The Island of Staffa and Fingal's Cave

By Beriah Botfield

[The islands adjoining the Scottish Highlands have much in them to interest the traveller, both in the character and habits of the people and the aspects of nature. As respects natural phenomena, the scenery of the island of Staffa and Fingal's Cave is of especial interest, the development of columnar basalt rocks here being unequalled in extent and perfection. From Botfield's "Journal of a Tour through the Highlands of Scotland during the Summer of 1829" we select the following description of Staffa and the adjacent coast and islands.]

The full moon shone in cloudless splendor upon the tranquil waters of the bay and the dark shore of Morven. Lights were occasionally seen to gleam from the motionless vessels, and, in the stillness of the night, the distant waterfalls were heard to pour amidst the woody recesses of Drumfin, the romantic residence of McLean, the laird of Coll, on the opposite side of the bay. Beyond the mouth of the harbor, across the Sound of Mull, appeared the rugged coast and wild hills of Morven, so celebrated in the heroic strains of Ossian, upon which, whatever may be the opinion of the spectator as to the authenticity of these celebrated poems, it is impossible to look, at such a time as this, without the deepest emotion. Indeed, the celebrated traveller, Dr. Clarke, who ever regarded them as an ingenious fiction, blended with a very scanty portion of traditional information, confessed that he could not, nevertheless, avoid feeling some degree of local enthusiasm as he passed the shores upon which so vast a superstructure of amazing but visionary fable had been erected....

At daybreak we were summoned on board the steamboat, whence we enjoyed a pleasing prospect of the woods and waterfalls surrounding the handsome modern mansion of Drumfin, the residence of McLean, "the chief of the sandy Coll," situated under a range of woody cliffs, upon the margin of a lovely lake, at the eastern point of the Bay of Tobermory. Upon emerging from this harbor, the opening of Loch Sunart, an arm of the sea which deeply indents the rugged coast of Morven, and separates it from the still more wild and rugged district of Ardnamurchan, appeared on our right....

Upon the wild mountain-shore of Ardnamurchan, immediately upon the edge of the sea, the castle of Mingarry appeared, "sternly placed," being surrounded by a polygonal wall, whose edges coincide with those of the ledge of rocks on which it stands; and though it can no longer be said "to overawe the woodland and the waste," yet it is an object of striking interest both from its situation and ancient history. The cliffs which bind this rude shore scarcely rise beyond sixty or one hundred feet in height, but are of a peculiarly savage character, which, combined with the prevailing swell of the mighty Western Ocean, renders any attempt at landing both difficult and dangerous.

[As they proceeded, a long chain of islands was passed, while on the coast at length appeared Cailleach Head, so called from the extremely close resemblance of a portion of the rock to the human head. Thence they gained a magnificent view of the coast of Canna, and saw, beautiful in the distance, the dark-blue mountains of the island of Skye, while other islands gemmed the waters nearer at hand.]

Upon this beautiful view of these islands we longed for winged feet to leap from isle to isle; and though the number of the Western Islands exceeds two hundred, our flight of fancy would not

         "pause till perched on Kilda's steep,
The last fair daughter of the Western deep."

On emerging from the Sound of Mull, and passing the stormy cape of Cailleach Head, we observed the bold rocks of the western coast of Mull, veined with trap, and frequented by flocks of sea-fowl. As we proceeded down the strait, between the islands of Coll and of Mull, the little archipelago of the Treshanish Islands came in sight. As we drew near these singular islands, consisting of Fladda, Linga, Bach, and the two Cairnburgs, we gradually discerned their columnar structure, which, though not so decided as that of Staffa, yet appeared sufficiently evident to warrant the supposition that these are similar rocks of basalt emerging from the deep, and just sufficiently clothed with verdure to merit the appellation of islands. Upon the larger of the Cairnburgs we saw, upon our right, as we approached its shore, a ruined fortalice, used as a place of refuge by the warlike and turbulent McLeans of Duart. This was a place of strength in the Norwegian times, but is now only tenanted by a few wandering sheep, as are also Fladda and Bach, which last, from its singularly oval shape, has obtained from mariners the name of the Dutchman's Cap.

This little chain of islets, with their treble summits and varied forms, appeared under a thousand different aspects as we advanced between them and the coast of Mull. Engaged as our attention had been by these interesting objects, it was effectually diverted when we beheld, for the first time, the celebrated island of Staffa, so justly esteemed one of the greatest natural curiosities the world can boast, and well worth all the perils of the voyage; since no description, however eloquent, no picture, however vivid, can portray this admirable demonstration of nature's power as it is seen and felt by the beholder.

Beyond Staffa we discerned, as yet indistinctly, the tower of the cathedral upon the Isle of Iona; and, more distantly to the extreme west, the island of Tiree; while close upon our left appeared the range of rocky precipices which render the coast of Mull so interesting.... In the distance rose proudly to heaven the lofty summit of Ben More, and the lesser mountain of Mamclachaig, in Mull.

Little islets, some of them bearing vestiges of ancient forts, are scattered over the face of the deep, between Ulva and Staffa, to which island, as we approached, our gaze was eagerly directed; and as we beheld its unrivalled columnar structure more distinctly, we were enabled to appreciate more justly the far-famed wonders of this precious gem of the sea. Having stayed our course underneath its most precipitous and attractive side, fronting the southwest, we instantly got into the boat, and rowed off for Fingal's Cave, over unusually quiescent water.

As the tide was ebbing fast, we landed at the entrance of the cave underneath the most magnificent arch it is possible to conceive; the mouth of the cave being seventy feet high and about forty-two broad. We scrambled on without difficulty along its eastern side, over the flat tops of the broken yet upright pillars, which form an excellent causeway, into the interior of the cave, and there contemplated, with infinite awe and admiration, this magnificent temple of the God of Nature....

This celebrated cave is entirely composed of basaltic pillars, having from five to six sides in general, but varying to seven or eight, the ends of which are generally about two feet in diameter, accurately corresponding with each other at the roof and bottom of the cavern, which has been formed, it may be conjectured, by the action of the sea undermining the jointed columns, and thus producing the excavation, which gradually diminishes in breadth to its termination, two hundred and twenty-seven feet from its entrance. This majestic vault is poetically termed in Gaelic, Uiamh Binn--the Musical Cave--from the echo of the waves within its mighty recesses, and somewhat unaccountably has obtained the name of Fingal, though tradition has not connected it in any way with the illustrious exploits of that Ossianic hero.

As the tide never entirely leaves the cave, the only floor it has is the beautifully translucent green wave of the sea, reflecting from its bosom those tints which vary and harmonize the darker hues of the rock, and often throwing on the basaltic columns the flickering lights which its undulating surface receives from the rays of the sun without.

The roof of the cave is extremely curious and beautiful, the interstices between the pillars being filled up by stalactites of varied hue, whose beautiful tints have the fine effect of greatly enriching this natural mosaic work. The murmur of the swelling tide, mingling with the deep-toned echoes of the vault, which grandly reverberated to the repeated reports of our double-barrelled pistol, added to the stupendous magnificence of the columns, and the splendid singularity of the scene, produced emotions in the mind which defy description, and which future impressions will never be able to obliterate.

Reluctantly quitting the Cave of Fingal, we proceeded in our boat under the highest part of the magnificent colonnade of basaltic pillars, which rise to the height of one hundred and twelve feet above high-water mark, between Fingal's Cave and a square dark aperture in the lowest stratum of the rock called the Boat Cave, because it is accessible by that mode alone, and runs in the rock one hundred and forty feet, like the gallery of a mine. The columnar structure of the trap rock is extremely evident above and around this cave, and continues equally so as far as the Cormorant's or McKinnon's Cave to the west, which derives its former name from the feathered race that inhabit it, and of which a fine specimen flew over our heads as we approached the spacious entrance of the cave.

This singular aperture is peculiarly striking from the simplicity and regularity of its form. The columns are extremely perfect, and rise immediately from a black amorphous mass of indurated matter, through which are dispersed nodules and fragments of a still darker rock, altogether closely resembling the scoriŠ of a volcano, strongly corroborative of the igneous origin of basaltic rocks. The height of this cave is fifty feet, its breadth forty-eight, and its length two hundred and twenty-four feet. The range of columns over its front is extremely beautiful, being hollowed or bent into a concave recess, while the upper part presents a curious and regular geometric ceiling of a striking and unusual appearance.

Repassing the Boat Cave and the range of columns above it, we landed below the echoing arch of the great cave, and availing ourselves of the natural steps afforded by the gigantic causeway, which rises step by step up to the base of the grand colonnade, walked to the detached rock called Buachaille [Greek: Bougolos], or the Herdsman. This noted rock rises about thirty feet above the waves, consisting of an agglomeration of columns resting against each other, and meeting, until they form a conical body, which appears to lie upon a bed of singularly curved horizontal columns visible only at low water,--an advantage which we fortunately enjoyed, and found several sea anemones in the hollows of the rocks.

Passing a rugged point where the causeway projects considerably, we came suddenly upon the Scallop or Clamshell Cave, so justly esteemed one of the most wonderful features of this famous island. This cave is a large rent or fissure in the rock, one hundred and thirty feet long, thirty in height, and eighteen in breadth at its entrance, where it presents on one side the singular phenomenon of the curved and contorted, yet as usual polygonal, columns of basalt, bent so as to form a series of ribs, each forty or fifty feet long, without a joint, their ends standing up and terminating abruptly, not unlike the inside view of the timbers of a ship. On the opposite side of the cave the broken ends of the pillars are so disposed as to bear a general resemblance to the surface of a honeycomb. The lateral dimensions of this cave gradually contract until they terminate in a long, narrow fissure in the rock. By the continued basaltic causeway on the northern side access is obtained to the table-summit of the island, upon which black cattle find good pasturage, though a ruined hut and an extensive prospect are all that can be expected in requital of the fatigue of the ascent.

This celebrated island, it may be remarked, lies in the same longitude with the Giant's Causeway on the northern coast of Ireland.

Returning from the Clamshell Cave round the point of the causeway, we regained the Buachaille rock, under which, in the narrow channel between it and the causeway, just sufficient to allow it to swim, we found our boat, and were conveyed in it back to the steamboat, whence we surveyed, with unsated curiosity, the wonderful island we had just explored, and had ample opportunity of appreciating the truth of its Norwegian derivation from staff, a stave, to which those barbarians likened its columns. The grand southern fašade of the island is formed of three beds of trap-rock of unequal thickness; the lowest being a conglomerate tufaceous trap, about fifty feet thick on the western side, but, in consequence of its inclination, disappearing under the sea a little to the westward of the great cave. The middle bed is composed of basaltic columns, placed vertically on the plane of their bed, and of unequal depth, varying from thirty-six to fifty-four feet. The upper stratum consists of amorphous and tufaceous trap, intermixed with small basaltic veins and columns, and by its inequality and depth forms the contour of the island, whose surface is covered with turf, and presents nothing remarkable. The cliffs upon the northern shore of the island are very rugged and irregular, and contain about five caves of lesser note, being remarkable only for the resounding of the waves upon breaking into them, resembling much "the cannon's opening roar."

[Not far removed from Staffa is the famous isle of Iona, celebrated as the place where Columba, an Irish sixth century saint, founded a monastery and converted the inhabitants from Druidism to Christianity. The establishment founded by him flourished for centuries, and the ruins of the cathedral and other antique buildings still remain. One of these, "the Reilig Ouran, to the south of St. Oran's Chapel, was for centuries the ordinary burial-place of the Scottish kings, whose tombs, to the number of forty-eight, form a long and continuous series of oblong narrow stones, laid flat side by side, and bearing scrolls and effigies, but no inscriptions."]

Tradition has recorded Fergus the Second as the earliest monarch of the line, having been entombed about 420 A.D., and included among the number his successors down to Macbeth; though Macculloch conjectures, from the circumstance of the body of Alexander II., who died at Kerrera, having been conveyed to Melrose for burial, that Iona did not enjoy so great a reputation as the burial-place of kings as it is commonly said to have done in the earlier ages of the Scottish monarchy. However, our conductor, parallel to the royal tombs of Scotland, pointed out to us a similar line, containing eight Norwegian princes or viceroys of the island, during the remote period when that barbarous people exercised sovereignty over the Isles of the Gael. These tombs are chiefly distinguished by the Runic knots and curious representations of vessels rudely sculptured upon the oblong pieces of primitive rock which cover their graves. Adjoining these, a row of four similar stones indicate the graves of as many Irish kings, near to which is said to lie one king of France. Altogether they constitute perhaps the most extensive association of crowned heads in the habitable globe.

[The latter "kings" were perhaps but chiefs, and here, near the royal tombs, are buried most of the insular Highland chieftains, the Macdonalds, the Macleans, and others of ancient days.]

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