The Historical Archaeology Research project on Staffa

The first archaeological excavations on Staffa were funded by the Society

Fingal's Cave, Staffa

Fingal’s Cave, Staffa (c) Stuart Jeffrey

Lying off the West coast of Mull, Staffa, and its internationally famous feature ‘Fingal’s Cave’ is one of Scotland’s most significant tourist sites. The island itself is small, being only 1km long and ½ km wide, however it is of a very striking appearance, especially at its southern end where its unusual underlying geology is quite apparent in the 40m cliffs. Geologically Staffa consists of a basement of volcanic tuff, overlain by a layer of Tertiary basaltic lava whose slow cooling has resulted in a highly unusual pattern of predominantly hexagonal columns. Although rare, this type of columnar basalt occurs in a number of places, famously at the ‘Giant’s Causeway’ in Northern Ireland, but nowhere is it more spectacular than on Staffa. The effect of the regular geometric shapes are both intriguing and disconcerting, so much so that as late as the 19th century scholarly discussions were still taking place as to whether the site was artificial or natural. Since it’s ‘discovery’ by Joseph Banks in 1772, (by which is meant the first mention of it by a gentleman scholar), it quickly became established as an early tourist destination and has drawn innumerable visitors over the years. In turn it has become an inspiration for works of music, art and literature by some of Europe’s most important cultural figures, including Wordsworth, Mendelssohn, Turner, Verne and Hogg. This tradition continues to this day, with Fingal’s Cave especially, continuing to inspire artists and musicians such as Pink Floyd.

Recording graffiti in Fingal's Cave

Recording graffiti in Fingal’s Cave (c) Stuart Jeffrey

The intense interest in Staffa arose from 18th and 19th century romantic conceptions of the past, the geological oddity of the columnar basalt formations, and the wealth of folklore and oral tradition focussed on the island, the cave, and of course its association with the legend of Fhinn MacCool. Although it should be noted that the designation of the cave as ‘Fingal’s’ is by no means uncontroversial, a more likely name is An Uaimh Bhinn or ‘melodious cave’. However, despite Staffa’s prominent position in the romantic imagination, it has remained a largely unknown quantity archaeologically. This is a significant gap given both the likely prehistoric conception of the island as a place of significance and also the unique potential for historical archaeology on the island addressing recent seasonal occupation and the archaeology of early tourism.  Until recently the only archaeological work to have taken place on Staffa had been a walk over survey for management purposes commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland in 1996 (Rees 1996).  The survey noted numerous undated features, including a single ruinous, but upstanding, cottage/bothy, which has traditionally been used as a shelter for tourists. With regards the sole upstanding building, nearly 90 years ago Donald MacCulloch stated:

“It would be very interesting if some society could be induced to undertake a reasonable amount of excavation here which might throw some light on the history, and if necessary preserve what some people believe to be a relic of mediaeval Christianity in the Hebrides”. Donald B. MacCulloch, The Isle of Staffa, 1927.

Following on from a short exploratory survey, laser scanning, sound recording and test pitting in 2014 by the HARPS team, funding was sought from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland to further explore the archaeological potential of the island with a focus on historical archaeology. A number of activities were proposed by HARPS. These included a small scale excavation through the upper floor layers of ‘the bothy’ with particular focus on evidence from the historic period and early tourism. Test pitting had recovered the first ever evidence of prehistoric activity (diagnostic worked flint) as well as pottery dated to the 15thCentury, both in close proximity to the bothy. Also scheduled was Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) of a subset of the 18th – 20th century tourist graffiti in Fingal’s Cave and a systematic search for mediaeval or earlier rock carving/art and a drone based photogrammetric survey of the northern sections of the island (not captured by the 2014 survey). HARPS seeks to to directly address research areas identified in ScARF under ‘Marine and Maritime Scotland’ and it aligns with the ‘Scottish Marine Science Strategy 2010-15’ (again highlighted by ScARF), which focuses on the sustainable management of Scotland’s coasts and seas. The management of a combined cultural, wildlife and geological site poses issues that require a thorough understanding of the archaeological resource.

Excavation at 'the bothy' on Staffa

Excavation at ‘the bothy’ on Staffa (c) Stuart Jeffrey

Working on Staffa can be logistically taxing, with all equipment and supplies, including drinking water, needing to be taken over by boat and carried by hand up the steep metal staircase up the cliff face from the landing jetty. Access to the island itself remains, as it has done historically, heavily dependent on the state of the sea. Similarly, access to the cave itself is again dependant on calm seas and low tides for safe working. As a result of these constraints (and also due to the need to leave nesting Storm Petrels in the ‘bothy’ undisturbed) HARPS fieldwork has been split in to two phases, with initial work undertaken in August and further work scheduled for March 2017, before bird nesting season commences. The August 2016 work focused on graffiti recording and small scale excavation in the vicinity of the bothy as well as drone survey work to compliment the terrestrial laser scan activity carried out in 2014. Early 2017 will see excavation of sections of the ‘bothy’ itself. Despite being required to leave the island ahead of schedule due to an impending summer storm (which made landing on the island impossible for several days), the 2016 work has resulted in some surprising results already. While the team knew that there were significant amounts of graffiti within the cave, the conditions in 2014 had not allowed for more than a cursory inspection. It had been presumed that the vast majority of this would be tourist graffiti, most likely fairly recent (due to the extreme erosion action of the sea), e.g. 19th century. Analyses of the graffiti using the RTI data are ongoing, but the major surprise has been a large amount of material dating from World War II, specifically ship names. While personal names are to be expected, the presence of so many ship names, especially naval vessels, has opened up entirely new areas of potential research. Amongst those ships already identified are HMS Nimrod (mentioned more than once), HMS Alecto, HMS Quentin Roosevelt and the French Dunkerque class battleship ‘Strasbourg’ which visited in 1939. The wartime activities of these craft and why they stopped at Staffa is likely to be a fascinating story in itself, for example HMS Quentin Roosevelt is known to have been supply ship for the (then) secret commando training base at Lochailort.

Prehistoric pottery from excavations on Staffa

Prehistoric pottery from excavations on Staffa (c) Stuart Jeffrey

The small scale excavations a few metres to the South of the ‘bothy’, were looking for evidence from the historic period, but again we were taken by surprise by the recovery of prehistoric pottery at a relatively shallow depth (bearing in mind that due to the geology of Staffa, the soil is not deep). Shards from multiple decorated pots, including some that allow a tentative date of late-Neolithic were recovered from a relatively small trench, along with a fine example of a flint blade. It is hoped that the further excavation in March 2017 will allow a better understanding of activity in the historic period, including early tourist activity, in addition to the prehistoric material uncovered so far. However, as with many excavations, this early work has raised broader questions about past activity on the island and indeed opened a number of new research avenues. Further work will hopefully help us to get a more detailed picture of life on an island that has been overlooked archaeologically for so long, despite its obvious historic and cultural significance.

The HARPS project is an interdisciplinary collaboration led by the Glasgow School of Art (School of Simulation and Visualisation) and the National Trust for Scotland with partners from the University of Stirling, the University of Glasgow and Spectrum Heritage.

Help us to do more

Help us: champion research; stimulate discussion; enhance public understanding; and share our extraordinary heritage. Donate directly to the Society now.