Staffa attracted the attention of many of the great figures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The island became an accepted venue on the cultural grand Tour of Europe. Its marvels had first been made known after the visit of the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks in 1772, when he was en route to Iceland. Banks wrote:
“Compared to this what are the cathedrals and palaces built by men!
Mere models or playthings, imitations as his works will always be when compared to those of nature.”
Shortly afterwards Johnson and Boswell made their celebrated excursion to the highlands and islands, but could only view Staffa from the sea as it was too rough to land. When Mendelssohn returned to the mainland after his visit he immediately made for the piano to try out the theme that had been inspired by the cave. He had hardly laid a finger on the keys when he was brusquely interrupted by his Scottish host who reminded him that it was Sunday and therefore music was out of the question.
A Poet’s Muse
Excursions to the island became more and more popular, and a piper was employed to play in the depths of Fingal’s Cave to give additional ‘atmosphere’. Scott, Keats and Wordsworth all wrote about their visits in verse, the latter lamenting that he had to share the experience with ‘a motley crowd….hurried and hurrying, volatile and loud’. In 1853 Tennyson echoed these sentiments when he found Staffa ‘as interesting as it could be with people chattering and forty minutes to see it in’.
Queen Victoria Visits Fingal’s Cave
This problem hadly affected Queen Victoria in 1847, though her retinue was large enough. In her journal she wrote of her visit:
“As we rounded the point, the wonderful basaltic formation came in sight. The appearance it presents is most extraordinary; and when we turned the corner to go into the renowned Fingal’s Cave, the effect was splendid, like a great entrance into a vaulted hall: it looked almost awful as we entered, and the barge heaved up and down on the swell of the sea. The rocks, under water, were all colours – pink, blue and green – which had a most beautiful and varied effect. It was the first time the British standard with a Queen of Great Britain, and her husband and children, had ever entered Fingal’s Cave, and the men gave three cheers, which sounded very impressive there…”