This St. Patrick’s Day I wanted to share with you a magical place, full of mystery and drama and legend. A place that is so mystical it inspired Celtic legends that persist to this day. Let me introduce you to Fingal’s Cave!
Fingal’s cave, so integral in Irish legend, is actually in Scotland, in the Inner Hebrides on an island called Staffa. These days the island is uninhabited but that doesn’t stop tourists from visiting the mystical place every year.
The cave stands about 72 feet (22 m) tall and extends back nearly 270 feet (82 m). Upon entering the cave one is greeted by row after row of tall dark columns looking for all the world as though they were carved by craftsman in ancient history.
In reality, these columns consist of fine-grained Tertiary basalt – leftovers from lava deposited during the Paleocene era approximately 56 million years ago. This same volcanic activity is credited with forming the Giant’s Causeway beside northern Ireland and the Irish believe that once upon a time the Giant’s Causeway extended all the way over to Fingal’s Cave via a long lost bridge.
In Irish legend the cave and the causeway are connected to a renowned Irish warrior, Fionn mac Cumhail.
Fionn mac Cumhail
Fionn is credited with defeating a Scottish giant in the legend of the Giant’s Causeway and building the causeway between Scotland and Ireland (artist’s rendering below right). Because of that, as well as an 18th Century poetic rendition of the tale by James Macpherson, naturalist Sir Joseph Banks renamed the cave Fingal’s cave, Fingal being the Scottish form of Fionn.
The Celts had previously called the cave Uamh-Binn meaning Cave of Melody. The cave produces some mysterious and unsettling sounds as a result of its natural dynamics. The size of the cave coupled with the arched roof and sound of the ever-present waves combines to produce a haunting and memorable tone.
Fingal’s cave has had its share of famous visitors. The list includes Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Sir Walter Scott, Jules Verne, William Wordsworth, and John Keats.
It’s said that artists and musicians have visited the cave for inspiration and didn’t leave disappointed. Perhaps the most famous musician to visit was Felix Mendelssohn. He composed a concert overture after visiting the cave called The Hebrides, Op. 26, or Fingal’s Cave.
Artist J.M.W. Turner painted “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” in 1832.
Sir Walter Scott described it nicely, “[It’s] 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, [it] baffles all description.”
In more recent times, several artists found Fingal’s Cave an inspiration:
- In his film Cremaster 3, artist Matthew Barney featured significant scenes from the cave and the Giant’s Causeway.
- Pink Floyd wrote a song called Fingal’s Cave, an instrumental.
- At Caltech there is a mural of Fingal’s Cave in Lloyd House, which also features a wooden statue titled Fingal.
- On their album titled Seven, rock group Wolfstone recorded an instrumental piece that they named “Fingal’s Cave.”
- The film When Eight Bells Toll, based on the novel by Alistair MacLean, was filmed by Fingal’s Cave.
Described as a “well-known wonder of the ancient Irish and Scottish Celtic people and … an important site in [their] legends” by Staffa Tours, this mysterious and intriguing area still inspires visitors today.
You can take a cruise boat tour around the island, glimpsing the cave’s entrance by sea, or hike down the trails to the cave and enter where you then walk along a pathway composed of more columns of black basalt. What a fascinating journey that must be!
I think I’ll add this to my bucket list. How about you?
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!