Fingal's Cave

Uamh-Binn - The Cave of Melody


Useful Information

photography
Fingal' s Cave, Great Britain. Public Domain.
photography
Fingal' s Cave, Great Britain. Public Domain.
Location: On the island of Staffa off the west coast of Scotland, near Mull and Iona.
Open: no restrictions
Fee: Cave free. Fee for boat trip.
Classification: Speleologysea cave in Tertiary basalt.
Light: none. Not necessary.
Dimension: L=85m, H=23m.
Guided tours: n/a
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Martin Mills (1994): Fingals Cave, GSG Bulletin, Volume 3 Number 1, March 1994
Donald B. MacCulloch (1975): Staffa, 4th edition, North Pomfret, Vermon 1975
Jeanne K. Hanson (2007): Caves, 142 pp, 16 colour and 30 B&W photos. Chelsea House, New York. pp 69-74
Address: There are several operators running trips to Staffa:
Turus Mara, Penmore Mill, Dervaig, Isle of Mull, PA75 6QS, Tel: +44-1688-400242, Free: 08000-858786. E-mail: contact
Gordon Grant Marine, Achavaich, Isle of Iona, Tel. +44-1681-700338. E-mail: contact
Carol Kirkpatrick, Tigh na Traigh, Isle of Iona, PA76 6SJ, Tel: +44-1681-700358, Fax: +44-1681-700358. E-mail: contact
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

AUG-1772 discovered by Sir Joseph Banks while on a natural history expedition to Iceland.
1784 B. Faujas de St. Fond is the first geologist who visits the island.
1818 visited by John Keats.
08-AUG-1829 Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy visited the cave.
1833 visited by William Wordsworth.
1859 visited by Jules Verne.

Description

photography
Fingal' s Cave 1900, Great Britain. Public Domain.

Fingal's Cave is a Speleologysea cave formed within Tertiary basalt lava flows which have cooled to form hexagonal columns. This place and Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland are the most famous sites of basalt columns in Britain, and maybe in the whole world. And the two places are connected by a legend, as even the Celts 2,000 years ago mentioned their similarity. See the legend of ExplainFionn mac Cumhail for more info.

Staffa is a tiny uninhabited island, only 1.2km long and 400m wide, 46m high at its highest point. The name Staffa means "Pillar Island", much of its 2.4km circumference is cliff line, composed of the basalt of an old lava flow. The typical hexagonal pillar structure of the rock is mostly vertical, which gives the fantastic look of a palisade. Fingal's Cave has been discovered by Sir Joseph Banks who landed on the island in August 1772 while on a natural history expedition to Iceland. He was quite famous as he was a member of Captain Cook's circumnavigation of the world (1768-1771). He obviously did not discover the cave, it was known to the fishers from Iona and Mull, as Theodor Fontane mentions. But he was the first who wrote about it:

Compared to this what are the cathedrals or the palaces built by men! Mere models or playthings, imitations as diminuitive as his works will always be when compared to those of nature.
Joseph Banks, 1774

The Frenchman B. Faujas de St. Fond was the first geologist who visited the island in 1784. He thought the cave was the remains of an underground volcanic eruption. Actually that's how the columns were formed, but the cave itself is erosional.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy is blamed for misnaming Uamh-Binn (The Cave of Melody) into Fingal's Cave. But he increased the popularity of the cave dramatically with his Hebridean overture which was inspired by this place. During Victorian times paddle steamers landed 300 people a day on the island. Famous visitors in this times were Sir Walter Scott, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Joseph Turner, and of course Queen Victoria. The poets started to write about the cave in various levels of expertise.

"...Cliffs of darkness, caves of wonder, Echoing the Atlantic's thunder...."
Sir Walter Scott

photography
Engraving of Fingal's Cave by James Fittler in Scotia Depicta, 1804. Public Domain.

"This was architectur'd thus
By the great Oceanus -
Here his mighty waters play
Hollow organs all the day;
Here, by turns his dolphins all,
Finny palmers, great and small,
Come to devotion due,
Each a mouth of pearls must strew.
Many a mortal of these days
Dares to pass our sacred ways:
Dares to touch audaciously
This cathedral of the sea....."

John Keats, 1818

photography
Pennant’s engraving from John Cleveley Jnr.’s sketches, published 1774. Public Domain.

"Thanks for the lessons of this spot....
The pillard vestibule,
Expanding yet precise, the roof embowed,
Might seem designed to humble man, when proud
Of his best workmanship by plan and tool.
Down-bearing with his whole Atlantic weight
Of tide and tempest on the structure's base,
And flashing to that structure's topmost height,
Ocean has proved its strength, and of its grace
In calm is conscious, finding for its freight
Of softest music some responsive place."

William Wordsworth, 1833

Die Fingals-Höhle, engraving from Mayer's Koversationslexikon, Germany 1905. Public Domain.

"Dark Staffa! in thy grotto wild,
How my wrapt soul is tought to feel!
Oh! well becomes it Nature's child
Now in her stateliest shrine to kneel!
Thou art no fiends' nor giants' home -
Thy piles of dark and dismal grain,
Bespeak thee, dread and sacred dome,
Great temple of the Western Main!..

James Hogg

Joseph Turner (1775-1851): Staffa, Fingal's Cave 1832. Public Domain.
Scotia Depicta, Frontispiece, etchings by James Fittler after drawings by John Claude Nattes. Public Domain.

In 1832 Joseph Turner made a painting called Staffa, Fingal's Cave. It shows the the cave from the south during rather windy or stormy weather, with a steam boat close to the cave. This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year and was cited as "one of the most perfect expressions of the romanticism style of art". It was his first painting to go to the United States but remained unsold for 13 years. James Lenox, who bought the painting through a broker, expressed his disappointment with this purchase by saying the painting was "indistinct" in its execution. When Turner heard this his reply was "You should tell him that indistinctness is my forte".

As Martin Mills said in an article in the WorldGSG Bulletin, Volume 3 Number 1, March 1994: "...Fingal's Cave has to be the most famous but least visited cave in the world!". This needs some further explanation. Many people visit the cave by ship, it is the highlight of every trip from Oban to Iona, but none of them sets a foot on Staffa. Big ferries are simply not able to land on the island, so the ships pass the island off shore.

There are several small boats offering trips to the island, which land close to the cave. The boats start from the west coast of Mull, from Fionnphort or Ulva Ferry. There are no boat trips to the cave directly from Oban but it is possible to book a day trip which includes a bus ride to the east coast of Mull. The visitors can stay for about 1.5 hours on the island to enter the cave and walk along the shore on basalt columns. There is a path into the cave on one side which involves stepping from the top of one basalt column to the next. It is not particularly difficult to visit the cave, but good walking shoes and appropriate clothes are a good idea. The island has two more similar caves, which are smaller and less impressive.