Usually you not hear, in the same sentence, names like Queen Victoria, Matthew Barney, Jules Verne, and Pink Floyd but, strangely enough, there is a place that they all share. We are on the uninhabited island of Staffa, in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Known as Fingal’s Cave, it bears a history and geology unlike any other cave in the world.
At 22 meters tall and 82 meters deep, what makes this sea cave so visually astoundingly is the hexagonal columns of basalt, shaped in neat six-sided pillars that make up its interior walls. These fractured columns form a crude walkway just above the water level so that visitors can go far inside and explore the cave.
The cave was a well-known wonder of the ancient Irish and Scottish Celtic people and was a very popular site in the legends. Known to the Celts as Uamh-Binn or “The Cave of Melody,” one Irish legend, in particular, explained the existence of the cave as well as that of the similar Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. As both are made of the same neat basalt columns, the legend holds that they were the end pieces of a bridge built by the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool), so he could make it to Scotland where he was to fight Benandonner, his gigantic rival.
The legend, which connects the two structures, is in effect geologically correct: both the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave were indeed created by the same ancient lava flow, which may have at one time formed a sort of bridge between the two sites.
Of course, this happened some 60 million years ago, long before humans would have been around to see it but the legend is anyway charming.
The cave was rediscovered when naturalist Sir Joseph Banks visited it in 1772. At the time of his discovery, Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books was a very popular poetic series, supposedly translated from an ancient Gaelic epic by 18th-century Scots poet-historian James Macpherson. The book was an influence on Goethe, Napoleon, and Banks, who promptly named the Scottish cave, which already had the name Uamh-Binn, after the Irish legend, calling it “Fingal’s Cave”, meaning “white stranger”.
And though Banks is responsible for both rediscovering and renaming the cave, it would be a romantic German composer who truly popularized the cave as a tourist destination.
Felix Mendelssohn was so moved by the splendor of the cave that he sent the opening phrase of an overture on a postcard to his sister with the note: “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” The Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave, premiered on May 14, 1832, in London. And its original name may have been based on the amazing noises the cave sometimes produces.
In a one-two Romantic punch, artist J. M. W. Turner painted “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” in the same year and together these launched the cave from a little-known wonder into a must-see Romantic-Victorian tourist site. Poets William Wordsworth, John Keats and Lord Tennyson, but also Queen Victoria all visited the cave as did consummate traveler and lover of wonders, Jules Verne, who used it in his book Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray), and mentions it in the novels Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Mysterious Island. The 19th century Austro-Hungarian guitarist and composer Johann Kaspar Mertz included a piece entitled Fingals-Höhle in his set of character pieces for guitar Bardenklänge, while Scots novelist Sir Walter Scott described Fingal’s Cave as “one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld. It exceeded, in my mind, every description I had heard of it… composed entirely of basaltic pillars as high as the roof of a cathedral, and running deep into the rock, eternally swept by a deep and swelling sea, and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble, baffles all description.”
Since then, the cave never left the public imagination. Pink Floyd named one of their early, unreleased songs after the cave, and Artist Matthew Barney used the cave along with the Giant’s Causeway for the opening and closing scenes of his art film, Cremaster 3.
Author’s notes: you can visit the cave via cruise (though boats cannot enter the cave, they make regular passes by it) or can travel to the small island of Staffa and hike into the cave by stepping from column to column. Moreover, northern shores of Staffa host a puffin colony during the summer months.