Interesting Scottish places: Fingal’s Cave

Colonnades made of basalt line the depth of the structure. Image: Seth M
Colonnades made of basalt line the depth of the structure. Image: Seth M
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It’s a place long-entwined with mystery and folklore, but what makes the dramatic Fingal’s Cave off the coast of Mull so alluring to visit?

The stunning formation of Fingal’s Cave - hewn out of hexagonally-arranged basalt by the wind and sea - presents an oddly symmetrical yet completely natural attraction on the uninhabited Isle of Staffa.

All 227ft of the 66ft-tall cavern faces towards Iona, and the uneven columns that line the innards of the cave allow hardy tourists to explore deep inside the structure while just above the high water mark - with one unlucky tourist falling to his death in the cave in 2012.

Despite the startling symmetery of the interior, the cave’s basalt columns which it shares with other attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland can be easily explained. The ‘basement’ of the structure is populated with fine-grained tertiary basalt, with basaltic lava on top of this covering the hexagonal columns that line and face the cave.

The gradual cooling of the second layer of basalt lining the interior was responsible for the creation of the unusual colonnades. Most, but not all, of the columns within the cave have between three and eight sides, with six sides being the most common ‘shape’ on display.

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The Island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides is home to Fingal's Cave; a natural landmark which has attracted tourists since the Victorian era. Image: TSPL

The Island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides is home to Fingal's Cave; a natural landmark which has attracted tourists since the Victorian era. Image: TSPL

As with many Scots mysteries, the origin of the cave’s name has never been concretely determined. It is said that Celtic warmonger Fin MacCumhaill (or Fingal, the father of Ossian and bard of the Gaels) had a reputation so strong that his reverential followers were able to put fear into the Norsemen who began to assault the Scottish coastline during this time. By token of remembrance, his name was applied to the imposing and intimidating structure as a mark of respect.

Nevertheless, Fingal is not the only historical figure to have been involved with the cave, as in August 1829 German composer Felix Mendelssohn visited the cave with a companion. Accessing the landmark via a paddle-steamer service, Mendelssohn described it as “the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, and absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without.”

The 20 year-old was to create the Hebrides Overture in memory of his touching visit to the Scottish landmark shortly after his journey. Since his visit, author Sir Walter Scott, poet Sir William Wordsworth and novelist Jules Verne have all found inspiration by visiting the Staffa landmark.

Staffa itself is one of the smallest islands in the Southern Hebrides at just 33 hectares in size, and was inhabited by a small band of residents until the 1700s. Once the property of the Ulva Estate, Staffa was eventually donated to the National Trust of Scotland by self-founded American advertising executive Jock Elliott in 1986 - who had originally purchased it as a present for his wife’s 60th birthday.

The imposing entrance to Fingal's Cave. Image: Gerry Zambonini

The imposing entrance to Fingal's Cave. Image: Gerry Zambonini

More recently, Fingal’s Cave was one of only eleven Scottish locations to make Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travelist of the best locations to see worldwide last year.

Tourists can visit Fingal’s Cave on sightseeing tours of the island, which typically run during the summer. Cruises also pass by the island between April and October each year, though both types of visit are highly weather-dependent.

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