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25 Jul 2019

Stories from Staffa

Written by Peter Upton, Visitor Services Assistant
The Isle of Staffa seen from the sea on a very sunny day. The camera looks towards the basalt columns surrounding Fingal's Cave.
Hello! I’m the new Visitor Services Assistant on the windswept Isle of Staffa. I look forward to sharing stories of puffins, fascinating geology, seaweeds, flowers and insects and much more.

The little island of Staffa measures just 1km long by 300m (at its widest point) and sits on its own around 5 miles off Mull’s west coast. Despite its small size, Staffa punches well above its weight as a visitor attraction. Its ready accessibility, the extraordinary columnar basalt, Fingal’s Cave and a thriving colony of Atlantic puffins combine to make Staffa a major draw to over 90,000 visitors every year.

Puffins flying by the grassy cliffs of Staffa
Puffins flying by the cliffs of Staffa

Staffa’s puffins arrive towards the end of April to begin cleaning out old nest material from burrows along cliff tops in the northeast of the island. After nine months of living solitary lives far out on the Atlantic, these birds seem excited and happy to be back, meeting with life partners and greeting old neighbours. Young, non-breeding birds arrive to socialise, flirt, show off and claim burrows of their own. These younger ‘club puffins’ are generally the most visible; they have little need to spend time down burrows making nests, brooding eggs or finding food for chicks. Puffin youths can enjoy these summer weeks, ‘hanging out’ on the turf along the cliff tops, often flying round in wide circles, sitting on the sea close to the island in ‘rafts’, feeding, socialising and generally learning the ropes.

A close-up of a puffin sitting in long grass. Its head is visible, with its characteristic bright beak.
Visitors enjoy getting close to the puffins.

What makes Staffa’s puffins particularly attractive is the fact that visitors can get so close to them. Puffins by nature seem to be remarkably tame wild animals, apparently little troubled by the close proximity of humans. For many, the chance to be so close to these appealing birds is highly enjoyable. Some people are addicted to puffin viewing, coming back time and again – a kind of puffin therapy. One Dutch woman I met in June said this was her 17th visit to Staffa!

Not only are puffins a useful environmental indicator species, they’re also a flagship species. Through studying species like puffins, pandas, orangutans, tigers, etc, we can understand more about environmental issues affecting the wide range of wildlife that shares habitats with the flagship species.

A man stands on a grassy cliff on Staffa looking towards the camera.
Me on the cliff top

But large numbers of visitors also means physical attrition of the turf and nearby vegetation, causing areas of mud, loosened stones and eroding soil. More sensitive visitors are left with concerns over how the presence of so many people affects the puffins and other wildlife. Even if puffins seem to be so far largely unaffected, the appearance of unmanaged crowds is a concern that may need to be addressed. Similar issues are found in many other locations, but how they’re addressed is likely to be specific to each place. The Trust is aware of these things and solutions are being considered.

The hexagonal basalt rock formations on Staffa. They run into the sea.
The basalt rock formations on Staffa

The giant basalt columns which gave rise to the island’s Norse name Staffa – literally staff-ay or staff (pillar) island – are truly remarkable. Columnar basalt formations are not unusual, but the scale of those on Staffa is. The comparison with the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim was noticed many centuries, if not millennia, ago. However, although the volcanic activity that gave rise to these two famous localities is of a similar age, these are coincidental and not related features.

Staffa and the outlying Treshnish Isles are the still-standing remains of great volcanic lava flows, much of which have long since turned to rubble, sand and clays. Basalt is formed from lava, and the columns form as a result of very slow cooling in thick lava flows. The thicker the lava, the longer it takes to cool, and the more likely it is that shrinkage will result in roughly hexagonal columns. The joints between columns are weak zones.

​Fingal’s Cave on Staffa seen from the sea, with waves crashing to the shore.
Fingal’s Cave

Fingal’s Cave is one of 19 sea caves around Staffa, formed as aeons of heavy ocean swells have found the crevices between the columns, loosening and then breaking off great pieces of basalt. The broken pieces are themselves picked up by heavy storm swells and literally hammer away at the sea cliffs. The process takes a long time, but then here time is not in short supply.

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