This maelstrom has been known and revered by mariners ever since humans first ventured into the rich and fertile waters of the Firth of Lorn. Irregularities in the sea bed, which include a 219-metre hole and a basalt pinnacle that rises to within 29 metres of the surface, cause violent eddies and whirlpools when the incoming tide is forced through the narrow Gulf of Corryvreckan.
The strongest whirlpools form on the incoming tide, because the flow of water up the Firth of Lorn has already been squeezed through the Sound of Jura. On the ebb tide, water passes fairly smoothly through the Gulf towards the open sea.
Strong winds and spring tides accentuate the effect; when the sea is being whipped by a westerly gale, a standing wave up to 15 feet in height can be formed, and the noise of the turbulence can be heard up to 10 miles away. The tidal flow can reach speeds of up to eight and a half knots.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many legends have been woven around the swirling waters of the Corryvreckan. The best known story involves a Norwegian or Danish prince – sources differ as to his nationality – by the name of Breakan (also spelled Breckan or Bhreacan). Breakan was in love with a girl from a noble family; in fact, some sources claim she was the daughter of the Lord of the Isles. To gain the consent of the girl’s father, Breakan agreed to a test of courage which involved anchoring his boat for three nights in the Corryvreckan.
Breakan sailed back to his homeland and consulted the three Wise Men of Lochlan on how he could win this challenge. The Wise Men were obviously of an imaginative disposition, and they advised him to have three anchor cables made: one of hemp, one of wool, and one that had been spun from the hair of maidens.
Equipped with the prescribed cables, Breakan returned to Corryvreckan and bravely anchored his boat. On the first night, the hemp rope snapped, but the vessel was spared. During the second night, the wool cable was broken, but again the prince survived. On the third night, however, a violent storm swept across the sea and the last rope, whose strength lay in the purity of maidens’ hair, was torn apart. Too late, Breakan realised that the maidens were perhaps not as virtuous as they’d led him to believe, and both he and his boat were engulfed in the whirlpool. A crewman and Breakan’s dog swam to safety, and later recovered the prince’s body; according to the legend, he was buried in The King’s Cave on Jura.
Another myth, this time of Scottish – or perhaps Irish – origin, tells of the Cailleach, who is known variously as a wise woman, the ‘veiled one’, or the hag goddess of winter. In autumn the Cailleach washed her ancient plaid of wool in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. The tumultuous waters of her ‘washtub’ made a great roar and heralded the first storms of winter. When the plaid was clean, it became pure white – in fact, a covering of snow – and the Cailleach spread it out to dry on the mountain tops.
There are several boat operators who are experienced enough to navigate the whirlpool in calm weather. About 10 years ago we went on one of these, departing from Ardfern. Although it was a slack tide we were struck by the strange movements in the sea: the surface was irregular and uneven, as though spilling over very shallow steps, and in places it appeared to be welling up, like hot water in a saucepan, and boiling over into rapid whirls and eddies.
As we ventured through the narrow strait, the skipper cut the engine for a few seconds and we waited and watched. A standing wave appeared about 100 yards away, growing in height, curling but never breaking. Smaller versions began to form on both sides of the boat, and within seconds the engine was revved up and we were whisked away, out of harm’s reach.
Local people have some hair-raising stories to share, including a local fisherman who suddenly found himself surrounded on all sides by walls of water, before both he and his boat were spat out of the vortex, luckily intact.
In 1947 the writer George Orwell, who used a cottage on the north coast of Jura as a retreat when he was working on a novel, attempted to cross the Gulf in a small boat along with his son and two companions. Orwell misjudged the tides and the party were caught in the pull of a strong current which nearly wrecked their boat. Having lost the engine, they managed to paddle to safety on Eilean Mor, a tiny rocky island, and were later seen and rescued by a passing fisherman.
According to reports, Orwell’s brother was the first person to swim across the Gulf.
The waters of the Firth of Lorn are extremely rich in marine life, and the shoals of fish attract cetaceans such as porpoises and minke whale as well as many species of sea birds. Basking sharks can sometimes be seen passing through in the summer, their jaws gaping wide as they feed on plankton.
Some years ago we took a wildlife-watching trip up the Sound of Jura from the island of Colonsay. The weather was warm with just the hint of a breeze, and the sea was like a millpond. The cliffs of Mull were blue in the distance, and shearwaters were dipping and skimming all around us. As we sailed up the west side of Jura towards Scarba we were thrilled to see porpoises and at least two minke whales feeding around the boat; later, a pod of common dolphins rode the bow wave, taking it in turns to lead the way and allowing us amazing views of their faces and side stripes. The magic of those encounters is still fresh in our minds.
You can find more information about the Corryvreckan and its legends at www.whirlpool-scotland.co.uk.
All photos copyright © Colin Woolf