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Inner Hebrides

Fingal's Cave, Staffa (1900)
Location: 56°25’48"N, 6°19’48"W
Grid reference: NM323355
Area: 82 acres
Highest point: 138 feet
Population: Uninhabited since 1800

Staffa is an island of the Inner Hebrides in Argyllshire. It is widely famed for its remarkable basalt column formations. Indeed, its name was given by the Norse from the Old Norse for stave or pillar island after these columns, which may also have reminded them of their "stave houses", built from vertically placed tree-logs.[1]

Staffa lies about 6 miles west of the Isle of Mull. The area is 81½ acres and the highest point is 138 feet above sea level.

The island came to prominence in the late 18th century after a visit by Sir Joseph Banks. He and his fellow travellers extolled the natural beauty of the basalt columns in general and of the island's main sea cavern which Banks renamed 'Fingal's Cave'. Their visit was followed by that of many other prominent personalities throughout the next two centuries, including Queen Victoria and Felix Mendelssohn. The latter's Hebrides Overture brought further fame to the island, which was by then uninhabited. It is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.[2]


Staffa: The Colonnade (foreground) and Am Buchaille (right)

The island is entirely of volcanic origin. It consists of a basement of tuff, underneath colonnades of a black fine-grained Tertiary basalt, overlying which is a third layer of basaltic lava lacking a crystalline structure. By contrast, slow cooling of the second layer of basalt resulted in an extraordinary pattern of predominantly hexagonal columns which form the faces and walls of the principal caves.[3] The lava contracted towards each of a series of equally spaced centres as it cooled and solidified into prismatic columns, a process known as columnar jointing. The columns typically have three to eight sides, six being most common. The columns are also divided horizontally by cross joints.[4]

Similar formations are found at the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim, on the island of Ulva and Ardmeanach on the Isle of Mull.[2] Grooves in the roof of MacKinnon's cave indicate either a pyroclastic flow or a series of eroded ash falls in the rock above the columnar basalt.[5] The 'Staffa Group' is the name given to the series of olivine tholeiite basalts found in the vicinity of Mull which erupted 55–58 million years ago.[6]


Staffa lies about six miles west of Mull, and five miles north-east of Iona. It is longitudinally oriented north-south, less than half a mile wide. In the north-east the isle shelves to a shore, but otherwise the coast is rugged and much indented, numerous caves having been carved out by rain, streams and sea. There is enough grass to feed a few cattle, and the island has a spring.

On the east coast are Goat Cave and Clamshell Cave. The latter is 33 feet high, about 20 feet wide at the entrance, some 150 feet long, and on one side of it the ridges of basalt stand out like the ribs of a ship. Near this cave is the pyramidal rock islet of Am Buachaille ('The Herdsman'), a pile of basalt columns fully seen only at low tide. Other outlying rocks include Eilean Dubh to the northwest and a series of skerries stretching for ⅔ mile to the south-west.

On the southwest shore are Boat Cave and Mackinnon’s Cave (named after a 15th-century abbot of Iona), which has a tunnel connecting it to Cormorant Cave. These caves lie to the southwest and can be accessed from the bay of Port an Fhasgaidh at low tide. In 1945 a mine exploded near Boat Cave causing damage to the cliff face which is still visible.[3] At 350 ft, Mackinnon's Cave is the 79th longest sea cave in the world amongst those counted.[7]

Staffa's most famous feature is Fingal's Cave, a large sea cave located near the southern tip of the island some 66 ft high and 240 ft long formed in cliffs of hexagonal basalt columns. This cliff-face is called the Colonnade or The Great Face and it was these cliffs and its caves that inspired Felix Mendelssohn's Die Hebriden (English: Hebrides Overture opus 26),[8] of which premiered was held in London in 1832.[9] The original gaelic name for Fingal's Cave is An Uamh Bhin – "the melodious cave" – but it was subsequently renamed after the 3rd-century Irish warrior Fionn MacCool.[3][10][11] Mendelssohn was nonetheless inspired by the sound of the waves in the cave and waxed lyrical about his visit, claiming that he arrived in the Hebrides "with a rake for folk-songs, an ear for the lovely, fragrant countryside, and a heart for the bare legs of the natives."[12]

Staffa is part of the Loch Na Keal National Scenic Area.


Engraving of Fingal's Cave, from John Cleveley Jnr, 1772

18th century

Little is known of the early history of Staffa, although the Swiss town of Stäfa on Lake Zurich was named after the island by a monk from nearby Iona.[3] Originally part of the Ulva estate of the MacQuarries until 1777, it was brought to the English-speaking world's attention after a visit by Sir Joseph Banks in August 1772. En route to Iceland in the company of the painter Johann Zoffany, the Bishop of Linköping, and a Dr. Solander, Banks (later a president of the Royal Society) was entertained by Maclean of Drummen, on Mull. Hearing about Staffa he resolved to visit and set out from Tobermory the next day. The winds were light and they did not arrive until darkness had fallen.[13][14] Banks wrote:

It was too dark to see anything, so we carried our tent and baggage near the only house on the island, and began to cook our suppers, in order to be prepared for the earliest dawn, and to enjoy that which, from the conversation of the gentlemen we had, now raised the highest expectations of.[15]

They were not disappointed. Despite becoming infested with lice during his short stay on the island, he provided glowing reports of his visit.[3] He confessed that he was:

forced to acknowledge that this piece of architecture, formed by nature, far surpasses that of the Louvre, that of St Peter at Rome, all that remains of Palmyra and Paestum, and all that the genius, the taste and the luxury of the Greeks were capable of inventing.[2][16]

Samuel Johnson and his friend James Boswell visited Clan MacQuarrie on Ulva in 1773, the year after Banks' visit. Perhaps aware that Banks considered that the columnar basalt cliff formations on Ulva called "The Castles" rivalled Staffa's[17] Johnson wrote:

When the islanders were reproached with their ignorance or insensibility of the wonders of Staffa, they had not much to reply. They had indeed considered it little, because they had always seen it; and none but philosophers, nor they always, are struck with wonder otherwise than by novelty.[18]

19th and 20th centuries

Subsequently a stream of famous visitors came to view Staffa's wonders including Robert Adam, Sir Walter Scott (1810), John Keats (1818), J. M. W. Turner, whose 1830 visit yielded an oil painting exhibited in 1832, William Wordsworth (1833), Jules Verne (1839), Alice Liddell (the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) in 1878, David Livingstone (1864), Robert Louis Stevenson (1870) and Mendelssohn himself in 1829.[2][19] Wordsworth, however, found the volume of tourism disappointing.

Boat Cave

We saw, but surely in the motley crowd
Not one of us has felt, the far-famed sight:
How could we feel it? Each the others blight,
Hurried and hurrying volatile and loud.

—William Wordsworth

Others were more enthusiastic, despite the presence of numerous others. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were rowed into the cave in the royal barge in 1847,[21][22] and The Times correspondent recorded:

As the Royal Squadron cleared out of the Sound of Mull, and round the northern extremity of the island, a noble prospect lay before it, the steep and barren headlands of Ardnamurchan stretching away into the Atlantic on the right, on the left the precipitous cliffs of the Mull coast, and far away and embosomed in the ocean, the fantastic and varied forms of the adjacent islands. The horizon toward the north was a good deal obscured by haze, but, notwithstanding, Skye was distinctly visible... The deserted and solitary aspect of the island was brought out with a strange and startling effect by the presence of so many steamers; and as Her Majesty's barge with the Royal Standard floated into the cave, the crew dipping their oars with the greatest precision, nothing could be more animated and grand than the appearance which the vast basaltic entrance, so solemn in its proportions, presented.[23]

Keats complained about the expense of the ferry, but was captivated by what he saw nonetheless. Displeased with his first efforts to describe this "cathedral of the sea" he finally settled on:

Not Aladdin magian
Ever such a work began,
Not the wizard of the Dee,
Ever such a dream could see;
Not St John, in Patmos Isle,
In the passion of his toil,
When he saw the churches seven,
Golden Aisl'd, built up in heaven,
Gazed at such a rugged wonder.

—John Keats, Staffa

Tenants and owners

Basalt columns on Am Buchaille

However inspiring the scenery, it was not an easy place to live. In 1772 there was but a single family living on a diet of barley oats, flax and potatoes, and whatever their grazing animals could provide.[3] By the end of the 18th century they had deserted Staffa, apparently terrified by the severity of winter storms.[2] Signs of "rig and furrow" agriculture can still be seen on the island but the only surviving building is the ruin of a 19th-century shelter for travellers.[26] By 1800 the island was under the ownership of Colin MacDonald of Loch Boisdale. In 1816 it was sold by his son Ranald MacDonald into the care of Trustees. In 1821 these Trustees sold to Alexander Forman as Trustee, the purchase money being paid by his brother John Forman WS. It remained in the Forman family until sold by Bernard Gilpin Vincent "Pat" Forman in 1968. There were several private owners after that, including Alastair de Watteville, a descendant of Colin MacDonald[3] who wrote a book about the island,[27] until finally it was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland by Jock Elliott Jr. of New York in 1986 as an imaginative way to honour the 60th birthday of his wife, Eleanor. A grateful National Trust bestowed upon her the honorific "Steward of Staffa".[28]

During the 20th century there have been issues of bogus postage stamps bearing Staffa's name.[29]


Sea cliffs

In 1800 there were three Red Deer on the island, later replaced by goats and then a small herd of black cattle.[3] Subsequently the summer grazing was used for sheep by crofters from Iona but in 1997 all livestock was removed. This has led to a regeneration of the island's vegetation.[26]

Puffin, black-legged kittiwakes, common shag and gulls nest on the island and the surrounding waters provide a livelihood for numerous seabirds, grey seals, dolphins, basking sharks, minke, and pilot whales.[26]

Visiting Staffa

Boat trips from Oban, Ulva Ferry on Mull, Fionnphort and Iona allow visitors to view caves and the puffins that nest on the island between May and September.[30]

There is a landing place used by the tourist boats just north of Am Buachaille, but disembarkation is only possible in calm conditions. The island lacks a genuine anchorage.[3]


Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Staffa)


  1. Murray (1973) p 44.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Keay & Keay (1994) p 894.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Haswell-Smith, Hamish. (2004) The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh. Canongate
  4. Mitchell, Colin and Mitchell, Patrick (2005) Landform and Terrain: The Physical Geography of Landscape Brailsford Press. ISBN 1-904623-56-5 3.pdf
  5. "To Staffa with Ladder" (September 2006)Grampian Speleological Group Newsletter Number 128. Retrieved 9 September 2008.
  6. Bell, B.R. and Jolley, D.W. (1997) Application of palynological data to the chronology of the Palaeogene lava fields of the British Province: implications for magmatic stratigraphy. Journal of the Geological Society. London. Vol. 154, pp. 701–708.
  7. Long Sea Caves of the World Retrieved 14 April 2007. Note however that the list only features entries from North America, Hawaii, and Europe.
  8. FINGAL'S CAVE, OPUS 26, Program Notes by Rita Junker Pickar, 2002, Retrieved 21 October 2010.
  9. Program Notes: Mendelssohn: "Hebrides" Overture by Geoff Kuenning Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  10. Keay & Keay (1994) state that the re-naming was done by Banks, although states that Mendelssohn is blamed for the "misnaming".
  11. Bray (1996) p 92 notes that James Macpherson's Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem was a "runaway bestseller" in many European countries at the time, and that Banks may later have regretted his choice when it became clear that Macpherson's claims to have translated the work from an ancient Gaelic manuscripts proved to be bogus.
  12. The New Encyclopædia Britannica (1978) Chicago. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.
  13. Bray (1996) pp 89–90.
  14. Bray (1996) p 89 suggests that Banks' companion was a Bishop of Iceland, but this seems unlikely as Cooper (1979) provides him with a name and a bishopric - see note below.
  15. Pennant, Thomas (1772) A Tour of Scotland and a Voyage to the Hebrides. London. Benjamin White. Quoted in Bray (1996) page 90.
  16. However, Cooper (1979) p 26 is unequivocal in stating that this "hyperbole" was penned by The Bishop of Linköping, Uno von Troil, who accompanied Banks.
  17. MacNab, Peter (1993) Mull and Iona: Highways and Byways. Edinburgh. Luath Press. pp 72–73
  18. Johnson, Samuel (1775) A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. London. Chapman & Dodd. (1924 edition).
  19. Cooper (1979) pp 52–54.
  20. Wordsworth: Cave of Staffa. Poems Composed or Suggested During a Tour in the Summer of 1833. No 28.
  21. Cooper (1979) p 100.
  22. Keay & Keay (1994) state 1836, which is unlikely.
  23. The Times correspondent writing in the Illustrated London News (1847), quoted in Bray (1996) page 244.
  24. Cooper (1979) p 53.
  25. Bray (1996) page 88, suggests that both Keat's and Wordsworth's attempts are "rather poor verse".
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 "Staffa" Scottish Natural Heritage. Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  27. de Watteville, Alastair (1993) The Island of Staffa: Its Astonishing Rock Formations Include World-renowned Fingal's Cave. Romsey Fine Art.
  28. Obituaries: Eleanor Elliott (8 December 2006) The Scotsman newspaper. Edinburgh.
  29. "Bogus Issues" International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors. Retrieved 14 April 2007.
  30. "Fingal's Cave: Uamh-Binn - The Cave of Melody" Show Caves of the World. Retrieved 10 December 2006.


  • Bray, Elizabeth (1996) The Discovery of the Hebrides: Voyages to the Western Isles 1745-1883. Edinburgh. Birlinn.
  • Cooper, Derek (1979) Road to the Isles: Travellers in the Hebrides 1770-1914. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Haswell-Smith, Hamish. (2004) The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh. Canongate.
  • Keay, J. & Keay, J. (1994) Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland. London. HarperCollins.
  • Murray, W.H. (1973) The Islands of Western Scotland. London. Eyre Methuen.