“Discovered” for the outer world by Sir Joseph Banks on his tour of the West in 1772, Staffa became an object of pilgrimage thenceforth, with many of the great and the good paying a visit throughout the ensuing 250 years. Queen Victoria would have been the A-lister most famous, to try to name the rest would do many an injustice.
So what was the attraction? There are several headings including mythology, geology, music, which help to make this an island like no other on the planet. Indeed it has been (and still is) frequently described as one of the wonders of the world.
Finn MacCumhaill – the name is often anglicised to Fin Mac Coul, and appears to have been adapted to Fingal, was, by some accounts, an heroic Irish General in charge of the Feinne, a band of chivalrous supermen charged with fending off the unwanted attentions of the Lochlannaich or Norsemen. Considering that the languages of Scotland and Ireland were the same for around three hundred years, it was natural that myths and cultural exchange would encourage the notion of Staffa and The Giants Causeway being joined undersea and the legends of giants, wondrous deeds and superstitious beliefs would move on apace. So the notion that Staffa was thrown down by a giant as a stepping stone to Ireland could, after a few hundred years, be easily swallowed by the populace of the time. That Hell lay directly under Fingal’s Cave was another belief of the era.
Whole books have been written around the geological formations of the area but the simplest explanation for the formation of the unique forms of columnar basalt making up most of Staffa seems to be related to the rate of cooling of a homogeneous lava flow.
Nature dictates that the least space which must be left by a liquid material contracting as it solidifies tends to form the least number of adjoining sides, generally forming hexagons
as in the formation of honeycombs. In practice, while there are many hexagons, the columns vary from three to many more sides and in size from a few centimetres up to nearly two metres across in some areas. Many have difficulty believing that this intriguing rock formation is not man-made. No concrete mixers were injured in the construction of this awesome architecture!
One of the most well-known and popular classical pieces is the iconic overture, Fingal’s Cave, written by the great composer, Felix Mendelssohn, having been inspired to it’s creation by a visit in August 1829. He was allegedly very seasick on the day and this may help explain his dissatisfaction with the first version of the overture. The version produced a couple of years later became the frequently performed concert piece we hear today. Less well known; Mendelssohn’s influences were to some degree similar to those of Gershwin. The first few notes of “Summertime” from Porgy & Bess are the same as those of the Hebridean Overture, just placed in a different order.
Over the years, we have taken various kinds of music to perform in the natural amplifier which is Fingal’s Cave, including voice, bagpipes, flute, concertina, cello, guitar and many more.
It has been suggested that one other possible derivation of the name Fingal’s Cave – in Gaelic – Uamh Fionn, might have been Uamh Bhinn, meaning the sweet sounding or melodious cave. Since Gaelic was the language in use in the area for many hundreds of years, this is a distinct possibility.
Whether legends, geology, music, flora and fauna or unique spectacles are your bag, it is clear to us, as the access facilitators, that Staffa and Fingal’s Cave have the Wow factor. Confronted with the pleasantly unexpected, we can hear on our boats the metaphorical (and often real!) intake of breath by our guests as we arrive to view this highly unusual phenomenon. It’s fame is so far and wide that the image of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave is increasingly used as a generic icon depicting Scotland. Along with the Hebridean Overture, we have the perfect emblem to help show off the breathtaking beauty of our island scene.