Long trail hiking route around Lakajai Lakes near Vilnius, Lithuania

Fingal's Cave & Staffa Island, Cathedral of the Sea in Southern Hebrides

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…this superb monument of nature, which in regard to its form bears so strong a resemblance to a work of art, though art can certainly claim no share in it.

– Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, 1784

Cruise to Staffa Island Details

Boat approaching Fingal’s Cave, Staffa Island. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Approaching Staffa Island

Do you ever wonder why people are so fascinated by traveling? I, personally, think it is one of those questions with an answer within it. People love to wonder… People love to wonder what is like in other countries. How people are living over there? How does local food taste like? Are people more beautiful over there? Is life better or worse compared to theirs? One thing of what I love to wonder about is how the landscape changed the life of local culture, and, especially, how it shaped the history.

I cannot help myself, but wonder, how did it look like when the Vikings accidentally hit Staffa island. Imagine bloodthirsty warriors, who put their axes aside just to take the paddles instead, rowing hundreds of miles on a relatively small boat toward a foreign land, to kill or conquer whoever lives other there. It is raining, of course, and the weather is somewhat as you could imagine when the Vikings go to conquer Celtic people in Scotland. The atmosphere is tense, but it only gets louder once they approach Staffa island. To their surprise, or maybe not, what they saw was very similar to the appearance of their homes built out of wooden staves. They named the island staffi-oy (from Old Norse pillar or stave).

Staffa Island colonnade rock formations. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

To human beings thinking more in a symbolic way than we do today, that must have been a sign from the Gods, which, at least, resulted in an extra rally of the troops. I imagine that confidence was the main weapon of these berserker warriors. Thus I wonder what if they didn’t bump into the Island before the battle? Would they still have ended-up as victorious in battle? If not, would there have been an impact on the occupation of Scotland by the Vikings which lasted for seven centuries? All of this could have been because of the right conditions millions of years ago, which formed truly unique rock formations resembling the houses of the Vikings up in the North. What are the odds?

If you still are not amazed by the impact of all the conditions these rocks had to bear to get this surprising geometrical shape, let me remind you that it is the only reason you will ever want to end up in that place of the world. It was definitely the reason I went there. Now let me tell you a bit more about the formation of Staffa Island and all the people who visited the place.

Coast of Staffa island, Hebrides, Scotland. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

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Facilities in Staffa Island Cruise Tour

As you may expect, Staffa island is uninhabited and almost untouched by the civilization. Except a staircase and life circle, there are not many signs of civilization either. Nevertheless, the tour boat should be able to supply you with the most important needs like water or bathroom.’

Staffa Tours boat staff waiting for the people to return from Fingal’s Cave, Staffa Island. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Possible tours to Staffa Island

While the situation might vary from year to year, in 2019, clearly, the show is run by two competing companies: Staffa Tours and Turus Mara in partnership with Calmac. I don’t want to promote one over another, so it is up to you to decide which one provides a better service. My personal choice was made purely on the route. If I happen to feel like I want more beaches than more rock formations that day, I would have gone with Staffa tours instead of Turus Mara. Hopefully, the following list will be more than enough to find the best tour for you.

Calmac & Turus Mara Tours

Various Tours: https://www.turusmara.com/

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Staffa Tours

Various tours from Oban: http://www.staffatours.com/boat-tours/departs-oban/
Various tours from Isle of Mull: http://www.staffatours.com/boat-tours/departs-fionnphort-mull-and-iona/
Other tours: http://www.staffatours.com/boat-tours/sails-from-tobermory-mull-and-ardnamurchan/

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Other companies:

West coasts tours: https://westcoasttours.co.uk/tours/
Staffa Trips: https://www.staffatrips.co.uk/booking/staffa-trips-booking.php

Walking toward FIngal’s Cave, Staffa island, Hebrides, Scotland. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Staffa Island

If I said that Staffa Island is one of the most beautiful natural wonders in the whole Britain, you would probably think that I’m exaggerating just to make this article more interesting, or to attract more readers. I’m not even using my own words to state that, but the will of the British people themselves as some of the polls say. Many people have visited Staffa island, but only a handful was left unsurprised. From Vikings to local Gaels, from many English to foreign tourists, ages after ages this island sprung the imagination of all the visitors.

Tent on Staffa island, Hebrides, Scotland Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots
Am Buchaille (The Herdsman) near Staffa island, Hebrides, Scotland. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Though being one of the smallest islands in whole Southern Hebrides, on Google, Staffa gets more attention than the Hebrides itself. Uninhabited, it was once home to as much as 16 people somewhere in the 1700s. Later on, in the 1800s three red deer lived on the island, just to be replaced by goats after whom came herd of black cattle. After many private owners, only in 1986, the island was gifted to the National Trust of Scotland by advertising executive Jock Elliot, who brought Ogilvy from scratch to the biggest advertising company in the whole world after he bought Staffa Island for his wife 60th birthday. Today Staffa island is taken over by tourists and seabirds, most noticeably, puffins.

Sitting near FIngal’s Cave, Staffa Island. Photo Aistė [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Legend of Fingal

The key feature of Staffa Island – Fingal’s Cave – is named after the hero of an epic poem – Fingal – by James Macpherson (1762), the poem is based on ancient Gaelic Legends and foretells an epic story about the King of Northwest Caledonia (The name given by Romans to the territories above of Adrian’s wall, basically, modern Scotland), who comes into the defense of Ireland against fierce Swaran, the King of Lochlin, and Lochlainn forces (Gaelic term for Norse). Unfortunately, Fingal and Caledonians arrived late, the remaining Irish forces were already fleeing. The defenders engaged the enemy and after a hard battle, they defeat the Lochlainn and notoriously forbid them to return to Ireland in a hostile manner ever again.

…Who can meet Swaran in fight? Who but Fingal, king of Selma of storms?…

– Fingal: an Ancient Epic Poem

Fingal’s Cave is known for its melodious features since ancient times. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Fingal’s Cave – The Melodious Cave

As nobody will be left unaware of this story during any trip to Staffa Island, Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to write “Hebrides Overture” during his visit to the cave. When the composer was brought to Staffa island, the melodious sound of waves in the Fingal’s Cave left him in awe which is not that surprising. After all, Gaels of Scotland knew the musical features of cave already. The old Gaelic name for Fingal’s Cave is An Uamh Bhin, meaning “the melodious cave”.

In 1700s up to 16 people lived on Staffa Island, today it belongs to seabirds, most noticably – puffins. I would not recommend visiting them on this island, do it on the Treshnish Isles. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Puffin Colony on Staffa Island

Depending on your interests and your tour route, it is possible to have a mini “Puffin therapy” right on the other side of Staffa island to Fingal’s Cave. I know we all want to see and witness all, but if you are on the Treshnish Isles Wildlife tour, just skip the puffins. They are not the reason why this island is so amazing. Instead, embrace the beauty of Fingal’s Cave and unique polygon rock formations. If there is some spare time, climb up the stairs near the docking spot and spend it on the top of the southern side of Staffa, where the gorgeous rock face reveals itself to the endless ocean.

View from the top of Staffa Island, Hebrides, Scotland. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots
Stairs to the top of Staffa Island, Hebrides, Scotland. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

If it is your only chance to see a puffin colony, I could give you this one, but have in mind that despite the absolute amazingness of these charming birds, the geological miracle that Staffa island is, is barely paralleled by anything else around the world.

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If you are still itching to see the puffins, just go to a tour which includes both Staffa and the Treshnish isles. This will give you 1 hour on this wonder of nature, and 2 hours to meet puffins and their close relatives: razorbills and guillemots. That was my personal choice because both puffins and Staffa are worth your time and the price. I’m just afraid that if it is done at the same time, it is impossible to properly experience either of those. You can read more about my acquaintance with the birds here.

Life wheel on Staffa Island, Hebrides, Scotland. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Is it dangerous in Staffa Island?

As for today in August 2019, Fingal’s Cave is closed due to security reasons. It is a no-brainer, entering the cave is dangerous. As for everything else, like most of the things, it depends on weather conditions, gear, and cautiousness. The top of Staffa island is basically green fields and the rest is made of natural stairs. I wouldn’t go too close to the cave if the waves are hitting it too much, but otherwise, it should be fine if you are wearing shoes with a deep protector. Sometimes, the beauty of the island could be the deadliest thing, it is hard to keep watching every step while there is a surprise after every corner. Take your time, walk carefully, stop, take a picture, repeat. If you’ll stick to these steps, Staffa island will be a pleasant surprise – the natural cathedral of the sea.

Walking near colonnade in Staffa island. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

How did the rock formations of Staffa Island had formed?

I could bet that the first question which comes to the mind of a person who saw geological structures like they are on Staffa island would be something like – who the hell built this? And if it is not built by humans or Gods, then by who? For something as geometrical as the pillars found on Staffa, Giant’s Causeway or few other sites, the natural formation seems like an unlikely origin.

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We are used to the more chaotic nature of… the Nature, but it is rather counter-intuitive. The example I like of naturally occurring geometrical shapes I like is the hexagonal form of a honeycomb. This choice of bees might look strange, but the reason for it is not sophisticated. There are only two geometrical shapes which could join each other together without leaving an empty space: rectangle and hexagon. The latter has a clear advantage over its competitor because hexagon shares its walls with six different hexagons while rectangle only does so with four. Therefore, you need to build fewer walls for the same number of holes, and the overall area of honeycomb is bigger than the one of a hypothetical counterpart made out of rectangles. Hexagon is just a more efficient shape and it happens to be that most of the pillars found on Staffa island are hexagon as well.

Natural polygon formations on Staffa Island. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Columnar jointing

So far, we have cleared some clouds behind the mystery, but, still, any of that doesn’t explain why the pillars had to form on the island in the first place. Let’s start simple.
Staffa Island is made out of three layers:

Geological layers of Staffa Island. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

Both tuff and basalt are indigenous rocks, therefore the island is of volcanic origin, and while structures like Staffa remained a mystery for some time, in late 18th century we learned that the rocks have formed this way as a result of volcanic activity. These days geologists call the phenomenon – columnar jointing. It occurs when lava flow, under the hardened crust, slowly cools at a different pace at different locations. As it dries the lava contracts until eventually a piece of it cracks from the warmer body of molten rock and forms polygon shapes. Basalt magma fractures between 840-890°C and scientists now know that the slower process is, the bigger polygons are, from which most of them are hexagons. The colonnade of Staffa island was formed in this manner.

High colonnade of Staffa island, Hebrides, Scotland. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

My impressions of visiting Staffa Island

It is not even worth talking if the Staffa is worth anybody’s attention. Certainly, the legendary Ruler of the British Empire, Queen Victoria thought it was worth her time. So, who are we to doubt the long-standing beauty of Cathedral of the Sea? The British people themselves voted in 2005 poll, hosted by Radio Times, Staffa island to be the 8th greatest natural wonder in Britain. I could bet that it would rank even higher if it was not so hard to reach. To say the least, I was really impressed by Staffa Island, take it as I don’t have words for it.

Fingal’s Cave from the sea in Staffa island, Hebrides, Scotland. Photo Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

I am lucky to live standing on the shoulders of giants in the era of information, where the education of their knowledge could be easily accessed with a small device in my pocket. Thus, once I see a natural wonder like Staffa island, I can find a scientific explanation in the moment of a few breaths. Yet, the awe of seeing a magnificent object take my breath away despite my knowledge. It probably would have been easier to grasp my mind around with an explanation that Staffa island is some kind of divine intervention rather than a chain of certain geological conditions. I can only wonder what it meant to the Vikings, once they saw the shape of the island, maybe, just maybe, they perceived it as a sign that they need to make this land their home.

Design Mantas Ališauskas [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Connecting the Dots

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