IT WOULD be amusing to draw a map of Scotland in the style of an ancient 16th-century cartographer. Pen and ink sketches would indicate where fairies and giants live. Lochs would be home to monsters and our seas filled with mermaids. To top the whole thing off you could even draw a great big swirling whirlpool showing a ship being dragged down into its watery depths.
Whilst there are few people who would suggest that fairies and monsters exist outside of this rather fantastical map of Scotland, you may be surprised to learn that everyone - even the Royal Navy - acknowledge the existence of one of these ancient mysteries. Because, on the west coast of Argyll, just off the Isle of Jura is a terrifying natural phenomenon.You can hear the Corryvreckan whirlpool from ten miles away. Among the largest whirlpools in the world, it is caused by the intersection of tidal pathways which collide undersea round a 200-metre pinnacle of rock. Water rushes upwards causing enormous waves to rise up in the middle of the Sound of Jura and, if conditions are right, the whirlpool bursts into action. The Royal Navy considers it to be one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the British Isles and it is alleged to have taken many lives, including that of the man the whirlpool is said to be named.
Legend has it that a young Viking prince named Breacan asked for the hand in marriage of the Lord of the Isles's daughter. To win her hand, the young man had to hold his boat steady in the whirlpool for three days, in true "Once upon a time" style. He asked his father's wise men for advice and was told to gather three ropes - one of wool, one of hemp and the other woven from the hair of the pure maidens of the village. As our young hero was something of a looker, the women rushed to his aid.
The wool rope broke his first night in the whirlpool. The hemp rope went on the second. And disaster struck on the third night when the hair rope snapped too. It transpired that one of the young maidens who had donated her hair had previously forsaken her honour. For the want of her virtue, Breacan was drowned.Whilst the story of poor Breacan cannot be verified, one sailor has had his encounter with the whirlpool witnessed and recorded. In 1947 Eric Blair was on Jura writing a novel. Tiring of the rigours of fiction writing, he decided to go for a sail with his nieces and nephews. Having just sailed out, they ran into an angry Corryvreckan. The boat was tossed about and the outboard motor was ripped off. Fearing for the lives of his young relations, Blair grabbed the oars and struck out for land. When the oars were lost and the boat was sucked under, he battled to reach a small rocky island, barely managing to rescue his three-year-old nephew as the boat flipped over.
Fortunately they were rescued by a lobster boat. Had they perished then Eric Blair - or George Orwell as he is better known - would never have returned to Jura and completed his novel 1984 and Big Brother would have remained unwritten.
Since then there have been some rather grand claims made on behalf of the whirlpool. Some writers in recent times have been troubled with the setting of Homer's epic novel The Odyssey. A couple of startling re-appraisals of Odysseus's travels have re-set the voyage far from the Mediterranean and nearer the North Atlantic.Edo Nyland, in his book Odysseus and the Sea People, lines up an impressive list of sources to give weight to his theory that all the action was far west of Greece. Plutarch, Tacitus and Dante are just a sample of the big-hitters he calls on to pitch for his theory that the journey was set in Ireland and the west coast of Scotland. Integral to our story though, is his conclusion that if you follow Homer's tale to where Odysseus was bewitched by Siren songs (Hebridean women waulking the heather on Iona, according to Nyland.), he reached the whirlpool of Charybdis. Nyland looks at tides and charts, cliffs and dimensions of all sorts of technical matters and concludes that Charybdis is no more, nor less than Corryvreckan.
Such a revisionist theory of a Greek classic needs looking into, or would if any academic thought Nyland's whirlpool theory held any, well, water. But it seems unlikely to gather serious research, if Dr Domhnall Uilleam Stibhart at Edinburgh University is anything to go by.
"Brilliantly mad", he says, before heading off laughing to reconsider his classics degree.