Staffa

Introduction

The name Staffa is derived from the Old Norse for stave or pillar island. This is due to its distinctive columnar basaltic construction. A must visit island just north of Iona and accessible by boat tours from nearby Mull.

Staffa NTS panorama
Staffa

Location

Information

Staffa

Staffa from the Old Norse for stave or pillar island is an island of the Inner Hebrides Scotland. The Vikings gave it this name as its columnar basalt reminded them of their houses, which were built from vertically placed tree-logs.

Staffa lies about 10 kilometres west of the Isle of Mull. The area is 33 hectares (82 acres) and the highest point is 42 metres (138 ft).

Staffa Fingals Cave NTS
Fingal’s awaits

Staffa was hardly known until 1772, when the botanist Joseph Banks highlighted the wild, natural beauty of the island. It soon became a must-see location. Famous visitors have included Queen Victoria, Lord Tennyson, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Keats; all fell under the island’s spell.

National Trust for Scotland

Staffa came into the care of the National Trust for Scotland in 1986, a gift from John Elliott, Jr, of New York in honour of his wife Elly’s birthday. Staffa was designated a National Nature Reserve in 2001.

Staffa is one of Scotland’s most iconic sights and renowned the world over for its stunning rock structures. In prehistoric times Staffa was covered by the ice sheets which spread from Scotland out into the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Outer Hebrides. After the last retreat of the ice around 20,000 years ago, sea levels were up to 125 metres lower than at present. Around 14,000 years ago it is likely that Staffa was part of a larger island, just off the coast of mainland Scotland, which would have included what are now Mull, Iona and the Treshnish Isles.

Geology

Staffa consists of three layers of rock of different types, covered with a surface of rich soil and lush grass. The lowest layer is tuff, compressed volcanic ash and dust, the middle layer is composed of the basaltic columns, and the uppermost is made up of jumbled and fractured columns and volcanic debris.

Staffa basalt columns island
Three layers of Staffa

Similar formations are found at the Giant’s Causeway and on the island of Ulva and at Ardmeanach on the Isle of Mull. The ‘Staffa Group’ found in the vicinity of Mull which erupted 55–58 million years ago.

On the east coast are Goat Cave and Clamshell Cave. The latter is 10 m high, about 6 m wide at the entrance, and some 45 m long, Near this cave is the pyramidal rock islet of Am Buachaille (‘The Herdsman’),Other outlying rocks include Eilean Dubh to the north-west and a series of skerries stretching for half a kilometre to the south-west. On the southwest shore are Boat Cave and Mackinnon’s Cave (named after a 15th-century abbot of Iona), which has a tunnel connecting it to Cormorant Cave. These caves lie to the south-west and can be accessed from the bay of Port an Fhasgaidh at low tide.

Fingal’s Cave

Staffa’s most famous feature is Fingal’s Cave, a large sea cave located near the southern tip of the island some 20 m high and 75 m long formed in cliffs of hexagonal basalt columns. This cliff face is called the Colonnade or The Great Face and it was these cliffs and their caves that inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Die Hebriden (English: Hebrides Overture opus 26),which was premiered in London in 1832.

Fingal's cave Staffa entrance
Away from the madding crowd
Roof of Fingals Cave Staffa scotland NTS
Sheered columns overhead
Inside Fingal's cave Staffa
Top end of Fingal’s cave
Inside Fingal's Cave Staffa Scotland
View from under Staffa!

The original Gaelic name for Fingal’s Cave is An Uamh Bhin – “the melodious cave” – but it was subsequently renamed after the 3rd-century Irish warrior Fionn MacCool.

Staffa Experience

I have visited Staffa on several occasions. A few as casual visiting yachtsman and a couple of times in my role as Island Manager for the National Trust for Scotland. Each visit made significant impressions upon me. These ranged for incredulity of the geological structures and through to dismay at the unregulated and over-visitation causing erosion and a negative impact on tye flora, fauna and natural environment – of what is a National Nature Reserve.

Visit Staffa
Another boatload lands on Staffa

Over Visitation

Over 80,000 people land on Staffa each year and as I stood there as the new Island manager it was clear to me the NTS had lost control and had no strategic visitor management plan. It resembled the wild west with tour boats dropping off hoards of ‘puffin hungry’ tourists. The boat operators were, rightly supplying the insatiable demand to step ashore and beat a path to the cliffs to snap and stare at the Puffins.

Puffins on Staffa sign
Puffins This Way!!
Staffa erosion to paths
Paths battered by thousands of feet
Visitors watching Ouffins on Staffa
Its showtime!!

My jaw dropped as a young unofficial tour guide bounded up the steps and unshared a group to the puffin vantage point. Later I found out he was on tips only and as a young school boy making a fortune as were the boat operators. A quick reference to boat trip prices and approximate headcount meant the island was generating well over £1m in visitor fees. The NTS share of that was… a small donation at the end of the year from the operators.

Staffa NTS collection box
NTS donations box, creative but not enticing

A strange mix of non commerciality from NTS, the easily waved Scottish Access Code stick and savvy boat operators, some in multi-generational businesses, resulted this quite remarkable situation. The erosion caused by the hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years is plain to see. Before I left the post there was a seasonal ranger recruited to start the process of change and recovery of the control over the island.

Tourist Boat Staffa visitor NTS
Tour boat lands another crowd

Approaching Staffa is breath-taking as the true complexity of the rock formations become clear. Large vertical shafts of rock rise up to a top mash up of confused rocks and that is topped by a lush green carpet of grasses and reeds.

Flowers on Staffa island scotland NTS
Carpet of life away from the crowds
Cairn on Staffa island Scotland looking to Mull
Cairn looking towards Loch Na Keal and Mull

Scotisland Neighbour: Erraid   Gometra Dutchman’s Cap

Other Information: National Trust for Scotland   Wiki  Geology