Thursday, March 17, 2016

Stranded on Staffa

Most day trips to Staffa allow you anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes ashore. That gives everyone time to wander into Fingal's Cave, and then spend a little time atop the island. But during a day-trip visit in 2005, the Turas Mara boat I was on developed engine trouble after dropping us off on the island. And so I was stranded on Staffa for about three hours - but where better to be stranded!

With all that time ashore I tried to see two things that I'd read about, but never had the time to look for on previous visits. The first was Cormorant Cave, which is a back entrance to the larger Mackinnon's Cave; the second thing I wanted to see was Thunder Cave, also known as the Gunna Mor (The Cannon), a natural bore-hole in the cliffs, which once contained a captive stone that was blasted up and down by the sea.

But, of course, I first visited Fingal's Cave, where I saw an inflatable with seven adventurous souls motoring to the far back of the cave, something only possible if there is no swell.

After that obligatory visit to the cave I made the climb to the top of the island to scope out the approach to Cormorant Cave, which lies on the eastern shore of Port an Fhasgaidh, a small inlet on the southwest corner of Staffa. Cormorant cave is only accessible at low tide, and as the tide was fairly low I could just make out the way to the cave. Cormorant Cave is not much in itself, but inside it there's a secret passageway into Mackinnon's Cave; a cave nearly as large as Fingal's. Few ever see Mackinnon's Cave because there is no way to walk to its main entrance, which is about 500 feet west of Fingal's Cave. 

Top of Mackinnon's Cave
Looking to Cormorant Cave
The sea, in places, was only about a foot deep, and so I was able to cross the slippery rocks to a spot near the entrance of Cormorant Cave. However, a deeper stretch of water blocked any further progress, and I had to give up. It would have been incredible to make my way into Mackinnon's Cave, and it is something I'll have to try to do again someday when the tide is a bit lower. 

Looking back from near the entrance to Cormorant Cave
Getting into Cormorant Cave was a bust, so I then set my sights on seeing the Gunna Mor. Sarah Murray, in The Beauties of Scotland (1888), describes the Gunna Mor (Thunder Cave):

The reason of it being called Thunder Cave is as follows: ... a very large round stone incorporated in the mass of rock, became loose in its socket, and afterwards by continual friction, made itself a large aperture, in which it was in storms violently agitated. When driven by great force by the billows to the back of its socket, it rebounded with a noise like loud thunder, which was heard at a great distance.

The Gunna Mor is also mentioned in Donald MacCulloch's The Wondrous Isle of Staffa:

The cavity is about four feet in diameter and runs up into the cliff at an angle of 45 degrees for about 15 feet. It has several names" Thunder Cave", "Gun Cave', "The Cannon", and "Gunna Mor", or "Big Gun".

MacCulloch wanted to see the Gunna Mor up close, so he made his way to a spot below it, and: 

I tried to clamber up into the bore in order to ascertain its length, but the angle is so steep and the interior so slippery, there was considerable risk of slipping and being shot out over a rock face into deep water over fifteen feet below. Therefore I did not undertake the venture.

The headland of Thunder Cave
Thunder Cave lies in the cliff-face on the headland to the west side of Port an Fhasgaidh. I carefully made my way along the base of the cliffs there, and tried to climb up. But, once again, I was thwarted by the terrain. The rocks were just too steep and slippy and, like MacCulloch I was not in a mood to be 'shot over the rock face into deep water.'

Two failures in one day was a little disappointing - but it had been fun trying. After giving up on Thunder Cave I returned to the landing, only to find that the boat was still not running, and a rescue ship was on the way.

Still stranded - the boat at Staffa landing
After being told we still had an hour or so, I returned to the top of the island to take some photos of the caves from above.

Kayakers rowing past Am Buachaille - The Herdsman
I also went over to take a look at the ruin of Staffa Cottage, last occupied full time in 1807. Since then it's hosted occasional visitors, like MEM Donaldson, who described a stay there in her Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands. Since MEM's visit the cottage has totally collapsed. 

MEM Donaldson photo of Staffa Cottage
What was left of Staffa Cottage in 1989
Staffa Cottage, even more dilapidated in 2005
After spending another hour atop the island I saw our rescue boat approaching, and a few hours later I was back on Mull. It had been a day of wonderful surprises, and I look forward to my next island stranding.

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