Isle of Staffa, Scotland – Day 11 of my tour of Scotland is blessed by the gods: calm green ocean, solar brilliance, rambunctious highland winds.
Our tour boat edges toward the cliff face near Fingal’s Cave, the most magnificent of three such sea caves on the tiny Isle of Staffa. Less than 4.8 kilometres in diameter, Staffa is one of the Inner Hebrides, island outreaches of the western Highlands. It is also a far-flung relative of the Giants’ Causeway, a rock formation 96 kilometres to the south on Ireland’s northeastern shore.
Disembarking, we cross a funhouse floor of hexagonal rocks rearing up from the strand like marble tiles laid by drunken ogres. Before us stands the cliff, each of its temple-like columns an almost perfectly formed hexagon of black basalt. In the middle is Fingal’s Cave.
Staffa is shrouded in myth. The Vikings named it for its huge pillars. Fingal, a mythical Irish hero of great size, was said to have fought with a Scottish giant living on Staffa; their clod-throwing created, amongst other things, the Isle of Man.
Other tales relate how Fingal built the Giants’ Causeway as a footpath for his giantess lover to follow whenever she left her throne on Staffa. The truth is equally intriguing: the basalt columns were formed aeons ago when lava suddenly landed on cooler bedrock; an eternity of crashing ocean waves formed the cave.
From the boat, the rocks stacked around Fingal’s Cave look perilous, but in fact they’re staggered like stepping stones. Most are big enough to seat a large man, or perhaps a giantess.
Braving boisterous Hebridean winds, I gingerly ascend the cyclopean steps to the clumped mossy turf at the summit of the cliff.
Here lives a colony of puffins, clown-eyed seabirds resembling stubby penguins. They nest on the clifftop and cheerfully tolerate rubbernecking tourists. As I cross the plateau, I realize that the hour allotted for our trip to Staffa will not allow me to visit the birds. Regretfully, I turn back.
The pathway into the cave mouth, while not sheer, is vertiginous enough. The rope guideline, although sturdy, feels flimsy in my nervous hands. Cautiously I sidle a metre or two into the 76-metre-long cavern.
Here, clean, blessed turquoise water laps at palisades that form an arch over 18 metres high. Lofty and vaulted as a cathedral, this place moves me as no temple ever could: a sacred union of capricious ocean god and adamant goddess of volcanic rock.
Though our arrival on this magical island was accompanied by the usual sightseer gabbing and gesticulation, our departure is exceptionally quiet.
Perhaps some of the other tourists are pilgrims silently pondering the upcoming landing in Iona, where St. Columba built Scotland’s first Christian monastery.
I choose to believe we’re enthralled by Staffa’s natural cathedral, rendered mute by its glory.
Later, on Iona’s shore, at the edge of incredibly blue seas, I spy two pebbles: gifts from gods far older than Columba’s. The blinding-white milky quartz with its fleck of intense green becomes a gift for a friend back home.
I keep for myself the tiny moss-green “mountain” shot through with pink granite heather and quartz streams and bearing an icy quartz crag: the Highlands in miniature.