The tip of the Mull of Kintyre points south towards the Irish Sea like a swollen finger. In doing so it constricts the powerful tidal streams which have squeezed through the narrow North Channel between Northern Ireland and the Scottish mainland. The accelerated water squirts along past the chain of islands, Islay and Jura, Scarba and Lunga, producing ripples and eddies, whirls and waves which for centuries have played havoc with sea navigation in this area.
You only have to say the word ‘Corryvreckan’ to conjure up terror in the minds of generations of sailors but the renowned whirlpool there is no more scary than the Dorus Mor passage off Craignish point, the so called ‘Big Door’ through which two opposing currents rush at speeds faster than most sailing boats can move. Our own passage through this was timed precisely as the tide was turning, thus avoiding the worst of the rough stuff.
Clearly this is not a healthy area to spend much time in a boat during stormy weather. So health and safety must clearly have been on someone’s mind two hundred years ago (even if the expression itself was not in everyday use at that time) as it was in 1801 that construction of the Crinan Canal was completed.
The sole purpose of this 9 mile waterway is to create a safe passage through from the Western Isles to the Clyde, in doing so avoiding the terrifying turbulence off the end of Kintyre and considerably shortening the sailing distance as well.
For the next 150 or so years the canal flourished as a trade route to the Isles and it was only by the 1960s that road transport finally became a more viable option and the canal fell into disuse. Today we can thank the canal builders and be grateful for the health and safety concerns of our forefathers who have left us with this remarkable working historic monument, now maintained for and used entirely by yachts and pleasure craft such as ours. It is narrow and tree-lined for most of its length, quaintly out of step with the modern world with its manually operated lock gates and tiny bridges operated by wires and weights and levers, but it has become our home for a while as we pause here on our travels.
From a distance, boats using the Crinan Canal appear to hover between the trees as if suspended in mid air and drawn along by invisible string. The place has a strange fairy-tale atmosphere which we share with the many swallows who skim acrobatically over the water, with herons and ducks, with voles and no doubt with the owls who depend on them, with Canada and pink-footed geese and with soaring hen harriers whose screams shatter the peace and echo around the treetops. Also here are the bones of long-gone inhabitants whose 5000 year-old standing stones are still pointing skywards in the place they now call Moine Mhor, the Great Moss. Up to 5 metres of peat has formed since these people roamed here and the land has risen, is still rising, from the crush of the last ice age so it is hard to imagine what their world was like, how they lived and what they lived on. The fact that there are traces at all is just amazing.
Today the area is sparsely populated and the local bus to our nearest town, Lochgilphead, is driven every day by the same man who remembers each passenger, thus obviating the need to issue tickets for a return journey. His bus is always on time although his weather forecasts have proved less reliable, indeed woefully wrong on one occasion, resulting in a good soaking for us on what he predicted to be a dry day. It is a poor show when you can’t rely on the bus driver for an accurate weather forecast.