Article | Scotland

Uncovering the Many Layers of Staffa

What do a volcano, a giant, Queen Victoria, an overture, and a fantastic Zodiac cruise all have in common? Why, the Isle of Staffa, of course! Layered with geology, history, archaeology, mythology, and music, Staffa is a highlight of our Scotland Slowly expeditions. Ian Tamblyn’s fascinating article teaches us more.
Staffa Fingals Cave Scotland

© Dennis Minty

There is a small island in the heart of the Inner Hebrides that possesses nearly all things Scottish you might ever hope to see. That island is called Staffa and you will find it en route to the far more renowned isles of Iona and Mull. Though at first humble in appearance, Staffa is layered with geology, history, archaeology, mythology, and music. And if that weren’t enough, it is home to many sea birds, including a small colony of puffins.

There are perhaps only three things that Staffa lacks: a distillery, a pub, and a castle—but you will see quite enough of those elsewhere in Scotland!

What’s in a Name?

The name Staffa came from the Vikings, who travelled these parts starting in the eight century and named the island after the vertical wooden staves used in the construction of their houses. What the Vikings saw on Staffa was not wood, but in fact gigantic pillars of columnar basalt.

Columnar basalt occurs in lava fields that formed between 55-58 million years ago as the Atlantic Ocean was beginning to take shape. This particular lava field includes the islands of Mull, Iona, as well as the Giant’s Causeway across the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland. In fact, Staffa’s Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway connect in parallel mythologies about the origins of these formations.

Geology

Columnar basalt is created by the relatively slow and uninterrupted cooling of a lava field. As lava cools, it shrinks and cracks, similar to the way mud does as it dries. The vertical hexagonal columns we see at places like Staffa are shrink cracks (also called columnar joints) associated with the lava’s slow cooling.

Although the dominant column shape is six-sided, they can also occur as four-, five-, or seven-sided, reflecting, among other things, the rate at which the lava cooled. If you take a look at Staffa from a distance, you will also be able to make out three definitive horizontal lava flows, with the top layer being the most recent flow event.

Inside Fingals Cave basalt columns Scotland

© Dennis Minty

The mouth of Fingal's Cave, Isle of Staffa

One of the most dramatic examples of columnar basalt on Staffa is, of course, Fingal’s Cave, located on the south end of the island. Like a gaping mouth open wide, the unrelenting ocean has taken advantage of weaknesses in the lava flow to carve out the cave. When there is a good sea running, the explosion of waves entering and exiting the cave is truly astounding. The cave itself is enormous. It is twenty metres high and seventy-five metres long, and for me, a musician, the sound of the reverberation and echo in the cave is phenomenal.

Mythology

Every age and culture have mythological explanations for natural phenomena, and in this case, Scottish tales about the island of Staffa and Irish lore about the Giant’s Causeway share a mythological commonality.

Tellings vary, but as far as I can figure out, Finn MacCool was an Irish giant who took up a quarrel with a Scottish giant by the name of Fingal. (But it is possible that Fingal also refers to another giant Scot by the name of Benondonner.) At some point, MacCool’s temper got the best of him and he began tossing rocks at Fingal, creating the Giant’s Causeway. One of the errant rocks may have also created the Isle of Man.

The mythology would have it that Fingal said he would come over to Ireland and give MacCool a whoopin’ if only he could swim. MacCool obliged him by throwing more rocks across the way and Fingal then marched over on the rocks to pay Mr. MacCool his respects. Seeing the Scot approaching, MacCool realized he had bitten off more than he could chew. He quickly fashioned a large crib and hopped in, disguising himself in baby’s clothing.

Giants Causeway Ireland

© Dennis Minty

The Giant's Causeway, Ireland

Upon Fingal’s arrival in Ireland, he was told by Finn’s mother that her son was away but that his baby was in the crib. When Fingal saw the size of the baby, he could only imagine what a giant MacCool was, and so he wisely retraced his steps, tearing up the causeway to cover his tracks as he went. Fingal then retreated to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, I suppose to contemplate baby giants and the plausibility of the story.

This is one of many contradictory myths about Finn MacCool and Fingal, who at other times in mythology seem to be the same guy. But there is some tantalizing truth to this story, because although the columnar basalt found at the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s cave were created in the same way from similarly aged volcanoes, they are not part of the same lava flow period.

Fingals cave Scotland Zodiac cruise

© Dennis Minty

A Zodiac cruise of Fingal's Cave is a highlight of a Scotland Slowly expedition.

Even More Geology and Mythology

About 14,000 years ago, Staffa and the rest of British Isles were covered in an ice sheet from the most recent glacial age. At the time when this ice sheet retreated, Staffa was part of a larger island that included Iona, Mull, and the Treshnish Isles. However, in the slow race between ocean level rise and isostatic rebound, ocean rise won, separating Staffa, Iona, and Mull into the distinct isles they are today.

A similar event occurred to the south, off the coast of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. How does this connect with Staffa? Well, according to Arthurian legend, the land (now sea) was called the Land of Lyonesse. It is said that the Isles of Scilly were once part of King Arthur’s sea kingdom. This kingdom also overlaps with the place of the Ireland’s mythical Tir Na Nog, or island of eternal youth.

In the time leading up to the Romantic Age, poets and writers had rediscovered Arthurian legends and there was much speculation and interest in Arthur’s sea kingdom. Ultimately, when these poets and musicians first arrived at the mouth of Fingal’s Cave, their minds were inspired by the mythology of Arthur, Tir Na Nog, and a fantastical sea kingdom. It would not be difficult for the onlookers to view the columns of Fingal’s Cave and imagine Arthurian castles or even the lost continent of Atlantis.

Fingals Cave columnar basalt

© Dennis Minty

Columnar basalt, Fingal's Cave

At the same time, the first archaeological antiquities were being brought back (read: stolen) from ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, and these man-made columns and treasures may well have affected the imaginations of those visiting Fingal’s Cave in the early 1800’s.

The Romantic Age

In the late eighteenth century, pilgrimages to the Isle of Staffa increased. Sir Joseph Banks, later president of the Royal Geographical Society, travelled there and the following year Samuel Johnson and James Boswell took in the sights as well.

But it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that a steady stream of poets, artists, and early geologists came to visit the island. These visitors included Robert Adam, Sir Walter Scott, the poet John Keats, and the painter J.M.W. Turner, who exhibited a painting of Fingal’s Cave in 1832. Others followed—William Wordsworth, Jules Verne, David Livingstone, and Robert Louis Stevenson, to name but a few.

Drawing of Fingals Cave by David Octavius Hill 1820-70

© Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0

A drawing of Fingal's Cave by artist David Octavius Hill, circa 1820-1870

The fad to visit Fingal’s Cave ran concurrently with the trend for the wealthy to vacation away from the smog of London and other industrial cities that suffered under the new Industrial Age. In some ways, Scottish tourism began with visits to Staffa and Iona, as well as the rural sights of mainland Scotland. (Shortbread anyone?) All these visitors, poets, and artists advanced the mythological character of the island, particularly Fingal’s Cave.

Three of the most famous visitors to Fingal’s Cave were Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, and later Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who entered the cave by royal barge in 1847. Felix arrived at Staffa with his two close friends, Robert and Clara Schumann, who were keen to “take the airs” of Scotland and invited Felix along. Sir Walter Scott had spoken to Mendelssohn prior to the tour, and his poetic vision of Fingal’s Cave may have influenced the composer.

Mendelssohn was struck by the powerful land and seascape, as well as the sound that was created by the waves in Fingal’s Cave. He was not the first to notice the caves’ sonic characteristics. The cave had been called Uamh-Binn or “The Cave of Melody” in Gaelic. All this inspired Mendelssohn to write an onomatopoeic ode to the place, entitled the Hebridean Overture, which premiered in London in 1832. It is considered to be a powerful example of music from the Romantic period—glorifying the natural world.

Portrait of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy by James Warren Childe 1839

© Wikimedia Commons public domain

A portrait of Felix Mendelssohn by artist James Warren Childe, 1839

Following Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s visit to Fingal’s Cave in 1847, it was reported that swarms of tourists arrived to take in the wonders of this geological formation. In the summer, when conditions allowed, concerts were held in the cave while spectators listened both in the cave and in boats at the mouth of the cave. I have seen reproductions of early photographs of these scenes in gift shops on Iona and have been told a grand piano was brought into the cave. I can’t imagine how difficult a task that must have been given the terrain of the island.

Archaeology

Recently I have been reading Underland by Robert MacFarlane. In the book, he refers to an archaeological object, a menhir or standing stone, once placed at the back of Fingal’s Cave.

“In Fingal’s Cave, the most southerly of the painted sights, at the point where the cave splits into two main passages … stands a sharp menhir, the front face of which is struck by the sun’s rays for a short time twice a year.”

I have been in Fingal’s Cave close to a dozen times, both on foot and by Zodiac, and I have never before seen or heard of this object. Other references to this menhir seem scant, but how intriguing it is to speculate what exactly it could be and who placed it there! Judging on where MacFarlane describes it in the cave, it would make bringing in a grand piano easy by comparison.

Staffa Today

After the Romantic craze of Staffa faded, the island returned to its isolation, while pilgrimages to the abbey on Iona continued to grow. A farm on Staffa was abandoned, but farmers continue to bring sheep and other animals to the island to graze in the summer. The island is also home to several marine birds, including northern fulmars, oystercatchers, eiders, great skuas, and the ever-photogenic puffin. The waters around Staffa are home to several marine mammals, deeming it a Special Area of Conservation, while the island itself has been classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by Scotland’s nature agency.

Puffin flying at sea surface

© Dennis Minty

I hope on your own excursion to Staffa that you will be able to circumnavigate the island, if the seas allow. Though there are a number of reefs out from the shoreline and the ocean’s swell may affect your day, in the right conditions, this can be a wonderful event. While there, you will see the successive layers of lava flow that created the island. On the southwest corner there are several smaller caves, Boat Cave and Mackinnon’s Cave, and they are also worth a visit. And, of course, at the extreme south end of the island you will find Fingal’s Cave or Uamh-Binn, its gaping maw facing the ocean.

On a perfect day in a flat calm sea, you may have an opportunity to enter the cave, one Zodiac at time. I have played penny whistle there several times, and once my friend Alan MacDonald even played his bagpipes in the depths of Fingal’s Cave! It was an incredible experience—I suspect Felix Mendelssohn would have approved.

About the Author

Ian Tamblyn

Ian Tamblyn

Musician, Host

Ian is a prolific musician, playwright, producer, and host. He has received numerous awards and accolades throughout his nearly fifty-year career. He has released forty albums of his own work as well as acting as producer for dozens of other artists. Ian has also written fifteen plays and over one hundred theatre soundtracks.

Ian has received a number of awards and nominations. In 2012, he was made a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society for his guiding and creative work in the Canadian Arctic. He has been awarded the Estelle Klein and Helen Verger Awards for his contributions to Canadian folk music; he has an honorary doctorate from Lakehead University, a Distinguished Alumni Award from Trent University, and was voted English Songwriter of the Year in 2010 by the Canadian Folk Music Awards (amongst other awards and nominations in the music and theatre world).