Òrain na Mara/ Songs of the Scottish Sea

This arts/science collaboration will create two linked sets of films, under the title: “Òrain na Mara/ Songs of the Scottish Sea”: The filmmaker will work alongside marine scientists and musicians Catriona McKay & Chris Stout & to create short wordless films taking the audience on an inventive and experimental journey into Scottish Seas. In addition the filmmaker will work with different strata of the educational spectrum to produce short documentaries providing the marine science background to the project.



After many months of diary deliberations and failed attempts  to coincide busy schedules, The Songs Of the Scottish Sea finally nailed down a suitable date for an adventure into the wild waters of The Gulf of Corryvreckan on Sea Life Adventures’ Porpoise II . On board were the project’s principle artistic collaborators, musicians Catriona McKay and Chris Stout and filmmaker Andy Crabb, together with producer Frances Higson and members of the scientific community at host institution the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) : Dr Tom Wilding, Shane Rodwell and Chris Beveridge. Finally to keep us right and more importantly afloat, the skipper David Ainsley (a Marine Biologist and filmmaker in his own right) and his wildlife guide and zoologist Sarah Frost, and not forgetting local boat maestro and independent ferry operator Duncan MacEachen

The weather gods or perhaps the resident sea witch the Cailleach Bheur had been playing merry hell with wind and rain for weeks before, but as predicted by the forecasting gurus at XC Weather, the storms let up right on schedule to allow us access to the Gulf. The Corryvreckan is considered unnavigable when the weather and tides combine at their worst, and is famously home to the world’s third largest whirlpool. The very same whirlpool that sucked the Norse Prince Bhreacan and his crew to their mythological doom and in more recent history almost succeeded in killing off George Orwell and several young members of his family. An accident, which had it ended fatally, would have put an abrupt halt to the creation of 1984, the prophetic novel that Orwell was busy writing at Barnhill, a remote farmhouse at the north end of Jura, very close to the whirlpool. With these legendary and literary associations combined with nearby development of renewable energy sources: Seaweed culture and tidal turbine arrays, the Corryvreckan serves as an ideal focal point for the Power of The Sea thread of the Songs of The Sea project.

All the collaborators arrived ahead of schedule at David’s base at Clachan Seil. Which was just as well, as any delays would have seen us stranded for several hours by the very low tide . From there we headed out past the lonely Garvellachs and into the Grey Dogs, the rather more compact wee sibling of the Corryreckan. Smaller it may be, but the tidal race of the Grey Dogs can be a daunting prospect in its own right, with  standing waves that at times can be measured in meters.


At the mouth of the Grey Dogs we paused awhile for electronics wizard Shane Rodwell to carry out a test flight with his most recently constructed quad-copter. With a Go pro camera lashed to its hi-tech belly the four limbed flying machine buzzed up  from the deck of the boat and virtually disappeared into the brooding sky above. It was strange to watch this electronic aerial creature going about its business with an HD eye recording us and the all watery world spread out below, and appearing to all apart from the expert pilot behind the radio controls, to have a life of its own.  Shane made several valiant attempts  to land the wee beastie back on the deck, but on a constantly moving boat with only a few square metres of deck-space to play to play with, he eventually opted to test out the recently added flotation with a controlled landing in the sea next to the Porpoise…..the boat that is, not one of the pod of porpoise who were spotted lazily surfacing nearby.


From there we headed through the standing waves of the Dogs and on around the coast of that great wedge of an island called Scarba. Scarba has no resident human population, but as we rounded the corner we caught sight of three Golden Eagles circling above us effortlessly…. no rotors or recharging of batteries required by those majestic eyes in the sky. As we approached the Great Race, The whirlpool was not yet running at full spate but the water was already starting to boil and bubble and the sea all about was forming the kind of bizarre gravity defying shapes that are never usually associated with water .

Moving to the relative shelter of  a small seaweed festooned bay on the Scarba shoreside, Chris and Catriona pulled out their fiddle and the harp. As Chris tuned up his fiddle, Catriona held up her harp to the wind and encouraged it to play the strings untouched by human hand. For those few moments the Corryvreckan was allowed to play a haunting tune all of its very own.


Chris & Catriona then settled themselves down on the wooden benches to play a suitably spine-tingling improvised piece, dramatically supported by the backdrop of standing waves and increasingly turbulent sea. The small but select audience on board the boat appeared spellbound by both the unique performance and venue, and news of the one-off event obviously travelled fast as we were soon joined on the nearby island shore by a gang of wild and well horned white goats. The amazing music and the whirlpool combined to weave an entrancement of which the Cailleach herself would have been proud. But perhaps the mighty hag of winter felt that these upstart musical magicians were stealing too much of her thunder, as soon after the rain started and the instruments were forced rapidly back into their cases.


It was fascinating to be back in the Corryvreckan again having spent time working with the incredibly detailed 3D seabed maps of the area produced by SAMS for the INIS Hydro project. This return visit is literally given a whole new dimension after being able to virtually fly through the astonishing landscape beneath these waves. The previously unseen landscape which allied with the power of the tides produces the extraordinary turbulence that has made this place famous around the world.

Next we headed to a landing by dinghy in the Bay of Pigs, a sheltered spot on the remote north coast of Jura, not far the small rocky islet where Orwell and his family had been shipwrecked 66 years before.  Some of the team went cave hunting in the nearby cliffs while others headed up onto the Jura hillsides to gather images of the gulf from the land. At one point a monstrous freak wave was spotted out in the midst of the maelstrom that looked like it could have easily swamped the boat had we been foolish enough to still be there to taunt it.

Once the Jura landings were complete it was back to the Porpoise II.  With the sun shining again, and the height of the whirlpool passed its peak, Chris & Catriona performed the second set of a micro-concert that I’m sure will live long in the memories of the fortunate few to witness it, before the early spring chill set in and it was time to head for home. The journey back to Seil was full of good craic and wild-west coast sights to match.


After all… was a unique day that is as difficult to capture in words as it was to organise, so I will stop trying….. But I would like to say a big thanks to all the collaborators on board for their contributions and making the long planned adventure into such a compelling and memorable experience ….and if even a glimmer of the magic has made its way through the lens and microphone and into the camera then we will hopefully have something special to share with others, and to fire the film-music collaboration still to come.


From left to right: Andy Crabb, Duncan MacEachen, Catriona McKay, Shane Rodwell, Chris Stout, Frances Higson, Tom Wilding, Sarah Frost, Christine Beveridge & David Ainsley.

Thanks to: Chris Beveridge, Shane Rodwell and Tom Wilding for use of photos.


PART 1: The Giant Copepod

At last a few moments to catch  breath, look back and take stock on a long summer and early autumn full of journeys and surprises for Songs of the Scottish Sea:

The first part of the summer was spent close to home : working and creating with the Primary 3 and 4 pupils from Lochnell Primary School in Benderloch.

This part of the project was a true team creation, with great collaborations from Jessica Ashman, a Scottish Bafta winning animator and an amazing array of scientists from SAMS (Scottish Association for Marine Science) including Kyla Orr, Elaine Mitchell, Arelene Ditchfield, Helen McNeil and NeilClark; as well as local Scallop diver Dirk Campbell.

The work was focusing on the “Food of the Sea” element of the project, and was embraced with wide-open hearts and minds by the school (most especially Head teacher Shirley Matheson and Class/art teacher Alison McCrindle) as well as all the children, the scientists and the diver!

After a series of hands-on practical sessions looking at the marine food web, from microscope workshops looking at freshly caught copepods, beach trawls for flatfish, and climbing aboard a scallop divers RIB, the children wrote stories and storyboards that focused on the ever evolving food chain of the sea….Songs of the Scottish Sea took these wonderful stories and moulded them into a script for short film.



The film invloved a combination of live action and stop motion animation. The scientists went away and created a giant copepod (named Coco-pops by the children) to star in the film, which was then painted by the children….and soon we were set for the arrival of our animation guru Jessica Ashman. With the local hall invaded for the week, and our trusty camera mounted high in the beams, the floor of the hall became the underwater world. AlisonMcCrindle and the children created all the creatures and props, and with Jessica’s help we learnt…. to animate.


The children became the animators, some as characters in the film, others moving the sea creatures they had made with amazing focus and concentration. Intense days that stretched and challenged us all. But eventually we emerged blinking into the sunlight, the animation sequences in the bag.

With the animation complete we headed to Tralee beach for the live action element sequences:


Lasting over a month in all, the project was an incredible journey above and below the water for myself and all involved…..all that remains is the edit and post production…..and not forgetting the score to be composed and performed by Chris Stout & Catriona McKay.


Yo Ho Ho.

Songs of The Scottish Sea is heading out for nearly a month on the Ocean waves.

We will be departing Govan docks Glasgow on the morning of Friday 28th on the fine ship RRS James Cook…

Heading west for the Malin Shelf….where things get deep. In the fine company of thirty Marine physicists….a measuring we will go.

Three weeks without sight of land. I will probably hug the first tree I see when we land in Southampton on 24th July. Internet access is limited on the boat apparently, but if I get the chance I will keep you all posted!

Yo ho ho in deed!


A day in a rib in the bay between Glenelg and Skye with Marine Scientist Dr Steven Benjamins and Marine Technician Jim Elliot. Jim and Steven were deploying moored and drifting pods to listen for the movement of porpoise in this area of high tidal flow…..and the Purpose?

High tidal flow means high interest from renewable energy developers looking for sites for tidal turbines…..along with that the need to cause minimum disruption to resident or transient populations of cetacean. And… yes the Porpoise did come out to play, although not in a dramatic bottle-nose dolphin way….harbour porpoise are shy and not given to grand displays….Steven quoted an old tutor, saying that they are the field mice of the cetacean world….they are all around us, but you hardly ever see them!

Written by Andy Crabb

At the tail end of June, Songs of the Scottish Sea spent two fascinating days days on Islay, working with a group of eight S2 students from Islay High School. The students spent one afternoon learning to use the film gear and then next day went out on location and worked as a crew with great enthusiasm, focus and team work as if they had had been born to the task. Brilliant to see.

Islay is set to become a world focal point for marine renewables, with the Sound of Islay Tidal Array almost certain to be the first fully functioning array of tidal turbines in the world. Due to be constructed in 2013/2014 the array will consist of 10 tidal turbines producing more than enough power for Islay’s population of c.3500 people and 8 whisky distilleries.

This is a pilot project which will hopefully provide the experience and technology to move onto areas like the Pentland Firth, which could potentially supply power to millions of Scottish homes and businesses.

Islay already has a recent history of marine renewable development as it was the location for a prototype LIMPET (Land Installed Marine Powered Energy Transformer). The world’s first commercial wave energy device is to be found on the rocky coastline of the Rhinns of Islay near Portnahaven at the southern tip of the island. The students filmed the huge hulk of concrete that houses the device, set amongst the battered rocks of the Rhinns, and then went to talk to Mrs. Mary Merrall who is in her 80′s and has the croft where the device was built. She kindly took us all in for tea and cake, and regaled us with stories of the building of the LIMPET. Tales of earth shaking dynamite blasting and the unearthly noise of the first prototype built in 1991 that could be heard a mile away in the village, until the current model was relocated and reengineered in 2000. Since then the device has been sending 500KW of regular clean renewable power onto the national grid.

Later we went to an increasingly dreich Port Askaig on the Sound of Islay to talk to the Islay life boat crew about the power of the tide in the Sound, and then jumped aboard the ferry to Jura to experience for ourselves a boat fighting its way across the very same tide that will soon be powering the turbines 30 feet below the surface of the Sound. Islay, an island of stunning beauty, deep history and world famous whisky is now at the very heart of the development of our future energy supplies.


Thanks to Mrs. Mary Merrall for tea, cakes and tales; Andrew Macdonald of Islay Energy Trust for the photos, supplying the contacts and organising our schedule; Ian Stuart deputy head and IT wizard of Islay High School for embracing the project and organising students and transport; Allan Campbell for driving us all about with great patience, and last but definitely not least: Ailsa, Beth, Brandon, Eleanor, Katie, Kirsty, Nicole and Rachel for all their hard work and enthusiasm for filming. See you again soon.

Written by Andy Crabb

Seaweed…or Macro Algae has significant potential as a future renewable energy source and this is one of the areas being explored by the Biomara project (  led by the team at The Scottish Institute for Marine Science and working with 5 other institutions in the UK and Ireland.

Its a fascinating project, looking at Macro and Micro Algae, and how they could be commercially farmed and fermented to produce ethanol a sustainable source of power….I have always been intrigued by seaweed and human interaction, going back millenia, with the hugely diverse slippery stuff.

Micro Alage is just as fascinating, with the team looking at producing biodiesel from the very microscopic organisms that formed mineral oil in the first place…..making a new renewable non fossil oil from the sea.

As a first step on a journey into the world of Macro Algae, yesterday I took a trip with Biomara scientist Peter Schiener and our new Go Pro camera to look at the seaweed in the rising tide beneath the iconic Bridge over the Atlantic between the mainland and the Island of Seil. I also wanted to test out the time-lapse feature and the standard video capability, and check on its waterproofness before taking it into deeper waters. The music is provided by Catriona Mckay and Chris Stout who will be writing and performing the original scores for the Songs of the Scottish Sea.

Written by Andy Crab


Intrigued by an invite to the CORE (Creative Research into the Environment) Forum event at Edinburgh College of Art….

I jumped on the slow-train to Glasgow, can never tire of that west coast line….even though it travels about the same speed as many on the subcontinent, albeit with an absence of roof riders, not a possibility in this climate (and culture) unfortunately….

the landscape always gives you something new to lose yourself in, and even if its dark or blowing a gale, the train itself is reliably populated by an easy going assortment of west coast characters, travelers and tourists…..very different from the business commuting crowd on the Glasgow-Edinburgh train.

Edinburgh looking at its best in the March sunlight. very tasty steaming mug of Pea and Ham soup from the carry out cafe at the gates of ECA, before getting directions from the friendliest college security man.

Met some great folk, and had a good chat with Stephen Hurrel about his innovative work with Ruth Brennan (also based at SAMS) and fishing communities around Barra and the Irish coast….

and an equally fascinating and memorable exchange with Alistair Peebles, who contributed to a three way collaborative presentation about Billia Croo, the bay on the Atlantic coast of Mainland Orkney which is a world focus for marine renewable energies. Alistair spoke about Photographer and Gardener Gunnie Moberg, who lived close to the bay.

To my shame, I had never come across Gunnie’s work before, but instantly took a great shine to Alistair’s account of her. Got a strong sense of the work as well as her all-engaging warmth of personality. Her passion for gardening in a challenging landscape and her love of creative collaboration and freedom of thought and vision reminded me of Derek Jarman, who had such an influence on myself as a young filmmaker in the 1980′s and 90′s….chatted with Alistair about this intriguing connection, before charging through the maze of Edinburgh streets behind the castle to make my connection back home to the wild-West.

Grand day out. Thanks to Jane Warrilow for the Invite.

Written by Andy Crabb

Good chat with Dr John Howe, talking multi-beam sonar and side scan sonar scanning of sea beds, making new highly accurate admiralty charts, replacing the old charts that were made with weights on lengths of rope….

I lost the plot with science as a thirteen year old, but now I find myself amazed and intrigued by this new world that is opening up….

got a day booked on the multi beam sonar boat, and put a high hand up for a place when they get to scanning the …..”The Corryvreckan is the third largest whirlpool in the world, and is on the northern side of the gulf, surrounding a pyramid-shaped basalt pinnacle that rises from depths of 70 m to 29 m at its rounded top. Flood tides and inflow from the Firth of Lorne to the west can drive the waters of Corryvreckan to waves of over 30 feet (9 m), and the roar of the resulting maelstrom can be heard ten miles (16 km) away.”

Written by Andy Crab

Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 11.25.06

Third day into this incredible marine science/ film residency undersea adventure on the wild-west coast.

Went to meet the sea glider (made by iRobot!) with its main keeper Dr Toby Sherwin. SAMS have two of these astonishing techno-creatures.

They have no motor propulsion but travel the seas by adjusting their internal balance point and buoyancy….and quite literally glide….at the stately speed of 1/2 knot down to a maximum of 1000metres and back up again, gathering data such as sea salinity and temperature as they slowly make their way…..

Because of this super low energy method of travel, they can travel for up to 5 months at a time, surfacing sending their data back to their “parent” (via satellite), who can be thousands of miles away, and then diving once again.

They tell the story of their journeys through the data they gather, but have no visual capability….its very dark down at 1000metres! But they have  have an incredible story to tell….and sometimes they do get lost.

One of the two gliders at SAMS had to rescued near the Faroe islands last year.

I’m like a kid who has woken up in a Jacques Cousteau film just now.

Written by Andy Crabb