Staffa is a beautiful, uninhabited island, home to hundreds of seabirds and set within waters teeming with marine life. But the island is best known for its magnificent basalt columns. Their effect is most overwhelming at An Uamh Binn (Musical Cave) or, as it is more commonly known, Fingal’s Cave, which has enthralled and inspired travellers for hundreds of years.
We were not due to anchor off Staffa until 10am, which allowed me time this morning to take the ship on a sightseeing route round the Treshnish Isles. This small archipelago lies just over three miles northwest of Staffa and contains many islands and skerries. The NTS lecturers came up to the Bridge to deliver a deck commentary and soon the names of Lunga, Bac Beag, Bac Mòr, Sgeir a’ Chaisteil, Fladda, Cairn na Burgh Mòr and others were tripping off the tongue. There are several possible duns on the islands, but the population is now zero, with the last village being abandoned in 1857. The weather was glorious, flat calm and sunny skies. The only risk posed to anyone was that of being sunburnt rather than seasick!
We moved on from the Treshnish Isles and circumnavigated Staffa before dropping the anchor and lowering the zodiacs into the water. We were not using our tenders today, as these dangerous waters require a high degree of local knowledge, and therefore I had suggested to the NTS, that we use local boats and boatmen from neighbouring island of Iona to take our passengers ashore. I was also aware that the owner and skipper of one of the boats was a good school friend of mine, in fact we were in the same class back in the 80’s. I have in the past used these tenders as there is a guarantee that they can deliver getting passengers ashore if there is at all a chance.
The passengers queued for their tender tickets and the boatmen worked hard to get everyone ashore and quickly and safely as possible. The tide was quite low and the channel to the jetty did not look wide enough, but with the flat calm conditions the boats were able to access the jetty and safely disembark the passengers. In between the to and fro of the boats, Clive and Tony were picking up passengers who wanted to get up close to Fingal’s Cave and experience the magnificence from the water line.
I too fancied having a look and took the local tender ashore, via the entrance to Fingal’s Cave. I have sailed round Staffa many times, but to be at sea level and close to the mouth of the cave one can really appreciate the awesome power of nature. The amazing basalt columns are formed from molten lava. As the 1,200°C liquid rock cooled, it hardened, shrank and fractured into a regular series of stone pillars. If the cooling pattern had been exactly the same across the lava, the rocks would have formed an exact geometric pattern of six-sided columns. But, because they cooled at slightly different rates, the columns vary in size and number of sides. Neil, our Cruise Director when the ship is Adventure Cruising, sailed in with me and kindly took the photos attached to prove I have now got onto Staffa, and good photos too.
Fingal’s Cave itself was brought to the attention of the wider world by the famous botanist Joseph Banks in 1772. He wrote, “Compared to this what are the cathedrals and palaces built by men! Mere models or playthings, imitations as his works will always be when compared to those of nature.” At the time, the Romantic Movement was spreading across Europe with its emphasis on wilderness, emotion and natural splendour. Staffa, with its wild beauty, soon because one of the ‘must see’ sights on the Highland Tour. Throughout the 19th century Staffa was visited by a variety of well-known individuals. Queen Victoria, Jules Verne, Walter Scott, Joseph Turner, Robert Louis Stevenson and more were all captivated and inspired by the magic of the island.
The island became internationally renowned through Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (“Fingal’s Cave”). He wrote that the inspiration for this piece of music came during a visit to the island in 1829, while he was standing in the cave listening to the roar of the waves. Fortunately there was not too much of a roar today, with one of the boatmen commenting that they have an average of about ten days a year when the conditions are this perfect. Everyone had time to explore both the cave and the rest of the islands, with particular focus being given to the puffin colonies.
All aboard was at 2.30pm and shortly afterwards we raised the anchor and continued to our next area of sightseeing. After a sumptuous Chocolate Tea in the dining room, complete with the unique calorie-free Chocolate Fountain, the passengers were back out on deck to witness us pass through the Gulf of Corryvreckan. This is a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba. Whirlpools and standing waves can form here due to the unusual combination of tides, sea floor and currents. I used to camp with my father on the banks of the strait as a wee boy and it was a delight to be taking Quest for Adventure through the channel. The tide was now quite high so it was not as dramatic as I feared it could be, but one could still clearly see the stirrings and whirlpool effects on the surface of the waters. Once through the channel we turned southward and I had one final task before setting course to Killybegs. My parents live near Crinan so I sailed past their bay and blew the Horn. Its special to me as my father is a retired Sea Captain and when I was a boy, he used to sail his ship past and blow the whistle when we were waving from the beach, so I thought it only fitting I returned the favour, be it 40 years on!!
The pre-dinner talk was delivered by Mark Butterworth and titled, ‘A Tour Around Scotland’, whilst the evening concert featured Anne Lorne Gillies presenting ‘Sailing Beyond the Sunset’ with songs from Scotland, England, Ireland, Spain, France, Italy and the jungle