Piper in the Cave of Melody With His Own Hebridean Overture on the Magical Isle of Staffa

The Island of Staffa lies to the west of Mull. It was once part of the Clan Macquarrie lands along with Ulva and a few other surrounding Islands.

In 1772 a single family lived on Staffa trying to farm sheep, but due to winter storms and hard living they were not there for very long.

The only structure to be seen today is the remains of a 19th century shelter for Victorian visitors. There is no natural harbour and the island can be inaccessible with the swell from the sea. This may be another reason why it has never been lived on for any great time.

The other caves on Staffa are the Boat Cave, the Clam Shell and MacKinnon’s. There is also the interesting geological feature of Am Buachaille (the herdsman) best seen at low water. These are basalt columns rising from the sea.

By Calum MacLean, Tobermory

The name Staffa comes from old Norse meaning ‘staff’ or ‘pillar’ Island. The first thing you see as you approach from the sea are these pillars of basalt.

It was only really known to local people till the visit of Sir Joseph Banks in 1772. Sir Joseph was a botanist and naturalist who sailed with Captain Cook and helped discover Australasia and its flora and fauna.

Banks named Fingal’s Cave after the giant of Scottish and Irish mythology and spread the word to the English speaking world about Staffa, its beauty and wonder.

This was the start of a list of visitors that included Sir Walter Scott, Queen Victoria and many others.

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The one visitor that interested me was Felix Mendelssohn. He came to Staffa in 1829 and Fingal’s Cave inspired him to write his Hebrides Overture. Before that he had toured Scotland and attended piping competitions in Edinburgh; his overture may have had a piobaireachd influence.

I remember playing for a BBC radio programme (Music Matters) a few years ago. The show was about Mendelsshon and his travels in Scotland and what music he might have heard.

I played the ground of a tune from the 1829 list at the Edinburgh competition; if my memory is right it was Maol Donn, MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart.

For his visit to the island, Mendelsshon stayed in an inn at Tobermory then travelled around the north of Mull by boat to Staffa.

Calum at the mouth of Fingal’s Cave

He was so seasick that he couldn’t have enjoyed his visit, but the sound of the waves crashing into the cave must have impressed him. He is said to have finished his Overture on the 16th of December, this is around the time of the winter solstice, the only time when the cave is fully lit by the sun so low is it in the sky. His work premiered in London in 1832.

However the first music to be played in the cave could have been piobaireachd or Gaelic song. In the 1800s Archibald MacArthur, piper to Ranald MacDonald of Staffa, played the pipes at the mouth of the cave for visitors; his employer owned the Island.

If Archibald MacArthur was the first to pipe in the cave then I was the last, well the last till the next piper heads over. I was lucky enough to make the trip last week and, on what was a quiet evening, I headed into the cave for a tune.

It had to be piobaireachd, the light music just would not fit this setting. Piobaireachd just seemed so apt in these surroundings. It is no wonder the original local Gaelic name for the cave is ‘an Uamh Bhin’, the melodious cave.

There are many pipers caves in name and story but after playing in this one I realised the appeal of nature’s great auditorium. The cave just throws out the sound and echoes through time to your soul.

I think the Piobaireachd Society should hold a recital here; much better than a hall! Over to you Mr Wallace!

Anyway, here’s me playing part of the Earl of Seaforth’s Salute in the cave. See what you think:

Wilderness Scotland website has this: The Isle of Staffa was not known by many until Joseph Banks, a botanist, discovered it in 1772 and started praising its beauty to the world. After visiting the island he 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.”

Soon after it became a must-see location, and received visits by many illustrious characters, from Queen Victoria to Lord Tennyson, Jules Verne, Robert Louise Stevenson, and John Keats.

The island became a National Trust for Scotland property in 1986, and it was designated a National Nature Reserve in 2001.

In the Celtic world the cave was a place of myths and legends…. In the common imagination it has always been linked to the Giant’s Causeway of Northern Ireland.

According to the legend, the two places are the opposite ends of an ancient bridge built by the benevolent Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill. While building the pathway towards Scotland, Fionn gets informed that his enemy Scottish giant Benandonner is coming to fight him.

Fionn cannot withstand Benandonner’s strength, so he asks his wife Oona to help him. She disguises Fionn, dressing him as a baby and hiding him in a cradle. Then she bakes some cakes, hiding some iron in some of them, and waits for the giant’s arrival.

When Benandonner arrives, not finding Fionn, he waits for him in his house. At the same time, he tries to intimidate Oona by showing her his great power. At this point, Fionn’s clever wife offers Benandonner some iron-cakes, but as he bites into cakes, the iron he chips his teeth.

Oona ridicules him for being weak, saying that her husband eats those cakes without troubles, and feeds one (without iron) to the camouflaged Fionn. Benandonner, having seen the baby’s strength, is scared to meet his father and runs back to Scotland, smashing the causeway behind him so Fionn couldn’t follow.

2 thoughts on “Piper in the Cave of Melody With His Own Hebridean Overture on the Magical Isle of Staffa

  1. Staffa. Fingal’s Cave. Piobaireachd. What a glorious combination. Brilliant journey Calum and thanks for that.

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