The Cave that Inspired Mendelssohn, Pink Floyd, and Matthew Barney

Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
April 30 2014 11:41 AM

The Cave that Inspired Mendelssohn, Pink Floyd, and Matthew Barney

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

Like something out of an epic fantasy novel — or maybe The Lego Movie — Fingal's Cave, located on the Scottish island of Staffa, is a 270-foot-deep, 72-foot-tall sea cave with walls of perfectly hexagonal columns.

Celtic legend holds that the cave was once part of a bridge across the sea, built by giants to fight one another. (The other end of the bridge is Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, which exhibits the same blocky look.) Science says it formed from enormous masses of lava that cooled so slowly that they broke into long hexagonal pillars, like mud cracking under the hot sun.


When naturalist Sir Joseph Banks rediscovered the cave in 1772, it quickly captured the English imagination and inspired the work of artists, writers, and musicians. Composer Felix Mendelssohn premiered an overture about the cave in 1832. That same year, artist J. M. W. Turner painted a mist-swirled depiction of it.

In the ensuing centuries, the geological feature has continued to inspire — one of Pink Floyd's unreleased tracks from their 1970 Zabriskie Point soundtrack sessions is called Fingal's Cave. Matthew Barney also used the cave as a location in Cremaster 3, a 2002 fever dream of a film that formed part of his Cremaster Cycle art installation.

Curious caves around the world:

Ella Morton is a writer working on The Atlas Obscura, a book about global wonders, curiosities, and esoterica adapted from Atlas Obscura. Follow her on Twitter.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.