The Corrievreckan is the largest whirlpool in European
waters, situated between the islands of Jura and Scarba off the west coast
of Scotland. The whirlpool forms around a submerged rock stack between the
islands. Beside this is a great, narrow pit known as the Gateway to Hell
which descends more than 300 feet below the surrounding seabed to an overall
depth of 700 feet.
The whirlpool runs in fullest spate from the autumn equinox through to Samhain. At this time, the water runs at about 10 knots (approximately 11˝ miles an hour) and the sides can reach a height of thirty feet above surrounding sea level. The roar of water can be heard at Dunadd, which is ten miles away on the mainland.
Corrievreckan means 'Breckon's Cauldron' and there is an old local legend that a Prince Breckon used the tresses of nine maidens to cross it. In the Book of Ballymote Brecon is said to have perished in the whirlpool along with fifty ships (although this may refer to a maelstrom of the same name off the northern coast of Ireland). The whirlpool is also known as 'the Cauldron of the Cailleach', the Goddess in her aged form. According to legend, it is the Cailleach who decides will live and who will die in the maelstrom.
The time of full spate (autumn equinox to Samhain) also connects the whirlpool with the Cailleach Bheur, a figure of sovereignty born old and ugly at Samhain. She represents the winter, growing younger and more beautiful as spring approaches.
That the Corrievreckan can be heard as far away as Dunadd is attested by the large number of standing stones and other ritual sites to be found between Dunadd and Kilmartin. The wind that carries the sound is still known locally as 'The Breath of the Goddess'. On the Island of Mull, children who misbehave are told that 'naughty children are sent to The Corrievreckan'! Perhaps a vestige of an ancient truth.
The island of Scarba is a single mountaintop that rises out of the sea to a height of 1456 feet. It is set between The Corrievreckan to its south and the notorious Grey Dogs tidal race to its north in the narrow passage over to the neighbouring island of Lunga. The Grey Dogs run at about 8 knots. The passage to Scarba is hazardous at the best of times.
Unsurprisingly, Scarba is now uninhabited, but it once supported a community and had a reputation for healthy living and longevity (a woman in the 17th century lived until she was 140!). Many myths abound and the island is considered the haunt of ghosts and faeries. St Columba's monks used it on occasion and until recently it was a testing ground where schoolchildren were trained in self-sufficiency before being taken by boat to various uninhabited islands and abandoned for a few days. No mobile phones were allowed, but they could fly a flag when they had had enough!
There are said to be many great caves on Scarba and what could have been a processional way running from steps cut in the rock on the east side of the island along a serpentine path to The Point of the Maidens above the Corrievreckan. Here there are the stone remains of three circular buildings. Here, too, a womb shaped lochan empties its waters into a stream that flows out towards the whirlpool.
My friend Hugh McArthur believes that the Taliesin poem 'Preiddeu Annwn' is an account of an initiation ritual carried out in The Corrievreckan, the Arthur in question being Artur, son of the half-British King of the Scots of Dalriada, King Aedan. Their central fortress and capital was situated at Dunadd. Archaeological investigations show that people living there in the 6th century possessed a degree of sophistication in their lifestyles unparalleled elsewhere in Britain. The MacArthur Clan of Argyll say that they descend from King Arthur and it is entirely possible that Artur, son of Aedan, was an ancestor.
Legends and place names of Finn and the Fianna abound in Argyll and Perthshire so it is interesting to note that Artur was part Scots Gael and undoubtedly led a Fiann or warrior elite. Dr Anne Ross tells us that each such warrior was also a fully trained Druid. What greater place of initiation and test of courage could there be, then, for any warrior Druid than entering the Cauldron of the Cailleach and sailing The Corrievreckan in full spate?
We know that native Americans also tested themselves by riding the edges of whirlpools and even today in similar style, groups of people challenge death itself by surfing the hugely dangerous North Sea breakers off Scotland. Occasional attempts at The Corrievreckan are thwarted by the Royal Navy who keep a very close watch by both sea and air.
Recent archaeological work by prominent members of the Pictish Arts Society shows that the northern British border was further north and west than previously thought and seems to have included lands in Argyll. Indeed, the fortified site of Dunadd appears to have been almost identical with the British fortresses at Stirling and Edinburgh. It is interesting then to learn that local legends tell that Taliesin was born in the area of Blanefield outside Glasgow. The name Blanefield derives from St Blane or Blaan, King Aedan's son and half-brother to Artur. In 'Preiddeu Annwn', Taliesin tells us his story:
I am the pre-eminent praiser; my song sounded
In the four-towered Caer, forever turning,
And of its Cauldron was my first song sung:
Nine maidens kindle the Cauldron by their breathing.
The four towers or turrets are the twice-running flow and ebb of the tides each day, which feed the ever-turning whirlpool. In autumn, when the whirlpool runs at its fastest, the Pleiades ride high in the sky. Although only seven are generally visible to the naked eye, there are many stars in this constellation. It has been considered by many cultures to be a group of maidens, sought by the warrior that pursues them (known commonly now as Orion).
Three shiploads of Prydwen sailed to Annwn,
Except seven, none returned from Caer Sidi.
The vortex at the centre of the whirlpool sucks everything downward. We do not know the capacity of Arthur's boat Prydwen, but of three times that number only seven survived the ordeal.
Of what nature is the Lord of Annwn's Cauldron?
Enamelled iridescence and pearly white its rim
It will not boil the coward's portion - not so its destiny.
Pearls of surf and spume edge the whirlpool with some of the water presenting a smooth, reflective surface the colour of flint. Only the bravest could sail it.
In the four-towered Caer, the Island of the Strong Door,
Where dark is mixed with light...
The tidal race at the entrance of nearby Loch Craignish is known as the Mighty Door.
I merit better than makers of clerkly books
Who have not seen Arthur's might beyond the Glass Caer.
Six thousand men stood high upon its wall.
It was hard to speak with their sentinel.
With its high wall of water, the whirlpool may well be seen as a castle of glass (remembering that the Gaelic for glass also means blue/green/grey and was an adjective often used to describe the sea). The thundering noise of the maelstrom would make any form of spoken communication difficult.
The serpent streams of white foam that mark the whirlpool are reproduced in carvings on the ancient Sunstone in St Constantine's Church in Govan and form part of the altar window in St Conval's Church, Inchinnan. Both churches have a history that goes back to the 6th century and earlier. The Cauldron of Breckon, surely the ultimate source of power to pagan peoples, must have been well known throughout the British Isles in those days.
One of the islands nearby in the Garvellochs is Eileach an Naoimh, said to be the site of an early and important Druid College, and some way beyond this are the islands of Staffa and Iona. Fingal's Cave on Staffa is said to have been a place of Druid initiation and Iona, of course, was called the Island of the Druids.
Edgar Allan Poe based his novel 'The Maelstrom' on a survivor's account from a whirlpool off Norway. Sailors there say that the shape most likely to survive the whirlpool intact is that of a barrel, which has connotations of the coracle and even, perhaps, of the skin bag in which the infant Taliesin was cast adrift to be washed up at the side of Elphin. British legend also tells of colleges of nine women (witches or maidens in some accounts) who inhabit islands, living without men but teaching them the martial and worldly arts required of a hero, choosing only the most worthy to father their children - Sovereign goddesses ensuring the Land is well protected. It is an intriguing thought: Scarba of the Nine Maidens, the Cailleach herself choosing only the bravest, most intelligent, and most skilled to step foot on the island, there to learn and to father the children of the guardians of the place. Is it possible that these children would then have been floated off, to land along the coasts of Britain and Ireland, groomed to be the Wise Ones, Druid Children of the Goddess…?
© Eileen Buchanan