In the steps of the Romantics!
It took about an hour to reach Staffa from Mull, where we were staying. The island is uninhabited and is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. It was originally formed 60 million years ago as a result of violent volcanic activity. Staffa’s magnificent basalt cliffs, which resemble enormous organ pipes, were created when liquid rock cooled and hardened into columns. The sea caves for which Staffa is also famous were formed when the sea wore away the soft volcanic ash at the base of the columns. The name “Staffa” comes for an Old Norse word meaning wooden building staves which suggests that like modern tourists, the Vikings also marvelled at Staffa’s basalt columns.
Staffa was farmed during the late 18th century and the ruins of several stone structures on the island suggest that people either lived there permanently or seasonally. The island was first brought to the attention of the wider world in 1772 by the famous botanist Joseph Banks, who wrote: “Compared to this what are the cathedrals and palaces built by men! Mere models or playthings, imitations as his works will always be when compared to those of nature.” It was Banks who coined the name “Fingal’s Cave.” This was a reference to the then fashionable Macpherson’s Ossian, the tale of the great deeds of the Gaelic hero Fingal, a bestselling epic poem, which was later proved to be a forgery. The poem was discredited but the name of Fingal’s Cave stuck!
Banks’s “discovery” of the island coincided with the spread of the Romantic Movement across Europe with its emphasis on wilderness, emotion and natural splendour. Staffa soon became one of the “must-see” sights of Scotland. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell attempted to land on Staffa during their tour of the Hebrides in 1773 but were beaten back by heavy seas. Fingal’s Cave went on to become a place of pilgrimage for the Romantics: William Wordsworth, John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, JMW Turner and Felix Mendelssohn all visited and were moved to write, paint or in Mendelssohn’s case create a piece of music inspired by the island. The island proved so popular with visitors that in the 19th century a romantic-style folly was built to provide some shelter and a place to rest and eat. This is in ruins now but it’s possible to imagine Regency and Victorian visitors huddled within its walls when the weather turned stormy and I did think what a wonderful setting it would make for a book!