-The Enigma At Staffa -

My first physical encounter with the Isle of Staffa was in the summer of 1970. 1 was holidaying in Oban (Scotland) with my parents and I remember it well because it was the best fortnight's holiday weather I have ever had in Britain: wall-to-wall sunshine and baking hot. It was far too hot for my dad, who had a heart condition and couldn't really take the heat.

We decided one day to take a boat trip around the Island of Mull to the Isle of Iona, which is the place where, in 563AD, Columba arrived from Ire­land to found a monastery and begin the spread of his version of Christianity to mainland Britain. The little Isle of Staffa is a few miles north of lona, and they both lie to the west of the Isle of Mull. Though the boat trip we were on didn't land or drop off at Staffa, we passed very close to it and got a first class view; much like the picture above. The sea was like a millpond and my camera worked overtime.

I was thrilled. It wasn't that I was musical and knew Mendelssohn's 'Fingal's Cave Overture', nor was it that I was into the Celtic legend of giant Fionn MacCombal (Finn MacCoul) who began to construct a causeway across the sea, the better to attack his hated rival Fingal, who had built himself a stronghold of columnar basalt, just like the cause­way, on the Isle of Staffa; no, it was because I was a Geography teacher who specialized in physical ge­ography ('geomorphology', it's called, for the initi­ated), and Staffa is a key place in the story of the construction of the Earth's surface. Thereafter I used my pictures to teach on the topic and only regretted not having been able to land and inspect at close quarters.

As we sailed by, there it was in all of its glory. The hexagonal columns of the dark, basalt rock, looking like a stack of unsharpened pencils, were underlying the cinder-like formation on top. Basalt is a rock which spews out from under the surface in a volcanic eruption. It is a very runny, liquid sort of rock, unlike the sticky lava which makes up what we normally think of as a volcano. Basalt flows much more freely and does not form a cone but rather cov­ers a huge area in a vast, thick sheet of rock. The upper sur­face cools rapidly, being in direct con­tact with the air, but underneath, where the molten rock is not exposed to the at­mosphere, it cools slowly and forms these amazing columns. This lava sheet minimally covered an area from Northern Ire­land (Antrim) to western Scotland, with Giant's Causeway and Fingal's Cave probably on either end.


So, from then on, I was able to teach the given explanation of lava plateaux to my pupils, using my pictures of Staffa. The lava (actually it is correctly called 'magma' because it is lava + gases) flowed rapidly over the surface, cooling quickly on top but very slowly underneath, and Staffa shows this beau­tifully in classic formation. Geologists tell us that it was of Recent geological age, some 50,000,000 years or so ago in the early Tertiary period. Though this was marked as an age of mountain building elsewhere in Europe where the Alps were thrust up, north-west Britain was only on the fringes of this activity, which, of course, though extremely rapid over geological time—taking a few million years to accomplish—was rather slow by other more conven­tional timing methods. The overview is of ages of sereneness following a period of volcanic activity.

Then, this May, I visited Staffa again and was able to land: the sea being like a millpond once more. The mooring point was behind the stump on the right (east side) of the general picture over. There we saw some amazing sights with columnar basalts bending and twisting at all angles (pictures a, b, c and d). Some were even lying horizontally yet were butting up against the normal vertical columns (d). They were not snapped or shattered so had obvi­ously formed this way before they hardened off into solid rock. They were coming at all sorts of angles. We know they form at right-angles to the surface against which they cool and that this can produce small, local oddities. But what kind of cool, twisted surface did these columns cool against? Just what has been going on?

Clearly there was an out-pouring of lava on a vast scale, however it was accompanied by massive movements in the rocks to the east. These lavas pour out of fissures, not from central vents like 'normal' volcanoes. While they were in a plastic condition the surface at the east end was twisted and bent, faulted and fractured and this did not happen over a period of millions of years. The rocks don't take that long to cool and form their columns. The time-scale is much more like days, weeks or months but defi­nitely not a thousand years let alone several million!

Thus the Earth's crust here was being tortured and split apart, and this was accompanied by forces which folded and fractured it. To the east of Staffa is the Isle of Mull which has 3,000ft of layer upon layer of different lavas. This stump at Staffa simply gives us a glimpse of what was happening—but what a glimpse it is. These were not slow processes operating gently over vast eons, they were catastro­phic forces working over very short periods of time. So what caused it?

My excitement knew no bounds as I realized I was looking at either evidence of the Flood of Noah's day or the effects of the post-Flood catastro­phe, some 104 years later, which saw the continents divide, some mountain chains being thrown up, and the arrival of the Ice Age, at the Babel incident in Peleg's time (Genesis 10:25) when Nimrod ruled the world and led people into sin. My own reflections on the problem would lead me to favour the latter sce­nario rather than the former. I believe it occurred around 1760AM (Anno Mundi, after Creation) or approximately 2244BC.

No matter, the point is that the rock formations on that stump at the eastern end of the Isle of Staffa present a geological enigma for the standard expla­nation of events and provide a most profound state­ment of the truth that the world was definitely not fashioned by slow processes acting over countless millennia but rather by swift catastrophes as stated in the Bible. We were only there for one hour but I came away with far more than I could ever have hoped or dreamed.

Graham A. Fisher

Basalt columns at Fingal's Cave

a: The columns are folded
Basalt columns at Fingal's Cave

b: The columns piled upwards from a saucer shape

c: Columns stacked like driftwood after a storm

d: Columns lying horizontally in the middle ground but vertically in the foreground. (The fault line between them has been eroded by the sea originally forming a cave, then an arch, stack and now stump.)

Copied with permission from the editorial in the 'Christian Worker' - Volume 37 Number 7 - July 2004.