Staffa-Where the Sea Sings

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.