Fingal’s Cave

Fingal’s Cave in Staffa': engraving by Thomas Major

Contributor: Nigel Leask

Location: National Trust, Isle of Staffa, Inner Hebrides, Scotland; Thomas Pennant, Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides in 1772, 2 vols (2nd ed., London 1776), f.p.301. ‘Fingal’s Cave in Staffa’: engraving by Thomas Major, based on a drawing by James Miller.

Description: In the late summer of 1772, just a year or so after his return from exploring the Pacific with Captain Cook, Joseph Banks mounted his own expedition to Iceland via the Hebrides. On 13th August, Banks and his party, including the artist James Miller, explored, measured, and drew Staffa. The account we have is excerpted from Banks’ journal, edited and published in his friend Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Scotland 1772; poor weather had prevented Pennant from landing on the island earlier that summer, so Banks’ account supplied that deficiency. Banks claimed to have discovered ‘a cave, the most magnificent, I suppose, that has ever been described by travellers.’ ‘We asked the name of it,’ writes Banks. ‘Said our guide, “The cave of Fhinn”. “What is Fhinn?” said we. “Fhinn Mac Coul, whom the translator of Ossian’s Works has called Fingal.” How fortunate that in this cave we should meet with the remembrance of that chief, whose existence, as well as that of the whole Epic poem is almost doubted in England.’ To this account may be traced the birth of one of Scotland’s leading tourist destinations in the Romantic era.

Visitors would come from all across Europe in homage to ‘Ossian’, the narrator and supposed author of a cycle of epic poems published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson from 1760 onwards. Macpherson claimed to have collected oral poetry of ancient origin, translating it from the Gaelic. The figure of Ossian was based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, a legendary Irish bard. At the time there was fierce controversy over the authenticity of the work, but it is now accepted that Macpherson framed the poems himself, based on old folk tales. Translated into all the literary languages of Europe, the cycle was hugely influential in the development of Romanticism, and especially in the development of Romantic linguistic nationalism of the sort epitomised by the Gaelic revival, and in the fame of the cave. Major’s engraving of the cave makes it more romantically sublime, aggrandizing its dimensions, while diminishing the human figures exploring it, as represented in Miller’s original drawing held in the British Library. (It is often incorrectly attributed to one of Banks’ other artists, John Cleveley.)

Banks’ Ossianic etymology of the cave’s name was challenged by the French vulcanologist Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, when he visited in 1784, as described in his Voyage en Angleterre (1797), translated in 1799 as Travels in England, Scotland, and the Hebrides. Saint-Fond’s published engraving of ‘La Grotte de Fingal’ further exaggerated the dimensions of Major’s engraving, but he suggested that Banks had been misinformed about the cave’s name, which he claimed actually translated as ‘the melodious cave’, on account of a small submarine cavity ‘which sends forth a very agreeable noise every time that the water rushes into it,’ and which ‘might be truly regarded as an organ created by the hand of Nature’ (Travels, II, 49). In a learned footnote, doubtless indebted to his Gaelic-speaking travelling companion Captain Macdonald of Skye, Saint Fond claimed that in fact ‘the true name of the cave is an-ua-vine. An, the; ua, grotto, cave, cavern; vine, melodious’ (Ibid., II, 50-1). His attempt at ‘correction’ seems to be impelled by the ideologue’s materialist desire to ‘decompose’ language: Gaelic scholarship and careful inquiry into physical phenomena reveal the cave’s true name, which turns out to describe a verifiable natural (rather than a nebulous Ossianic) sublimity.

So who was right, Banks or Saint-Fond? The jury is still out, but Walter Scott, visiting Staffa on his Pharos cruise of 1814, referred only to the ‘celebrated cave’ of Staffa (p.96), perhaps remembering his plea ‘let us… hear no more of Macpherson’ in his 1805 Edinburgh Review essay on the Highland Society’s Report on Ossian (p. 461). Writing in 1824, the geologist John Macculloch complained that ‘Fingal…has lately appropriated to himself the right of the Great Cave; but the original Gaelic name appears to have been Uaimh Binn, the musical cave’, thereby confirming Saint Fond’s version (Highlands and Western Isles, IV, 386). Ironically, however, given that it was allegedly the ‘melodious cave’s’ immense organ-like pillars which inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides Overture’ during his visit in August 1829, he chose to rename it ‘Fingal’s Cave’ after the piece was published, preferring the name rejected by Saint-Fond. The name was further consolidated two years later in 1831 when Joseph Turner (travelling, like Mendelssohn, on the steam boat ‘Maid of Morvern’) visited, and later painted his magnificent ‘Staffa, Fingal’s Cave’, even although Turner’s steam boat rather draws attention away from the mist-enveloped cave. Two of the greatest artists of the romantic era had preferred the name first recorded by Banks, so ‘Fingal’s Cave’ would remain Scotland’s best-known site of Ossianic topography.

Date: 1773 (first pub 1775)

Creator: James Miller, engraved Thomas Major

Subject: Joseph Banks and Thomas Pennant

Media rights: Image property of the author

Object type: Printed engraving in Travel book

Format: Printed engraving 

Language: English/Gaelic/French

Publisher: Author

Digital collection record: For original drawing, see British Library: King’s Topographical Collection, Shelfmark: Additional MS 15510; Item number: f. 42.


AHRC-funded project Curious Travellers: Thomas Pennant’s Tours in Scotland and Wales, 1760-1820. <>.

Bonehill, John, ‘New Scenes drawn by the Pencil of Truth’: Joseph Banks’ Northern Voyage’, Journal of Historical Geography, 43, (2014), 9-27.

Faujas de Saint-Fond, Barthelemy, Travels in England, Scotland, and the Hebrides, 2 vols., (London 1799), II, 49.

Furniss, Tom, ‘As If Created by Fusion of Matter after Some Intense Heat’: Pioneering Geological Observations in Pennant’s Tours in Scotland’, in Mary-Ann Constantine and Nigel Leask, eds., Enlightenment Travel and British Identities: Thomas Pennant’s Tours in Scotland and Wales, (London: Anthem, 2017), pp. 163-182.

Klonk, Charlotte, Science and the Perception of Nature: British Landscape Art in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1996).

Ksiazkiewicz, Alison, ‘Geological Landscape as Antiquarian Ruin: Banks, Staffa, and the Isle of Staffa’, in in Mary-Ann Constantine and Nigel Leask, eds., Enlightenment Travel and British Identities: Thomas Pennant’s Tours in Scotland and Wales, (London: Anthem, 2017), pp. 183-202.

Leask, Nigel, ‘Fingalian Topographies: Ossian and the Highland Tour, 1760-1805’, Journal of 18th Century Studies, 19, 2 (June 2016), 183-196.

Macculloch, John, The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, 4 vols., (London, 1824).

Pennant, Thomas, Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides in 1772, 2 vols., (2nd edition, London, 1766).

Scott, Walter, The Voyage of the Pharos: Walter Scott’s Cruise Around Scotland in 1814, (Edinburgh: Scottish Library Association, 1998).
—————-‘Report of the Highland Society upon Ossian’, Edinburgh Review 6 (July 1805), pp.429-462, 461.

Jenkins, David and Viscocchi, Mark, Mendelssohn in Scotland (London: Chappell & Company, 1978).

Turner, Joseph Mallord, ‘Staffa, Fingal’s Cave’, 1832, oil on canvas, Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven. Paul Mellon Collection (BJ 347).


For a specially commissioned soundscape inspired by this exhibit, see below.

Composed by Sophie Sparkes. Performed by Echéa Quartet: Rosa Hartley (violin I); Aliayta Foon-Dancoes (violin II); Emily Earl (viola); Eliza Millett (cello).

To play the video of the complete suite, ‘Romantic Sounds’, click here.