The Sound You Can See

A riddle, set by his father, proves a challenge for the young Prentice McHoan – ‘What is the sound you can see?’ Iain Bank’s novel, ‘The Crow Road’, provides the context; and Prentice is the central character growing up in mid Argyll.

Although the solution lay close by, the boy can’t work out the correct answer to the strange question. Could it be the wind, perhaps? Eventually, on a sunny Spring day, his father lets on. They’re up at the broch looking down on passing sail boats when the answer is revealed – it’s the Sound of Jura!

What a brilliant sight it is – that great body of water separating Knapdale and mid Argyll from Scarba and Jura. For a good vantage point, I can recommend the hill fort at Castle Dounie, between Crinan and Carsaig.

I stood at the very spot one Saturday afternoon in late June 2013, reflecting upon Iain’s legacy and the irony of recent events. For, earlier that month he himself was gone away the crow road. An untimely departure hastened by cancer of the gall-bladder. Scotland remains bereft of a literary giant.

Mine was a deliberate journey, planned with intent and timed to perfection. A cloudless sky with sufficient onshore breeze to keep both the heat and midges at bay.  Equipped with a single malt, I headed up the forestry tracks from Crinan Harbour as the light was softening. Soon the sinuous contours of the Add estuary lazed below like nesting vipers. While the hills rose-up around the Moine Mhor like the rim of a cereal bowl.

The rays had lengthened further by the time I looked out from Castle Dounie.  Straight across was Barnhill – the remote bothy near the north end of Jura where George Orwell holed up to write Nineteen Eight Four.  Beside sat the lumpen island of Scarba; a purple whale-back forming the opposite bank of the Gulf of Corryvreckan.

As the world’s third largest whirlpool, it provides an appropriate residence for the fiercest of the Highland storm kelpies. The old sea hag is called Cailleach, and she nearly finished Orwell when he tried to cross the Corryvreckan. He survived the boating accident, but immediately contracted tuberculosis and was dead within 3 years.

No sign of the furies though, as I leaned back against lichened stones and took my dram. On both sides, ancient monuments looked down on colourful sails drifting past benign headlands. Further South, near Craighouse, the evening sun danced off the water like a coffee advert. Aye, Iain, right you are – the sound you can see is indeed a magical place.

But don’t take your leave of me just yet, Mr. Banks, because we’re not done with our musings here. For, I have a question that warrants your perspective:

‘I recall your commitment to the raw spirit; and the creative inspiration that come from imbibing the perfect dram in the right place – now that you’re away the crow road who’s going to celebrate this culturally important pastime?’

As with Prentice, it took a while for the solution to become apparent. But, Iain’s mandate was received, with clarity, as I looked down on the white flecks kicked off the Dorus Mor by the running tide. Divination bestowed by sharing a single malt in the right company, at Castle Dounie.

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