Saturday, 4 June 2016

Stick Island

       On our latest trip to Mull, we did what tourists to Mull have been doing for over 300 years - we paid locals with a boat to take us out to the island of Staffa.

      I'd heard of Staffa, of course. I was raised by a man fascinated by geology, for one thing. I knew that Mendelssohn had been so gob-smacked by it that he wrote 'Fingal's Cave' and the Hebrides Overture. I was keen to go and see it.

      But you know what they say about film and photographs never doing justice to a place? That's true of Staffa, cubed. When the boat came alongside the island, under the cliffs - well, I damn near wrote an overture.

      None of these photos, let me make it clear, even begin to do justice to this amazing, numinous place.
      It has no safe anchorage. We went ashore, but were only able to because the weather was extremely good and the sea calm. The skipper told us that if the sea is at all choppy, it's impossible to land.
     The name of the island is Norse. The 'a' at the end is common in Norse and Saxon place-names. The 'y' at the end of Ely is the same word. Barra, Ulva, Canna - the 'a' at the end of them all means 'island.'
     The 'Staff' part can be translated in various ways, but it's come down to us as the word 'staff' or 'stave' - so the boat's skipper wasn't wrong when he translated it as 'Stick Island.' Others translate it as 'pillar' and say the Vikings were reminded of the wooden pillars that supported their houses.
      Imagine being a viking, though, and passing this place, this strange concoction of stone rising straight out of the sea, unlike any other place on earth. Why did the gods create it?

There are three layers to Staffa. There's the smooth, beige-brown rock at the bottom. That's volcanic lava, or tuff. It's volcanic ash, consolidated into rock.
     The second layer, those spectacular sticks, is black basalt - a great, thick layer of black basalt - which has cooled slowly. This slow cooling caused it to contract and take on this crystalline structure of hexagonal columns.
     Above the columns is a sort of wild top-knot of solid rock. That's not turf or grass you're looking at, but basalt.

Coming in to the jetty

Presumably, this basalt cooled much faster and didn't crystallise. Instead there's this wild tangle of half-formed columns and dabs and dobs and rocks that looks as if it's been frothed up with a whisk. It bulges in places like the top of a muffin, but it's solid basalt.
      If you're reminded of the Giant's Causeway, that's not surprising. Staffa was produced by the same eruption that produced the Causeway and there are similar, but smaller, pillared cliffs all over Mull, often producing an oddly striped, humbug effect on mountainsides.

According to legend, an Irish giant built the Causeway, so he could cross the Irish Sea and beat up a Scottish giant on the other side. It turned out, thought, that the Scots giant was much bigger and fiercer than expected, and so the Irish giant tore up his own causeway in a panic, to prevent the Scots giant reaching him. Staffa is all that's left of the Scottish end.
     I can believe it. Lots of people have made that mistake when tangling with Scots. Best leave them alone and never, ever poke them sticks.

Staffa has a tiny wooden jetty against one cliff, where the boat tied up. I don't like to think about who built this jetty or how they managed it. (Where did they stand? Where did they put down their tools?)
      From the jetty a metal staircase goes straight up the cliff, almost vertically. Occasionally, it uses the flat tops of basalt columns in place of steps. I had to almost run up these steps because I was first out of the boat and had to keep ahead of everyone else. I reached the top more dead than alive - to be greeted by a massed choir of skylarks, which revived me.

A primrose on Staffa

I think that's Rhum on the horizon.

Celendine and violets - I leave you to imagine the sky-larks singing above.

I was promised puffins, but the puffins saw us coming and $%"* off into the sea. They must get fed up of tourists. There were some skuas bullying peewits.The skylarks avoided all that by staying in the upper atmosphere and carpet-bombing with song.

The island is now owned by the National Trust but people did once live on it. I can hardly believe this, but there were the remains of fields to be seen and when Sir Joseph Banks visited in 1772, he stayed at the only house on the island, and caught lice. The single family who farmed on Staffa lived on oats, potatoes and the milk and meat of their few grazing animals. By 1800, 'terrified of the winter storms,' they'd given up and I don't blame them.

Staffa's cliffs

We had an hour on the island, which is about a kilometre or half-mile long and half that wide. What must it have been like to live, perched up on top of that rock, with no company other than your immediate family? - We were lucky, we could enjoy it for an hour and then leave. We scrambled back down that dizzy staircase into the boat. As the boat turned back for Mull and Iona, we passed Am Buachaille, The Herdsman.

      If you squint at this shot, below, you may be able to see some puffins scattered about. I am told they are there. I can't see them.

I listened to Mendelssohn's 'Fingal's Cave' when I got back to civilisation. I don't think he did the place justice any more than my photos do.
     It was an exhilarating trip but saddening too, because I kept wishing my Dad had been there. He would have known about all the geology and all the birds and plants too. He would have been fit to be tied. We would have had to set traps to get him back on the boat. So, this blog's for Dad.


Joan Lennon said...

I salute your dad.

The final challenge in The Seventh Tide takes place inside Staffa - shall I send you a copy? SO MUCH FUN to write!

Susan Price said...

Yes, please!

Penny Dolan said...

I went there once, many years ago, so thank you for reviving that memory through your blog & photographs.

Occasionally, or so the boatmen said, they take fiddle players over on the boat to play music within the cave. How wonderful must that be!

Susan Price said...

Oh yes! How wonderful to have mournful Norwegian or Scots fiddle music as you sail round the island!

Penny Dolan said...

When we were taken there by a local boat, a rather posh yacht was in the area, wanting to go to Staffa & the cave. After some unheard radio communication between our humbler working boat and the yacht, the beauty had to wait further out at anchor until our visit - cave and top of the island - was over. I recall the boatman seeming rather satisfied.

Jenny Alexander said...

I love these trips out and about with you on your blog, Sue! I've been to Mull many times, and Iona, but never to Staffa, and it looks amazing. Next time...

madwippitt said...


Susan Price said...

A lot of Scotland is pretty Wow!