Monday, June 05, 2017

The Legend of Corryvreckan

Whirlpools, Viking Princes ,George Orwell & Austen.

Hi Melinda here.
This post is a little different, but I hope you will bear with me, because  although it does not relate directly to the Regency, it does involve myths, legends and a few literary links, which I hope you will appreciate!

 I have just returned from an Island-hopping holiday in Scotland and the highlight of the trip was chasing whirlpools in the Gulf of Corryvreckan.  You may think there is no link with Regency romance here, but I am sure that anyone who writes historical adventures would find their imagination running riot,  as mine was, and I have no doubt that many sailing ships of the time tried to sail through the Gulf, and possibly some of them foundered. There are many stories surrounding this area and the whole experience was truly inspiring. I could easily imagine the fears of those early sailors who suddenly found themselves in what appears to be a giant boiling cauldron.

The Gulf of Corryvreckan is a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba off the west coast of Scotland. The seabed at this point is very deep (around 100m) with numerous humps and holes, including one huge hole going down 219 metres and an equally huge pinnacle which rises to just 29 metres from the surface. The effect of these two features forces water upwards into the tidal flow, where is forms whirlpools, even when conditions are otherwise calm.

At full strength the currents can reach over 10 knots, and in stormy conditions standing waves can be up to 5 metres high.  Imagine you are a sailing ship wanting to sail against such a current.  Apparently, it is not too bad at slack water, but ships under sail, and even modern boats without powerful engines, can find themselves going backwards.

Many sailors have drowned trying to navigate through the gulf of Corryvreckan, and – to give you a literary link – George Orwell, who was living on Jura at the time, was nearly drowned there. He had taken his nephew out in a dinghy which lost its motor and was in danger of being sucked into one of the whirlpools. The story goes that he tried rowing but lost the oars, but he still managed to get himself and his nephew to the shore, where they were rescued by a lobster boat.  That was in 1947: if he had perished, then he would not have finished his most famous work, 1984.

We visited the Corryvreckan with SeaFari Adventures (, sailing from Easdale  in a powerful open RIB and had to dress appropriately in waterproofs and a life jacket.
Dressed for the Occasion!
We had three experienced crew members with us, who explained what caused the phenomena and told us some of the tales surrounding the Corryvreckan. They took us into the heart of some of the whirlpools, so that we were spinning around with the water. There was a spring tide but the weather conditions were very calm, so although the waters were choppy the waves were less than a metre. They still provided plenty of spray, though, so our waterproofs were necessary!
 We watched as large areas of the water surface became very flat and calm before swelling upwards and turning into a churning mass of water that would then form itself into a whirlpool. It was exhilarating to be so low in the water that one could reach out and touch the surface, which was calm one moment, boiling the next. It really was like being on top of a giant, bubbling cauldron.

One legend says that Corryvreckan means Breacan's Cauldron. The Viking Prince Breacan wanted to marry the Lord of the Isles' daughter, but to do so he had to prove his courage by anchoring his boat in the whirlpool for three days. He took advice from his father's wise men who told him it could only be done by using three ropes, one of hemp, one of wool and the third made from the hair of pure maidens.

Breacan followed their instructions and at first it seemed he would succeed, for although the hemp and wool ropes broke, the one made from virgins' hair held firm – until the third day, when it broke because one of the maidens was not as pure as she made out! The hapless Breacan drowned in the whirlpool.

And another literary claim (although tenuous), is that the whirlpool of Charybdis, described in Homer's Oddysey, is in fact the Corryvreckan!
As a writer I spend most of my days sitting at my desk making up adventures for my characters. Indeed, I would not describe myself as an adventurous person, but I thoroughly enjoyed "playing" in the whirlpools. It was exciting, exhilarating and maybe, as Austen says - "None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”  

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory


Elizabeth Bailey said...

Gosh, that looks scary! Brave of you both to venture out there in your all-consuming waterproofs! But I can see the romance of it all indeed.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. It was awe-inspiring, even though this was a very mild version of it. I am minded now to right a seafaring romance.......

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

It look truly fearsome, Melinda/Sarah. I think you were very brave to go there -= even if it was in calm weather and with experienced sailors. Scottish weather can suddenly change, especially at sea.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

We were in safe hands... and to be honest, I would like to experience the weather when it is a little rougher!

It was very inspiring, though - just loved it.

Anonymous said...

Where can I get a print of that painting?