Isle of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave

A couple of days ago I took the MB Iolaire from Fionnphort to Staffa. The last time I’d been to Staffa was 1982, on a yachting holiday. The Atlantic had been like a mill-pond, and we’d been surrounded by a pod of pilot whales between Iona and Staffa. In decades of sailing, it was the first time my parents had managed to land there.

Monday’s trip was different. It was a steady force three, with intermittent sun. The commentary on the MB Iolaire was excellent, and the skipper talked to every person on the trip individually. I shot this video on the approach to the island:

There’s a decent walkway over the tops of the basalt columns to the mouth of the cave. In the intervening years a lightly sanded bitumen has been added for safety. The cable handrail continues inside the cave until a safety chain blocks the way. It wasn’t there when I was a teenager. I went underneath the barrier and continued a few metres forward across the slippery, algae-covered basalt. I stopped about ten feet from where I ventured in my teens. It wasn’t so much that I’ve become less daring; more that I wasn’t confident I had the right footwear. In my experience running shoes are better on algae than walking shoes. Another guy went after me and slipped a couple of times before stopping short of where I’d reached. I shot the following video of the ‘eternally surging sea’.

The Gaelic name is An Uamh Bhin – ‘the melodious cave’. Composer Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to write the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony after visiting. The rocks are hexagonal basalt crystals, formed 55m to 58m years ago as part of the volcanic activity which took place as the Atlantic ocean widened. They sit on a bed of volcanic ash (tuff). At that time the island was at a latitude of about 40 degrees north (the Spanish capital, Madrid, is dead on 40), rather than the 60 degrees it is now. The cave is 20m high and 75m long. Before the sea levels rose 14,000 years ago Staffa was not an island, but was part of the same land mass as Iona and Mull. It’s extraordinary to think what it would have looked like back then. What now-extinct Ice Age giants sheltered inside? Did Stone Age humans reach it before the sea? What would they have made of its other-worldly sculpture, sitting in the landscape like an alien spacecraft? Jules Verne visited in 1839, and I can’t help but feel it must have in some way inspired the classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864).

It was unknown to the English-speaking world until a visit by Joseph Banks in 1772. It’s easy to forget that less than 250 years ago this was a Gaelic-speaking area ruled by clans that no Scottish king was ever able to rule effectively. It appears that only one family ever lived there, and that they abandoned it by 1800 after they could stand the storms no more. Their ruined stone house tells you that nature always wins out in the end. Staffa’s oceanic stranding and isolation saved it for us.

That was one hell of a creativity break, provided by Mother Nature herself. I’ll be incorporating this into a novel in the very near future. Next time I visit I’ll wear running shoes and take a better quality microphone.

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