Joyful Journey: Part 11 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa

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.

Cave EntranceSituated 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.   

Fingal’s Cave

Fingal's CaveDuring 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.   

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.  

Cave Entrance

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 CaveMouth 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.

water music

Water Music


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.

On the way to the cave

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.

Staffa Tours

'Staffa' tour boat

 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.

Iona 3

Iona’s Ferry Terminal

 Iona lacks the wild, pre-historic feel of Staffa, but has a  a mystical, other-wordly atmosphere

(See Joyful Journey:  Part 12 – Scotland’s Sea Kingdom: The Isle of Iona) 


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