The Islands: Staffa and Iona

Saturday 8 August 1829

Map of Mendelssohn's Journey from Tobermory to Staffa (visiting Fingal's Cave) and Iona, and back.

These days you reach Staffa by landing on Mull at the ferry terminal at Craignure, catching the bus 30 miles from east to west across the Isle of Mull, which is a larger island than one might suppose, and taking a boat from the western tip of Mull, at Fionnphort which looks across to the small island of Iona, half a mile away over the Sound of Iona. Boat trips from Fionnphort will, weather and sea swell permitting, drop you on Staffa for an hour to explore the island, where you can walk around the rocky path to the mouth of Fingal’s Cave and, on the top plateau of the island it is possible to see for miles with the Treshnish Islands to the west and the great mass of Mull to the east. And if you are lucky, and depending on the time of year, there will be puffins in abundance, and even a basking shark gliding through the water.

Mendelssohn and Klingemann took their boat from Tobermory. Leaving at 5 o’clock on the morning of Saturday 8 August, they sailed around Ardmore Point on the northern tip of Mull and straight into the waiting arms of the Atlantic Ocean. Klingemann describes their experience in vivid detail in a letter home (written a few days later from Glasgow):

Karl Klingemann – letter, Glasgow, Monday 10 August 1829

…the barometer sank and the sea rose. For that the Atlantic did, it stretched its thousand feelers more and more roughly, twirling us about like anything. The ship-household kept its breakfast almost for itself, few people on board being able to manage their cups and saucers, ladies as a rule fell down like flies, and one or the other gentlemen followed their example; I only wish my travelling fellow-sufferer had not been among them, but he is on better terms with the sea as a musician than as an individual or a stomach; two beautiful cold daughters of a Hebrides aristocrat, at whom Felix may storm, quietly continued sitting on deck, and did not even care much for the sea-sickness of their own mother. Also there sat placidly by the steam-engine, warming herself in the cold wind, a woman of two-and-eighty.  That woman has six times touched me and seven times irritated me. She wanted to see Staffa before her end. Staffa, with its strange basalt pillars and caverns, is in all picture-books. We were put out in boats and lifted by the hissing sea up the pillar stumps to the celebrated Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves surely never rushed into a stranger cavern – its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, and absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without. There the old woman scrambled about laboriously, close to the water: she wanted to see the cave of Staffa before her end, and she saw it. We returned in the little boat to our steamer, to that unpleasant steam-smell. When the second boat arrived, I could see with what truth at the theatre they represent the rising and falling of a boat, when the hero saves the heroine out of some trouble. There was some comfort in seeing that the two aristocrat faces had after all turned pale, as I looked at them through my black eye-glass. The two-and-eighty-years-old woman was also in that boat trembling, the boat went up and down, with difficulty she was lifted out – but she had seen Staffa before her end. The pleasure increased in gravity; where yesterday nice conversation went on, today silence was indulged in. That man, yesterday on deck, who (when he did not smoke) played on the tambourine and pipe the Huntsmen’s Chorus on the Atlantic, and who in the evening had all the juveniles of Tobermory in his train, had remained there. The yellow mulatto cook, whose shining Caliban-countenance we joyfully watched yesterday amongst saucepans, herrings, and vegetables, was now frying some stale ham, the smell of which drove some suffering navigators to despair, if not to worse; the surviving passengers conspired against the captain, who to oblige Sir James, was going to sail back by the roundabout way, instead of taking the short cut by Iona to Oban. Iona, one of the Hebrides-sisters – there is truly a very Ossianic and sweetly sad sound about that name – when in some future time I shall sit in a madly crowded assembly with music and dancing round me, and the wish arises to retire in to the loneliest loneliness, I shall think of Iona, with its ruins of a once magnificent cathedral, the remains of a convent, the graves of ancient Scottish kings and still more ancient northern pirate-prince – with their ships rudely carved on many a monumental stone. If I had my home on Iona, and lived there upon melancholy as other people do on their rents, my darkest moment would be when in that wide space, that deals in nothing but cliffs and sea-gulls, suddenly a curl of steam should appear, followed by a ship and finally by a gay party in veils and frock-coats, who would look for an hour at the ruins and graves and the three little huts for the living, and then move off again. This highly unjustifiable joke, occurring twice a week, and being almost the only thing to make one aware that there are such things as time and clocks in the world, would be as if the inhabitants of those old graves haunted the place in a ludicrous disguise. Opposite Iona stands a rocky island, which, to complete the effect, looks like a ruined city.

Gradually the sea-sick people recovered, a sail was spread, by way of tent, on deck, less for keeping off the sun than the wet, which is a constant matter of dispute between Felix and me, since he calls it rain, and I call if mist; we kept open table in the face of all the sea-monsters of the Atlantic; even Felix fell to and stood out like his own self; Sir Hames took wine with those that had not complained of him – we refraining from that honour. At seven o’clock in the evening we ought to have been back in Oban, our continent, but we only reached Tobermory; some of the party went on shore. Night came on, the captain coolly cast anchor in some corner or other, and we lay down in the cabin; beds there were none, and herrings are lodged in spacious hall compared to us. At times when half asleep I tried to drive away flies from my face, and then found they were the grizzly locks of the old Scotsman; if the Pope had been amongst us, some Protestant might unawares have kissed his slipper, for we often chanced to make unknown boots act as pillows. It was a wild night’s revel without the merry cup, and with rain and wind for the boisterous songsters.

What wouldn’t we give for a sketch by Felix of Fingal’s Cave? However, from the description that Kingemann gives of Felix’s seasickness, it is clear that he was in no mood to get out his sketchbook and start scribbling away. But Klingemann’s vivid description of the Cave with “…its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, and absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without.” gives a superb impression of this desolate and beautiful place.

Fingal's Cave

Fingal's Cave

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