Thursday, January 18, 2007

Fingal's Cave, Staffa

Until 1829 this great sea cave on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides was known by its Gaelic name, Uamh-Binn or Cave of Melody in English.

Approaching Staffa, you are struck by its three layered structure. The lowest is a layer of tuff (or compressed volcanic ash). The amazing mid layer is composed of dark basaltic hexagonal columns. These formed as a layer of lava from the Mull eruption slowly cooled. The top layer is another layer of lava which has cooled to form a uniform layer of basalt.

On the day of our visit a boat load of tourists landed as we approached the island. But by the time we pulled our kayaks up on the little beach beside the jetty, the tourists had all “done” the cave and made their way onto Staffa’s summit plateau. We made our way round to the now deserted Fingal’s Cave and slowly entered, our eyes adjusting to the darkness into which soaring basalt columns disappeared like the pillars supporting the vault of a great mediaeval cathedral. Our ears were filled with the gentle surge of the surf and our thoughts naturally turned to Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Symphony, which had been inspired by this natural music of the cave.

Then it started, out of the darkness came the most beautiful singing of Handel’s Messiah. The Glorias rose as a duet to the roof of the cave then echoed round till a whole chorus of harmonies filled our ears. The hair prickled on the back of our necks and we were captivated by the sound as we stood silent in the darkness. When the singing stopped, two German music teachers emerged from the gloom of the cave. It was a reminder of how Mankind’s own works can sometimes challenge even the most remarkable of Nature’s wonders. We congratulated them and were delighted when they asked if they could stay and watch while we brought our kayaks round to paddle inside the cave!

Then in 1829, Mendelssohn subtitled his manuscript for Hebridean Overture "Fingal's Cave" after the mythical Scottish/Irish Giant. The name has stuck.

PS added 21/1/07

This was a perfect day and at its end, we enjoyed a perfect sunset from the summit of Lunga in the Treshnish Isles looking over Coll in the Inner Hebrides to the distant mountains of Barra and South Uist.