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Issue 93 - The Hebrides Overture

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017


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The Hebrides Overture

Fingal's Cave, haunt of forgotten giants

In 1761, when James Macpherson published his epic poem Ossian, the Son of Fingal, and claimed that his material originated from the ancient Gaelic, it caused an international sensation. Napoleon carried a copy on his military adventures, Thomas Jefferson considered Ossian to be ‘the greatest Poet ever to have existed’.

A best seller, the work was translated into all of the literary languages of Europe and enjoyed huge popularity, until it was exposed as fraudulent. Despite his creativity, Macpherson was accused of making the whole thing up. But who were Ossian and Fingal? Were they really figments of the author's imagination? Not at all.

There was indeed a Fingal, a legendary Irish-Scottish, hunter-warrior king in the 3rd Century, sometimes referred to as Finn McCool, and he had a son called Oisin, the traditional bard of the Gaels. Fingal also appears to have been a giant.

Bear in mind that the Scottish Hebrides lie north of the Ulster coast of Ireland and it was the Irish Scoti who in the first millennium colonised Dalriada, which is modern-day Argyll. In Celtic legend, it emerges that Fingal was also the sworn enemy of a Scottish giant called Benandonner, the ‘Red Man’ — so called because of his flaming red hair. Constant abuse was hurled across the North Channel.

On the isolated, volcanic island of Staffa, seven miles from Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull, sea-battered basalt columns rise with cathedral-like proportions to form a spectacular cavernous interior with astonishing acoustics, a source of wonder for those fortunate enough to experience this feat of nature. Fingal's final confrontation with Benandonner allegedly took place at the Giant's Causeway of Antrim, from which Benandonner retreated. Can it be only coincidence that Fingal's Cave on Staffa, with its cacophonous chorus of waves, shares the identical ancient lava flow? However, it needs to be conceded that Fingal's Cave only acquired its name following the publication of Macpherson's tribute to Gaeldom, but the romance of Gaelic mythology is inescapable. Fingal was definitely here.

Furthermore, he inspired the musician Felix Mendelssohn to write his overture The Hebrides in 1829. The artist J.M.W. Turner painted Staffa and Fingal's Cave in 1832. A host of writers including Jules Verne and Sir Walter Scott were mesmerised when they visited.

Originally part of the Ulva Estate belonging to Clan Macquarrie, Staffa (which is half way between the Ross of Mull and the Treshnish Islands) was inhabited until the 18th Century. Sold in 1777, it passed through several owners until gifted to the National Trust for Scotland by the New York advertising mogul Jock Elliott in 1986. Why not visit yourself? Perhaps you’ll be inspired too. |

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