Places to visit: Fingal's cave

Jane Ann Purdy

I soon realised I had set myself quite a task in choosing to give an account of the day I visited Fingal's Cave. No less a man than Keats had described himself as lost for words when he came across the Hebridean treasure in the early 19th century, a time when the place was quite overrun with literary giants. The roll call is impressive: Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and Jules Verne are just some who spent time searching for appropriate superlatives at the cave's frothing mouth.

Today, you find many who have heard of Fingal's Cave, but few who have been there. It's fame is largely thanks to Felix Mendelssohn, who recognised that what could not easily be put into words could more surely be expressed in music. He visited the cave's island home, Staffa, in 1829 and, inspired by the power of the Atlantic breakers slamming into the cave, wrote the Hebrides overture, akanbsp; Fingal's Cave .

For many visitors, including Mendelssohn who was seasick on the voyage, rough conditions are usual, and locals say the sound of the sea forcing its way into the cave can be heard like the report of a cannon some 12 miles away in Iona. So it's no surprise that Fingal's hiding hole is also known as An Uamh Ehinn (the musical cave).

My experience was quite different. On board a yacht motoring from Tobermory, Isle of Mull, the waters were unusually calm and as we sailed closer, the reason Norsemen named this rock Staffa, (Isle of Staves) was quickly apparent. The island's high sides were no ordinary cliffs but pillars of hexagonal rock formed by the slow cooling of lava forced up from the ocean floor millions of years ago.

Naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, who "discovered" Staffa by accident en route to Iceland in 1772, started a goldrush among the great and the good when he wrote: "Compared to this what are the cathedrals or the palaces built by men!"

But there were more surprises to come for Banks, and for us. He had no idea about Fingal's Cave and we were unsure whether conditions would allow us a sighting. Since the waters were so calm, our guide thougth that it would even be possible to row our inflatable into the cave. Often the waves are so rough it is not even possible to land on Staffa and walk along the tall hexagonal stepping stones that form a walkway into the cave, as Dr Johnson discovered to his regret when he followed Banks a year later.

Visitors often refer to the cave resembling the nave of a great cathedral, but as we rowed in the impression was of enormous parting curtains petrified in steely basalt. The boat bobbed gently as rays of sunshine illuminated the internal colonnades like magnificent organ pipes. Beneath the water the cave walls were alive with micro-organisms which, when caught by the light, glistened like gem stones.

Banks asked his guide the name of this inspiring formation. "The cave of Fionn," came the reply, otherwise known as Fingal, the Scots form of the Gaelic, Fionn na Ghal or "Chief of Valour". Fionn was, by one account, a famous warrior whose life was devoted to driving the Norsemen out of his Hebridean home. Another version is that Fionn was the behemoth and talented stone mason who fashioned the Giant's Causeway and, as an afterthought, Staffa.

Turus Mara operate daily boat tours to Staffa and the Treshnish Isles from Mull (April to October). Call 08000 858786 or email for more details

A longer version of this feature appears in this week's TES

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Jane Ann Purdy

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