Staffa And Iona
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
We are bound for the regions of ghosts and Pays, mermaids and kelpies, of great sea-snakes, and a hundred other marvels and miracles. To accomplish all this, we have nothing more to do than step on board the steam-packet that lies at the Broomielaw, or great quay at Glasgow. The volume of heavy black smoke, issuing from its pickled chimney, announces that it means to be moving on its way speedily
Emerging from the Crinan canal, you issue forth into the Sound of Jura, and feel at once that you are in the stern and yet beautiful region of your youthful admiration. There is the heavy swell and the solemn roar of the great Atlantic. You feel the wild winds that sweep over it. You see around you only high and craggy coasts, that are bleak and naked with the lashings of a thousand tempests. All before you are scattered rocks that emerge from the restless sea, and rocky isles, with patches of the most beautiful greensward, but with scarcely a single tree. The waves are leaping in whiteness against the cliffs, and thousands of seabirds are floating in long lines on the billows, or skimming past you singly, and diving into the clear hissing waters as they near your vessel. One of the very first objects which arrests your senses is the Coryvreckan, or great whirlpool of the Hebrides, an awful feature in all the poetry and ballads belonging to these regions.
I never visited any part of Great Britain which more completely met my anticipated ideas than this. The day was fine, but with a strong breeze. The sea was rough; the wild-fowl were flying, scud-ding, and diving on all hands; and, wherever the eye turned, were craggy islands—mountains of dark heath or bare splintered stone, and green, solitary slopes, where scarcely a tree or a hut was to be discovered; but now and then black cattle might be descried grazing, or flocks of sheep dotted the hill sides. Far as we could look, were naked rocks rising from the sea, that were worn almost into roundness, or scooped into hollows by the eternal action of the stormy waters. Some of them stood in huge arches, like temples of some shaggy seagod, or haunts of sea-fowl—daylight and the waves passing freely through them. Every-where were waves, leaping in snowy foam against these rocks and against the craggy shores. It was a stern wilderness of chafing billows and of resisting stone. The rocks were principally of dark red granite, and were cracked across and across, as if by the action of fire or frost. Every thing spake to us of the wild tempests that so frequently rage through these seas. .
Staffs rose momently in its majesty before us ! After all the descriptions which we had read, and the views we had seen of this singular little island, we were struck with delighted astonishment at its aspect. It is, in fact, one great mass of basaltic columns, bearing on their heads another huge mass of black stone, here and there covered with green turf. We sailed past the different caves-the Boat Cave and the Cormorant Cave, which are them-selves very wonderful; but it was Fingal's Cave that struck us with admiration and awe. To see this magnificent cavern, with its clustered columns on each side, and pointed arch, with the bleak precipices above it, and the sea raging at its base, and dashing and roaring into its gloomy interior, was worth all the voyage. There are no words that can express the sensation it creates. We were taken in the boats on shore at the northeast point, and landed amid a wilderness of basaltic columns thrown into almost all forms and directions. Some were broken, and lay in heaps in the clear green water. Others were piled up erect and abrupt; some were twisted up into tortuous pyramids at a little distance from the shore itself, and through the passage which they left, the sea came rushing—all foam, and with the most tremendous roar. Others were bent like so many leaden pipes, and turned their broken extremities toward us.
We advanced along a sort of giant's causeway, the pavement of which was the heads of basaltic columns, all fitting together in the most beautiful symmetry; and, turning round the precipice to our right hand, found ourselves at the entrance of the great cave. The sea was too stormy to allow us to enter it, as is often done in boats, we had there-fore to clamber along one of its sides, where a row of columns is broken off, at some distance above the waves, and presents an accessible, but certainly very formidable causeway, by which you may reach the far end. I do not believe that any stranger, if he were there alone, would dare to pass along that irregular and slippery causeway, and penetrate to the obscure end of the cave; but numbers animate one another to anything. We clambered along this causeway or corridor, now ascending and now descending, as the broken columns required, and soon stood—upward of seventy of us—ranged along its side from one end to the other. Let it be remembered that this splendid sea cave is forty-two feet wide at the entrance; sixty-six feet high from low water; and runs into the rock two hundred and twenty-seven feet. Let it be imagined that at eight or ten feet below us it was paved with the sea, which came rushing and foaming along it, and dashing up against the solid rock at its termination; while the light thrown from the flickering billows quivered in its arched roof above us, and the whole place was filled with the solemn sound of the ocean; and if any one can imagine to himself any situation more sublime, I should like to know what that is. The roof is composed of the lower ends of basaltic columns, which have yet been so cut away by nature as to give it the aspect of the roof of some gigantic cathedral aisle; and lichens of gold and crimson have gilded and colored it in the richest manner.
It was difficult to forget, as we stood there, that, if any one slipt, he would disappear forever, for the billows in their ebb would sweep him out to the open sea, as it were in a moment. Yet the excitement of the whole group was too evident to rest with any seriousness on such a thought. Some one suddenly fired a gun in the place, and the concussion and reverberated thunders were astounding.
When the first effect was gone off, one general peal of laughter rung through the cave, and then nearly the whole company began to sing "The Sea! the sea !" The captain found it a difficult matter to get his company out of this strange chantrywhere they and the wind and waves seemed all going mad together—to embark them again for Iona.
Venerable Iona—how different ! and with what different feelings approached ! As we drew near, we saw a low bleak shore, backed by naked hills, and at their feet a row of miserable Highland huts, and at separate intervals the ruins of the monastery and church of Ronad, the church of St. Oran and its burying-ground, and lastly, the cathedral
Nothing is more striking, in this wild and neglected spot, than to walk among these ruins, and behold amid the rank grass those tombs of ancient kings, chiefs, and churchmen, with their sculpture of so singular and yet superior a style. It is said that there were formerly three hundred and sixty stone crosses in the Island of Iona, which since the Reformation have been reduced to two, and the fragments of two others. The Synod of Argyle is reported to have caused no less than sixty of them to be thrown into the sea at one time, and fragments of others, which were knocked in pieces, are to be seen here and there, some of them now converted into gravestones.
They lie on the margin of the stormy Atlantic; they lie among walls which, tho they may be loosened for years, seem as tho they never could decay, for they are of the red granite of which the rocks and islets around are composed, and defended only by low enclosures piled up of the same granite, rounded into great pebbles by the washing of the sea. But perhaps the most striking scene of all was our own company of voyagers landing amid the huge masses of rock that scatter the strand; forming into long procession, two and two, and advancing in that order from one ruin to another.
We chanced to linger behind for a moment; and our eye caught this procession of upward of seventy persons thus wandering on amid those time-worn edifices—and here and there a solitary cross lifting its head above them. It was a picture worthy of a great painter. It looked as tho the day of pilgrimages was come back again, and that this was a troop of devotees thronging to this holy shrine. The day of pilgrimages is, in-deed come back again; but they are the pilgrim-ages of knowledge and an enlightened curiosity. The day of that science which the saints of Iona were said to diffuse first in Britain has now risen to a splendid noon; and not the least of its evidences is that, every few days through every summer, a company like this descends on this barren strand to behold what Johnson calls "that illustrious island which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefit of knowledge and the blessings of religion." A more interesting or laudable excursion the power of steam and English money can not well enable our countrymen to make.