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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wonderfully written report of a super trip. The Corryvreckan whirlpool, seals, sea eagles, autumnal colours, campfire and bothy nights with friends! Perfect!

18 November 2011 at 23:29  
Blogger Alan Sloman said...

What a great trip.
"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." Wonderful writing.
Thank you.

19 November 2011 at 10:56  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fine report on a place I'm hoping to visit at Easter. Like Alan, I also thought the writing was superb



19 November 2011 at 13:46  
Anonymous Alex said...

Great read and pics Gavin.
How much did the boat cost in total ?

19 November 2011 at 16:10  
Blogger Douglas Griffin said...

Really enjoyed reading that. A great bit of writing and some cracking shots too, Gavin.

19 November 2011 at 21:33  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments. The boat drop-off added a whole new dimension to the trip and has really got me thinking about ideas for similar excursions. If you have a group the cost compares quite favourably to taking a car over on the main ferry, we paid £50 each.

20 November 2011 at 08:48  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great report, interesting backgound info and beautiful photos. What's better than a weekend outdoors with friends, beer amd a fire to stare at?

22 November 2011 at 08:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very enjoyable and atmospheric read.
I want to do that trip now! :)

Mike fae Dundee.

22 November 2011 at 17:50  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You obviously had an awesome adventure. Very nice. I'd love to try everything that you've done too. It's so amazing. I've heard a lot about corryvreckan cruising. I'd love to try that.

20 July 2012 at 18:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

IN 1978 I walked from Ardlussa after getting a lift in the back of a Land Rover by Mr Charles Fletcher slogging up past Kinuachdrachd,collecting a couple of sheep ticks from the tall ferns. I later tried to remove these by application of lighted Woodbine cigarette which I seen in a war film but this did not work. There was a small croft with sheep at that time which may now be a bunkhouse. The Corryvreckan could be heard long before we reached the tip of the island. It was indeed an impressive site. We moved around the corner to camp overnight in a place i translated as the Bay of Pigs. My extremely heavy back pack not only carried a totally irrelevant 3lbs 1942 AFS fire axe but also a very good half bottle of Famous Grouse and a very bad red wine bought at Jura stores. The two of us finished these after eating our supper. We then trekked a short way down the coast to cross back over to the west and then down to our spooky haunted old self catering cottage in Ardlussa Bay just past the graveyard with some alleged very old Scottish residents. Took a couple of days to recover!

16 September 2012 at 12:39  

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