STARING into the terrifying thunderous tumult of the Corryvreckan whirlpool, it's easy to see why its sheer primal energy has fascinated people for centuries.
Now Edinburgh folklorist Stuart McHardy has suggested a startling new theory - that the awe-inspiring natural vortex between the islands of Scarba and Jura in Argyll and Bute was the true origin of the Holy Grail.
At its wildest, some say the whirlpool forms a spectacular swirling cauldron 300 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The cause is hidden beneath the waves – a giant rock pinnacle rising from the depths to within 95 feet of the surface. Water on the seabed is forced upwards when it hits the submerged rock, causing huge waves. The noise can keep the neighbours awake up to 20 miles away.
McHardy believes that the Corryvreckan was, for pre-Christian Picts, a "Mother Goddess" - the Mother of All Fertility Symbols.
"These ancient pagan tribes saw the whirlpool as a giant cauldron - or Grail - of rebirth," he says. "They believed it was the womb of all creation and could even awaken dead warriors. It was literally their Holy Grail."
In his new book On the Trail of the Holy Grail, McHardy writes that incoming Christian monks tried to erase all trace of this ancient way of thinking. They rewrote what they saw as dangerous pagan beliefs, downplaying the regenerative power of femininity, promoting the idea of a single, male God and disguised the religious significance of the whirlpool.
The final blow to the Old Religion is thought to have come from the legendary warrior Arthur, the hammer of the Picts.Historian of the Clan Arthur, Hugh McArthur, believes a 10th century Welsh poem contains cryptic clues that reveal the Corryvreckan's central role in early stories about the Holy Grail. Preiddeu Annwn (The Spoils of Annwfn) describes how King Arthur and three boatloads of warriors sail to the Welsh Otherworld to steal a magical "cauldron of inspiration". Arthur's boats pass through the "gates of Hell" to Caer Sidi (the Fortress of the Fairies) but only seven of his force survive.
McArthur writes: "It is this successful but costly raid on the most unassailable fortress in Britain that made Arthur the living legend that he is today. Arthur overcame the challenge, he sailed over the dragon (whirlpool) to Hell's gate, assailed the mountain, slaughtered the pagans and returned triumphant with the hallowed pagan treasures, leaving an ancient religion reeling from a fatal blow."
The "fairies", McArthur suggests, were probably nothing more than the small, painted Pictish warriors who were early settlers on Scarba. In Welsh, "d" sounds "th", making Sidi similar to the Scottish Gaelic sth (fairies). Intriguingly, maps do show a Blr nan Sth (Battlefield of the Fairies) on Scarba's north-east coast.
Even more interestingly, Admiralty charts show that just to the east of the whirlpool the seabed drops away sharply, descending to a narrow pit nearly 700 feet deep. Locals have long known this as "Hell's gate". Horror tales abound of sailors being swept away, sucked under and then forced down into the murky depths by the fast flowing undersea currents.
The eighth-century Welsh monk Nennius, in The History of the Britons, wrote that King Arthur's eighth battle took place at castello Guinnion where the hero carried the image of the Virgin Mary on his shield. Scholars have long been unable to agree on a real-life location for Guinnion, but it could be from an Old Welsh word meaning holy ones. Castello Guinnion would then translate as fortress of the holy ones.More reading
On the Trail of the Holy Grailby Stuart McHardyLuath PressCertainly, if the Picts had sacred treasures to protect, it would have made sense to secure them in the safest spot they could find. The whirlpool provides a formidable natural defence. Perhaps the most sacred site of the Old Religion was a temple for priests or priestesses, protected by the Whirling Goddess?
Three hundred yards north of the Corryvreckan is Camas nam Birneach, a small bay. A few caves nestle in the cliffs high above. This tiny patch of white sand provides the only landing spot on the rugged south-west coast. At the base of the cliff, on a narrow ledge is an abandoned settlement: five square or rectangular buildings obscured by overgrown heather. With no land nearby for growing crops or raising animals, it could not have been a permanent settlement and was probably a seasonal site for people hunting birds, long an important part of islanders' diets.
Stuart McHardy thinks he has discovered the true purpose of this place:
"In the distant past this may have been the site of a temple supplied by boat. Only an in-depth archaeological excavation would reveal the truth, and I'm looking into the possibility of that being done. Perhaps we can find out more about how our far-off ancestors saw their world and hopefully learn from them."
If McHardy's theory is correct, the Holy Grail grew from a truly ancient physical source located in Scotland – a source as dynamic and awesome today as it was in prehistory when humans first encountered it. Centuries of myth-making transformed the Grail into a mystical chalice signifying many things – fertility, enlightenment, religious understanding, but always a quest in which the search is as important as the result.
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The Corryvreckan whirlpool