James Johnson.

The recess, or Autumnal relaxation in the Highlands and Lowlands; being the home circuit versus foreign travel, a serio-comic tour to the Hebrides online

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pillars, whose pedestals were planted in the earth, whose shafts were
washed by divided oceans, and whose capitals shot high in the air ?

" Above, around, in wild confusion hurl'd
The shatter'd remnants of a former world


The broken shaft, the shelving colonnade,
The deep rock rifted from its marble bed
All tell of God's great vengeance, when the sky
Yawn'd on the land when Heaven's whole armoury
Whelm'd the wide earth."

How long this 'fire-formed barrier between two boisterous seas, this
volcano-born chain of connexion between two distant countries, resisted
the united warfare of winds and waves, it would be fruitless to inquire.
Neptune and ^Eolus may have been jealous of this encroachment on
their respective domains, and they were finally victorious in their event-
ful contest with Vulcan's chef-d'oeuvre, constructed with all the aid and
power of earth and fire ; since nought now remains on the opposing
coasts but enormous masses and countless myriads of basaltic columns,
wedged into causeways, piled into cliffs, hollowed into caverns, bent into
arches, and arched into temples, riveting the attention of the wanderer
on some of the most stupendous phenomena that Nature ever exhibited
in this often revolutionized planet.

In a late and beautiful prize-poem on Staffa, by Mr. Palmer (1832),
one of the most poetical ideas relates to the submarine causeway be-
tween Scotland and Ireland :

" Yet oft the fisher, when the waters lie

All calm beneath some bright and summer sky,
Bending in curious gaze his eye profane
Through the clear azure of th' unruffled plain,
Follows their course, and many a fathom deep,
Sees their light pillar'd forms around him sweep,
Bound the dark caves of ocean to explore,
And join their brethren on lerne's shore."

In this poem I may remark another idea, perhaps more poetical than
philosophical, namely, that Fingal's cave, and the basaltic columns of
which it is composed, were not the chance-medley result of some great
operation of nature, but constructed by the express design of the Al-

*' And what though vainly man's presumptuous sight
Would pierce the gloom of unrecording niglit,
Trace the deep steps of earthquake and of flame,
And ask the voiceless stone from whence it came ?
It was not chance it was not fortune blind,
Which reared the pile, and yon proud arch designed."

Now, all I have to say is this ; that it is as clear as the sun at noon-
day, that the arch of Fingal's cave was made by the waves, which wore
away the loosened columns beneath it; and the only apparent object
of this design was to form a cover for cormorants in a storm a treat


for tourists in the Hebrides and the subject for a prize-poem at Oxford.
In respect to the formation of the basaltic columns themselves, if they
were expressly designed for a causeway between Antrim and Argyle-
shire, the speculation has turned out to be almost as abortive as the
Thames' Tunnel an argument that goes far, in my mind, to prove that
these basaltic rocks were no more thrown into octagons and hexagons
by any design of the Great Architect, than the nodules of flint were
made spherules in the quarries of limestone near Dartford*.

It is impossible to glance at the geology, or even the geography of the
Western islands and Highlands, without coming to the conclusion that,
cotemporaneously or consecutively with the event which we are now con-
templating, some convulsion of nature severed the islands from the main
split the latter into indentations that admitted the sea, and formed
lochs heaved up the mountains, with deep valleys between to become
lakes leaving glens and vales, of romantic beauty or wildness, to trans-
mit, by countless streams, the rains to their parent source in the ocean.

The approach to Staffa is not very inviting, on account of the flatness
of the island ; but, on coming close to the south end, the ranges of
basaltic columns rivet the attention of the traveller. The great face is
formed of three distinct beds of rock, of unequal thickness, inclined
towards the east at an angle of some nine or ten degrees, a circumstance
which conveys the impression of a fabric tottering and ready to fall.
The lowest stratum is a rude trap tufo the middle is columnar and
vertical and the upper stratum or entablature is an irregular mixture
of broken columns and shapeless rock. Between the Clamshell and
the Great Cave, the columns bulge out, as if bending under the enor-
mous weight of the massive entablature above. The most striking view
of the island is at the distance of five or six hundred yards, when the

* This slight stricture on the philosophy of the poem, I am sure the talented author will
forgive ; since the copious quotations which I shall make, must afford the most solid
proof of my admiration and respect. I flatter myself that the effusions of Mr. Palmer's
muse will often be read in the lonely isle of Staffa, in consequence of the notice now
taken of it.

One word more on the subject of design in the formation of Fingal's cave. I think
that Mr. Palmer, and the noble (though anonymous) author of lines on Staffa, appended
to this section, do not take the best means of combatting SCEPTICISM by the line of argu-
ment which they pursue. I acknowledge design, and evidence of the Almighty mind, in
the construction of a snail's shell but not in the formation of basaltic columns in Staffa,
or the excavation of Fingal's Hall. The basaltic columns were formed by the same laws
of inanimate matter that cause salts to crystallize into regular forms, when we evaporate
the water that kept them dissolved. The form of the cave itself was caused by the long-
continued action of winds and waves on a mass of basalt.


Cormorants' Cave is just in view on the left the Boat Cave in the
centre and Fingal's Hall on the extreme right. The three beds or
strata are then beautifully distinct ; and it is at that moment, and in
that position, Staffa exhibits the most characteristic columnar feature,
and its greatest resemblance to human architecture on a gigantic scale.
The view here is the most beautiful and surprising on the island that

of Fingal's Hall being the most majestic and impressive.


" Bright is each jewel of the circling main,
Bleak Ulva's cliffs and green lona's plain.
But not bleak Ulva's promontoried steep,
Nor that green isle where Lochlin's heroes sleep,
Not the blue hills, in eastern distance lost,
Nor the white range of Mull's retiring coast,
Can breathe a charm, or move the soul like thee,
FAIR STAFFA, peerless daughter of the sea * !"

On landing near the Clamshell Cave, and clambering along towards
Fingal's Hall, the myriads of columns scattered in every direction, some
piled up in cones, some standing perpendicular, and others lying about,
bent or broken, excited more astonishment in my mind than the cele-
brated Cave of Fingal itself.

I know not whether the thought ever rose in the minds of others, but
this extraordinary scene suggested the idea of some gigantic ante-diluvian
BEING having here collected or formed those stupendous masses of
basaltic columns (as modern architects collect stacks of bricks) for the
construction of a whole colony or community of caves and caverns, for
purposes unknown to the present inhabitants of the globe.

The conical, or rather conoidal mass of columns, standing out near
the mouth of the great cave, and called Buachaille, or the Shepherd,
appears exactly as if it had been piled up in readiness for some new
edifice, or perhaps the columns excavated from Fingal's Hall, and
stacked up here for some unknown structure.

" Column on column piled ! projecting here ;
Like some grey castle the tall rocks appear ;
There, swelling on the sight, with gentle change,
Slope the long vista and descending range,
Till the dark surges and the curling spray
Close on the secrets of their onward way f ."

But we are soon roused from reveries of this kind by the difficulties,
nay, the dangers we encounter, while scrambling along the wet and
slippery surfaces of the pillars. Two gentlemen fell in this attempt,

* Palmer. f Idem.


and one of them narrowly escaped with his life. At length we enter
the great cave, and command at once a complete view of all its parts.

Those who expect to find here the architectural regularity pourtrayed
in the drawings and plates of travellers, and especially of Monsieur
Panckoucke, will be greatly disappointed in this respect. " Le premier
sentiment (says he) inspire par la rtgularite de tout ce que 1'on voit,
est que 1'on entre dans un edifice faille par la main de I'komme." I do
not believe that the sight of Fingal's Cave ever produced such a senti-
ment in any individual ; but the sentiment having been once broached
and become fashionable, every body repeated it afterwards, like parrots.
Although there is a general air of straightness and parallelism in the
columns which support the dome, not one of them is either straight or
regular. " They never (says Dr. MacCulloch) present that geometrical
air which I have just now condemned in the published views." Not-
withstanding this, I cannot think that any one was ever disappointed at
the first or subsequent views of Fingal's Cave and for this very reason,
that it generates in the mind no idea whatever of human construction,
or artificial architecture. The hand of nature is every where visible,
and the mind of the spectator, overwhelmed with the majesty of the
work, rises from astonishment to admiration, till it

'' Looks through Nature up to Nature's God."

The very circumstances enumerated by M. Panckoucke (which are,
however, creatures of the imagination) would destroy the sublimity of
the scene. " Cette longue voute eleve'e dans une proportion elegante, ces
colonnes droites, ces angles rentrans et saillans, dont les aretes sont si
pures tout vous persuade que le ciseau d* artistes habiles s'y estexerce."
This is all closet delineation. Not one of the columns reaches the whole
way from the base to the dome but is lost, or becomes blended
with some other column in its ascent. The walls of this gigantic
cavern are no where exactly parallel to each other, or regularly conti-
nuous in themselves. They are always advancing or retreating some-
times forming considerable niches or recesses*. The dome is exceed-
ingly irregular. In some places, it is arched in some it is flat and
in others, it bends downwards in the middle. All these irregularities
preclude the idea of human architecture and all of them add to the

* " Sur les deux cotes (says Panckoucke) s'elevent et se prolongent, en lignet par-
faitement droiles, deux grand murs." I deny the fact, or rather the fiction ; and I
am sorry to say, that M. Panckoucke's drawings are only a little more exaggerated, in
respect to regularity, than those published by Pennant, as taken by Sir Joseph Banks.
Let any one compare plate 28 of Pennant, with Fingal's Cave in the original, and he will
confess that it is but a degree less exaggerated than that of Panckoucke.

H 2


natural magnificence and solemnity of a temple evidently not built by
mortal hands.

" Nor wants there blazon'd roof or sculpturd dome
O'er which the worshipper's rapt eye may roam.
What though no vain device, no tinsel glare,
No monument of human pride be there,
The moulded rock is nobler far than they,
The spangled crystal shames their flaunting ray :
And that unchisel'd fret-work might not yield
To gilded tracery, or to storied shield."

The causeway or corridor on each side of the cave, raised several feet
above the water in the middle, and formed of the ends of broken
columns, is by no means easy, perhaps not quite safe, to traverse. I
think it next to impossible for females to go more than half way into
this cavern, without very considerable risk. It was with the greatest
difficulty I penetrated to the extremity, and I was sometimes scarcely
able to surmount the angles and irregularities of the path, though they
are laid down in prints as regular as the stones in a trottoir. It is about
mid-way, fortunately, that one of the best views of this stupendous
grotto is seen ; and where the musical cadences of the swell, ranging
along the thousand pillars, and ultimately dashing against the perpen-
dicular rock, are heard to greatest advantage.

The sea outside was like a mirror, and it was only the long ground
swell that rolled, at considerable intervals, into the cavern. These
intervals gave time for all the varieties of intonation and cadence to
occur, and fade away on the enraptured ear, before the wild music of
the grotto was renewed.

" the brooding air

Breathes holiness around, and whispers prayer ;
The pillar'd rocks their silent voices raise,
The deep sea murmurs her Creator's praise."

When the swell was not rolling along, the water was so clear, and
green, and tranquil, that the whole of the basaltic and stalactitic vault
was reflected as from a mirror, by the glassy deep, adding greatly to the
beauty of the scene. A pistol was fired off the flute was played the
bugle resounded and voices were raised by the various explorers, till
the whole cavern was filled with echoes and fairy notes.

The following passage is so characteristic of our lively Gallic neigh-
bours, that I cannot help quoting it from Panckoucke :

" Vers le milieu de la grotte, mon epouse, qui apportait dans ce
voyage autant de grace que de gaite, consentit a chanter un morceau des
operas de Rossini. On fit silence, et dans cette uouvelle salle de con-


cert retentirent les accens inspires au cygne de Pezzaro. La voix
vibrait le long des colonnes, elle devenait plus pleine et plus puissante,
les roulades semblaient acquirer plus de vivacite ; enfin la religieuse
majeste du lieu donnait un nouveau charme a ces chants harmonieux."
It is hardly necessary to add, that all the company applauded the
obliging songstress, and that " even the gods of this enchanted palace
appeared to re-echo these plaudits." " Les dieux memes de ce palais
enchante semblerent repeter ces applaudissemens."

The meridian sun was darting his powerful rays into the entrance of
Fingal's Hall ; and the intricate play of light, shadow, and reflection,
produced by the broken columns retiring in ranges, gradually diminish-
ing, had a powerful but pleasing effect. Looking inwards, from the
portal, the causeways on each side form foregrounds, not less important
than beautiful, by the inequalities and groupings of the broken columns.
The columnar walls of the edifice, too, catch a variety of direct and
reflected tints from the watery floor, mixed with secondary shadows,
and deep, invisible recesses, producing a very picturesque effect,

" Oh ! 'tis some wondrous pile of fairy birth,
Born but to fade ; too beautiful for earth !
So tenderly the glittering sunbeams fall
Through the deep shadows of the vaulted hall,
Tracing each niche, each column gilding o'er,
And streaming full upon the wave-beat floor*."

The vault itself is divided by a fissure, and presents considerable
variety. Towards the entrance, it is formed of irregular rock ; in the
middle, it is composed of the broken ends of columns and intervening
stalactites, exhibiting a kind of geometrical and ornamental character ;
while, at the inner extremity, there is a composite order of columns and
irregular rock.

The view from the very deepest recess of this astonishing grotto, with
lona in the distance, is extremely grand, and, indeed, unique. It forms
the fifth plate in M.Panckoucke's magnificent work; but the regularity
with which the lively Frenchman has built the columns on both sides,
and arched the roof overhead, destroys not all similarity, but certainly
all fidelity, in the representation.

" Nor can the pencil of the artist (says MacCulloch) do aught for
that poetry which seems to render the caves of Staffa fit residences for
the visionary mythology of the coral caverns and waving forests of the
glassy sea. The gentle twilight which for ever reposes in the recesses

* Palmer's Staffa.


of Fingal's Cave, the playful and living effects of reflected light, and
the liquid sound of the green water, as it rises and falls in measured
intervals over its silvery floor that solitude which the mind would
fain people with imaginary beings these are the business of the poet,
and must be left to the poet of Nature."

The Clamshell Cave, which we cross in getting to Fingal's, is com-
pared to the keel and ribs of a ship, but it might just as well be com-
pared to the spine and ribs of the great giant, or nondescript monster,
who built the other caves, and then lay down here and died.

The Boat Cave exactly resembles the gallery of a mine ; and this
resemblance destroys all idea of the grandeur and sublimity connected
with Fingal's Hall. Being excavated in the lower stratum of rock, its
walls are destitute of all columnar ornament. The Cormorants' Cave,
however, being of dimensions little inferior to the grand one, is worth
visiting ; but, from the circumstance mentioned above, it is devoid of
architectural ornament.

Having climbed, with some difficulty, to the surface of the table-
land, we wandered over the island, and approached as close as possible
to the edges of those perpendicular cliffs that overhang the three prin-
cipal caves. It is a scene of solitude, though not of silence. The
dashing of the waves against the rocky shores, and the screaming of
the sea-fowl, wheeling round the cliffs, were the only sounds that fell on
the listening ear. To the eye nothing but desolation appeared, and
the naked walls of a single human habitation, long since deserted, were
in keeping with the whole scene.

" Nor here does silence reign : the sea-mew's yell,
Complaining from her airy citadel ;
The hoarse, loud murmurs of the chafing waves,
The sleepless echoes of a thousand caves,
Swell in wild chorus ; on the realm of Fear
Repose intrudes not, Calm is never near.
Yet far, far distant is the busy strife,
The stirring energy of human life :
No peopled cities there, no galleys ride
In proud dominion o'er the subject tide,
Nor glade nor forest of luxuriant green
Disturbs the barren grandeur of the scene.
From those rude clefts no mountain flow'ret springs,
No clustering shrub to those lone pillars clings,
No glossy saxifrage of purple hue,
No golden samphire, or the tufted yew,
All, all is desolate. *"

* Palmer's Staffa.


Staffa, adieu ! It has been my lot to wander over much of this
earth's surface, and to see most of the great operations of Nature, as
well as the works of art. Seldom has my attention been so riveted, or
my imagination so excited, as while contemplating the wild scenery
and the mysterious formation of this wonderful island.

The following lines (published anonymously in the Metropolitan)
are, I have some reason to believe, from the pen of a nobleman. As it
is not improbable that this little volume may often visit Staffa, their
transference to these pages will, I think, prove advantageous, both to
the author and to the reader ; since, in their original repository, they
could hardly expect to be often read in the Cave of Fingal.


I've gazed on Nature in the sleeping lake,
The vine-clad hill, the wildly-tangled brake
I've heard her whisper in the flutt'ring trees,
Sing in the brook, and murmur in the breeze,
Until her quiet music to my heart
Would peace, and love, and happiness impart;
And every fretful feeling die away,
Like lover's frowns before his loved One's lay.
And then I've turned on wilder scenes, to brood,
And court thee, Nature, in thy sterner mood.
Helvetia's cliffs the glacier high and hoar
The moaning cavern, and the cataract's roar
The cloud-envelop'd mountain's tranquil pride
The gloomy forest sleeping on its side-
Do not such scenes of loveliness control
With majesty with beauty win the soul ?

Nor need the breast which glows at sights like these
Thirst for the climes beyond our native seas ;
Not Mont Blanc's brow, or Jungfrau piled on high,
Or glacier glittering in the clear blue sky,
Such solemn awe such pleasing fear impart
As Staffa's isle, where Nature scoffs at Art !

There, on the bosom of the wildest sea,
That longs to trespass on earth's boundary,
"Neath low'ring skies, amid whose twilight grey
The joyous sunbeams seem afraid to play
Serenely calm, in solitary pride,
A glorious pile reposes on the tide.
From Ocean's depths the giant columns rise,
And lift the self-born structure to the skies.
Firm on its rocky base each pillar stands
No chisell'd shaft, no work of mortal hands.


Ere man had ceased in savage woods to dwell

Roots for his food, his drink the crystal well ;

Ere yet he knew the joys of social life,

And scarcely sought his fellow but in strife ;

Ere cities grew, or Parian marble shone,

Yon columns stood and stand while they are gone.

Yet many a broken pillar strew'd around,

And many a vista levell'd to the ground,

Proclaim that not e'en Nature's works are free,

All-conquering Time, from thy sure mastery !

Much hast thou spared, yet still the eye can trace "

A thousand relics of colossal grace ;

Which, mouldering hi magnificent decay,

Tell of the wonders of a former day

Of many a lofty palace now no more,

When Staffa stretch'd her arms to Antrim's shore ;

And her huge walls could other tenants vaunt

Than the sad wind, or screaming cormorant ;

Though now the wild wave washes over all,

And sports the kraken* in the giant's hall f !

Then, mortal, blush to own the selfish grief

Which prompts a murmur if thy days be brief;

When Nature's brightest glories disappear,

Shall thy mortality demand a tear ?

Mark where the portal, yawning o'er the wave,

Reveals to view the beauties of the cave :

Majestic columns raise on either side

The arched canopy above the tide,

Which, mildly glittering with a sparry light,

Shines like the spangled firmament of night.

Deep to the island's heart recedes the dome,

Till fade its lengthening visus in the gloom.

'Tis Nature's palace ! scorning to abide

In temples less in reverence rear'd than pride ;

The surge's roar more grateful to her ear,

And tempest-hymn, than voice of hollow prayer ;

She fled, disdainful of a Doric fane,

And built her minster on th' Atlantic main.

Still, as we gaze, a feeling more intense

Grows with each look, and steals on every sense;

* The kraken, largest of living animals, is a native, or rather is supposed to be a
native, of the northern seas.

t It is still ihe fond belief of many an Antrim peasant, that Staffa was united to the
Giant's Causeway by a colonnade of basaltic pillars; and that the immense city was
tenanted by a gigantic race, whose wondrous actions are still the theme of many an
interesting legend.


The frowning arch above, the sea below,

The time-cemented pillars' serried row :

The sea-mews flitting from their rocky nest,

Like sullen breedings from a gloomy breast

The ocean wrestling with the pile in vain,

That hurls its breakers back in calm disdain

Blend in a scene so solemn, yet so fair,

That man seems almost an intruder there !

Each hollow blast, that slowly dies away,

Sounds like some spirit's melancholy lay ;

And, as th' harmonious cave sends forth its song,

You scarce would start to see an airy throng

Of mermaids, flitting o'er th' unruffled wave,

And breathing low, soft dirges through the cave !

Here, too, 'tis said, when storms convulse the day,

And ruddy lightnings gild the glistening spray,

Loud o'er the tempest's noisy revelry,

Fingal's pale ghost shrieks out his battle-cry !

Or, when the trembling moonbeams meekly fall

In timid reverence on the haunted hall,

Holds sweet communion with each passing cloud,

Perchance some once-loved warrior's sable shroud * !

Let Reason coldly smile ; I blame them not
Who with such spirits people such a spot.
There is a stillness but not of the grave
A breathless life within that wondrous cave
A deep contentment a mute harmony
A holy presence that we cannot see,
But yet can feel; for Ocean murmurs on,
As if in prayer, his deep-toned orison ;
And winds without, that rage in lawless diu,
Are hush'd to music as they enter in.

Oh ! let the sceptic, on whose doubting eyes
In vain the beauties of creation rise ;
Who, while he views the loveliness of earth,
Can yet disown the power that gave it birth
Here let him gaze, and say 'twas chance alone,
That rear'd the pile and nicely carved the stone,
That lent each shaft such noble symmetry-
Alas ! it mocks his poor philosophy,

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Online LibraryJames JohnsonThe recess, or Autumnal relaxation in the Highlands and Lowlands; being the home circuit versus foreign travel, a serio-comic tour to the Hebrides → online text (page 12 of 28)