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Fingal's Cave

Entrance to Fingal's Cave, Island of Staffa, Scotland, 1900

the Fingal's Cave Overture by Felix Mendelssohn

Mar 14

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Today's Musings, History & Folklore

"In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there."
~ Felix Mendelssohn, in a note to his sister Fanny, including the opening phrase of his Fingal's Cave Overture, 1829, during his tour of Scotland

Today marks the London premiere of German romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn's concert overture The Hebrides (also known as Fingal's Cave) inspired by his tour of Scotland and the weird echoes in the natural sea cave on the island of Staffa. Known for its natural acoustics and discovered in 1772, these hexagonally jointed basalt columns (similar to the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland) were named for hero of an epic poem by 18th-century Scots poet-historian James Macpherson, part of his Ossian cycle of poems claimed to have been based on old Scottish Gaelic poems. In Irish mythology, the hero Fingal is known as Fionn mac Cumhaill, and it is suggested that Macpherson rendered the name as Fingal (meaning "white stranger" through a misapprehension of the name which in old Gaelic would appear as Finn. According to legend, the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Fionn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet.

Fingal's Cave

Fingal's Cave is a sea cave on the uninhabited island of Staffa, in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, known for its natural acoustics. The National Trust for Scotland owns the cave as part of a national nature reserve.

The cave has a large arched entrance and is filled by the sea. Several sightseeing cruises organised from April to September by local companies pass the entrance to the cave. In calm conditions, one can land at the island's landing place (as some of these cruises permit) and walk the short distance to the cave, where a row of fractured columns forms a walkway just above high-water level permitting exploration on foot.  From the inside, the entrance seems to frame the island of Iona across the water.

Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn visited in 1829 and wrote an overture, The Hebrides, Op. 26, (also known as Fingal's Cave overture), inspired by the weird echoes in the cave, which popularized the cave as a tourist destination.

Other famous 19th-century visitors included author Jules Verne, who used it in his book Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray), and mentions it in the novels Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Mysterious Island; poets William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and Romantic artist J. M. W. Turner, who painted Staffa, Fingal's Cave in 1832.

To hear the namesake orchestral work, click the vintage illustration "Vue de la Grotte de Fingal a l'Ile de Staffa une des Hebrides" by French naturalist, Barthélmy Faujas de Saint-Fond.

Fingal's Cave

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Fingal's Cave

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