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6 Jul 2022

Staffa, a humbling island

Written by Rachel Bonnici, Seasonal Ranger for Staffa National Nature Reserve
When first sailing up to Staffa and setting eyes on Fingal’s Cave, I experienced a sensation that is hard to describe. And whenever I try, the words just do not do the moment justice!

I am enjoying reading accounts of earlier visitors, whose descriptions summarise the feeling wonderfully.

‘And with the first light arrived at the south-east part of the island, the seat of the most remarkable pillars: where we no sooner arrived than we were struck with a scene of magnificence which exceeded our expectations.’

– Sir Joseph Banks, naturalist

‘I shall never forget my first visit to Staffa, on the Grenadier. It was a beautiful summer day – a day of azure sky and sun-kissed sea. As the small boat entered Fingal’s Cave I was quite breathless at seeing such loveliness; nothing else like it in the world.’

– Mary Anderson, Shakespearean actress

‘The appearance of the cavern composed entirely of basaltic pillars as high as the roof of a cathedral, and running deep into the rock, eternally swept by a deep and swelling sea, and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble, baffles all description.’

– Sir Walter Scott, historian and writer

And my personal favourite…

‘Gee! What a cute hole.’

– Unknown American tourist

I feel privileged to be exploring Staffa at leisure. My fascination grows with each visit. I have had many memorable adventures so far, including identifying otter trails leading to remote beaches, collecting fresh water from a hidden spring, and inspecting shags nesting in sea caves. All the while admiring the incredible array of colours, textures, shapes, and sounds exhibited across the island.

I am truly loving moments of exploration, of solitude and calm, but what I am enjoying most is watching people engage with the reserve. Recently, when walking along the causeway, I heard singing coming from Fingal’s Cave. On entering I encountered a group of women huddled together, harmonising angelically. The cave has exceptional acoustics and their voices reverberated around the natural cathedral. I now fully understand why it received its Gaelic name An Uamh Bhin – meaning the melodious cave. Witnessing this musical collaboration gave me shivers up my arms. It was a beautiful reminder of the power of connecting with nature through music.

The incredible rock formations of Fingal’s Cave

Observing people, observing puffins, has become a favourite monitoring activity of mine. A particularly remarkable behaviour the seabirds exhibit – and what Donald B. MacCulloch, author of The Wondrous Isle of Staffa described as a ‘puffin procession’ – is when a group take flight from the ocean and circle the air, passing close to the cliff face then out towards the water. The spectacle often results in visitors being awed into silence or gasping with excitement. Hands cover mouths. Intrigue and curiosity follow. Last week, in reaction to seeing puffins for the first time, a young boy mirrored the procession, spontaneously and energetically running in circles with arms out flapping.

Visitors watching puffins fly past the cliffs

Every day I am reminded of the profound impact nature has on humans, as I watch visitors ponder geological formations and investigate wildlife. Some people sit and sketch. Others kayak around the coast. The island continues to captivate, every day evoking wonder and inspiring creativity and adventure.

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