Collections Corner – Corryvreckan
“The famous and dangerous gulf, called Cory Vrekan”
So wrote Martin Martin (ca 1655-1719), a native of Skye, in his A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, [ca. 1695], first published in 1703. RSGS has a copy of the 1716 second edition.
RSGS Collections Committee Chair Margaret Wilkes could not resist examining the portrayal and naming of this notorious natural phenomenon off Scotland’s west coast on a few early maps and charts from the Society’s collections, as well as how it was described by locals, in an attempt to provide historical and pictorial background to our Chief Executive, Mike Robinson’s planned swim across it from Jura to Scarba this August.
The earliest surviving textual account, in which there is reference to the Corryvreckan written by a person with local knowledge, is by Donald Monro, High Dean of the Isles, in his Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, of 1549. In a manuscript version of his work, Monro after describing Jura (Diurey), writes: ‘thair runs ane stream above the power of all sailing and rowing with infinite dangeris callit Arey brekan. This stream is 8 myle lang, quhilk may not be hantit but be certane tydes’. Monro’s text did not become widely known until much later, yet despite this, two late-16th mapmakers working in the Low Countries – and who, as far as is known, had never visited Scotland – already knew of its existence. On one of the earliest maps to show Scotland as a separate geographical entity – as opposed to it being portrayed as a part of the British Isles – the celebrated Flemish geographer and mapmaker Abraham Ortelius’s map of Scotland (below in full and with separate detail), produced in Antwerp around 1573, shows the name Corebreyken in the sea to the east of what he names as Iona (though actually referring to Jura, for he includes the real Iona too in an approximate position to reality).Just over 20 years later, in 1595, the world-famous cosmographer, engraver, mapmaker and geographer, Gerard Mercator – friend and rival of Ortelius – working in Duisburg, includes on the southern sheet of his 2-sheet map of the Kingdom of Scotland, not only the name ‘Korebreken’, but adds to his beautifully engraved sea the splendidly-evocative symbol of a whirlpool.
Although Mercator’s striking depiction lends colour to the dangers of this sea passage, exactly a hundred years later in 1695, the afore-mentioned Martin Martin, with his local knowledge, conveys something more of the Corryvreckan’s dramatic effects: ‘Between the north end of Jura, and the isle Scarba, lies the famous and dangerous gulf, called Cory Vrekan, about a mile in breadth; it yields an impetuous current, not to be matched anywhere about the isle of Britain. The sea begins to boil and ferment with the tide of flood, and resembles the boiling of a pot; and then increases gradually, until it appears in many whirlpools, which form themselves in sort of pyramids, and immediately after spout up as high as the mast of a little vessel, and at the same time make a loud report. These white waves run two leagues with the wind before they break; the sea continues to repeat these various emotions from the beginning of the tide of flood , until it is more that half-flood, and then it decreases gradually until it hath ebbed about half an hour, and continues to boil till it is within an hour of low water’. Martin continues: ‘Notwithstanding this great ferment of the sea, which brings up the least shell from the ground, the smallest fisher-boat may venture to cross this gulf at the last hour of the tide of flood, and at the last hour of the tide of ebb’. His accompanying map, produced for him by a London-based mapmaker, Herman Moll, in contrast to Martin’s powerful text, is deliberately simple in line with the design of the map, indicating ‘Gulf of Cory Vrackan’ only.
Other map and chart makers over the ensuing centuries included reference to the dangers of this sea passage, for example in 1781, a Cumbrian-born mariner and sea-chart producer, Captain Joseph Huddart FRS, included it on his chart of the southern part of Scotland’s west coast, describing it as, ‘Dangerous Gulf of Coryvreckan’, and adding two coiled circles to indicate the whirlpools.
In conclusion, we must not forget the writer George Orwell’s experience of the Corryvreckan in 1947, when living at Barnhill towards the north-east corner of Jura. Taking a day off from writing ‘Nineteen Eight-Four‘, Orwell took family and friends on a boat through it, but the boat foundered in the currents and Orwell and party were lucky to survive, being rescued by locals from a nearby uninhabited island. A contemporary British Admiralty Hydrographic Office chart in the Society’s possession – gifted recently by a Member – indicates the dangers which Orwell and all intending sailors could – and still can – encounter when traversing this dangerous sea passage.
Thank you to Margaret for taking the time to find so many examples of the Corryvreckan’s appearance through history and good luck to Mike on his swim!