The Isle of Staffa – (Home of Fingal’s Cave)
The Isle of Staffa – a geological wonder
The name, ‘Staffa’, comes from an old Norse word meaning, ‘stave’ or ‘pillar’ island, named so by the Vikings since it reminded them of their houses which were built of ‘vertically placed tree logs’. (Wikipedia) In 1772, Staffa was home to a single family living on oats, barley, flax and meat from their few livestock. The island was abandoned as a dwelling place in the late 19th century. Deer, goats, cattle and, most recently, sheep, have alternately grazed there, but the island’s stewards, The National Trust For Scotland, removed the last of them in 1997 to allow the unique plant life to regenerate and the natural occupants, mostly birds, to come and go and thrive in peace and plenty.
Situated 6 miles (10 kilometres) West of the Isle of Mull, Staffa has an area of 82 acres (32 hectares), with the highest point 138 feet (42 metres) above sea level. This tiny island hosts a wealth of treasures to delight the hearts of scientists; amateur geologists; wildlife enthusiasts; historians; photographers; lovers of the music of Mendelssohn; as well as anyone who appreciates the awesome beauty and miraculous diversity of the Inner Hebridean Islands.
During May and June, atop the island, puffins come in great numbers to breed and nest. Staffa also becomes home to a variety of other migratory birds and large sea mammals. So, too, come the season’s tourists to experience this thriving wildlife sanctuary, ancient geological wonder and one of the gems in the Sea Kingdom’s crown. I hope to join them this Spring.
Outside the scientific community, perhaps the biggest attraction on Staffa is the world reknowned ‘Fingal’s Cave’, largely made famous by being the inspiration for Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, popularly known by the name of this cave that inspired him The spectacular cavern, known to the ancients as, ‘The Cave of Melodies’, was seen by the composer who visited there when paddle steamer tours began. So haunted was he by the wild beauty of the area and the sounds he heard inside the cave, he was compelled to write an overture in an attempt to capture both the cavern’s beauty, grandeur and acoustics as well as the wonders beyond, in this mysterious, unique, varied and unbelievably beautiful sea kingdom.
Legend has it that The Giant’s Causeway, situated on Ireland’s NW coast and similarly constructed of basalt staves, was built by a giant called, ‘Fin’, and that Staffa is the other end of what was, 58 million years ago, a tidal highway between Ireland and Scotland. A nineteenth century poet translated the Erse ‘Giant Fin’ as ‘Fingal’.
Mouth of Fingal’s Cave
The island is totally volcanic, with the basalt pillars resting on a basement of ‘tuff’, compressed volcanic ash and topped by a layer of volcanic debris and fragments of basalt. Rich, fertile soil now covers the top layer. The pillars are free standing and, over time, salt from the sea water seeps down behind those most exposed, eventually forcing them to break off. Iona, a neighbouring island has beaches littered with black basalt fragments with pieces being found on shores for miles around. Formed around 58 million years ago, the sheer antiquity of the place is beyond words in the awesome department. For those wishing more complete geological information, there are many suitable sites on the internet. Wikipedia has an informative, interesting collection of facts that is not dry and within the capabilities of non-scientists. Wikipedia was my main source of historical and geological facts.
Sounds are reproduced inside the cave and magnified by the acoustics provided by the vast, cathedral ceiling. During my visit, the sea was relatively calm and the water flowing and ebbing inside the cave was untroubled. In spite of this, the glorious music of crashing waves was all around, relayed from an area of turbulence some distance away. It was too late in the year for the hundreds of migratory birds and large sea mammals to be present in the natural orchestra that plays in Fingal’s Cave, but I hope to return when they do.
Weathered basalt columns, (broken down by eons of crashing waves)
A handrail on the narrowest part of the path to the cave affords reassurance to nervous travellers.
Day Trippers on Staffa – The Way to Fingal’s Cave
The walk from the boat to the cave is surprisingly easy. The broken pillars,worn down by tides make for pretty level going, the occasional slippery patch being daubed with a non-slip substance. The staves have 3 to 8 sides, 6 being the most common.
The following video gives viewers a sense of the timelessness, wild beauty, and awesome grandeur of this tiny, 60 million year old island.
Leaving on the ‘Staffa’
One way to experience the Isle of Staffa is to take a trip on the Caladonian MacBrayne ferry from Oban to the Isle of Mull, then join the Staffa Tours boat after a scenic drive the length of that island, as I did. After an hour on Staffa, the small tour boat takes passengers to the Isle of Iona, there to spend three hours exploring before a return journey on the CalMac ferry to Mull and from there another ferry back to Oban.
From Staffa we sailed 7.4 miles South to the Isle of Iona. Although such a short distance apart, like all the islands in this group, the difference between these two islands is unbelievable. More than feeling like a change of country, after Staffa, Iona felt like a different planet. Water lapped gently on silver beaches, creating softer, gentler music than the cocophany on the basalt rocky island we had just left. Small boats bobbed in the harbour and, away from the waterfront, sheep grazed and flowers bloomed. After approaching Staffa surrounded by dark water and under glowering skies, we sailed into Iona’s harbour in a world of gentle blue and turquoise. Across a narrow channel lies the Isle of Mull, largest and most populated of the Southern Hebridean islands. While having a mystical, ancient, otherwordly vibe, perhaps because it is inhabited and in close proximity to the large, relatively busy neighbour, Iona lacks the wild, pre-historic feel of Staffa.
The Isle of Iona
”It seemed this small island was a shining beacon of learning, the arts and spirituality.” *
Iona Harbour looking across to the Isle of Mull
Iona is famous the world over – hailed as the cradle of Scottish Christianity. Computer searches almost always start the island’s story in 563 AD when the Irish missionary, Columba, arrived there with twelve followers and founded Scotland’s first Christian church and monastery. This over-simplifies history and does not do justice to this tiny dot in the Atlantic ocean that has drawn pilgrims from far-flung places seeking healing of their souls; a place to lay down the burden of life for a short time; a chance to celebrate their Christian faith; a spiritual experience or for more secular reasons like historical or geological; architectural interest or just curiosity. It is thought likely that Iona was a sacred place long before Columba arrived. A Bronze Age burial ground is still in evidence and an Iron Age Vallum (earthwork enclosure) surrounds Iona Abbey rebuilt on the site of Columba’s original 6th century community. The Vallum is evidence of an Iron Age hill fort.
It is probably a safe assumption that the majority of visitors to Iona are there to visit the abbey which stands atop the foundations of the original, built in the 12th century on the site of that first 6th century monastery; some to marvel at the medieval parts of the building still remaining; others to walk in the footsteps of a Saint. For those who wish a comprehensive history of the abbey, its times of peace and those of violence and bloodshed, there are several internet sites devoted to the subject. Suffice to say here that Kings from near and far, noteables and even some Viking chiefs are buried there, their gravestones kept safe in the tiny museum housed in an 8th century chapel. One Norse king became a monk at the abbey.
The island certainly has an other-worldy atmosphere. Even though dozens of monks were slaughtered by the Vikings on Martyr’s Beach in 806 AD, I felt only a deep peace there.
Basalt fragments on the beach at Martyr’s Bay
The black, basalt fragments littering the beach were a reminder that this was only 8 miles from wild, rocky Staffa. The smooth rounded surfaces attested to the eons they had spent being polished by the waves.
In the mid 12th century, Somerled, King of the Isles, rebuilt the abbey, burnt by the Vikings during their last raid of Iona in 825 when the remaining monks were slain. Many had fled to Europe or back to Ireland. In 1200 AD, his son, Ranald, brought in Benedictine monks and also established an Augustine nunnery. This was run as a retirement home for noble ladies of Argyll until its destruction during the Reformation. While the abbey and nunnery were dissolved and left in ruins, the magnetic draw of Iona as a place of importance persisted and in 1609 King James VI chose the island as the setting for the signing of the Statutes of Iona, designed to curb the power of the clans and their chiefs and to erase the cultural division between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. For reasons unknown, the nunnery was never restored as was the abbey. It remains the best example of medieval architecture anywhere in Scotland.
Nunnery Ruins and Ancient Graves
Nunnery doorway and ancient garden
Some of the gardens planted by the nuns of the island are still very much in evidence, some wild among the ruins, others lovingly tended by St Columba Hotel employees.
St Columba Hotel’s Organic Garden
Hotel Picnic Area
The road leading from the nunnery to the abbey and burial ground there is known as The Street of The Dead. Of particular interest on this short route is a stone cross erected around 1500 AD. Carved from one lump of granite, it is 3 metres high and known as MacLean’s cross. Anna MacLean was prioress at the nunnery at that time so no doubt there is a connection to her or her prominent family. Facing the Atlantic ocean, unsheltered and having been exposed to the elements for over 500 years it is in amazingly good condition.
MacLean’s Cross circa 1500 AD
The building behind the cross is a restored 8th century chapel now a museum that houses gravestones and other ancient, well preserved relics.
St Columba brought more than Christianity to Iona. He built a library and scriptorium where much if the Book Of Kells was written. Wikipedia describes the work as ‘a masterwork of Western calligraphy and the pinnacle of insular illumination.’ For safekeeping from Vikings and other spoilers, it was taken from Iona perhaps to Lindisfarne, also targeted by Vikings, and eventually to the safety of Ireland where it was completed, perhaps by some of those same monks who had fled from the Vikings on Iona back to Ireland. It now has pride of place at Trinity College, Dublin and is considered Ireland’s finest national treasure.
Today, the hub of Iona is still around the abbey as it was in 6th century. Life is more bucolic than academic, but religious faith, while not as obvious, is still represented by the Iona Community.
Village and Iona Abbey
CalMac ferry leaving Iona with the Isle of Mull in the background.
* ‘It seems this small island was a shining beacon of learning, the arts and spirituality’
The Corryvreckan Whirlpool
A report in the Scotsman newspaper described the Corryvreckan whirlpool as ‘one of Scotland’s most dangerous tourist attractions’. Third largest whirlpool in the world, it is situated in the Strait of Corryvreckan in the Southern Hebrides, Scotland’s Sea Kingdom. Strong currents from the Atlantic flow into the Strait of Corryvreckan, a narrow channel separating the islands of Jura and Scarba, while negotiating a 500ft deep chasm in the sea bed, made more treacherous by a 200 metre pinnacle of volcanic basalt rock that rises from the sea bed off Jura. At flood tide when water is in-feeding from the Firth of Lorne, the current reaches a speed of 8.5 knots (10 mph, 16km/h). All this creates massive disturbance in the water. Whirlpools, standing waves and all manner of strange and dangerous conditions are created in the fast moving water.
The chasm forms a cauldron above which the sea whirls, writhes and churns like a boiling pot being vigourously stirred. Wind and the moon and the seasons affect things also, causing more even further violent disturbance. When the whirlpool is at it’s wildest, standing waves, like the small one pictured opposite, can reach a height of 30 feet (9 metres) and the roar of the whirlpool can be heard 20 miles (16 km) away. The author, H.G. Wells, lived in a remote cottage on the Isle of Jura close to the Corryvreckan where he wrote ‘War Of The Worlds’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ among other things. It is little wonder that his mind was filled with dark forebodings. Imagine a wild winter night with the roar of the maelstrom and the howl of the wind as his only company. The cottage is now available as a holiday rental.
The edge of the Corryvreckan Whirlpool by the Isle of Jura.
Two stags can be seen on the shore. Jura is home to 200 people and more than 5,000 deer. Much of the island is blanket bog, suitable only for wildlife.
During an ebb tide, with the right weather conditions, scuba divers can explore the unusual topography of the sea bed under the whirlpool, but only highly experienced individuals should attempt this. Even for the most seasoned, the Corryvreckan is considered one of the most dangerous dives in Britain.
In September I visited the Corryvreckan, sailing through it in a boat designed specially for that task. The Dolphin II, owned and operated by Sealife Adventures’s David Ainsley, marine biologist, deep sea diver, underwater photographer and skipper. It was a thrilling experience. Once into the maelstrom, it is impossible to take still photos. The two small ones above, I captured from the videos I took. Unable to stand or sit steadily due to the pitching and rolling of the boat, I sat with my right arm around a metal post and left arm aloft, hand tightly holding camera. There was no way to check the viewfinder so the whole thing was random. The resulting video is, I think, spectacular and really gives viewers the sensation of being there. Often the surface of the ocean does not look like water and it certainly behaves in ways I would not have thought possible. Below is a short movie I made from various clips of video and the odd still picture. This is definitely worth viewing.
Leaving the whirlpool, we passed the Fadda Light, a lighthouse near the edge of the Corryvreckan, there to warn sailors of the potential death trap ahead. Many have drowned trying to navigate the whirlpool that has been deemed ‘unnavigable’ by the Royal Navy.
Sealife Adventures offers a wonderful combination of wildlife spotting before visiting the whirlpool. Sailing through it was a not-to-be-missed experience. However, there are times when the tide is ebbing and other conditions render the surface of the Corryvreckan relatively calm, disappointing some tourists. Conversely, the whirlpool can be so active as to make it impossible to do anything but sit and marvel at it from a safe distance.
There is much legend and lore surrounding The Caillioch’s Cauldron, aka Corryvreckan Whirlpool. Depending who you ask, ‘Caillioch’ translates from Gaelic as ‘witch’, ‘hag’ or ‘old woman’. As well as all the above treats Sealife Adventure offers, tea and biscuits are served en route while skipper/owner of the Dolphin II, David Ainsley, recounts some of the ancient local stories of Vikings and maidens and and the good witch of the cauldron.
The Dolphin II at her home pontoon in Clachan Seil, Firth of Lorne, Argyle
Clachan Seil is a short drive from Oban. For those using public transport, a bus leaves from the Ferry Terminal. I would advise calling Sealife Adventures beforehand as booking is required The boat only holds twelve passengers, so turning up without a reservation may result in disappointment. A computer search for ‘Sealife Adventures, Clachan Seil’ will give you the home page jam packed with information, video, photos and all you need to know about the company, including contact details. There are a variety of places to stay in Oban, from fine hotels to the excellent S.Y.H.A. .Oban Youth Hostel.
Note: Below is a link to sources with more detailedinformation about the causes and effects of the phenomenon know as the Corryvreckan Whirlpool.
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