-Christian Pictish belief in a “Mother Goddess” or Cailleach. He suggests that the whirlpool was a “giant cauldron – or Grail – of rebirth” where worshipers believed that it was ‘the womb of all creation and could even awaken dead warriors. It was literally their Holy Grail.”
Other writers have offered even more prosaic interpretations of the Corryvreckan. Edo Nyland in his book Odysseus and the Sea Peoples suggests that the journey described in Homer’s Odyssey – thought to be somewhere in the Mediterranean – can easily be transposed to the west coast of Scotland. In his somewhat eccentric re-telling, the famous whirlpool Charybdis is revealed as the Corryvreckan.
George Orwell spent 1947 on Jura trying to overcome his writer’s block. Thinking that a boat trip would be a good way to clear the sinuses, he and his nieces and nephews set out. They met the Corryvreckan and nearly lost their lives. The outboard motor was destroyed and as Orwell began rowing to shore the oars were lost and the boat temporarily dragged under. He made it to shore without any loss of life and they were all rescued later by a lobster boat. Had they perished then “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would never have been published.
And the whirlpool appeared briefly in celluloid, taking a starring role in Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film I Know Where I’m Going! They filmed the Corryvreckan and then back projected the footage behind the actors, who were then sent rocking around in a replica boat.
On calm days you can visit the whirlpool. Various boat trips can take you close to the raging waters and allow you to imagine what they’d be like on rough days. Some brave fools have even dived the pinnacle, resurfacing after what must feel like a long spin in a washing-machine. For those less brave a glimpse from the coast may be enough. And for the really faint-hearted…well they can always stand 20 miles away and listen out for the roar.