May 17, 2024

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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