Barely one kilometer long and half a kilo-meter wide, Staffa’s so small, it makes neighboring Iona look gigantic. Nobody lives on this sparse little island in the Inner Hebrides; nobody has in the past century and a half. Even the sheep that used to browse on the scanty grass of its single upland plateau have been moved to other summer pastures. The forbidding black basalt cliffs of its headlands are a rigid row of distinctive hexagonal columns, which looked so much like a stockaded fort that early Viking visitors named it Staffa, or “pillar island” in old Norse.
But where there are sea cliffs there are often sea caves, gouged out of the rock by pelting rain and dashing sea, and Staffa’s got a treasure-trove of them—Clamshell Cave and Goat Cave on the east; MacKinnon’s Cave, Cormorant Cave, and Boat Cave on the southwest; and the biggest of them all, Fingal’s Cave on the island’s southern tip. Standing an imposing 20m (66 ft.) high and 75m (245 ft.) long, Fingal’s Cave’s vertical columns look eerily like the ribbed pillars of a Gothic church nave, inspiring many 19th-century admirers to describe it as a “cathedral of the sea.” It’s a romantic spot indeed, with swirling waters echoing and resounding inside—hence the Gaelic name, An Uamh Ehinn, which means “musical cave.”
The melodic effects of this cave are its claim to fame, and indeed the main reason anybody visits Staffa. In the late 18th century, English artist Sir Joseph Banks came here and wrote glowingly of this picturesque cave, which he renamed Fingal’s Cave, in tribute to the Irish hero Finn Mac-Cool (after all, the Hebrides islands are not that far from Northern Ireland, where you’ll see similar basalt columns in the Giant’s Causeway). Banks did such a good PR job for the cave that a stream of famous visitors arrived over the next several years, drawn by the early 19th-century Romantic movement’s passion for grand, rugged, “sublime” natural landscapes. These travelers included, naturally, a raft of poets—Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson—and even Queen Victoria herself. Felix Mendelssohn wrote a haunting air titled “Fingal’s Cave” as one of the centerpieces of his Hebridean Symphony. J. M. W. Turner painted a renowned depiction of Fingal’s Cave, a dramatic canvas full of boiling seas and lowering skies, in which the cave itself is almost totally hidden in a dazzling patch of fog.
Now owned and protected by the National Trust for Scotland, Staffa can be visited on tour boats from either Iona or Mull, which land on the rocky shallows; metal stairs and a walking path lead to a ledge inside Fingal’s Cave. Come in summer and you can also cross the island to a spot where curious puffins, who nest on the cliffs, will land on the clifftop only a few feet away from you.