Fingal’s Cave, located on the Scottish island of Staffa, is a 270-foot-deep, 72-foot-tall sea cave with walls of perfectly hexagonal columns. Queen Victoria, Matthew Barney, Jules Verne, and Pink Floyd are not names you usually hear in the same sentence, but they all share an association with this uncommon place. Fingal’s Cave bears a history and geology unlike any other in the world.
Seventy-two feet tall, two-hundred-seventy feet deep, what makes this sea cave so visually astoundingly is the hexagonal columns of basalt, neat six-sided pillars that make up its interior walls.
The cave was a well-known wonder of the ancient Irish and Scottish celtic people and was an important 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 basalt columns, the legend holds that they were the end pieces of a bridge built by the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (a.k.a. Finn McCool) to Scotland where he was to fight Benandonner, his gigantic Scottish 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 “bridge” between the two sites. Of course, this happened some 60 million years ago, long before people would have been around to see it. The Dinosaurs, had already been extinct for some five million years. Nonetheless, the deductive reasoning of the ancient peoples formed the connection and base of the legend that the two places must be related.
Of course, the columns were not formed by gigantic hands as the legend would have it, but rather by an enormous mass of hot lava cooling so slowly that, like mud under the hot sun, it cracked into long hexagonal forms. These pillars make up much of the base of the island of Staffa - Old Norse for “Stave or Pillar,” and named so by the Vikings for the odd geology - where Fingal’s Cave is found.
The cave was rediscovered when naturalist Sir Joseph Banks visited it in 1772. At the time of Banks discovery, “Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books,” was a very popular poetic series supposedly translated from an ancient Gaelic epic by Irish poet James Macpherson.
Despite the fact that Macpherson was being challenged even at the time as to the poems authenticity - the work is believed to owe much more to Macpherson’s skill as a poet than as a historian or translator, and originals of this lost epic were never produced by Macpherson - the work was a massive hit. The book was an influence on Goethe, Napoleon and Sir Banks, who promptly named the Scottish cave, which already had the name Uamh-Binn, after the Irish legend, calling it “Fingal’s Cave.”
And though Banks is responsible for both rediscovering and renaming the cave, it would be a romantic German composer who truly vaulted the cave to world fame. The early romantic period brought with it a change in people’s perspective on nature. Nature was no longer a force to be survived or an enemy of peaceful living. No, wild nature, was becoming a source of inspiration and a desired counterpoint to the urban lifestyle in Europe. So it was that a composer not only came to visit a natural wonder, but chose to compose an overture based on it.
So moved was Mendelssohn by the splendor of the cave that he sent the opening phrase of the 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. (The 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. William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Tennyson, and Queen Victoria all visited the cave as did consummate traveller and lover of wonders Jules Verne. Verne wrote: “This vast cavern with its mysterious shadows, dark, weed-covered chambers and marvelous basaltic pillars, produced upon me a most striking impression and was the the origin of my book … ‘Le Rayon Vert.’”
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.”
The cave never left the public imagination. Pink Floyd named one of their early, unreleased songs after the cave - their 1970 “Zabriskie Point” soundtrack sessions is called “Fingal’s Cave”. Matthew Barney also used the cave as a location in “Cremaster 3”, a 2002 fever dream of a film that formed part of his Cremaster Cycle art installation.
Recently, geologists have had to contend with creationists who want to frame both the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave as the product of a creationist 5,000-year-old timeline, a timeline which the geology of the sites directly contradicts.
One 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.
soy-ivan-g by Teatro Negro
May Day History Beltane and the May Pole
May Day is a holiday that slips many people by, yet for some it is full of meaning. The history of May Day and the May Pole tradition is thousands of years old, and is rooted in the Celtic cultures of the Northern Hemisphere. May Day was, and still is, known as Beltane; a festival for the celebration of the life, fertility and summer.
May 1 was once considered the start of summer, and the other season, winter, started on November 1. Many pre-Christian Celtic people split the seasons into two in this way, and Beltane marked a half way point in the year. It was celebrated with much optimism; the sun thawed out the people and the land, and flowers and animals sprang to life in the new-found warmth. The strength of the sun is said to finally overcome the darkness of the winter on May Day, and takes it’s place to bring life to the planet.
For Pagans of ancient and modern times, the winter is a time to honor death, and the summer a time to honor life. Beltane, being the half way point between death and life, dark and light, is a sacred day of “no time” where the veils between the physical and ethereal worlds are at their thinnest. The fairies are said to be out in all their mischief on the eve of Beltane, and so traditions often involved offerings, such as leaving flowers or food out for them.
Beltane is the cross-over, and represents a coming change in the human cycle, which reflects the turning of the seasons. Winter is a time that can feel dreary, and it can start to take it’s toil on the soul. Short days, grey skies, and cold temperatures begin to wear people down, and in ancient times this would be coupled by a gradual decline in food supplies. Winter, back then, would be a very difficult time indeed. The coming of summer, and the festival of Beltane, were times of great hope; crops and grasslands became full of life again, animals bred, and the warmth of the sun thawed out human soul.
As life becomes the pre-dominant force, ancient civilizations would celebrate Beltane with highly energetic fire displays, field frolicking, and of course dancing round the May pole. The word Beltane translates to bright fire, and the reason for the bonfires may be in celebration of the sun; the Bel fire was lit in order to invoke Bel, the Sun God. Myths surrounding Beltane very often describe a battle between two deities, or a battle between summer and winter, and on May 1 summer prevails.
Pagan celebrations old and new still celebrate Beltane with feasts, festivities, fires, and yet more frolicking. Across the world some of the ancient traditions of Beltane still exist, often in evolved or nullified forms. In Britain for example, Beltane traditions are still quite strong on May Day and include the crowning of the May queen, carnivals, Morris dancing, where many men dressed in bells perform tribal dance, and the dancing of the May pole. The ancient history is still visible across much of Europe.
The May pole is actually, historically speaking, a phallic symbol, and the dancing around it an ancient fertility rite. The May pole is perhaps the most famous tradition associated with modern May Day, and it had equal importance for Celtic Beltane festivals. A huge pole is decorated with flowers and wreaths, a potent symbol of the fertility of summer. Then, boys and girls hold on to ribbons connected to the pole, and dance opposite ways, interwinding their ribbons as they duck and dive between each other. The dance seems to perfectly symbolize life, and the interwinding of masculine and feminine energies. The pattern was also believed to indicate patterns of the harvest, and may have been a sort of tool for divination.
The history of the May Pole and May Day have their roots in Beltane. Today May Day has many different meanings, and has found it’s place in Christianity, International Workers’ Day movements, Labour Day, and as a much needed bank holiday weekend. For some, May Day will be a time for relaxing, but for others’ it will be a time for celebrating the forces of life overcoming death, light overcoming darkness, and summer overcoming winter.
By Matthew Warburton
Artist Jon Macy brings a new romance to life - now in a deluxe collection. The tale he has created is called FEARFUL HUNTER. It is the story of Oisin and Byron, two young lovers who inhabit a Celtic fantasy world which overlaps our own.
Learn more at: Fearful Hunter Collection
The Celts sometimes are popularly imagined as something between drunken, kilt-wearing buffoons and Braveheart, they’re confused with Vikings and are often jumbled up with contemporary nationalism, stoking particularly strong feelings in modern-day Britain and Ireland. But who were the Celts? What happened to them?
The Celts were essentially an ethno-linguistic group of loosely connected tribes and societies with a similar set of technologies and culture. However, they were not one unified group: rather, they were a population of peoples whose spread throughout continental Europe and the British Isles can be traced through archaeological records and the (often derogatory) accounts of other cultures around them. Thus, a lot of what we know about the Celts comes from ancient Greek and Roman texts. One such gem of an account comes from Roman historian Cassius Dio (155-235AD) who wrote:
“They dwell in tents, naked and unshod, possess women in common, may couple with other men and rear all their offspring together. Their form of rule is democratic for the most part, and they are very fond of plundering; consequently they choose their boldest men as rulers.”
Unfortunately for historians and their own posterity, the Celts themselves weren’t great record keepers. Even Boudica, queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe and a British folk hero for her rebellion against Rome, is largely known from the likes of Dio and Tacitus, and again their personal angle is suspect. One historian, Gildas, was probably talking about Boudica when he wrote of a “treacherous lioness [who] butchered governors who had been left to give fuller voice and strength to the endeavours of Roman rule.” Unsurprisingly, Gildas makes no mention of what the Romans did to Boudica, which was renege on a deal made with her late husband (the king), flog her and rape her daughters. Her subsequent fury and rebellion are easy to understand and, though she was ultimately defeated, her army sacked both Colchester and London, inflicting significant losses on the Romans stationed in Britain.
The Celts were a society (or, more accurately, a collection of societies) who lived in Medieval Europe and were united by related Celtic languages, the use of iron, and a certain degree of ethnic and cultural similarities. In contrast to the Braveheart/buffoon model of modern imagination, the distinguishing features of the Celts were their common art, mythology and language.
They spread throughout Europe and more or less ran the place for a few hundred years until the Romans drove them out. Although dates are notoriously tricky in that era, archaeologists mark the start of the Celtic formation at around 1200 BC, with the first real flourishing in Austria in approximately 800 BC. By 450 BC, the Celts had spread from central Europe to France, Bohemia, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Northern Italy, the British Isles, and (later) the Balkans.
The specific point of origin for the Celts is hotly debated in academic circles. The key archaeological sites are Hallstatt, Austria (800-475BC) and La Tene, Switzerland (500-50BC). In terms of ancient tribal history, the Gauls were Celts and were mentioned by none other than Julius Caesar himself.
Notably, the Celts in the British Isles - England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland - became known as Insular Celts and were particularly well-established in the region. As the Romans and Germanic peoples spread throughout Continental Europe during the first part of the Common Era, the Celts were mostly displaced except for the Insular tribes, particularly in Ireland and northern parts of Britain.
Due to their lack of written records, much of what it known about the Celts comes from the artifacts they left behind. The iron swords and distinctive jewelry (particularly gold torcs) mark their territory, but it’s often difficult to definitively link them to a specific time or people.
One example is the important recovery of a La Tene sword in County Donegal, Ireland, which has a distinctive Gaulish style bronze hilt and was found in a fishing net. Other artifacts have commonly been recovered in Ireland during turf-cutting, which has often left the items damaged and the site destroyed. Other aspects of Celtic culture, such as druid-led polytheism, leave even fewer artifacts for historians to study.
Varying waves of innovation, invasion and other changes meant that the Celts largely disappeared from Continental Europe, with the Roman Empire being particularly responsible for their decline. However, the British Isles, particularly in Ireland and Scotland, saw a continuation of the Celts and their culture. The Celts mingled with the existing peoples as well as with those who came by the subsequent incursions to the territory.
A modern reemergence of Celtic identity began in the 18th century, with linguistic, political, and cultural implications for many in the British Isles. This was particularly at work in the Irish Home Rule Movement in the 1900s and the nationalist movement based on a Celtic identity, as separate from the British identity.
Some scholars argue that the idea of a common identity between the Celts was not even in operation in ancient times, and so this remains a debated issue. For those many individuals the Celtic history and identity continue to exert a strong influence on the ancestral imagination.
(Courtesy Katie Dwyer @ Lexicolatry)