Staffa, 9 kt geological treasure

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.

Stafr Ey

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 FiuhnWhat is Fiuhn? Said we. Fiuhn MacCoul, who the translator of Ossian’s works has called Fingal’.

Chinese whispers

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.

Piccadilly Circus

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.


Iona, Scotland’s sacred isle

This tranquil isle has attracted saints, raiders, kings and pilgrims all with an eye to creating, viewing or stealing the art within.

Columba (Callum), an Irish missionary, traveled to Scotland to convert the Picts to Christianity and inhabited the island of Iona starting his mission from a cave.

He arrived in 563 AD with twelve dedicated companions and built a monastery, which stands to this day with pilgrims by the thousand visiting from every corner of the world each year.

Monking slouch

Monks were technical masters in agriculture, irrigation and building and monastic communities became trailblazers in trade, agriculture and learning, securing themselves a pivotal, authoritative and long lasting position in society. Monks of the time were no slouches.

The island gained a history of global importance and, as a result, Iona receives over half a million visitors annually. Not bad for a windswept island with no cars, barely one mile square.

Human sacrifice

When Columba was building the first chapel on Iona, and in line with other British legends of foundation sacrifice, a voice is said to have told Columba that the walls of the chapel would not stand until a living man was buried below its foundations.

Unfortunate Odan

The legend is that Odan, another missionary who had preceded Columba’s arrival at Iona, asked to be buried alive beneath the chapel and, in accordance with his wishes, was consigned to the earth believing his soul would be saved. Hence the name Odan’s Chapel (Reilig Odhrain)

Generous burial

According to different versions of the same tale, either Columba wanted to see Odan again or Odan attempted to climb out of his grave, and in both versions Columba quickly covered the pit with earth to save Odan’s soul from the world of sin.

Odan was the first of many to be buried there – it became a burial place for the Lords of the Isles and Scottish, Viking and Irish kings alike are all buried here.

Iona Abbey

Columba went on to build Iona’s great abbey. The abbey stands to this day and has become one of the most iconic centres of Christianity the world has known.

From a network of churches, starting at Iona and stretching all over Scotland, Christianity eventually spread. Much credit is due to later missionaries, but they all drew their inspiration from Calum Cille, ‘the island of Columba’s church’.

Murderous pillage

When Vikings landed at Iona in 795 AD, fuelled by the taste for previous sackings of ecclesiastical outposts such as Lindisfarne, they killed some 100 monks in a single day on what is now known as Martyr’s Bay.

The massacre made distinct from other bloody events on Britain’s coastlines only by the sheer numbers involved. The Vikings also laid waste to the abbey.

Cows and women

Columba is known for his abstinence and he banned cows and women from the island. He is believed to have said ‘where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there are women there is mischief’.

Cowboy builders

However, in 1203 AD a chieftain called Macdonald Reginald rebuilt the abbey and, doing away with traditional ways of Iona, added a nunnery.

Clearly Columba had the last word for it lies derelict today with the roof caved in and some walls falling in – perhaps the builders had omitted the burial of a living man below its foundations.

Iona today

Today visitors come in the hundreds daily. Iona is at the end of long pilgrim route, similar to Santiago de Compostela only much, much older – indeed its history precedes Columba with St Oran arriving even earlier.

Beautiful Benedictine cloisters are preserved, ancient Celtic crosses and artifacts, works of art and stained glass windows – the abbey is a most tranquil and refined place in the wildest of locations.

Mochalattéd masses

For those who can’t bear the madding crowd, visitor centres and those convinced a hiking stick is necessary for walking between coffee shops, there are some hidden gems on Iona.

The absence of cars on the island means many don’t, won’t or can’t venture beyond the ferry terminal, the coffee shop and the abbey so it’s easy to find deserted white sand beaches, wilderness coves, aqua marine waters and abandoned bothies.

I recommend the disused quarry and quarrymen’s croft, well worth a visit.

How foraging became hoovering

The islands surrounding Staffa are as protected as can be. They are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and visitors require permission if they so much as consider breaking wind. Yet, under the water’s surface, around Scotland’s most protected land, the dredging continues.

The Mull coastal economy (fishing, diving, boat and wildlife tours, kayaking, rambling and camping) benefits from a bountiful and sustainable intertidal and shallow water ecology. Even the creel fishers, who account for 75% of the Scottish inshore fishing fleet, benefit from working in beds undamaged by trawlers. However, the dredgers don’t have such a good record.

The remote islands of Staffa (with its world famous basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave) Little Colonsay, and the Treshnish Isles (Lunga, Fladda, Cairn na Burgh More, Cairn na Burgh Beg), The Dutchman’s Cap and Iona may seem like protected pristine wilderness to the passing eye, but the waters surrounding them have little protection – under the water line it’s a wild-west dredging frontier.

Eco desert

One of the largest environmental disasters in modern British times happened in the Clyde in the 1970s. The sustainable fisheries at Carradale and Girvan first fitted steam-powered engines to their trawlers and diesel followed enabling them to go further, for longer and with bigger nets. Then fish finding sonar was discovered ‘and soon fishing became hoovering’ as trawlers netted herring in numbers never seen before.

When the herring ran out the fishermen switched to saithe and when this ran out they switched to cod, then plaice and then sole and when there were no fish in the water column they started dredging scallops from the mud. The more fish were caught the more needy were fishermen to pay for their new televisions, microwaves, cars and expensive technology reliant fishing boats. Now there is nothing left.

Not many people know of this disaster of desertification of the Clyde because it occurred under water and beyond the ken of environmental nimbys preoccupied with the demands of questioning windmill aesthetics. Also because the Scottish fishing fleet is an influential political force of national employers and no organised pressure groups were around to question their decades long inept handling of fish stocks. However, all that is changing.

Dredging ban

West coast scallop stocks have declined since 2011 yet scallop production and yield is increasing at a dramatic rate with new and additional boats entering the fleet. Mull Aquaculture & Fisheries Association say Nethrops (‘shrimp’), brown crab and velvet crab are all over exploited around Treshnish.

Nethrops are getting smaller and competition for them is increasing. According to official government figures published in the Scotland Marine Atlas: south and west areas of Mull are ‘heavily exploited’, Demerol stock ‘a concern’, Sandeel stock ‘in decline’, Whiting stock ‘in decline’, Treshnish burrowing Sea Anemone ‘at risk’, Fan Mussels are rare’, Ocean Quahog ‘in decline’, Seapens and Megafauna ‘at risk’ at Gometra and Ulva and Fireworks Anemone ‘scarce’. Tall Seapens of Inch Kenneth and The Wilderness are of ‘global importance’ and the Maeri beds at Treshnish represent 95% of the global volume of the species.

Signs the fleet learnt lessons from history are few so, when they cried for ministerial help to continue dredging MPAs, Environment Minister Richard Lochhead retorted with a ban. Such is the public consciousness of the marine ecological environment that pressure from campaigning groups such as COAST has brought results. Indeed, the 30 MPAs themselves are a result of Hugh Fernley–Whitingstall‘s own campaign Fish Fight which revealed 50% of every UK fish catch is thrown overboard, dead.

Trawlers have had to widen the mesh in their nets to reduce bye catch, reduce their number of fishing days and provide escape hatches for fish. Nevertheless, 77 million Nethrops are discarded annually (with a 75% mortality rate) and up to 50% of the overall catch is discarded (a large proportion of this being juvenile cod). For every kilo of Nethrops caught in the Clyde 9kg of bye catch is discarded. Dr S Campbell, Community of Arran Seabed Trust, says, “These parameters suggest that in time the Nethrops fishery will collapse”.

Day-trippers to Staffa, in fear of the eco Stasi, ensure they don’t use colourful language in front of the puffins whilst we watch dredgers tear up the Treshnish Isles’ surrounding seabed.

Catching brown crab

Not easy to find but, if you know the types of nooks they live in, patience and a lung full of air is all you need to catch a fair size brown crab for the pot.

On this occasion the sea is choppy and, not wanting a kayak anchored on the surface whilst diving, I swim to a reef previously spotted from cliffs above, take a lung full of air and dive to orientate myself with the lie of the bed.

On a second descent I start my sweep at the deepest part of the reef where the rock meets a sandy gully. Visibility is limited today to about thee metres and I swim and wriggle and pull myself along looking under rocks, ledges and cracks in a methodical manner so as not to miss any ground.

Wearing dive gloves I am mindful that a veteran could otherwise have fun with my fingers. Its claws are designed to sever flesh and to break bones and any animal cornered is treated in much the same way as a car meeting its life’s end at the hands of the wrecker’s claw.

First, the saw claw cuts and sevvers flesh and sinew and then the other club claw squashes and breaks bone and cartilage. Both claws are differently shaped for efficiency with each separate task. If the crab is attacking crustaceans it uses the two claws in reverse to above.

A dimpled edge to their body gives them the comic resemblance of a Cornish pasty. This said they have the charm of a battle tank. Red brown in colour, robust and heavy set, with a bone hard shell and a low gait defensive profile; their powerful claws are menacingly highlighted with black tips at the business end.

The brown crab is the most popular edible crab in the British Isles and the one most likely to be seen on ice in supermarkets.

A decent sized crab is a good meal full of vitamins and minerals and the sure way to know how ‘full’ a crab is under its armour is by judging the age of its shell – if it’s covered in barnacles and marks it is mature and the crab will be sure to have grown into its shell suit. If on the other hand the shell is new then it is likely the crab within is still growing.

Before completing my sweep around the reef I find a crab. Decent sized and aware of my presence, he has backed up under a ledge making it hard to grab his claws. I reach down to my ankle strap where I keep a crab hook by way of a fashioned coat hanger and slowly pass the tool over the his back and behind into the rock cranny to stop him backing up further. I carefully pull the crab towards me, his claws snapping at my fingers, both of us stare at each other all the while.

Running low on fuel, I know that if I did not have him swiftly on the open sand I will have to the surface. As he slides into the open I use the hook to keep him low to the sand with a downward pressure on his carapace whilst I grab beyond his claws for the forearms.

With the hook between my teeth I swim to the surface, both my hands holding claws. I gasp for air at the surface and wonder which is more difficult: swimming to shore laden with dive weights, both hands occupied with an angry crab or treading water in choppy sea whilst trying to put the warring beast into a dive bag.

Either way supper will be delicious.