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Floating to Fingal’s Cave: The Three Isles Tour of Iona, Mull and Staffa

Published
December 23, 2018
The islands of Mull, Iona and Staffa in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Oban, also shown here, is an important mainland ferry port for the islands, located about 90 km or 55 miles northwest of Glasgow, as the crow flies.

AFTER Raasay, I headed further south to the small port of Oban, after which the town of Oban on New Zealand’s Stewart Island is also named. The Scottish Oban hosts tours of the neighboring islands, including the big island of Mull and the smaller islands of Iona and Staffa.

Oban

Mull is the fourth-largest of the Scottish islands. Its main attractions are wild nature, beaches, wildlife and the trekking peak, Benmore. One of its villages is named Calgary, a name familiar to Canadians in the form of a much larger city.

Iona was the site of the first church in Scotland, which was built by St Columba, from Ireland, in the 700s CE. Iona is also the site of a famous monastery, and the graves of kings. Basically, Iona’s the Scottish equivalent of England’s holy island of Lindisfarne. Just like Lindisfarne, Iona was attacked and looted by the Vikings quite early on in their historical career. Iona, which the Vikings called Ilkomkill, was attacked in 795 CE, 802 and 806 CE.

A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine, the monks prayed: ‘Free us from the fury of the Northmen, O Lord’. Eventually the Vikings were converted to Christianity and left the monks alone, but, in the same era, Scotland’s western isles also fell under the rule of the Norse seafarers, only becoming Scottish again in the 1400s. Their history was similar to the history of the Orkneys and Shetlands in that respect.

I was to visit Mull and Iona and also Staffa, best known as the location of the spectacular sea-cave known as Fingal’s Cave. Of the three, I had only been to Iona before; I talk about that visit in my book A Maverick Pilgrim Way. This time around I was making especially sure to get to Staffa. As for Mull, it was nice to make a stop there, but a day-trip couldn’t do justice to such a large island.

Boat tours of the islands in this region became regular in the early nineteenth century, after the romantic movement adopted Fingal’s Cave as a site of pilgrimage.

The romantic movement was kicked off by the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke’s concept of the ‘Sublime’, meaning something larger than oneself, extraordinary and amazing. Those not regularly in contact with the sublime tended to decline into petty materialism and obsession with things that don’t really matter. Life without the sublime also became a daily round of shallow hedonism.

In the past, religious institutions and buildings such as cathedrals had long supplied society with regular fixes of sublimity. But it seems that before Burke, no-one had thought about the sublime as something supplied by religion but not necessarily the same as religion.

An excellent introduction to Burke’s Sublime, from the Youtube channel of The School of Life

Burke noted that wild nature, and scientific wonder at the natural world, could also put people in touch with the sublime. The romantics ran with this idea, all but reviving the ancient pagan reverence for wild nature as their preferred corrective to the ailments of humdrum civilisation.

Romantic Art: ‘Wanderer above a Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich (1818), Kunstahalle, Hamburg. Public domain reproduction of a work of art via Wikimedia Commons.


How to look Romantic: a portrait of Caspar David Friedrich himself by Gerhard von Kügelgen, circa 1810 to 1820, Kunstahalle, Hamburg. Public domain reproduction of a work of art via
Wikimedia Commons.

And so, Fingal’s Cave became a must-see destination for everyone in search of the intense. Among the early tourists was the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, who came up with the opening theme of his famous Hebrides Overture among the islands west of Oban.

A depiction of Mendelssohn playing to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1830; quite possibly the Hebrides Overture, which he was working on at the time. Public domain reproduction of an 1864 artwork by Moritz Oppenheim, in the Jüdisches Museum, Frankfurt am Main.

Most people call the composition Fingal’s Cave, and you’ve doubtless heard it already.


A Youtube video of a trip to Staffa, playing Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (video by ‘hamblepoint’)

A fairly wide range of boat tours is on offer in Oban these days. I went on one called the Three Isles Tour. I booked the tour for a Sunday while I was in Raasay, a bit further up the coast to the north. I assumed I would be able to get from Raasay to Oban on the day.

Unfortunately, it turned out that there were no rural buses running on Sunday in this part of Scotland. And so, at first, I thought that I wouldn’t get to Oban to do the tour. But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and after trying to hitch for two hours I finally got a ride from a priest.

I was only able to take in a little bit of Mull’s nature and scenery before heading on to Iona where I reacquainted myself with the old churches and graves I’d seen last time. And then, to Staffa.

Oban to Mull

Iona

The name Staffa comes from the Old Norse for ‘staves’ and refers to the upright hexagonal columns of basalt from which the Island seems to be entirely composed. Apparently, it’s part of the same geological formation as the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, though there’s some distance between them.

Staffa

A closer view of the great mass of ‘staves’ making up Staffa, and another sightseeing boat

It’s really this unusual quality that makes Staffa so extra-sublime, and Fingal’s Cave more than just any old sea-cave.

And yes, just like Mendelssohn, I too ventured inside Fingal’s Cave.

On the way back, we saw the sun set over Mull, the scenic one.

Sunset over Mull

This post is based on a chapter in my new book A Maverick Inuit Way and the Vikings, published in November 2018.

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