Staffa: a land of fire and giants, caves and creativity

Still on the subject of Islands, I just had to share my trip to Staffa with you. Famous for its dramatic basalt columns, sea caves and bird life, Staffa is a small uninhabited island that has captivated 1000’s over the years. Hardly known until 1772, when botanist Joseph Banks highlighted the wild, natural beauty of the island, other famous visitors have included Queen Victoria, JMW Turner, Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth.

But as a geologist it was the rocks that grabbed my interest initially. On a sparkly, somewhat ‘breezy’ day I set off with Staffa Tours from Iona on my little adventure!

A landscape formed by fire

Close up of Staffa - three layers of rock: tuff, basalt columns and crystalline basalt (from base to top)

Close up of Staffa – three layers of rock: tuff, basalt columns and crystalline basalt (from base to top)

Around 50-60 million years ago the Atlantic Ocean started to form. As Scotland and North America were separated loads of volcanoes appeared and lava erupted through the newly thinned and stretched crust. Staffa was formed in the process. As well as lava oozing out of the earth and cooling into the Island’s famous columns, clouds of gas and ash periodically exploded high into the sky. In Mackinnon’s Cave you can still see grooves on the roof created from hot ash and gas rushing out from the volcanic vent. Known as a pyroclastic flow this would have destroyed everything in its path much like Mt. St. Helen’s did in 1980.

On the approach to the island you can see three distinct layers of rock (see photo): a tuff (made of volcanic ash) at the base, basalt columns (made of lava) above and a fine grained, crystalline basalt on the top. It is within the middle layer that some of the island’s most spectacular caves are found. After the lava cooled slowly forming the columns, years of waves crashing into the cliff face carved out some real marvels of nature including Fingal’s Cave.

Approaching Fingal's Cave (right). Boat Cave on the left.

Approaching Fingal’s Cave (right). Boat Cave on the left.

The legend of Finn MacCoul

But was this really how Staffa and Fingal’s Cave were made? After all, the cave is named after Finn MacCoul, hunter-warrior and giant of Irish mythology. Did he have something to do with it?

Legend has it that while building a pathway across the sea to Scotland (Giant’s Causeway) Finn was told the Scottish giant Benandonner was coming to fight him. But Finn knew he could not beat this colossal man, even larger than himself, so Finn got his wife, Oona, to dress him as a baby and hide him in a cradle. When Benandonner arrived Oona said he was out but would return soon, so Benandonner waited. However, the enormous size of the baby made him wonder just how big his father was and it was a frightened Benandonner that fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway as he went.

Could Staffa actually be a remnant of Finn MacCoul’s pathway? According to geologists the rocks of Staffa and Giant’s Causeway are the same…

Giant's Causeway, N. Ireland: the same columnar basalt as on Staffa. Image from Pixabay

Giant’s Causeway, N. Ireland: the same columnar basalt as on Staffa. Image from Pixabay

Fingal’s Cave – an inspiring natural wonder

Whatever you think of Finn and Benandonner, there is no doubt Fingal’s Cave has provided much creative inspiration over the years. JMW Turner’s painting of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave was exhibited in 1832 while William Wordsworth describes beautifully in poetry the majesty of God in creating this natural workmanship. Joseph Banks was so astonished by the Island that he was: “forced to acknowledge that this piece of architecture, formed by nature, far surpasses that of the Louvre, that of St Peter at Rome, all that remains of Palmyra and Paestum, and all that the genius, the taste and the luxury of the Greeks were capable of inventing.”

As I approached the cave via wave sculpted rocks I was certainly impressed with its magnificence. Edging from the hot cliff face into the cool and shady depths, it wasn’t hard to imagine how the acoustics here inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. I could almost hear the sound of a fiddle drifting by on the breeze…

Here’s a little video to get your creative juices flowing.

But take note, if like Wordsworth, you find the volume of tourism disappointing, make sure you wait 20 minutes or so to visit Fingal’s Cave. Climb to the top of the Island first (marvellous views), then go. Other people will have vacated the cave by then and you’ll likely have it to yourself. Just make sure you’re back at the boat in time! I only had a brief moment of panic when I saw another Staffa Trips boat zooming back towards Iona, honest!

A view from the top of Staffa's cliffs

A view from the top of Staffa’s cliffs

So what did I think of Staffa? Absolutely marvellous!

I thoroughly recommend a visit to this little island, especially if you can manage to avoid the crowds. Don’t miss the caves, the view from the cliffs and if you can, take time to sit and ponder the creation of this beautiful place. My only gripe was one hour wasn’t nearly enough time to explore properly. Perhaps next time a visit by kayak is on the cards…

Now over to you:

  • Have you ever visited Staffa? What did you think?
  • Do you have a favourite island?
  • What has been your best Island experience?


[This post was originally published on my ‘creation, life, adventure’ blog, 11/12/17 – no longer available]

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