Monthly Archives: July 2015

Singularity vs. Anomaly

On our recent holiday in Scotland, my husband and I discussed the difference between singularity and anomaly; specifically, we were trying to decide whether we would call the Corryvreckan one or the other (as one does).

Corryvreckan WhirlpoolThe Corryvreckan, which is the strait between the isles of Jura and Scarba off the West Coast of Scotland, contains the world’s third largest whirlpool (following the Saltstraumen off of Norway, and the Moskstraumen, also off Norway), and is considered by many as the most dangerous scuba dive in the UK (there’s only a few minutes’ safe diving time there; when your bubbles start to go down, not up, you’ve overstayed your welcome).  Planted underwater in the middle of the strait is a giant pinnacle of basalt (the same rock that created the Scottish Isle of Staffa, and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland); its position means that when tides flow in or out, they end up being churned into a broiling mass of suck-ships-under sea.

The name of Corryvreckan comes from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain – “Cauldron of the Plaid”, and is connected with a myth of Cailleach Bheur, an old hag who was said to stir the waters of the strait in order to wash her plaid.  The English word whirlpool comes from Old English wirfelmere; in German this word paints the image of rolling dice (Würfel) on the ocean (Meer).  Harmlessly small swirling vortices of water are known as whirlpools, and you can see them when you drain a sink or flush a loo. But the more appropriate word for the ship-eating monster-vortices is the Norwegian word Maelstrom; since they have several of the largest, most dangerous ones, I think it’s only fair that they get to name them.

Now, is it a singularity or an anomaly?

Singularity:  “Anything singular, rare, or curious; the state of being singular, distinct, peculiar, uncommon or unusual.”

Anomaly:  “Something or someone that is strange or unusual; any event or measurement that is out of the ordinary regardless of whether it is exceptional or not.”

Our debate on which word to apply to the Corryvreckan is a tie, I think.  While it’s not singular as far as being the only maelstrom in the world, it is distinct, unusual and extraordinary; it’s an anomaly in the geological and topographical sense, which gives it its power and dangerous currents.  If you ever decide to check it out, don’t do it without a local guide unless you’re insane; if you are insane, enjoy washing your clothes with Cailleach Bheur.

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I got Staffa’d

If you’ve wondered why my last post was over a month ago, it’s because when I go on holiday I do just that – I take leave of life, of schedules, of obligations and responsibilities.  Now that I’m back, I thought I’d share some of my experiences.

They say you should write what you know; after our recent holidays to Scotland, I can now add to my arsenal that of being badly injured on a remote, uninhabited island!

DSCN5357 - The Isle of Staffa, from Ship

The Isle of Staffa

If you’ve never heard of the small Isle of Staffa, you don’t know what you’ve been missing:  Made of basalt columns, the island and its outcrops rise out of the Atlantic in an otherworldly fashion.  For hundreds of years tourists have been going to see this phenomenon of nature, and in  1829 it even inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave).  Fingal is the figure in the legend connecting Staffa with the same geology in Ireland known as the Giant’s Causeway:  The legend is that Fingal was a Gaelic giant who had a feud with an Ulster giant; in order to fight Fingal, the Ulster giant built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland.  Irish tales differ to Scottish as to how the causeway was destroyed, but only the two ends remained – one at Staffa and the other in Antrim, Northern Ireland.  Other famous visitors to the island include Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Queen Victoria and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Now to my own experience:  My husband Stefan and I were on the Isle of Mull off of the west coast of Scotland; we left our motor home there for the day and took a small boat, along with about thirty other hearty souls, on a 50-minute ride across open ocean to Staffa.  It is never guaranteed that the boats can actually land on the island, but on the day we took the excursion the weather was perfect, and the sea was as calm as open sea can be without the doldrums.

A larger ship than ours, boarding passengers at Staffa Pier.

A larger ship than ours, boarding passengers at Staffa Pier.

To get to the stone pier on Staffa, here’s how it’s done:  The captain of the boat waits outside of the jagged basalt outcrops jutting out from the island until a wave swells large enough to heave the boat in; then he revs the engine and speeds up to the pier on the lift of the wave.  From there, passengers are gradually handed off one at a time whenever the boat and the pier are relatively even between the swell of waves.  This same process is repeated to reload passengers, and the same at the pier of Mull (without the jagged rocks).

We landed safely and were walking, carefully watching each step on the uneven hexagonal basalt columns, toward Fingal’s Cave; I was literally thirty steps from the cave when my left ankle turned on a column that was apparently split, though the two surfaces were not visible on the black stones due to the angle of the sun.  Turned, as in dislocated… as in the foot was completely sideways at an angle one should never have to see one’s own foot!  I grabbed for the railing to keep from falling and swung myself to sit on a taller column; Stefan was right there, and I told him to “grab my ankle and wrench it back into place!”  Fortunately he didn’t stop to think about it – he just did it!  I could feel that it wasn’t broken, but it wasn’t going to be happy with me either.

Just passing us on their way back from the cave were a Canadian fire fighter’s wife and her adult son; she knew first aid and went into immediate action, having us pour cold water on my sock to keep it soaked and cold since we had no ice pack; she also gave me strong Tylenol and some extra to keep the pain and swelling in check.  I think my husband was in a bit of shock at what had just happened; I asked him to go on to the cave and take photos since I wouldn’t make it… it was also a way of giving him time to adjust, and to let him know that I wasn’t seriously injured, though I only thought of those reasons later.  The woman and her son helped me back to the stone pier; what had taken me five minutes to walk took twenty minutes back.  Now, remember how they landed the boat and disembarked passengers?  Do that with one foot.  Twice.

DSCN5386 - The Isle of Staffa

A bit of surf

The boat crew called the doctor on Mull, and he met us at his practice (once we manoeuvred the motor home up the single-track roads there).  Without an x-ray machine he couldn’t tell if it was broken; perhaps hairline fractured.  If that were the case, either way I’d just need to keep my foot elevated; a compression tube sock was my only new wardrobe accessory.  When we got out to have lunch in a pub at Fionnphort (the port for excursions), the waitress asked what happened and then said, “Let me guess:  Staffa?”  Thus, apparently, I can be added to a long list of injured tourists who got Staffa’d.

The blessing in disguise of it happening only a few days into our holidays was that I had two weeks of forced inaction to elevate my foot; thanks to the “brilliant” NHS system of Britain, it was impossible to get a pair of crutches that might have enabled me to leave the motor home (in Switzerland, one stop at the pharmacy got me rented crutches), so I got to see Scotland from the inside of the ‘home!  It wasn’t our first trip there, and certainly won’t be our last, so I didn’t miss a once-in-a-lifetime trip; and my attitude is that complaining about lost opportunities is simply a waste of time and energy – the situation was what it was, and we made the best of it.  My husband became my eyes and ears outside of the ‘home, and when he was out on hikes and excursions I got a lot of reading and writing toward my next novel done!  I still have a month to go of behaving myself – no dancing, hiking, or even driving a car – so I guess I’ll have a lot more time to read and write! (PS – That month turned into four months… and then six months.)

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