Tuesday, 13 July 2010

different timelines

I visited the small island of Staffa, (from the Old Norse for stave, or pillar island) off the west coast of Scotland yesterday, catching a small boat from the Isle of Mull. With only a relatively short time on the island, our two main aims were to walk down to Fingal’s cave and then walk to the other end of the island in the hope of seeing some puffins.

The remarkable geological formations on Staffa are justifiably renowned, having inspired artists, writers and musicians over the years, with Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture perhaps being the most famous work made in it’s honour. Others that have visited and found inspiration are Turner, August Strindberg, and Sir Walter Scott.

It’s great to find an important heritage site in the UK which you can freely enter without health & safety regulations compromising the experience, and walk right to the very back of the cave. Inside, a deep booming can be heard as the sound of the sea dramatically crashes at the cave end, resonating and echoing throughout.

Staffa is a relative lightweight in terms of Geological age – a mere 55-58 million years compared to it’s aged neighbour Iona which weighs in at a hefty 2800 million years (composed, as it is, of Lewisian gneiss with Torridonian sandstone), and Staffa’s dramatic forms are created from volcanic basalt which appears to thrust from the sea in regular columns that are predominantly hexagonal in shape. There are three layers of rock: the base is composed of tuff, the second layer is columnar basalt, and the top, which forms the roof of Fingal’s cave is amorphous basalt. In the columnar layer, the cooling surface of the mass of hot lava cracked in a hexagonal pattern in a similar way to how drying mud cracks as it shrinks, and these cracks gradually extended down into the mass of lava as it cooled and shrank to form the columns, which were subsequently exposed by erosion.

Once we viewed the cave, we headed up to the other end of the island to see if we might catch a glimpse of some puffins. An extraordinary thing happened. I sat down on the cliff edge and within 15-20 seconds, a puffin flew straight towards me and landed in a hole around three feet from where I was sitting. In its beak were a couple of tiny sand eels, and after a minute in the hole, it flew out to, presumably, catch more food. Needless to say, the swiftness of the experience meant that I didn’t catch it on camera – but then on this instance a camera would have impinged upon the experience itself. Some things are more precious because of their fleetingness.

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