Amazing whirlpool on ultimate island wildlife adventure
JUST to get away from the prolonged freeze in the High Peak, I nipped up to the relative balmy weather of the Inner Hebrides for a spot of multi-island hopping in a bright orange inflatable.
If I said I had visited more than 10 islands, you may think it an exaggeration. However, double that figure and you would be closer to the mark. Stepping Stones in the Land of Light, from Jura to Fladda, and from Lunga to Arsa, we zig-zagged between them all, the ultimate wildlife experience, with eyes on the sea, in the air and on land. For today let’s concentrate on the enigmatic Island of Scarba, and the truly amazing Corryvreckan whirlpool, the largest in Europe and third largest in the world, a cauldron of conflicting currents which whirls and spins, and plummets and dives between the islands of Jura and Scarba, creating a maelstrom of immense proportions.
Scarba, with a mountainous backbone the shape of a shark’s fin, is set between the whirlpool to its south and the notorious Grey Dog’s tidal race to its north.
Local legend tells of a Scandinavian Prince, by the name of Breakan, who fell in love with a Princess of these Islands. Her father had consented to the marriage, on condition Breakan should show his skill and courage by anchoring his boat for three days and three nights in Corryvreckan.
Breakan accepted this challenge and returned to Norway where he had three ropes made. One of hemp, one of wool and one of virgin’s hair, the latter believed to provide the strongest rope.
The Prince returned with the ropes and anchored his boat in the whirlpool. On the first day the hemp rope parted, but they survived the night.
On the second day, the woollen rope parted in a strong wind and the fearsome tides, but they survived the night again. On the last day they set the rope of virgin’s hair, and all went well until a fierce gale broke the rope.
The boat was sucked under by the currents and a surviving crewman dragged the body of Breakan ashore – he was buried in a cave, perhaps the cave now know as ‘Uamh Bhreacain’ or ‘Breakan’s Cave’ and the current name of the whirlpool could well be a derivative of Breakan.
When the crewman finally made it home and told of Breakan’s fate, one of the young Norwegian ladies was consumed with guilt as she had not been truthful.
Our inflatable boat skittered across the whirlpool with relative ease and we were able to take close-up shots of Jura’s red deer, seen here.
When water is flowing through the Gulf of Corryvreckan, especially on a spring tide, it falls into a 219m hole before meeting a pinnacle of rock 30m from the surface, and is forced upwards, producing in some rare cases one large whirlpool, although more frequently many small ones and standing waves which can reach up to 15ft in height.
We watched them forming, as hundreds of seabirds including guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, gannets and puffins took advantage of a naturally induced seafood-soup arising from the deep. Wherever that kind of activity takes place, you are guaranteed cetaceans, and within five minutes we had sight of four porpoise.
Formerly classified by the Admiralty as unnavigable – the Admiralty’s West Coast of Scotland Pilot guide to inshore waters still calls it ‘very violent and dangerous’ and says ‘no vessel should then attempt this passage without local knowledge’, its treacherous waters are nevertheless still sailed and swum by a few hardy adventurers. Writer George Orwell and his son, who lived at Barnhill in northern Jura, were briefly shipwrecked on the skerry of Eilean Mor, south of the whirlpool when boating the gulf, and Orwell’s one-legged brother-in-law Bill Dunn was the first person to swim the gulf.
I was tempted to speculate whether his ‘Big Brother’ was watching the attempt, get it?
●● Red deer on the Isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides