Friday, 18 November 2011

Isle of Jura: Corryvreckan Whirlpool; Breacan's Cave and Glengarrisdale Bothy

The northern tip of Jura has eluded me on two recent visits to the island. This inaccessibility has only deepened my urge to visit, and over time a specific plan developed, to time the trip to take advantage of the large tides that accompany a full moon, to camp on the headland and to observe the Corryvreckan whirlpool below.  It is a remote objective by any standards, requiring two ferries; one to Islay and another onwards to Jura. There then remains the challenge of the ‘Long Road’, many miles of torturous single-track. Jura does have a limited bus service, but its timetable is not helpful for those who wish to reach the northern tip in a weekend, even a long one. This necessitates the use of cars, bikes or both.

Over the summer I managed to sow the seed in the minds of several friends, one of whom had a flash of inspiration and enquired about the possibility of a boat drop-off. We arranged Sandy to sail us over on the North Star on Friday, dropping us off near Uamh Bhreacain, Breacan's Cave, and to pick us up from Glengarrisdale bothy on the Sunday. I was amazed at the flexibility in landing locations provided by a boat and an experienced local skipper. The added beauty of the nautical approach was that it allowed us to carry in vast quantities of beer, much of which was consumed prior to our march down the coast to Glengarrisdale.

Steaming towards the Gulf of Corryvreckan aboard the North Star

We were regaled with tales of the sea as we waited to set sail. A 210 lb pound skate had been landed in the boat the previous week, a 6' by 7' monster. Fish that were tagged back in the 1970s are still being caught (and released). Apparently they can live for hundreds of years, which is pretty humbling and puts me off the idea of pestering them with hooks.

The whirlpool is caused by a rock pinnacle about 30 m below the surface. 

Disembarking at Bagh Gleann nam Muc near the north tip of Jura
Enjoying a beer on the beach

Campsite outside Uamh Bhreacain

I first read of Breacan's Cave in W. H. Murray’s 'The Hebrides'. Breacan was a mariner who drowned in the whirlpool. There are a number of legends: in one version he is Irish; in another he is Norse. Indeed he may have been a real man. Murray quotes Martin Martin, who wrote in 1695 that the cave contained Breacan’s stone, tomb and alter. He goes on to repeat an account by John Campbell, an early Jura schoolmaster, of a stone coffin being exhumed from the floor of the cave, but does caution that, as similar artefacts had been recovered from other caves on Jura’s wild west coast, there is not necessarily any link between the coffin and the legend.

Beyond its name, no trace of Breacan is evident in the cave. We found it as Murray had left it in 1964, sixty yards deep by fourteen wide and carpeted in deer droppings. Apart from slight dampness in the deepest recesses and on the western wall, the cave is completely dry. Consequently the pellets of deer shit that have accumulated over the millennia – a further forty seven years’ worth since Murray’s visit – have desiccated and turned to powder. They are now no more objectionable a floor covering than would be dried compost or sawdust. It provides a soft and level surface to the floor and - in the dark at least - it is possible to forget its composition, at least until it rehydrates on one’s shoes in the damp grass outside.

That said, not one of our number followed through on our initial threat to sleep in the cave. It was clear that to do so would result in clothing, equipment, hair and perhaps lungs being impregnated with dehydrated excrement. Murray had described a ‘broad stretch of turf’ extending in front of the cave. It was no bowling green, but did provide barely adequate pitches for our four tents and Mike’s tarp. A concerted forage provided sufficient driftwood for a decent fire, which we lit in the centre of the cave, gambling successfully that the smoke would find its way out. As light rain fell outside we enjoyed a primal night of drinking and smoking round the fire, marveling at the shadows cast by the flickering firelight playing on the cave’s domed roof. 

View from Uamh Bhreacain over the Gulf of Corryvreckan to Scarba

I wrote few weeks back about landscape interpretation through the ages, proposing that in Scotland there have been at least four distinct phases: the modern, scientific phase; the pseudo-scientific, biblically-inspired phase; the Celtic phase and, finally, the creation myths of the indigenous peoples. The story of Breacan is best classified under ‘Celtic’ and at first sight it appears that the story ends there. After all, the current name, Corryvreckan, translates from the Gaelic as Breacan’s coire, or cauldron, a clear reference to the whirlpool. So I was surprised to come across another translation on Wikipedia; ‘cauldron of the plaid’. This is extremely interesting, for the accompanying legend may well provide a bridge back in time, a step closer to the elusive indigenous mythology. The plaid in question was owned by the Goddess of Winter, Cailleach Bheur.  This is a legend rooted in the landscape and the seasons, it being said that as winter approaches she could be heard washing her plaid in the swirling waters of the Corryvreckan for three days – possibly a reference to the enhancement of the whirlpool’s roar by the equinoctial gales. After such treatment the plaid was pure white and became the blanket of snow that covered the land. There is something very appealing about this concept of seasonal dieties.  The Cailleach engaged in a tussle with her summer counterpart, Brighid, at the changing of the seasons. This belief system would rationalise unseasonal weather, such as an Indian summer, or the lambing storms, in terms of the departing deity briefly gaining an upper hand in the struggle.

Turbulent seas as the ebb tide roars between Jura and Scarba

In the morning I climbed the headland behind the cave, leaving our north-facing campsite to watch the sun’s first rays illuminating the cave-studded cliffs and russet-hued flanks of Scarba. I sheltered from the easterly wind in the lee of a rock. Beneath me awesome, foaming waters ripped in from the Atlantic through the gulf. A flock of cormorants bobbed in the waters of Bagh Nam Muc, gradually edging towards us in an eddy. As we descended a gully to the shore a red deer hind and a pair of shaggy goats scattered before us.  When I returned to camp for a breakfast of bacon rolls and coffee I felt contented, another ambition had been achieved.

On the march down the west coast towards Glengarrisdale

Bagh Uamh nan Giall

The coastal scenery on the walk south to Glengarrisdale was outstanding, with prominent raised beach features: wave-cut caves; stranded sea-stacks. Murray reckoned Breacan's Cave to be perhaps the most interesting on Jura, though we certainly saw more habitable caves as we picked our way be deer track and rocky shore on down the coast to Glengarrisdale: south facing and sunny; with good water supplies; even with the deer shit floor disguised beneath a coating of crisp dry bracken.  Beneath our spindly shadows, the creases in the sand at Bagh Uamh nan Giall glowed blue in the low winter sun. Four inquisitive seals regarded us from the sea between dives, their wet faces glinting. The low hills of Colonsay and Oronsay lay radiant on the horizon, to their side the open Atlantic merged with the sky. The intense Hebridean light was reflected and scattered by the ever-shifting surface of the sea, lending an almost artificially vivid quality to the autumnal reds and oranges of the dead grasses and bracken.

Glengarrisdale bothy
View from Glengarrisdale bothy towards Scarba

Glengarrisdale is a fine bothy, but it has a gloomy interior due to the selection of a semi-transparent glazing material in preference to conventional glass. This makes it a better venue for fart-lighting than for reading.  I pitched by the shore and retired to my tent after an enjoyable night round the fire, avoiding any farting, snoring and nocturnal urinations other than my own.  The North Star arrived on schedule just before noon on Sunday. Despite the tide being very low it was able to draw alongside the rocks in the centre of the bay and we boarded as we had disembarked on Friday, directly and with dry feet. A close encounter with four sea eagles on the homeward journey provided the icing on a weekend that really was just about as good as it gets.

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Monday, 7 November 2011

Dirty Deeds

View down the Allt Coire a'Ghrandaich towards the Moray Firth and Ben Wyvis

It is amazing how once an idea - however outlandish - permeates our consciousness, related events seem to follow as if from nowhere. Such information must always be there, yet it normally it passes us by, flowing past in the deluge of information that we struggle to swim through every day.

I give you an example from last week. During the popular music comedy-quiz 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks' the presenter related an anecdote about the Kiss guitarist Gene Simmons. Apparently Simmons came to the realisation that he could never keep pace with wild man of rock Ozzy Osbourne when he happened upon Ozzy smearing his own excrement on the walls of his hotel room. There was no discussion of why Ozzy had felt compelled to indulge in such a revolting act, nor any discussion of the practical considerations. Had Ozzy simply grasped a handful or had he used plasterer's tools to obtain a smooth and even coat? Was he mindlessly daubing or was he attempting to capture a creative thought of some sort? Perhaps some further research might uncover the details, but to be honest they matter not a jot. What matters is that this story struck a chord with me because earlier the same day news had reached me of a similar story; perhaps Ozzy could offer some insight into the mind and motivations of the vandal who wrote the word 'Shit' on the walls of a workplace convenience. Disturbingly, perhaps the same vandal had used a pen to draw a swastika on the walls of another cubicle the previous week. I am not sure which of these depraved acts is worse, but certainly it would have been worse still had the two offences been combined.

So it was that, having given the topic of the stool as a creative medium only scant consideration for a number of years, my mind was flooded with recollections of related incidents. For instance I can recall hearing of a cubicle in a Rothesay pub being defaced, in excrement, with the words 'Shit Graffiti'. But my favourite is another workplace incident, recorded in an Ayrshire chemical plant. The chap who told me this story had been working a nightshift on the upper floors of a plant, surrounded by great vats, hissing steam pipes, flashing lights and nerve-jarring alarms. He retired to the stalls with the intention of letting one go. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light he became aware that in the corner of the cubicle, behind the door, lurked what appeared to be a giant Malteser, the size of a softball. On closer examination it turned out to be a perfectly spherical toley. Both diameter and aspect ratio were inconsistent with its having been extruded through an aperture in the form in which it was found. My correspondent concluded that the perpetrator had grasped their output - either by fishing it from the bowl or by catching it on the way down, then carefully shaped it by rolling between - presumably gloved - hands.  They had then left it for the pleasure of future visitors, like a public work of art.

Reactions to such antics vary widely. Disgust is common and understandable, but a minority cannot help but laugh at such a foul display.  Perpetrating an act as insanitary and inconsiderate as deliberately leaving excrement on the walls or floor of a workplace convenience may at first appear to require an unusual degree of mindlessness, or even severe mental health issues, but I reckon that it is just the extreme end of a continuum.  I mean who among us can honestly say that they have never found themselves issuing a small chuckle when they fart in a lift, or when they realise that a slowly-filling cistern will oblige them to leave an un-flushable offering for the consideration of the next user?

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