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…..it 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.