The Island of
Staffa - Sculpted by Nature Home of the World
Renowned Fingal's Cave
Staffa(Pillar Island) is a beautiful and uninhabited
island (approximately 80 acres) lying 6 miles north of Iona to the west
of Mull and about 6 miles north of Iona. It is home to hundreds of seabirds and set within waters teeming with
marine life. Staffa is best known for its magnificent basalt columns. Their
effect is most overwhelming at An Uamh Binn (Musical Cave) or, as
it is more commonly known, Fingal's Cave, which has enthralled and
inspired travellers for hundreds of years.
Staffa is owned and managed by
The National Trust for Scotland.
1973 it was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest and in 2001 it was
designated a National Nature Reserve. The name 'Staffa' is thought to come from
an Old Norse word meaning wooden building staves (which look similar to the
island's basalt columns). The name is a reminder of the region's Viking history,
and that people have marvelled at Staffa's basalt columns for centuries.
We have made the trip out to Staffa many times - sometimes with the tour
operators and sometimes in our own boat The Wanderer. We never cease to be amazed at the
wonder of this natural phenomenon especially as each time we go we seem to see
something different. Getting up close to the puffins and sitting amongst them to
take photographs is great fun and we bring back treasured memories and moments
THE MAKING OF STAFFA
60 million years ago intense volcanic activity in the area, and
specifically on Mull led to a blanket of lava being fed far out into the
Atlantic. Most has been eroded and dispersed, but Staffa, the Treshnish
Islands and other small islands have remained as stubborn outcrops. As
the west coast of Scotland was stretched huge amounts of magma (hot liquid rock)
rose up through the cracks in the Earth's crust, erupting as lava and volcanic
ash onto the surface. This volcanic activity lasted many hundreds of thousands
of years and eventually created a 2.2 km plateau of lava and ash. This is of
course a simplification of a complex geological story. Scotland and North America were
being pulled apart by continental drift to form the north-eastern Atlantic.
Staffa consists of three
layers of rock of different types, covered with a surface of rich soil
and lush grass. The lowest layer if tuff, compressed volcanic ash
and dust; the middle layer is composedof the basaltic columns;
and the uppermost is made up of jumbled and fractured columns and
If you look at the western cliffs of Burg on Mull, you can see more than
20 stacked-up lava flows. Staffa's columns form one of the very lowest
and oldest of these flows. Over time, rivers, wind, ice and sea have
deeply eroded the lava plateau. Today, only patches of the once
extensive basalt flows are left at Staffa, the Treshnish isles and parts
of Mull as well as extending under the water to the
Giant's Causeway, County Antrim in Northern Ireland
amazing basalt columns formed within a single massive flow of lava as it cooled
and solidified in a very gradual and controlled manner. As the material cooled
it volume shrank slightly and the narrow spaces which separate the columns were
created, similar in concept to the release of tightly grasped bundle of
cigarettes or the drying-out of the earth floor of a pond.
Theoretically, every column should be perfectly hexagonal in section if the
cooling process had occurred uniformly; but there would have been a multitude of
minor variations in the rock itself and in the pattern of cooling, leading to
the considerable variety in column size and form that we can see.
When the columns were taking shape a persistent white deposit settled in the
spaces left by the contraction of the rock. This substance
disappears within a few years if it is exposed to the weather.
Staffa's main physical features include the five principal caves and the
Causeway of snapped columns which links Fingal's Cave with Clamshell Cave.
Port an Fhasgaidh, Gaelic for Shelter Haven but commonly known as the Old
Harbour is the only beach on the island where boats can be dragged up clear of
The highest point is Meall nan Gambna, The Hill of the Stirks (or
Heifers), 135 feet above low water. Two islets are given names on Ordnance
survey maps - they are Am Buachaille, The Herdsman, alongside the
Causeway, composed entirely of twisted columns and Eilean Dubh The Black
Isle which is home to several sea-bird colonies.
of Staffa's sea caves were formed by waves crashing against a soft layer of
volcanic ash underneath the basalt columns. However, a formation of Fingal's
Cave within the hard layer of basalt columns was slightly more complicated.
FINGAL THE GIANT'S CAVE
Fingal’s Cave is unique, making it one of the
best known caves in the world and we are often asked how was it formed? The
answer is quite
straight forward - sight of Staffa from the south shows that most of the visible
part of the island that can be seen slopes downwards to the east. The exception
is the portion to the right or east of the cave. Since the layer of rock made up
of columns would all have been laid down at one time it follows that when the
tilting occurred there would have been pressure above the present site of the
cave, and a fissure would have been forced open directly below,
where the sea now surges in.
The violent action of huge waves that would have struck the island during storms
over thousands of years developed the fissure, undermining dozens of columns, to
create the opening we marvel at and call Fingal's Cave.
The origin of the name 'Fingal's Cave' is wrapped in myth. Around 250 A.D.
Finn MacCumhaill, or Fingal, was possibly an irish general who had a band of
faithful warriors - a Celtic parallel to King Arthur and his Round Table. Fingal
is supposed to have been the father of Ossian, traditional bard of the Gaels.
Gaels migrated into Scotland from Ireland until the Norsemen began their raids
on the Scottish coast, and the stories of Fingal would doubtless have come
across too. Soon he became revered in Scotland and boosted by the Ossianic
heroic verse and sings, his name was a natural choice to assign to this dramatic
and awe-inspiring cavern.
STAFFA'S OTHER CAVES
are four other important caves on Staffa, all clustered around the southern part
of the island. Taking them clockwise they are Clamshell Cave, Boat Cave,
MacKinnon's Cave and Cormorants' Cave. There is a further captivating
feature called the Gunna Mor.
Clamshell Caveis the best known landing place on Staffa. It is
linked to Fingal's Cave by the Causeway and to the island's plateau by a
stairway. The rock formation at Clamshell Cave is remarkable, it's long bent
columns resembling the ribs of a wooden ship as much as they do a clamshell or
scallop. This bizarre structure is faced across the narrow void of the cave by a
wall of exposed column-ends, like a giant honeycomb.
Along the pat southwards from Clamshell Cave, along the Causeway towards the
other caves, the wall of columns on the right exhibits an odd feature. Near
their tops all these columns curve in, away form the sea. So unusual is this
kind of distortion that the place on Staffa where it occurs is often called The Bending Columns. Perhaps, when the flow here was cooling, the
tops of the columns were better insulated than elsewhere and so remained for
longer in a plastic state. As further weight was added above, the columns would
have been able to yield to it. The other three caves are formed completely in
the tuff, below the stratum of columns. Boat Cave appears
from the sea (left), to be no more than an uninteresting rectangular opening in
the shallow below the Colonnade. But once inside, the walls are found to be
yellow, smoothly sculpted into fascinating, continuously undulating surfaces;
and the roof is seen to be composed of the apparently unsupported
MacKinnon's Cave runs more than 200 feet into the island, with a
lofty feel and a distinctive arrangement of rock columns, buttresses and
boulders; and it is the haunt of large numbers of sea-birds. Abbott MacKinnon of
Iona is said to have come to the cave to seek forgiveness after breaking his
monastic vows (by "intriguing with Matilda of Skye"), but found it too noisy and
moved to Mull, to the spot near Gribun where there is another MacKinnon's Cave.
The entrance to Cormorants' Cave is hard to see. It looks as
if it is just a slash in the rock wall forming the southern flank of the
Old Harbour, though actually the cave goes back for over 60 feet. A
little way inside there is a narrow opening to a tunnel on the right hand side;
at low-water on a still day it is possible to walk dry-shod to Cormorants Cave,
through this winding, dark slippery tunnel to emerge at the back of MacKinnon's
Cave which, from that approach, is glistening and impressively vast and
On the northern wall of the Old Harbour is a singular recess in the cliff,
several feet above the high-tide line. What is seen is the bottom of the
Gunna Mor, or 'big gun', a steeply inclined and almost uniform bore
about 15 feet in length. When a heavy swell strikes the cliff the air in the
Gunna Mor is driven back and compressed. Upon being released it is said to
make a considerable noise, reported by a visitor in 1802 to escape "with a
noise like loud thunder which is heard at a great distance".
ISLAND ARCHAEOLOGY AND PAST
Until about 250 years ago people
used to live on Staffa. When the illustrious scientist Sir Joseph Banks landed
on Staffa in 1772 he found the island occupied by a solitary 'peasant who
attends some cattle that pastures there".
Faujas, the French geologist, visiting Staffa in 1784 found the population to be
16, living in two huts "constructed of unhewn blacks of basalt roofed over
with sods. There were eight cows, one bull, twelve sheep, two horses, one pig,
two dogs, one cock and eight hens". When Professor T. Garner went to Staffa
in 1798 he also found two huts and commented that "the manner of life is
extremely simple, food consisting chiefly of milk and potatoes with now and then
a little fish". That was the final year in which the island was lived on
continuously. Thereafter for the following decade, herdsmen and their families
resided on Staffa from spring to autumn and then habitation came to an end.
Animals, however have gone on
spending time on Staffa. A visitor in 1826 reported finding cows, horses and
sheep "without a guardian and without shelter". Until recently sheep were
still grazed on the island and we still hear of tales and exploits from some of
the older residents in the village of livestock being ferried out in boats to
spend the summer on the island grazing. The mind boggles at the thought of the
animals negotiating that steep stairway up to the top of plateau on the island -
surely there must be another way up!
As you walk
across the island you may notice low undulating lines of 'rig and furrow'
agriculture (also known as 'lazy beds) and several stone buildings. The lazy
beds were used to grow potatoes necessary for their survival and surprisingly,
in view of the harsh weather, oats grew moderately well too. Most of the surface
of the island was cultivated at some time; though latterly some was stripped of
turfs to burn, setting back the possibility of growing crops.
Staffa's largest surviving building is a stone ruin, still visible today, which
was long believed to be the remains of a medieval chapel or hermit's cell. It's
presence was not noted by any visitor before 1930, the year in which Pancoucke
included the roofless building in his painting of Staffa's plateau. Now it is
widely assumed that the structure was a folly erected in the 1820's. Over the
years, the building, in various stages of collapse has provided visitors with
shelter from the weather.
NOTABLE VISITORS TO STAFFA
Cave was brought to the attention of the wider world by the famous botanist
Joseph Banks in 1772. He wrote: "Compared to this what are cathedrals or
palaces built by men! Mere models or playthings, imitations as his works will
always be when compared to those of nature."
At the time, the Romantic Movement was spreading
across Europe with its emphasis on wilderness, emotion and natural
splendour. Staffa, with its wild beauty, soon became one of the 'must
see' sights on the Highland Tour. Throughout the 19th century Staffa was
visited by a variety of well-known individuals who were all captivated
and inspired by the magic of the island. These included Alfred Lord
Tennyson, Queen Victoria, Jules Verne, Joseph Turner (who painted a
wonderfully turbulent seascape of waves crashing in at Fingal's Cave),
William Wordsworth, Keats, Johnston & Boswell, Robert Louis Stevenson
and Sir Walter Scott who wrote: “one of the most extraordinary places
I ever behold. It exceeded in my mind every description I had heard of
it, composed entirely of basaltic pillars as high as the roof of a
cathedral, and running deep into the rock, eternally swept by a deep and
swelling sea and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble, baffles all
The island became internationally renowned through Felix
Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture (Fingal's Cave). He wrote that
the inspiration for this piece of music came through a visit to the
island in 1829, while he was standing in the cave listening to the roar
of the waves.
Such was the inspiration that every year in June, Mendelssohn's music is
celebrated with a Mendelssohn on
There are important colonies of seabirds that breed on
Staffa and as you approach the island during the summer months, you will notice
the variety of birds flying to and from the island. The island is the nesting
place for a whole range of species including puffins, cormorants, shags,
kittiwakes, fulmars, great black-backed
gulls, skuas and razorbills.
Puffins are a particular favourite with visitors because of their brightly
coloured beaks and clown-like appearance. Puffins nest in burrows and rocky
crannies around Staffa where they lay one egg during the summer months. Their
main food is san eels which they catch by diving up to 60 m into the sea.
Puffins start arriving between March/April where they form 'rafts' on the water
and gradually come ashore to nest. Between May & June, the chicks hatch. In July
the parents care for the chick at the nest and in early August the parents
abandon the nest. After several days the chick follows. Puffins mass on the sea
and then fly off to the mid-Atlantic for the winter.
This photo of the puffin was taken by John on 19 June 2012 when he sailed out to
Staffa in the evening with Jane's dad 'The Admiral'. The puffins were all in
their burrows getting ready to settle for the night and popped out to see who
was visiting them 'out-of-hours'.
The sea around Staffa acts as a food
store for the island's bird life. However underneath the surface there is a rich
diversity of creatures besides fish, including jellyfish, crustaceans, algae and
Keep your eyes peeled when travelling to Staffa. You may see some of these
creatures, in particular the mammals, which unlike fish must come to the surface
for air. Dolphins and porpoises are often seen surfacing between the waves,
while along the shores of Mull you might spot colonies of grey seals basking on
the rocks. Atlantic seals are known to come to Staffa in the early autumn to
give birth to their white furry pups. In the sea and around the island seals are
often in evidence; and fisherman can be seen catching crabs, lobsters and other
diverse pattern of soil types on Staffa arising form the basaltic lavas, allows
a great range of plant communities to flourish. The 150 different higher plants
constitute an unusually rich flora for so small an island.
1997, Staffa was grazed by sheep, brought over by crofters from Iona. However,
grazing is no longer practical on the island and all livestock has been removed.
The vegetation has since become taller and thicker making the ground more
difficult to walk across. It has however allowed the wild flowers to grow -
plants to look out for include wild thyme and bird's-foot trefoil on shallow
rocky soils, white flowered brookweed in wet areas and yellow flowered tormentil
on dry heath-land.
Despite this wealth of plant
life, there is almost no bracken; and no heather, trees or shrubs. However,
plentiful colour is provided by the sea campion, thrift, buttercup and by the
rich lichens on the south-facing colonnade near the major caves. Thus
while the exceptional geological features are recognised as being of outstanding
importance, the whole island's ecosystem which embraces its rocks, soil,
climate, topography and the influences of its marine location is precious.
GETTING TO STAFFA
From Fionnphort and Iona there are two boat trip operators to Staffa
who leave twice daily for the 3 hour round trip, including approximately one
hour on Staffa itself. The journey and timetable is all subject to weather
conditions at the time. The boats operate from the 1st of April until
the 31st October each year and are operated by very experienced
skippers who hold DTI/MCA certificates to carry up to 70 passengers. We always
recommend that guests wait until they arrive before booking their trips
- this is so John can check the weather and sea conditions for you and
suggest the best time to go. We will then make the booking for you.
Information and text provided courtesy of Alastair de Watteville, author of the
'Staffa' (ISBN: 0 9521517 07
- available from
Amazon and The Ferry Shop in Fionnphort) and who was also the owner of the island between 1972
and 1978. Additional information supplied by The National Trust
for Scotland. Further information available on (0131) 2439300 or (01631)
564710 or visit www.nts.org.uk
Photographs taken by John.
John & Jane Noddings
Seaview Bed & Breakfast, Fionnphort, Isle of Mull, Argyll, Scotland,
United Kingdom PA66
6BL t: +44(0)1681 700235 | m: (07708) 556311 | e:
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