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With its entrance more than six stories high, the columned hollow of Fingal's Cave extends back some 230 feet and resounds with the rush of the sea. "Compared to this," Banks declared, "what are the cathedrals or the palaces built by men!" Of course, the Englishman had not truly discovered anything: Gaelic-speaking islanders knew how the cavern echoed the thunder of the waves and called it Uamh Binn, the "melodious cave." But Banks's own prominence assured his report wide attention, and by linking the geologic wonder to the popular Ossian poems, Banks helped make the cavern a must-see.

The moment was right. Illustrated travel books became cheaper as durable steel engraving plates replaced softer copper ones, making larger print runs possible. New roads and steamboat services made island journeys easier. Years of Napoleonic Wars made travel on the Continent nearly impossible for Britons, but the Hebrides were exotic and—with an adventurous dash of effort—accessible.

Fingal's Cave was on the itinerary of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn and his companion Karl Klingemann in the summer of 1829. The Hebrides affected the young musician "extraordinarily," he wrote home to his family in Berlin. On August 8, the two travelers sailed from Mull to Staffa. They'd seen the cave "in all the picture books," Klingemann noted, but the real thing still had the power to amaze: "A greener roar of waves never rushed into a stranger cavern," he went on, "its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide gray sea within and without." In his Hebrides Overture, begun on the journey, Mendelssohn created what Duke University music historian R. Larry Todd calls "romantic tone painting at its purest."

The sea was not in a collaborative mood the day celebrated English painter J. M. W. Turner took ship for Fingal's Cave in August 1831. "It is not very pleasant or safe when the wave rolls right in," Turner wrote. The steamer Maid of Morven could not land her passengers, so a few hardy souls, Turner included, rode a small pilot boat to the cave's entrance and leaped from the deck to slippery rocks. In the painting that records Turner's wild journey, the cave and its great basalt columns are barely visible. The canvas is all heaving waves and incandescent sky, with the ship steaming determinedly but nearly overwhelmed by the elements.

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