walking with giants

Staffa is another of the uninhabited Treshnish islands. Like Lunga it is home to hundreds of seabirds, yet it’s better known for the magnificent basalt columns which at first glance seem to rise out of the sea like pilings. The effect is almost overwhelming at An Uamh Binn, or Fingal’s Cave as it is more commonly known, which is formed completely out of hexagonally jointed basalt. In the 8,000 years humans have inhabited Mull it is safe to say that Staffa’s columns and caves have been viewed as something special, possibly sacred or mythical in origin. According to one legend, the Gaelic giant, Fingal, got into a quarrel with the Ulster giant, Finn McCool. (Over a lady giant, no doubt.) In order to fight each other they built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. When the causeway was destroyed only the two ends remained – one at Staffa and the other at the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim. (Having visited the Giant’s Causeway several times, it is remarkable to see how both locations share an almost identical geology.) The truth of the matter, however, is much less colorful: as Britain and North America were being pulled apart by continental drift, huge amounts of magma rose up through the Earth’s crust, erupting as lava and volcanic ash on the surface. As the 1,200 degree molten rock cooled, it hardened, shrank, and fractured into a regular series of stone pillars. The caves came into existence as waves crashed against the soft layer of ash underneath the columns, slowly eroding into the formation we see today. Of the five sea caves on the island Fingal’s is by far the largest. It came to the attention of the wider world at the end of the 18th century as the Romantic Movement was spreading across Europe. With its emphasis on wilderness and natural splendor the island quickly became one of the must-see sights on the Highland Tour. Part of the cave’s appeal lies in the  remarkable symmetry of the cavern –  fractured columns form a crude walkway just above the high water mark, allowing easy exploration of the interior. Equally beguiling are the strange colors and sounds inside what is, in effect, a natural cathedral. If you’ve heard of Fingal’s Cave before reading this, it’s likely due to Felix Mendelssohn, who composed his concert overture, The Hebrides, following a visit to the island in 1829. His inspiration came from standing in the cave and listening to the roar of the waves.

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bound for the treshnish

It seemed a propitious omen for the day that as soon as our boat sailed out of Tobermory harbor and past the lighthouse it was greeted by a pod of dolphins eager to swim along in our wake. Soon afterwards we saw seals, too, and the rare storm petrel which spends most of its life at sea. We were bound for the Treshnish, an archipelago of uninhabited volcanic islands and skerries west of Mull. The largest of the islands, Lunga, is known for the puffins that arrive each summer to breed en masse. In fact, shortly after making landfall on the rocky coast I was in the company of those adorable, torpedo-shaped seabirds, as well as eider ducks, cormorants, and crested shags. I had expected to see a few other nesting birds as well, yet nothing quite prepared me for the sight of thousands upon thousands of razorbills, guillemots, and gulls nesting up the coast in the crags of a guano-drenched pinnacle of rock. It was like a scene from a horror film: half of the birds nesting, the other half circling the sky, and all of them cawing at a collectively deafening pitch. The puffins were docile by comparison. In pairs they burrow underground to lay a single egg, in groups they sit together quietly and preen. I sat and chatted with a rook of about twenty puffins while I ate my lunch. They watched me and I watched them. We got along famously. I was sad when the time came to leave – for the record, they didn’t seem to take any notice –  but other islands and other adventures called.

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