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Inspiration and Spectacle: the case of Fingal’s Cave in nineteenth-century art and literature

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posted on 2023-05-18, 05:05 authored by Ralph CraneRalph Crane, Lisa FletcherLisa Fletcher

Fingal's Cave is one of at least twelve sea caves on the tiny Scottish island of Staffa. It is, without doubt, the most famous and was depicted in countless written and visual records of visits to the island in the nineteenth century. As Jennifer Davis Michael observes, “perhaps no other British site in the [Romantic] period was rendered in so many different arts” (2), and, as Marianne Sommer and others have shown, Fingal's Cave was a key site in the “cave rave” (Sommer 197) that began with the Romantics and lasted throughout the Victorian period.

Staffa, known to Viking travelers as the isle of staves for its basalt columns (Dean 194), and the iconic Fingal's Cave were, the story goes, “discovered” by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772 and were first made known to the world when his journal of travel appeared in Thomas Pennant's 1774–76 multi-volume, A Tour in Scotland, and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772. Banks, who was on his way to or returning from an excursion to Iceland (twentieth and twenty-first-century histories are inconsistent on this point), stopped off at Staffa to visit the cave and wrote the first—and most influential—study of its geological features and the experience of looking upon them. Banks, in his detailed description of Fingal's Cave published within Pennant's book, pronounced it “the most magnificent... that has ever been described by travellers” (301). This publication, the story continues, made Staffa “known to the outside world” (Michael 2; see also Dean 194, Gordon 69, Shortland 5–6) and thus initiated a flurry of tourism to the island by some of the most eminent writers and artists of the Romantic period and beyond. Michael Shortland writes that Banks “set in motion a tide of enthusiasm and research in caves which lasted for over half a century” (6). Banks's account also encouraged the connection between Fingal's Cave and the poems of Ossian, son of Fingal, as Michael discusses in “Ocean meets Ossian: Staffa as Romantic Symbol.” The repetition and consistency of this narrative in studies of Fingal's Cave is remarkable both for what it reveals about the significance of this “extraordinary” site in British cultural history and because the narrative is, to a surprising degree, an illusory one.


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Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment










School of Humanities


Oxford University Press

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United States

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Copyright 2015 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced version of an article accepted for publication in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment following peer review.

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