Walk: Isle of Staffa, Argyll and Bute
The remarkable island of Staffa, with its basalt rockforms, puffins and isolated position, is a haven for artists and nature lovers
Staffa lies 10 km off the coast of Mull in the Inner Hebrides and, because it lacks any sort of harbour, landing is only possible in calm seas; I had to visit Mull twice before conditions were right. This remarkable place has inspired composers, artists, authors and scientists and anyone who makes the effort to get there will easily see why.
The island is just one kilometre long by half a kilometre wide but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in spectacular scenery and wildlife. Staffa is the legacy of a violent rupture in the seabed between 50 and 60 million years ago, which produced lava-flowing volcanoes. As these flows solidified they developed the regular angled columns, the same kind which occurred at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
There are several boat tour companies who will take you there from different departure points including Oban. I’d recommend leaving from the port of Fionnphort, located on the western tip of the Ross of Mull, which is best known for being the starting point for a visit to neighbouring Iona. Day trips to Staffa usually run between April and October and, weather permitting, allow visitors an hour on the island.
1. Island approach
As you cross the water and sail towards Staffa from the south, you are confronted by one of the most exciting geological sights in the world: an island formed from amazing basalt columns with 40 m high cliffs indented by dark and mysterious sea caves. The most famous and most accessible of these is Fingal’s Cave and exploring it is a highlight of the trip.
There is evidence that people once lived on Staffa and made use of the flat island landscape for farming. Undulating remains of rig and furrow agriculture and some old stone structures are still visible but today this is a wild place reserved for wildlife and since 1986 has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland.
The boat journey from Fionnphort, which takes 45 minutes, is all part of the enjoyment and a chance to view the striking contrast of Mull’s mountainous landscape set against the deep blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There is abundant marine life here and if you’re lucky you could spot dolphins, minke whales or even basking sharks between mid-June and September. Grey seals are a common sight reclining on the rocky shorelines and as Staffa is home to hundreds of sea birds, throughout the summer you’ll see a variety of species flying to and fro.
2. On to the rock
From the landing jetty on the eastern side, steps lead up onto the plateau-like top of the island. What struck me was how peaceful it was up here away from the noise of the waves crashing on to the unforgiving rocky coastline below.
3. Puffin up the hill
Follow the path northwards and from mid-April to early August you’ll be able to meet some the current inhabitants: puffins. The main puffin colony is a 15-20 minute walk from the jetty and you can get close to these seemingly tame and fascinating birds as they busy about their burrows.
Staffa itself is a remnant of immense geological activity. Rupturing of the Earth’s crust 60 million years ago led to massive volcanic eruptions. Layers of molten lava from individual eruptions built up a massive thickness of basalt rock, originally over 2 km thick, which covered much of the region.
As the lava flows cooled and hardened, some layers shrank and cracked (like mud in a drying puddle) into a regular pattern of hexagonal columns or pillars. One of these layers can be clearly seen on Staffa. 80 miles away in Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is made of similar columns from the same period of volcanic activity. Since these original rocks were formed, the islands of the Inner Hebrides have been shaped by erosion, most recently by thick ice sheets that have scoured the Scottish landscape periodically over the past two million years, and by the sea which has carved out the caves and cliffs that make Staffa such an intriguing place.
4. Pillared cliffs
Ensure you save plenty of time on your visit to take in the strange and otherworldly atmosphere of the rocky basalt promontories and cliffs near the jetty. Here, basalt columns have been worn down by the sea to form a crazy paving path of hexagonal blocks along the bottom of the cliffs and it takes about 10 minutes to pick your way carefully south along to the main attraction, Fingal’s Cave.
Fingal’s Cave is a truly magnificent natural cavern, over 20 m high and 50 m deep, made from basalt pillars and moulded by the sea. Thanks to composer Felix Mendelssohn it captured public imagination in Victorian times and has continued to do so ever since. Its Gaelic name, An Uaimh Bhinn, means melodious cave and Mendelssohn was inspired to write his famous Hebrides overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave, after visiting the island in 1829. A handy natural walkway of broken columns at precisely the right level for exploring the cave means you can walk right inside and experience it for yourself. It has a magical and eerie quality with concert-hall acoustics that mean the sound of the waves really does sound a bit like music.
Staffa is a wonderful combination of a stunning landscape that reveals its underlying geology, a site of cultural pilgrimage and a wildlife haven. It makes for an excellent day trip; just keep your fingers crossed for a calm day.
Narrow earthen paths. No shelter so bring waterproofs.
How to get there
BY CAR: The mainland departure point is from Oban, which is 97 miles north of Glasgow on the A82 and A85.
BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT:
Oban is on the main train line from Glasgow Queen Street.
Oban-Mull: Regular 45-minute Calmac crossing (www.calmac.co.uk, 0800 066 5000) then a 70-minute bus journey across Mull to Fionnphort with Bowmans Coaches service 496
(www.bowmanstours.co.uk, 01631 563221).
The Keel Row Pub & Restaurant, Fionnphort
Isle of Mull, PA66 6BL
01681 700 458
Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 48. Grid ref: NM 326 352
Oban Tourist Information Centre, Argyll Square
Oban, PA34 4AN