Staffa by the Highland Note-Book

Letter H.

Having surveyed the various objects in Iona, we sailed for a spot no less interesting. Thousands have described it. Few, however, have seen it by torch or candle light, and in this respect we differ from most tourists. All description, however, of this far-famed wonder must be vain and fruitless. The shades of night were fast descending, and had settled on the still waves and the little group of islets, called the Treshnish Isles, when our vessel approached the celebrated Temple of the Sea. We had light enough to discern its symmetry and proportions; but the colour of the rock—a dark grey—and the minuter graces of the columns, were undistinguishable in the evening gloom. The great face of the rock is the most wonderful production of nature we ever beheld. It reminded us of the west front of York or Lincoln cathedral—a resemblance, perhaps, fanciful in all but the feelings they both excite—especially when the English minster is seen by moonlight. The highest point of Staffa at this view is about one hundred feet; in its centre is the great cave, called Fingal's Cave, stretching up into the interior of the rock a distance of more than 200 feet. After admiring in mute astonishment the columnar proportions of the rock, regular as if chiselled by the hand of art, the passengers entered a small boat, and sailed under the arch. The boatmen had been brought from Iona, and they instantly set themselves to light some lanterns, and form torches of old ropes and tar, with which they completely illuminated the ocean hall, into which we were ushered.

The complete stillness of the scene, except the low plashing of the waves; the fitful gleams of light thrown first on the walls and ceiling, as the men moved to and fro along the side of the stupendous cave; the appearance of the varied roof, where different stalactites or petrifactions are visible; the vastness and perfect art or semblance of art of the whole, altogether formed a scene the most sublime, grand, and impressive ever witnessed.

The Cathedral of Iona sank into insignificance before this great temple of nature, reared, as if in mockery of the temples of man, by the Almighty Power who laid the beams of his chambers on the waters, and who walketh upon the wings of the wind. Macculloch says that it is with the morning sun only that the great face of Staffa can be seen in perfection; as the general surface is undulating and uneven, large masses of light or shadow are thus produced. We can believe, also, that the interior of the cave, with its broken pillars and variety of tints, and with the green sea rolling over a dark red or violet-coloured rock, must be seen to more advantage in the full light of day. Yet we question whether we could have been more deeply sensible of the beauty and grandeur of the scene than we were under the unusual circumstances we have described. The boatmen sang a Gaelic joram or boat-song in the cave, striking their oars very violently in time with the music, which resounded finely through the vault, and was echoed back by roof and pillar. One of them, also, fired a gun, with the view of producing a still stronger effect of the same kind. When we had fairly satisfied ourselves with contemplating the cave, we all entered the boat and sailed round by the Clamshell Cave (where the basaltic columns are bent like the ribs of a ship), and the Rock of the Bouchaille, or the herdsman, formed of small columns, as regular and as interesting as the larger productions. We all clambered to the top of the rock, which affords grazing for sheep and cattle, and is said to yield a rent of £20 per annum to the proprietor. Nothing but the wide surface of the ocean was visible from our mountain eminence, and after a few minutes' survey we descended, returned to the boat, and after regaining the steam-vessel, took our farewell look of Staffa, and steered on for Tobermory.

Fingal's Cave, Staffa.