Fingal’s Cave: The Source of the Ethereal Melody

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

As caving aficionados, we all naturally enjoy the exploration in the depths of Earth’s hidden passageways and darkest pits. But what about a little mythology and urban legend while we’re at it? If you find yourself around the UK, in Scotland specifically, you’re in luck! Fingal’s Cave will deliver both.

Fingal’s Cave is the most well-known Cave in Scotland. Its spectacular volcanic basalt columns have drawn tourists for over 250 years. It’s estimated that it formed 60 million years ago.

Beginning in ancient times and continuing until 1777, the site was a part of the Clan MacQuarrie’s Ulva estate. The Cave has popularized in the English-speaking world in 1772 thanks to the efforts of an 18th-century scientist named Sir Joseph Banks.

The Cave was named Fingal’s Cave after the namesake hero of an epic poem written by the Scottish poet and historian James Macpherson in the 18th century. This poem was included in his Ossian cycle, which he claimed was inspired by traditional Scottish Gaelic poetry.

Macpherson may have misunderstood the name, which in old Gaelic would appear as “Finn,” of the hero of Irish mythology known as Fionn mac Cumhaill, and transcribed it as Fingal (meaning “white stranger”). According to the Giant’s Causeway tradition, Finn (or Fionn) constructed the bridge between Ireland and Scotland. We will explain more about this story in a bit.

An image of Fingal's Cave seen from a distance across the water.

Where is Fingal’s Cave?

You will find Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa, which is currently deserted. Tall and beautiful columns of volcanic basalt have lured tourists to this Cave for over two centuries.

The echoes in the Cave sound so distinctive that they’ve received a name: Fingal’s Cave music.

Numerous poets, artists, painters, and even filmmakers have been captivated by the Cave and its enchantment. Those interested in seeing the Cave and hearing its beautiful “song” can do so today by booking a spot on a Fingal’s Cave tour.

Why is Fingal’s Cave so Unique?

The vastness and homogeneity of Fingal’s Cave, as well as the natural walkway that permits access during low tide, are what set it apart.

A black and white picture of Felix Mendelssohn, composer of a Midnight Summer's Dream.
Felix Mendelssohn composed a “Midnight Summer’s Dream” and several other pieces.

Joseph Banks, a renowned botanist, first brought this fact to public attention in 1772. Since then, this “cathedral of the sea” has seen a regular stream of visitors, including several well-known artists.

A young Felix Mendelssohn was one of the great artists to visit the Cave in 1829. Mendelssohn was so moved that he spent the rest of 1832 composing the concert overture Die Hebriden, better known as Fingal’s Cave.

It just so happens that the first public showing of JMW Turner’s painting “Staffa” took place in the spring of the same year. Even today, the Scottish chamber music event Mendelssohn on Mull cites influence by Staffa. Young artists from around the world gather for a week of concerts and musical discovery inspired by the rugged landscapes of Staffa, Mull, and Iona.

How was Fingal’s Cave Formed?

The Cave’s geology and architecture resemble Northern Ireland’s Great Causeway. Columns of basalt are hexagonally joined to one another; they formed 60 million years ago. Columns like these first developed in a Paleocene lava flow as the molten rock cooled unevenly at its upper and lower surfaces.

Initially, tetragonal patterns emerged due to contracting and fracturing, and later, these morphed into hexagonal patterns. After the liquid has cooled, the cracks propagate inside, culminating in the 20-meter-tall columns we see today. Over countless millennia, the ocean’s waves have subtly altered the columns’ appearance.

A look at the corridor of massive columns that make up Fingal's Cave.

Hebrides Overture & Fingal’s Cave Music

The Cave’s peculiar acoustics make the sound of waves breaking against the basalt columns echo, creating a beautiful, melodic sound. It’s one of the city’s most alluring features, long serving as a source of creativity.

The magnificent classical work known as “The Hebrides” is the outcome of perhaps the most well-known “collaboration” between the Cave and one of its visitors.

The German composer Felix Mendelssohn from the nineteenth century is the man in question. The conventional wisdom is that his visit to the Cave inspired his work.

During his weeks-long tour of Scotland, he stopped by the Isle of Mull. The piece that eventually became “The Hebrides” was began on August 7th, 1829. ‘In order to make you understand how powerfully the Hebrides affected me, the following sprang to mind there,’ he wrote.

Not long after visiting Tobermory on Mull, Mendelssohn set out to investigate the Cave, which had gained notoriety since its discovery in 1772. Initially titled “The Lonely Isle Overture,” he eventually renamed his composition “The Hebrides” (1830). One publication in 1834 gave the song the name “Fingal’s Cave,” which may have led people to believe that a trip to this cave was the inspiration.

Even though he began penning before ever seeing the Cave, that doesn’t mean it didn’t play a significant role in the piece. Countless scholarly works have lauded his ability to convey the sea’s ferocity and the Cave’s reverberations.

Other Mythology

We did promise a bit of mythology! Scotland is home to numerous myths and legends, such as the well-known Lochness Monster and other magical creatures. The Giant Causeway in Northern Ireland became intertwined with Fingal’s Cave in one legend in particular.

There were once two giants who wanted to fight each other. Based on Gaelic mythology, the Irish giant, called Fionn mac Cumhaill, took a challenge for a fight against the Scottish giant, Benandonner. To make it possible, Fionn built the causeway, so he could reach Scotland from Ireland.

There are two versions of the fight. In one version, Fionn easily outmatched Benandonner. But the other story is far more interesting.

In the second version, Fionn’s wife, perhaps the brains of the relationship, suggested that he pretend to be his own child. When Benandonner noticed that the supposed child of Fionn was nearly as big as he was, he changed his mind about the fight. Why wait around and see how big the father was? Thus, he destroyed the causeway to prevent Fionn from chasing him, ultimately leaving two separate locations with similar basalt columns today.

Tours to Fingal’s Cave

Fingal’s Cave has been drawing visitors and awed gazes for nearly two hundred and fifty years. The stunning landscape attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually, and with good reason.

Even if you don’t make it inside the Cave, the sea and island of Staffa are stunning, and puffins may even appear in the summer.

Cruise ships make their rounds between April and September when the weather is more pleasant. But then again, we’re talking about Scotland here, so who knows?

Many different tour operators run trips, and most of them set out from either Mull or Oban. Local tour guides take visitors to the cave mouth, but if the weather is right, they can land on Staffa themselves. After that, you’ll have a short journey to the Cave.

Fingal's Cave's mouth is shown here, a gaping black hole between two massive rock columns.

How to get to Fingal’s Cave

Trips to Staffa can be arranged from the mainland by contacting one of several boat companies in Oban, one of which is Seafari Adventures. It makes sense to see Staffa alongside its similar neighbors, Mull and Iona.

Some people make the trip by kayak. If that’s not for you, you can always take a trip to Staffa by boat from Oban, Mull, or Iona. Daily boat journeys to Staffa are available from Mull’s Fionnphort, Iona’s Staffa Trips, and Mull’s Ulva Ferry through Turus Mara. There is a free shuttle bus provided by Turus Mara that runs between Craignure and Tobermory.

Passengers departing from Oban can purchase a ticket that also covers the cost of the ferry ride. Traveling by boat from Mull to Staffa takes about 45 minutes, and there is plenty of wildlife to observe along the route. Extending your trip to the Treshnish Isles will allow you to see puffins up close and personal on the island of Lunga.

How about a daring swim in Fingal’s Cave if you’re in the mood for excitement? Visitors can swim or snorkel directly inside the Cave through Basking Shark Scotland‘s individualized ‘Swim Fingal’s Cave’ tour.

Floating in the Cave’s entrance, it’s breathtaking to gaze up at the towering basalt pillars and other rock formations and then submerge your head to observe the thriving marine colonies below.

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