The Many Caves of Fingal

Published on: Author: Harriet Gaston 2 Comments

A student post by Antonios Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies student, University of Glasgow.

From January until April 2019 I worked for The Hunterian on a work placement jointly supervised with the Special Collections of University of Glasgow Library to research material for the future exhibition “Old ways and New Roads: Travels in Scotland, 1720-1822”. The exhibition will trace the changes in the Scottish Landscape after the massive road and bridge construction programme that began in the 1720s overseen by General Wade. The main objective is to explore how these changes were experienced by travellers and reflected in the art and literature of the period.

During my placement I had the opportunity to study some of the rare illustrated 18th and 19th century publications currently held in the University of Glasgow Library. One of the sites that captured my imagination with its many beautiful depictions was the Cave of Fingal in the Hebridean island of Staffa. Examining a range of illustrations and accompanying descriptions by different authors I got to see the cave through different eyes and mindsets. Illustrations presented different narratives with the cave assuming different roles from protagonist in a mystical, romantic landscape (fig 1-3) to background for a satiric adventure (fig 4). In this post I will focus very briefly on the cave’s relation with the Ossianic epics.

Before the visit of English naturalist Joseph Banks, the cave was a nevertheless picturesque natural site little known to the outside world. After its “rediscovery” by Banks, it has been closely linked with Macpherson’s controversial translation of Ossianic epics. It is interesting reading the moment Banks’ party found out that the cave was named after Fingal, the mythical king of Morven and father of Ossian:

“We asked the name of it, said our guide, the cave of Fiubn; what is Fiubn? Said we, Fiubn 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, whole experience, as well as that of the whole Epic poem is almost doubted in England.” (Pennant 1774, 263)

After the publication of Banks’ journal in Thomas Pennant’s ‘Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides in 1772’, alongside engravings by John and James Miller and John Cleveley (fig 1), the cave became remarkably popular among intellectuals and travellers of all sorts. From that point onwards, the cave’s material substance would act as proof of authenticity for Macpherson’s work and visitors would experience it through the lenses of the heroic past that Ossian offered.

In general, the cave’s popularity should be viewed within the context of “Ossianomania” (Leask 2016) regarding the recording of Gaelic toponyms, the idea of the “romantic cave” (Sommer 2003), and the publications of tours of travelers like Thomas Pennant (1772) but also others -real, such as William Gilpin (1776) Samuel Johnson (1773) and imaginary, such as Matthew Bramble and his family in Tobias Smollett’s “The Expedition of Humphry Clinker” (1771)- who during the 1770’s popularized the Highland Tour.

Combe, W. 1821. The tour of Doctor Prosody: in search of the antique and picturesque, through Scotland, the Hebrides, the Orkney and Shetland Isles. London: Matthew Iley, Somerset Street. University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections, Sp Coll RQ 1264.

Crane, R. and Fletcher, L. 2015. Inspiration and Spectacle: The Case of Fingal’s Cave in Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature. Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. 22(4): 778-800.

Fittler, J. 1804. Scotia depicta; or, the antiquities … of Scotland / illustrated in a series of finished etchings by James Fittler … from accurate drawings made on the spot by John Claude Nattes. University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections Sp Coll Mu24-x.34.

Leask, N. 2016. Fingalian Topographies: Ossian and the Highland Tour, 1760‐1805. Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies. 39(2): 183-196.

MacCulloch, J. 1819. A description of the Western Islands of Scotland, including the Isle of Man: comprising an account of their geological structure: with remarks on their agriculture, scenery, and antiquities. University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections Sp Coll Mu11-a.3.

Pennant, T. 1774. A tour in Scotland and in the Hebrides. London. University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections HA 04874.

Sommer, M. 2003. The Romantic Cave? The Scientific and Poetic Quests for Subterranean Spaces in Britain. Earth Sciences History. 22(2): 172-208.

2 Responses to The Many Caves of Fingal Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. I love these images. The equivalent heritage site in Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is one of my favourite childhood places. I always thought Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) was the Irish giant who out-smarted the Scottish one! I guess legends are like that!

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