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Staffa

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Staffa (Scand. Staphi and ey, `the island of pillars'), a small uninhabited island of the Inner Hebrides, off the W coast of Mull, in the county of Argyll, in the civil parish of Kilninian and Kilmore, and in the quoad sacra parish of Ulva. It is 3 7/8 miles SW of the island of Ulva, 6 N by E of Iona, and the same distance from the nearest point of Mull at Gribon; and 54 by steamer W of Oban. In shape the island is an irregular oblong, with a length of less than ¾ mile, and an average width of slightly more than ¼ mile, and the area is 71.424 acres. The surface is an uneven table-land with cliffs varying in height, dropping to the sea all round. The greatest height is in the SW, and is about 144 feet. The soil is good, and produces excellent pasture for the sheep, with which the island is stocked. The black cattle that were once kept here became very wild and savage, and had to be removed. Staffa appears to have been very little noticed up till near the end of the last century, when Sir Joseph Banks, after visiting it in 1772, published a full account of its marvels in the second volume of Pennant's Tour in Scotland. The ship in which Sir Joseph was sailing to lceland put into a port in Mull, and at the house of Mr Maclean of Mull he met an Irish gentleman, who told him that the day before he had seen what was, in his opinion, one of the greatest wonders of the world, though none of his Highland acquaintances seemed to have ever had their attention drawn to it. Excited by this account of the marvels to be seen, Banks made an expedition to the island, and the result was the account in Pennant's Tour. Since that time, and more especially since the introduction of steam navigation, Staffa has enjoyed abundant celebrity, and been visited by multitudes of admirers. The day's sail by swift steamer from Oban to Staffa and Iona is now, except in rough weather, one of the regular tourist trips during the summer months. The steamer allows passengers a short time on shore to see Fingal's Cave, but those who wish to examine the island more leisurely and thoroughly must take boat from either Ulva or Iona. On 19 Aug. 1847 the Queen and Prince Albert were here on their way to Ardverikie. `We anchored,' says Her Majesty ,`close before Staffa, and immediately got into the barge with Charles, the children, and the rest of our people, and rowed towards the cave. As we rounded the point the wonderful basaltic formation came in sight. The appearance it presents is most extraordinary; and when we turned the corner to go into the renowned Fingal's Cave, the effect was splendid, like a great entrance into a vaulted hall; it looked almost awful as we entered, and the barge heaved up and down on the swell of the sea. It is very high, but not longer than 227 feet, and narrower than I expected, being only 40 feet wide. The sea is immensely deep in the cave. The rocks under water were all colours - pink, blue, and green which had a most beautiful and varied effect. It was the first time the British standard with a Queen of Great Britain, and her husband and children, had ever entered Fingal's Cave, and the men gave three cheers, which sounded very impressive there. We backed out, and then went on a little farther to look at the other cave, not of basaltic formation, and at the point called The Herdsman. ' It is seldom, indeed, that in these turbulent seas boats can enter the cave itself comfortably as the royal boat did on this occasion, but it is not often that the sheltered landing near the centre of the E side is impracticable, as it is on the lee of the prevailing winds. The structure of the island shows a lower stratum of volcanic agglomerate, above which rises a black or dark brown compact columnar basalt, which is again surmounted by another basalt with small columns here and there, but generally amorphous. To the S of the landing-place the objects of chief interest which challenge the visitor's notice and admiration are, first, the Scallop or Clamshell Cave; second, the rock called Buachaille or the Herdsman; third, the Causeway and the Great Face or Colonnade at the SE corner of the island; fourth, Fingal's or the Great Cave on the S side; fifth, the Boat Cave; and sixth, the Cormorant's or Mackinnon's Cave at the SW corner. There are other caves in two bays on the W side of the island, and others again at the N end, and between the N end and the landing-place, but those latter groups are remarkable neither for beauty nor size, though in some of them the air, suddenly compressed by the inrolling surge, produces a sound resembling that caused by the discharge of a cannon. The form of the basaltic pillars, of which the whole of the coast and of the arches, sides, and floors of the caves are composed, is finely perfect; and the spots on the surface of the island which are bare of soil, as well as the flatter parts of the rock at the bottom of the coast-line of cliffs, show in many places the ends of the columns so regularly arranged as closely to resemble a tesselated pavement. It is this architectural regularity of structure that gives the island and its caves their particular interest and attraction, and forms one of the leading features which strike and impress a visitor, though the feeling of awe and wonder is, it must be confessed, rather driven away by the singing, whether of the Old Hundred or of God Save the Queen, which the ordinary tourist seems to consider the appropriate method of expressing his feelings in such a place. It was this feeling that prompted the first of Wordsworth's three sonnets on the Cave of Staffa: -

'We saw, but surely, in the motley crowd.
Not one of us has felt the far-famed sight;
How could we feel it? each the other's blight,
Hurried and hurrying. volatile and loud.
O for those motions only that invite
The Ghost of Fingal to his tuneful Cave
By the breeze entered. and wave after wave
Softly embosoming the timid light!
And by one Votary who at will might stand
Gazing and take into his mind and heart,
With undistracted reverence. the effect
Of those proportions where the almighty hand
That made the worlds. the sovereign Architect
Has dsigned to work as if with human Art!'

The highest point of the coast cliffs is between Fingal's Cave and the Boat Cave, where they rise to 112 feet above high-water mark. To the W of this they become lower, and at Mackinnon's Cave are only 84 feet. At the N end there is a rocky shore rising but a very short distance above sea-level.

'At the Scallop or Clamshell Cave,' says Macculloch, ` the columns on one side are bent, so as to form a series of ribs, not unlike an inside view of the timbers of a ship. The opposite wall is formed by the ends of columns bearing a general resemblance to the surface of a honeycomb. This cave is 30 feet in height and 16 or 18 in breadth at the entrance; its length being 130 feet, and the lateral dimensions gradually contracting to its termination. The inside is uninteresting. The noted rock Buachaille, the Herdsman, is a conoidal pile of columns, about 30 feet high, lying on a bed of curved horizontal ones visible only at low water. The Causeway here presents an extensive surface which terminates in a long projecting point at the eastern side of the Great Cave. It is formed of the broken ends of columns, once continuous to the height of the cliffs. This alone exceeds the noted Giant's Causeway, as well in dimensions as in the picturesque diversity of its surface, but it is almost neglected, among the more striking and splendid objects by which it is accompanied. The Great Face is formed of three distinct beds of rock of unequal thickness, inclined towards the east in an angle of about 9 degrees. The thickness of the lowest bed at the western side is about 50 feet; but in consequence of the inclination, it disappears under the sea, not far westward of the Great Cave. 'The second - the columnar bed - is of unequal thickness, being 36 feet at the western side, and 54 where the water first prevents its base from being seen. The unequal thickness of the upper bed produces the irregular outline of the island. In respect of regularity the pillars fall somewhat short of those of the Giant's Causeway. ` Very often they have no joints; sometimes one or more may be seen in a long column: while, in other places, they are not only divided into numerous parts, but the angles of the contact are notched. They are sometimes also split by oblique fissures, which detract much from the regularity of their aspect. These joints are very abundant in the columns that form the interior sides of the Great Cave, to which, indeed, they are chiefly limited; and it is evident, that the action of the sea, by undermining these jointed columns, has thus produced the excavation; as a continuation of the same process may hereafter increase its dimensions. The average diameter is about two feet; but they sometimes attain to four. Hexagonal and pentagonal forms are predominant; but they are intermixed with figures of three, four, and more sides, extending even as far as to eight or nine, but rarely reaching ten. '

Round a projecting corner of cliff from the Great Colonnade is the magnificent Fingal's Cave, worthy in the grandeur of its association with the grandest of the Ossianic heroes:

'Where as to shame the tempics deck'd
By skill of earthly architect.
Nature herself. it seem'd, would raise
A Minster to her Maker's praise!
Not for a meaner use ascend
Her columns, or her arches bend;
Nor of a theme less solemn tells
That mighty surge that ebbs and swells,
and still. between each awful pause.
From the high vault an answer draws,
In varied tone prolong'd and high,
That mocks the organ's melody.'

The height from the top of the arched roof to the top of the cliff is 30 feet, and downwards to the mean level of the sea 66 feet. The pillars on the western side are 36 feet high, and those on the eastern side only 18, though the upper ends are nearly in the same horizontal line. The breadth at the entrance is 42 feet, and this is maintained till within a short distance of the end of the cave, where it is reduced to 22 feet. The extreme length is 227 feet. The regularity of the arch and entrance is best seen from the sea at some little distance, but good views are also to be obtained from the point of the Causeway at low water. A path, now rendered more secure by a strong rope passing through iron supports, leads along the eastern side to near the end; but care requires to be taken, as the rock is damp and slippery, and occasionally, though very very rarely, enormous tidal waves come rushing in. A party of tourists were overtaken, inside, by one of these in August 1884, and three of them swept away and drowned. The columns extend inward along the sides of the cave, and the ceiling, which is divided by a longitudinal fissure, varies in different places. At the outer portion of the cave the roof consists of volcanic ash, in the middle of broken ends of columns, and at the end portions of both of these rocks come in. As the sea, even at full ebb of the lowest tide, always remains of considerable depth, ` the only floor of this cave is the beautiful green water, reflecting from its white bottom those tints which vary and harmonise the darker tones of the rock, and often throw on the columns the flickering lights which its undulations catch from the rays of the sun without.'

'Fingal's Cave,' says Wilson in his Voyage Round the Coasts of Scotland, is indeed a most magnificent example of Nature's architecture. A vast archway of nearly 70 feet in height, supporting a massive entablature of 30 feet additional, and receding for about 230 feet inwards - the entire front, as well as the great cavernous sides, being composed of countless complicated ranges of gigantic columns, beautifully jointed, and of most symmetrical, though somewhat varied forms - the roof itself exhibiting a rich grouping of overhanging pillars, some of snowy whiteness, from the calcareous covering by which they have become encrusted - the whole rising from and often seen reflected by the ocean waters forms truly a picture of unrivalled grandeur, and one on which it is delightful to dwell even in remembrance. How often have we since recalled to mind the regularity, magnitude, and loftiness of those columns, the fine overhanging cliff of small prismatic basalt to which they gave support, worn by the murmuring waves of many thousand years into the semblance of some stupendous Gothic arch,

` "Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault"

the wild waves ever urge their way - and the receding sides of that great temple, running inwards in solemn perspective, yet ever and anon, as ocean heaves and falls, rendered visible in its far sanctuary by the broad and flashing light, reflected by the foaming surges sweeping onwards from below! Then the broken and irregular gallery which overhangs that subterranean flood, and from which, looking upwards and around, we behold the rich and varied hues of red, green, and gold which give such splendid relief to the deep and sombre coloured columns - the clear bright tints which sparkle beneath our feet from the wavering yet translucent sea - the whole accompanied by the wild yet mellow and sonorous moan of each successive billow, which rises up the sides or rolls over the finely formed crowns of the lowlier and disjointed pillars - these are a few of the features of this exquisite and most singular scene which cannot fail to astonish the beholder. '

The Boat Cave, so called from being accessible only by sea, is a long mine-gallery-like passage, 12 feet wide, 16 high, and 150 deep, hollowed out in the bottom agglomerate. It owes its interest entirely to the range of pillars that overhangs it. The Cormorant's, Scart's, or Mackinnon's Cave is easy of access; it terminates in a gravelly beach on which a boat may be drawn up. It is noteworthy for the overhanging pillars, as well as for the effect its wide dark entrance produces when seen from the sea to the SW of the island. The height of the entrance is 50 feet, and the breadth 48, and these dimensions are maintained almost the same to the very end, which is 224 feet from the mouth. The caves and cliffs are frequented by large numbers of sea-birds of different kinds, of which the kittiwakes and the razor-backed auk rear their young in Fingal's Cave. See also Graham's Staffa and Iona Described and Illustrated.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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