Barely half a mile long between its furthest corners, the global fame of this remote outcrop’s basalt column caves ensure this tiny island boxes well above its weight.
Staffa escaped the world’s attention for some time. Small and low lying, the remote island is unremarkable from a distance and sits quietly on the horizon three miles in the distance from Ulva off the Isle of Mull. Sometimes, on approaching Staffa and if the sea is coming from the right direction, Fingal’s Cave can be heard before it is seen. A distant booming from the hazy horizon sounding like naval guns in the distance.
Staffa has been named so since the Viking occupations of the west coast of Scotland starting in about 890AD and the name is derived from the Old Norse words Stafr meaning pillar or post and Ey meaning island. It is commonly understood Fingal’s Cave is named after the Irish mythical hero Finn (or Fingal in its Scottish form) but this is a Victorian romanticism historically accurate as the Arthurian Legends.
According to Barthélemy Faujas de Saint Fond, a French geologist developing his theory for the origins of volcanoes at the time of his visit to Staffa, the true name of the cave is An Uaimh Bhinn, which translates as the ‘Musical (or melodious) Cave’.
Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist and explorer, visited Staffa in 1772 and wrote ‘we asked the name of it. Said our guide The Cave of Fiuhn. What is Fiuhn? Said we. Fiuhn MacCoul, who the translator of Ossian’s works has called Fingal’.
Now, the pronunciation of Uamh Bhin sounds very much like Uamh Finn so, unfortunately, the guide, without conferring with his informant, may have assumed the wrong meaning which was possibly more familiar to his ears. So Sir Joseph assumed that its name was Fingal’s Cave.
The booming noise is caused by powerful sea surges creating shock waves of compressed air escaping from the confines of the cave’s naturally arched vault roof. As sea conditions calm the cave’s size creates softer eerie echoing sounds produced by lapping waves, with many comparing the acoustics to that of a cathedral.
This ‘musical’ resonance inspired Mendelssohn to write Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) Opus 26 in 1830 although some believe it was already written before Mendelssohn saw the cave. Indeed Mendelssohn’s more visible reaction during his trip to the cave was that of being violently seasick in the swell. However, on his return to dry land on Mull Mendelssohn is said to have immediately requested the use of a piano where he worked to create some of the melodies conceived in his mind on sight of the cave. On the Sabbath and in the heart of Puritan Scotland he was reprimanded for such sinful behaviour.
Neighbouring inhabitants of Staffa, not knowing of the more mundane landscapes beyond their everyday, had not thought basalt columns particularly remarkable as similar columns are found on neighbouring Mull and Ulva, indeed also on neighbouring Irish coastlines around The Giant’s Causeway. This is simply how they thought rock was and it took the eyes of outsiders to note their extraordinary form.
Sir Walter Scott declared it to be ‘one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld’ and Queen Victoria noted in her diary ‘when we turned the corner to go into the renowned Fingal’s Cave the effect was splendid, like a great entrance to a vaulted hall’.
Banks described the cave as ‘one of the greatest natural curiosities in the world’ and went on, ‘compared with this what are cathedrals and palaces built by man?’ Whilst it could be said Sir Joseph Banks might not carve his name in the knave of St Paul’s or any other of the great cathedrals and palaces built by man he did not hesitate to do so in the depths of the cave – leaving his initials “J.B.1772”.
Fingal’s Cave has since been visited by Dr Johnson, Walter Scott, Keats, Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Turner, Jules Verne, Queen Victoria and Robert Louis Stevenson. It has also been a site of academic and artistic study by volcanologists, geologists, cartographers, artists, writers and poets.
The impressive structural grandeur of Staffa was in tune with the romantic movement of the early nineteenth century and, in the 1820s, a Glasgow based shipping company made weekly voyages in a paddle steamer putting 300 passengers at a time on shore to marvel at the cave’s splendour where a lone piper played, adding theatre to such occasions. In 1835 a turbine steamer started landing 800 people, such was the popularity of the cave as part of The Grand Tour. Now a multitude of smaller and more mobile boats take visitors there from more local departure points such as the Ulva Ferry.
Thankfully a planning application for a hotel, pier and chalets was refused just a few years preceding the island’s transfer of ownership to The National Trust in 1986 and the island’s position as a wilderness nature reserve now looks secure. Apart from a couple of black house ruins slowly returning to nature there are no permanent human footprints visible on the exterior of Staffa.
There is however, in the heart of the World Heritage ancient site that is Fingal’s Cave, an orange plastic life ring screwed to the ancient basalt column wall reminding us all that, even in a deserted and uninhabited wilderness sanctuary far on the horizon, there’s no escape from central government’s jobs worth health and safety executive.