Coire nan Cuairt-shruthan Mara (The Boiling Sea-cauldron of Argyll)
Seall sa Ghàidhlig
Hillwalkers in the Scottish Highlands regularly meet with the Gaelic word coire ‘cauldron’ (pronounced ‘KOR-uh’) – a hollow that resembles the shape of such a vessel. However, it is arguable that Scotland’s most famous coire is not to be found in the mountains but in the sea between the islands of Jura and Scarba in Argyll. Here the sea ‘boils’, as in a cauldron, when the tidal stream races across the dissected seabed between the two islands, creating some of the most spectacular whirlpools in the world. If you’re going to visit Coire Bhreacain, anglicised Corryvreckan, it’s advisable to go with a reputable tourism operator. This is not a place for kayakers or casual sailors in small boats.
The Gaelic word breacan can mean a plaid, and one explanation of the feature’s name is that it is where the Cailleach Bheur, a mythical goddess, washes her plaid every autumn, using the Gulf of Corryvreckan as a gigantic washtub. However, she does such a fine job that the plaid comes out pure white. Laid out across the mountains to dry, it becomes the winter snow that cloaks the landscape.
An alternative narrative is that Breacan was a Norse king who wished to marry a daughter of the Lord of the Isles. To prove his worthiness, he had to keep his birlinn at anchor in the famous whirlpool for three days. Tragically, he failed the test, and the vessel was swallowed by the turbulent waters. The only survivor was Breacan’s grey dog who pulled his master’s body to shore. Bealach a’ Choin Ghlais ‘the strait of the grey dog’, to the north of Sgarba, commemorates the loyal hound, and Coire Bhreacain recalls the lost king.
The writer George Orwell, while working on his classic novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ on Jura, took some family members in a small boat to Corryvreckan in August 1947. The whirlpools and tempestuous waters caused the boat’s outboard motor to plunge into the sea and it was with difficulty that the party made it to a rock where they were rescued by passing fishermen. Had Orwell joined the ill-fated Breacan, he would never have completed one of the twentieth century’s most famous novels.