Listening to the Hebrides: A Journey to the Isle of Staffa
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Listening to the Hebrides: A Journey to the Isle of Staffa

MARJORIE SANDOR follows in the footsteps of Felix Mendelssohn, finding inspiration and awe in the ancient isles off the Scottish coast.

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Fingal’s Cave, on the Isle of Staffa in the Hebrides
© Fenneke Wolters-Sinke/agefotostock 2015
VISITING MULL, IONA AND STAFFA

Ferries to Mull and Iona from the Mainland:
Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries:
www.calmac.co.uk

Car Rental on Mull: www.mullcarhire.co.uk

Sailing to Staffa: Tours run from Oban (mainland), Tobermory (Isle of Mull), Fionnphort (Ross of Mull) and from the Isle of Iona, April through October, weather permitting. www.staffatrips.co.uk, www.staffatours.com

Dining and Sleeping in Oban, on the mainland:
DINE: Don’t miss the Oban Seafood Hut, on the ferry pier (obanseafoodhut.co.uk).
SLEEP: Ranald Hotel: theranaldhotel.com

Dining and Sleeping in Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull:
DINE: The Café Fish: www.thecafefish.com (Reservations highly recommended)
SLEEP (and dine): The Western Isles Hotel: www.bespokehotels.com/westernisleshotel

Dining and Sleeping on Iona*:
DINE: Martyrs Bay Restaurant: www.martyrsbay.co.uk
SLEEP (and dine): Argyll Hotel: www.argyllhoteliona.co.uk
St. Columba Hotel: www.stcolumba-hotel.co.uk
*Note: no cars (except by special permit) are allowed on Iona. Both hotels are near the pier, and the walking is easy.

Music Festivals to bear in mind while planning your trip:
Mendelssohn on Mull: a weeklong festival from late June through early July: mendelssohnonmull.com
The Blas Festival: a celebration of traditional music and Gaelic throughout the Highlands and Argyll in early to mid September: www.blas-festival.com
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Iona Abbey, founded by St. Columba, a sixth-century Irish abbot and missionary
© Jon Sparks/CORBIS/agefotostock 2015
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Composer Mendelssohn
© Lebrecht Music & Arts 2015

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell wanted to see it but were prevented by weather. J. M. W. Turner painted it and was criticized for getting it wrong. Twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn managed to get there by early steam-vessel but fell prey to seasickness. Still, the young composer returned from Scotland — and his glimpse of the Isle of Staffa in August 1829 — with the first twenty-one bars of The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave). 

It’s this ten-minute piece, with its oceanic rhythms and hints of Gaelic legend, that seduced me as my husband and I prepared to join my brother and his partner on our own late-season journey to the Hebrides. Our itinerary was already ambitious, and dependent on good weather for several ferry crossings. But images of this 103-acre chunk of columnar basalt kept up their siren song: a two-hour excursion, including an hour on the isle itself, seemed quite reasonable for a close-up of towering basalt pillars, caves, and colonies of seabirds. And Mendelssohn’s name kept cropping up. It seemed The Hebrides Overture had been directly inspired by the acoustics of the largest cave. Named “Fingal’s Cave” by eighteenth-century explorer Joseph Banks, its Gaelic name is more descriptive — An Uaimh Bhinn (the melodious cave). 

Just before we left for Scotland, I discovered the humble truth: Mendelssohn wrote the Overture’s opening before his trip to Staffa, sketching it into a letter sent from the town of Tobermory on Mull. I wasn’t disappointed: we were going to stay two nights in Tobermory ourselves, and I could imagine the young composer, lodged with a friend in “a respectable private house,” scribbling away. “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me,” he wrote, “the following came into my mind there.” 

This note is tucked away in Sebastian Hensel’s book compilation The Mendelssohn Family (1729–1847), along with detailed letters written by Mendelssohn’s friend, Carl Klingemann. Their journey to Staffa and Iona was rough — flying teacups, the stench of stale ham being fried, and an “unpleasant steam smell.” Mendelssohn, Klingemann writes, “is on better terms with the sea as a musician than as an individual or a stomach.”

Thank God Klingemann held down his breakfast — and took notes. 

I still wanted to hear the acoustics of Staffa. But I also vowed to keep my ears open for echoes of a more nuanced Hebridean effect. 

No cascading teacups or frying ham troubled our mood as we waited on the Oban pier for the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Mull. We marveled at the sunlight, the mild breeze and the delicacies proffered at the small green shack known as the Oban Seafood Hut, where we tucked into steamed mussels, split lobsters and icy platters of oysters. Moments before we embarked for Mull, I fed my Staffa jones by telephoning Gordon Grant Marine. We were to meet the boat at the Iona pier on Monday at noon — wearing sturdy shoes.

The forty-five-minute ferry ride from Oban to Mull carries you through the Sound of Mull, offering a prelude to the island’s natural and historic riches. Lighthouses and ruined keeps jut out on promontories, as does Duart Castle, home of the Clan Maclean. Farther inland, behind lush shoreline pastures and woods, mountains rise up, chief among them the Munro Ben More, its summit capped in cloud.

We picked up our rental car and drove an hour to Tobermory, catching hints, along the way, of cultural events we were doomed to miss, including “Mendelssohn on Mull,” an early-July music festival, featuring music camps by day and concerts by night, and the “Blas Festival,” a September celebration of Highland music and Gaelic culture throughout the Highlands and Argyll. 

But early-September Mull offers plenty of quiet pleasures. In Tobermory, we checked in at the Western Isles Hotel, a late-Victorian cliff-side beauty, and descended to the harbor for an early-evening stroll along rose, chocolate and Dresden-blue shop-fronts. We popped into Brown’s Tobermory, an ironmonger’s shop established in the mid-nineteenth century, where today you can buy everything from household goods to single-malts and fine guitars. A few doors down is Tackle and Books, purveyors of fine literature and fishing gear. 

We dined that night at Café Fish, a tiny place snugged inside a pier-side building, where a young, energetic staff serves up a dazzling range of seafood. I ordered the lemon sole, “simply grilled,” and never looked back. Back at the Western Isles, we finished the evening by the fireside, with fine single-malts and a game of Scrabble. 

Our last day on Mull, we drove to Ben More, which rises more than 3,000 feet from the Atlantic sea-loch, Loch na Keal. We hiked halfway up before the weather turned us back, but we will retain for life the percussive echo of its boulder-strewn burns, or streams, and the sight of two “munro-baggers” nimbly leaping down from its hidden summit.

The drive to the Fionnphort pier took us through a complex mountain-and-valley landscape created, in part, by ancient molten lava flows later scoured by retreating glaciers. Velvety terracettes ripple along the hillsides, some shaped by the escapades of sheep, others by “lazybeds,” an ancient farming technique.

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The harbor at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, used as a location by BBC Scotland’s children’s television series Balamory
© Neale Clarke/agefotostock 2015

As evening fell, we boarded the day’s last ferry to Iona, destination of spiritual seekers since the sixth century, when St. Columba, an Irish missionary, founded a monastery there. His followers survived centuries of hardship, including several Norse invasions, only to be brought down by the Protestant Reformation. From the eighteenth century on, the medieval Abbey’s ruins drew tourists and pilgrims alike, and in the early twentieth century, restoration began.

Of Iona many words have been written, but none of them by Mendelssohn, who stayed overnight after the stormy Staffa day. We have Klingemann to thank for the words attributed to the composer, printed on the Abbey cloister’s passageway wall: “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 into the loneliest loneliness, I shall think of Iona….”

So will I. Cars are allowed by permit only, and as I sat in the Abbey’s cloister, I fancied that the place might still sound as it did in 1829 — a potent hush that lets you imagine histories both brutal and healing. Here, Mendelssohn might have dreamed of the triumphant processionals — warlike and funereal — woven into The Hebrides. 

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Sunset at Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull
© Xavier Forès/agefotostock 2015

Monday dawned lightly overcast. Sunlight broke through on white sand and rock, brightening the water to crystalline shades of aqua and turquoise. We embarked for the forty-minute journey with a few others and crossed the Sound of Iona back to Fionnphort, where more sightseers waited to board. Still, apart from the sound of the boat’s engine and the captain’s occasional commentary, a fine Hebridean hush prevailed. 

From a distance, Staffa resembled a listing ship. Closer, a fallen soufflé in a ribbed dish came to mind. The mouth of the famous cave gaped, tall and ovoid, and at length the captain brought the craft alongside a jumble of broken basalt columns, and we stepped out onto this impossible place. Wonderfully, half the passengers ascended a metal staircase to the isle’s grassy top, and half — including ourselves — stepped carefully around the base of the island, with the help of a handrail nailed discreetly into the basalt. 

Measurements of the cave vary, and none account for the shock produced by gazing into its weird depths. We stepped along the basalt ledges about thirty feet into the cave opening. The eye — and ear — are pulled toward its narrow end, where waves crash and hiss, rounding some unseen bend. But the cave’s ceiling overwhelms all else — dark pillars that seem to rise and collide in a mad Gothic arch. Klingemann likened it to “the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding and absolutely without purpose.”

How long we stood there, I’ll never know. At one point, my husband, camera in hand, planted himself on the verge and leaned out over the sixty-foot drop to take a few shots. I wasn’t sorry when the camera battery died and he edged back in. That’s when we realized we were alone, the jeweled water just below, the boom-and-cymbal-splash of the darkness further in.

Soon we’d turn around and go up top for the views, east to the coast of Mull, Ben More’s summit in its clouds, and west to the numberless isles, remnants of that ancient lava flow whose slow cooling also created Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, another columnar basalt formation invoking Fingal, the legendary Gaelic warrior Fionn MacCumhaill.

That evening, back on Iona, by the Argyll Hotel’s fireside, another guest would remark, “A shame you didn’t go to Staffa in spring — you can lie down among the puffins. They’re quite tame.” 

But I’m glad we came in early September and saw Staffa in this mild mood — gladder still that Mendelssohn heard his own inner Hebrides in more than one place. spacer 

MARJORIE SANDOR teaches creative writing and literature at Oregon State University. She is the author, most recently, of a memoir, The Late Interiors: A Life Under Construction (2011), and the editor of a new anthology of international short fiction, The Uncanny Reader (2015). 

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