Scottish Islands: Staffa
Staffa, which lies off the west coast of Mull, approximately 12 km (7 miles) north of Fionnphort, is a fascinating place to visit and despite its remoteness, one of the region’s main tourist draws. The volcanic island is around 1.6 km (1 mile) long by 0.4 km (1/4 mile) wide and slopes upward from its low northern end to cliffs rising to 40 metres (135 ft) at the other.
Staffa was formed by lava around 58 million years ago at a time when what is now the north of Scotland was being pulled away from North America by continental drift. The solid top-layer crust of lava cooled rapidly but below the surface a slower reduction in temperature caused the lava to split into a columnar pattern. The volcanic activity lasted hundreds of thousands of years but only small patches of basalt-flow formations from that era, including the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, Northern Ireland, remain.
The impressive Buachaille Rock or ‘Herdsman` (pictured above & below at low water) lies close to the entrance to Fingal’s Cave. The different colours that you see are mainly due to the various organisms, including algae and lichen which inhabit the various tidal zones. Most obvious is the yellow splash lichen (Xanthoria parietina) on the rock`s upper reaches.
Staffa’s Coast is penetrated by a series of caves, all of which were created by the power of the sea. The best known, of course is Fingal’s Cave which is approximately 70 metres (230 ft) deep, 13 metres (42 ft) wide and has a 20 metre (66 ft) high entrance. It's Gaelic name of An Uamh Bhin means ‘melodious cave’, a reference to the reverberating melodious sounds created by the surge of waves within. It was this anomaly that in 1829 inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose the opening of the Hebridean Overture (Die Hebriden, Oder Die Fingalshohle).
Staffa was relatively unknown to the outside world until the summer of 1772 when the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, the then President of the Royal Society who was en route to Iceland aboard the sailing ship St Lawrence, heard of its merits and made a detour to visit. Banks had only recently returned from the famous voyage led by Captain Cook and Banks’ subsequent report, and several engravings of the island, soon generated widespread interest.
Although they were unable to land due to rough seas, Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited Staffa during their grand ‘Tour of the Western Isles’ in 1773 after which the former worthy commented that the island was the greatest natural curiosity that he had and ever seen.
A few families actually resided on the island but life was particularly harsh. Staffa was owned by the MacQuarries of Ulva for almost 1,000 years, but it was sold in 1777, and changed hands a further three times during the latter part of the 18th century.
From a sole occupant in 1772, the population had grown to sixteen by 1784. Barley, oats and potatoes were farmed and cattle, sheep and goats provided meat, milk and cheese. The last family to permanently stay on Staffa left around 1800.
Other notable visitors included author Dorothy Wordsworth, poet John Keats, artist W.M. Turner who recorded Staffa on canvas, Sir Robert Peel, Queen Victoria, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Jules Verne who featured the island in his novel ‘The Green Ray’. Dr. David Livingstone and Robert Louis Stevenson also made the trip. Nowadays up to 120,000 people set foot on Staffa each year.
Because of its exposed, windswept position it`s not always possible to set foot on Staffa, even in fine weather if the tides aren`t right. I was lucky and managed to land on my first visit almost 30 years ago, but never took any photos. On a more recent occasion, after a visit to Lunga, our skipper took Hoy Lass right up to the cave entrance for a closer look before tying up at the jetty and dropping off passengers.
Surprisingly, what should have been a tranquil and hassle-free location was bizarrely bordering on chaotic at times. As well as several small tour boats unloading, National Geographic's ice-class expedition flagship National Geographic Explorer had dropped anchor nearby and it seemed that most of her 148 guests were being shuttled ashore in Zodiacs. It was slow-going on the short route to the cave over the flat wave-polished stepping-stones with new arrivals and returning passengers dodging past each other, many understandably reluctant to let go of the handrail fixed to the bottom of the cliff face for security.
From the Victorian era onwards, it became something of a tradition for the more affluent visitors to engage the services of a piper to play in the cave to add to the atmosphere and today, particularly when cruise ship passengers are put ashore, a bagpiper, fiddler, or classical musicians can often be found providing impromptu entertainment.
Just to add to the congestion on my last visit, two weddings were taking place beside the cave entrance! After performing the ceremonies and offering a few final good wishes and handshakes the Nat' Geo's Captain walked back to the jetty then headed uphill to see if he could find a few Puffins!
Please bear in mind that all my images are subject to copyright. They are not free to use and have been embedded with a digital watermark.
The world-famous uninhibited island is currently under the care of National Trust for Scotland and was designated a National Nature Reserve in 2001. Although Staffa is best known for its sea caves and magnificent basalt columns, it`s also home to hundreds of seabirds during the spring and summer months.
Cormorant, Shag, Razorbill, Guillemot, Kittiwake and Fulmar breed on Staffa as well as Corncrake in small numbers. Purple Sandpiper on passage often use the island to feed and recharge their batteries before continuing to their final destination.
Sea-watching from the boat on the way over can also be very rewarding with a chance of Manx Shearwater and several species of Skua, plus there are almost guaranteed sightings of seals along with possible Cetacean encounters.
Just a few weeks before my latest visit to Staffa in June 2019, wildlife experts completed the first ever Puffin count on the island, finding hundreds more birds than expected. Most nest around the northern tip with the main concentrations on the northeast side. Unlike the puffin colony on Lunga in the nearby Treshnish Isles, the birds here excavate their burrows on precarious slopes which makes close inspection extremely hazardous.
In the above shot, the second furthest group of people are standing at the most popular vantage point for viewing the Puffins. It`s a small natural platform with steep ground immediately above and below, only a couple of feet from the edge, and there are no fences on the island, so great care must be taken, especially when the ground is wet.
Previous estimates had placed the Puffin population at 150 to 450 pairs, however, surveyors trained in rope techniques were able to lower themselves down the cliffs and carry out the first proper count. The result was encouraging with more than 600 individual burrows identified. It was hoped that the same technique could be used for a much larger survey of puffin burrows on St Kilda. Accurate counts like these help to gain a true picture of how one of our favourite seabird species is coping with climate change and other factors resulting from human activity.
Above: Looking north from the north end of the island. The cairn and trig point marking Staffa`s highest point are closer to the south end. As well as an abundance of birds, the island has an interesting flora which includes at least two species of orchid.