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.