Pilgrimage to Orwell
3. ORWELL'S CORRVRECKAN WHIRLPOOL
Saturday and Sunday, August 7 and 8, 2004
Another thing I was excited about as we planned the trip to Jura was the idea of maybe walking to the northern tip of the island after we'd visited Barnhill. In the biographies I'd read the exciting story (in the words of Orwell's nephew, Henry Dakin) about Orwell being sucked into the Corryvreckan Whirlpool* and surviving it. I thought it would be exciting to look at that stretch of water.
As things turned out, though, we didn't walk to the Corryvreckan Whirlpool after VISITING ORWELL'S BARNHILL because my husband didn't feel up to walking the extra three miles there and three miles back. As he so Orwellingly put it, "three plus three equals six" and I couldn't argue with that. But indirectly - later - we DID experience the Corryvrecken whirlpool as I explain below:
After leaving Jura on Sunday and arriving by ferry at Kennacraig we met a hitchhiker from Ireland who needed a ride to the Glasgow airport. He and friends had sailed from Belfast to Islay the day before in a big rubber boat but couldn't go back that way because strong winds had come up. His friends were still in Islay waiting for calm waters so they could sail back as planned. But he had to be at work on Monday and couldn't wait.
During the course of the next couple of hours, as we drove along the road to Glasgow, I told him all about George Orwell. Talk about a captured audience!
When I got to the part about how Orwell almost died a couple of times, ie the first time when he got shot through the neck in Spain and the second time when he got sucked into the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, he got really interested. It turns out that the day before - which was Saturday, the same day we'd been at Barnhill - he'd sailed along the coast of Jura and through the Corryvrecken whirlpool in the rubber boat. They'd passed Barnhill on the way and remarked to each other that that was Orwell's house. That would have been at around the same time that we were there.
When I told him that Orwell and his son, niece and nephew had washed up on a little island after the boat flipped over he knew exactly which 'rock' it would have been, having so recently seen it himself. He then went on to explain the speeds at which a person's boat has to be able to travel if it starts getting pulled in and how Orwell's little boat wouldn't have had a chance. He said the whirlpool happens during tide times and then you can see it from the cliff, churning around like a bathtub drain, but otherwise it's not noticeable. He said he'd be interested in reading about Orwell's Corryvreckan experience and also that he planned to read "1984" as soon as he got home.
By this time we were approaching Glasgow and when we stopped to check our bearings to the airport another car pulled up and asked directions to the toll bridge. When we told them we were lost ourselves and heading toward Newcastle after dropping off our hitch-hiker at the airport they offered to take him there for us and gave us directions through Glasgow avoiding the bridge. So we quickly waved our Corryvreckan hitch-hiker goodbye, had a bite to eat in downtown Glasgow, and then followed signs to The South, with a stop at Hadrian's Wall along the way.
go next to 4. ANCESTRAL BOOK ENDS TO ORWELL or back to index at PILGRIMAGE TO ORWELL
(reader sends photo) PETER PICS ORWELL'S WHIRLPOOL
The Hebridean island that inspired Nineteen Eighty-Four
(still exerts strong pull on Orwell's adopted son)
by Allan Brown, Sunday Times, Nov 23, 2008
Give or take the slippage occasioned by the vagaries of Hebridean Mean Time, it was 60 years ago this fortnight that, in a freezing, halfderelict attic room at the northern tip of Jura, George Orwell typed the closing sentence — “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother” — of the novel that has colonised the contemporary imagination like no other.... The last living link with the composition of history’s most unlikely blockbuster, fashioned in the least plausible of settings, is Richard Horatio Blair, the son Orwell adopted as a baby in 1944. Blair is the inheritor of Orwell’s estate, a thriving concern benefiting from its subject’s immortal renown as the laureate of austere fretfulness; annually, the estate earns Blair a six-figure sum, he says, “though I wouldn’t like to specify whether it’s at the high or low end of that spectrum”. The less tangible dividend of the association, however, has been Blair’s indelible and life-long connection to the place that inspired, sustained but exhausted his illustrious father....Though based in Warwickshire and retired after a career in farm machinery, Blair retains a cottage funded by his father’s royalties at Ardfern, and visits Jura several times a year. The island, he says, has become his “spiritual home”.
Perhaps the most infamous tale of Orwell’s time on Jura concerns his disastrous attempt to pilot a small craft through the perilous Gulf of Corryvreckan, the world’s third-largest whirlpool, a tumultuous, boiling passage off the island of Scarba. Hopelessly ill-prepared, the writer and his son ended up drenched and shipwrecked on Eilean Mor: “I try not to think about that one too often,” Blair says, “because with a legend like my father, fact and fiction get mixed so readily. People sometimes add details. It’s better to keep a little distance between yourself and your memories.”
In recognition of this event in the Orwell mythology, though, Blair has stipulated in his will that, when the time comes, his ashes are to be scattered in the whirlpool. Because Corryvreckan so nearly claimed him in life, he says, it’s welcome to have him in death: “It will be my final farewell, having them cast into that Gulf,” says Blair. “I put my uncle Bill’s ashes there, my father’s brother-in-law, and I’m going to go the same way. I shall always be very proud of my father and our trip there, ill-fated as it was.”....
The surviving accounts of life at Barnhill, by various friends who did manage the epic journey, depict a spartan Corinthian cabal, with Avril managing the house and vegetable patches, Richard being cared for by his nanny, Susan Watson, the farmland being tended by Orwell’s brother-in-law, Bill Dunn, and Orwell occasionally sleeping in a tent in the garden to clear his lungs, with each day soundtracked by the ceaseless clatter of his typewriter as Nineteen Eighty-Four neared completion in his work room above the kitchen.
Even today, the ceiling above his work desk is stained with the yellow residue of his mammoth Black Shag habit. His claw-footed bathtub remains, too. There is a framed photograph of Orwell on the mantelpiece and the rusting hulk of his hay rick lies at the bottom of the garden, separated by a pebbly strand from the lapping Sound of Jura. Otherwise, the house’s interior has been rejigged and remodelled several times since Orwell’s day, a consequence of its current role as a holiday home, for rent at £500 a week....
But not Blair. “I remember Barnhill as a perfectly happy place in which to have grown up. Even though my father was not feeling well a lot of the time, I still think it’s unfair to describe Barnhill as glum. It was a fairly jolly existence, by and large. We did things together. We would go out on boats. We’d go fishing in the evenings. We’d check the lobster pots. So, I’d draw the line long before I got to ‘glum’.” He does, though, recall splitting his head open when he fell off a chair onto a china jug as Orwell made him a toy at his workbench: “The near-drowning in Corryvreckan stands out fairly sharply, obviously,” he recalls....
*Orwell's nephew Henry Dakin describes Corryvreckan Whirlpool experience
(excerpt from "Orwell: A Life" by Bernard Crick)
"...When we turned round the point there was already a fair swell, the boat was rising and falling a lot, but we were not worried because Eric seemed to know what he was doing and he did spend a lot of time mending and caulking the boat, and we had an outboard motor. But as we came round the point obviously the whirlpool had not receded. The Corryvreckan is not just the famous one big whirlpool, but a lot of smaller whirlpools around the edges. Before we had a chance to turn, we went straight into the minor whirlpools and lost control. Eric was at the tiller, the boat went all over the place, pitching and tossing, very frightening being thrown from one small whirlpool to another, pitching and tossing so much that the outboard motor jerked right off from its fixing. Eric said, "the motor's gone, better get the oars out, Hen. Can't help much, I'm afraid". So I unshipped the oars and partly with the current and partly with the oars, but mostly with the current, tried to steady her and we made our way to a little island. Even though that bit of it was very frightening, nobody panicked. Eric didn't panic, but nobody else did either. Indeed, when he said he couldn't help you very much, he said it very calmly and flatly. He was sitting at the back of the boat, he wasn't particularly strong, I was younger and stronger and sitting near the oars.
We got close to a little rock island and as the boat rose we saw that it was rising and falling about twelve feet. I had taken my boots off in case I had to swim for it, but as the boat rose level with the island, I jumped round with the painter in my hand all right, though sharp rocks painful on the feet, turned but saw the boat had fallen down. I still had my hand on the painter but the boat had turned upside down. First Lucy appeared, Eric appeared next and cried out, "I've got Ricky all right". Eric had grabbed him as the boat turned and pulled him out from under the boat. He had to swim from the end of the boat to the side of the island, still hanging on to Ricky. He seemed to keep his normal "Uncle Eric" face the whole time, no panic from him or from anyone. And they were all able to clamber up on to the island. . . . So we were left on this island about a hundred yards long and I could not see all of it because the rocks rose in folds — we were left with the boat, one oar, a fishing rod and our clothes. Eric got his cigarette lighter out, never went anywhere without it, and put it out on a rock to dry. We had not been there three minutes when he said he would go off and find some food. A slightly ridiculous thing, it struck me afterwards, because we had had breakfast only two hours before and the last thing that any of us was thinking of was eating or of hunger. When he came back, the first thing he said was, "Puffins are curious birds, they live in burrows. I saw some baby seagulls, but I haven't the heart to kill them."
"I thought we were goners", he concluded. He almost seemed to enjoy it. We waved a shirt on the fishing rod about, and after about one and a half hours a lobster boat spotted us and picked us up. Picked us up with some difficulty, because he could not come up close to the island because of the swell and had to throw a rope across and we clambered along the rope one by one, Eric taking Ricky on his back. The lobsterman landed us at the north of the island and we just walked about a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes and came across Avril and Jane working hard hoeing in a field. They said to us, "What took you so long?"
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