Discover Your Backyard: The Geological Marvel of Staffa

Updated: Feb 2


Staffa is arguably the most spectacular and unusual island off the coast of Scotland. It is relatively small, being just ½ mile long and ¼ mile wide, but it is immediately apparent as you approach this geological marvel what makes this island so special. The isle is made of huge hexagonal rock columns reaching upward from the seabed below. Born of tumultuous volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, these basalt columns were created when the lava beds cooled.


Join us in this travel post as we discover this fascinating island, giving tips along the way on how you too can visit Staffa.


Staffa

Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting Scotland’s islands appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating Staffa, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland.



The Planning Stage


The first decision we needed to make was how to access the island, since you can only visit Staffa through an organised boat tour. There are a handful of tour companies, operating out of six locations – Oban, Kilchoan, Iona, Fionnphort, Ulva Ferry, Tobermory. The first two harbours are on the mainland. But Iona is an island itself, with the later three being ports on the island of Mull, so there would be the additional question of how to get to Iona and Mull themselves. There are various tour options – some only taking you to Staffa, others which take you to some of the other nearby islands, such as Iona, as well as tours that would include a sea safari, with these waters teeming with seals, dolphins, puffins, whales, and basking shark.



After doing our research, we decided to book online with Staffa Tours and sail from Fionnphort direct to Staffa, which cost £30 per adult. We based our decision primarily on the complimentary reviews they had received, and, as it turned out, these were well founded. With choosing the Fionnphort option, we then had to go online and book a ferry crossing with CalMac from Oban (which was where we were staying) to Craignure, on Mull. We’d then have to get the bus across the island of Mull to the small port of Fionnphort.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: If you wish to take your car on the CalMac ferry from Oban to Mull, book well in advance. There are only limited spaces, and these sell out quickly during high season.



Moody Mull


Our trip started at Oban’s ferry port, which is a modern facility, with an indoor terminal, and only a five-minute walk from the centre of town. The ferry itself was also modern, comfortable, and well-appointed. The sailing to Mull only took around 45-minutes, but within that brief time, the gloomy, heavy clouds over Oban started to turn a lot darker and heavy rain ensued. Still, we had a lovely view of the Oban waterfront and of Dunollie Castle as we departed.



We stepped off the ferry and went straight to the bus stand, which was handily sited at the end of the docking pier. West Coast Motors operate the service (#496) to Fionnphort, with the journey taking around one hour and twenty minutes (non-stop).


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Return tickets on the ferry between Oban and Craignure cost £7.60 per person, while return tickets on the coach between Craignure and Fionnphort cost £17 per person.



We chose to sit in the upper deck of the bus, which gave perfect views of the beautiful island of Mull. Even though it was raining, this actually added a little extra to the scenery, since we lost count of the number of waterfalls that were streaming down the steep sides of Mull’s hills and mountains. It should be noted that we drove along the same road the next day (read our next blog post on a day trip to Iona!) when it wasn’t raining, and almost every waterfall had disappeared. The photo below was taken on that dry day!


Isle of Mull

On arriving at Fionnphort, we found this little settlement had all the necessary facilities, with a small ferry terminal building, plenty of parking and a couple of hot food options. We followed the signage to where the Staffa Tours cruise boat was berthed and found around a dozen more eager passengers boarding, noting that the boat could comfortably hold twice this amount. With everyone secure, we sailed off into what were calm, beautiful blue skies, leaving the gloomy, rain sodden Mull behind in our wake. This was some result for us since we seriously doubted at the start of the day whether we were going to have a smooth crossing over to Staffa.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: If the seas are rough, it is not guaranteed that the tours will be able to dock at Staffa, so take this into consideration when planning when to go.


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Sights of Staffa


The trip over to Staffa from Fionnphort takes just under an hour, but you start getting fantastic views of the island after about 30-minutes. Approaching from the south, many of the basalt columns that make the island are exposed and it is easy to see the unique geology of this rocky outcrop. The name ‘Staffa’ comes from the Old Norse, meaning stave or pillar island, reminding them of their native houses, which were made of vertically placed tree-logs and it is easy to appreciate why they named the island as such.



As you get a bit closer to the island, you can easily make out Fingal’s cave, made famous through the Hebrides Overture composed by Felix Mendelssohn, following his visit in 1829.


Fingal's Cave, Staffa
Fingal's Cave, Staffa

The boat then docked at the small jetty on the east side of the island, and we then had the choice to pick our way along the stone shore to the cave or take the steep steps up to the top of the cliffs.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: There are no amenities on the island, so make sure to use the comfort facilities on the boat before going ashore and bring any food and drinks with you (while ensuring to bring any rubbish back with you).


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Fingal's Cave


We headed for Fingal’s Cave initially. The path is along the tops of hexagonal rocks, with handrails available in the places where walking is awkward or too near to the water’s edge. We found the walk easy enough, with just some moderate care taken as we went. The cave is 72 feet tall and 270 feet deep, with sides made up of basalt columns, and it has some impressive acoustics as the sea swells in and out the cavern.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Some of the ground can be uneven, wet/muddy, and slippy, so make sure to wear appropriate footwear. Walking boots / shoes would be ideal, but anything with a good, grippy sole that you don’t mind getting a little dirty should be fine.



It is unclear where the name of the cave came from. It seems that is may have been named after Finn McCool, an Irish mythical hunter-warrior. Another explanation is that Fingal was a giant who laid down a path of hexagonal stones all the way from Staffa to Ireland so that he could battle another such behemoth who lived there. We personally like that story, since the path reached the coast in County Antrim at the Giants Causeway – an area of shore made up by the exact same geometric columns that Staffa has.


We then left the melodious cave to ascend the steps to the plateau above. We headed for the area above Fingal’s Cave and found this to be an ideal place to stop for a small little picnic that we had brought. It is also one of the higher points of the island, and you get a lovely view over the rest of this North Atlantic outcrop. We had time to walk along the cliffs, and some of the other sea caves could be seen from above as you walked along. In all, we had about an hour on the island. This was just enough time to take in the cave and explore some of the island, but a few extra hours on this beautiful island would have been even better.



Back on the boat, we returned south, but with a quick detour to Iona. We stayed on the boat since we were going to visit Iona the next day. And we were soon back at Fionnphort, since it sits directly opposite Iona, taking only 10-minutes or so to cross over.


Tailor-Made Top Tip: If you only had one day in the area, getting off at Iona would be an effective way of taking in both this island and Staffa. However, to fully experience Iona, we’d suggest having at the very least a half day there, or ideally a full day. Back on Mull, we had a brief time to enjoy some seafood and chips from the The Creel Seafood Bar before getting back on the bus to take us to Craignure and the waiting ferry to Oban.


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Conclusion


Staffa is a unique island, well worth making the effort to visit. If you have ever enjoyed a visit to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland, or marvelled at images of its basalt columns, then sailing to Staffa will absolutely blow you away. A trip to Staffa does take some planning, but you will find that tour, ferry, and bus times are synchronised in such a way as to make the planning process quite smooth. That being said, it can be a popular trip, so it is best to make bookings well in advance if possible.


Comment below and tell us about your Staffa trip.



Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting Scotland’s islands appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating Staffa, or indeed, a general tour of Scotland.


Join us next time on our family adventures when we visit the holy island of Iona. We post every two weeks, and you can subscribe to our latest blog and newsletter here. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.


Barry


Contact Us: tailoritineraries@gmail.com


Tailor-Made Itineraries creates one-of-a-kind bespoke self-guided travel itineraries for adventurous and curious travelers.


Our self-guided tours deliver a personalised and exciting holiday experience that takes the effort out of trip planning.


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