The first decades of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of the Romantic movement across Europe. Romanticism explored the kinship of art, music, and literature, and emphasized the importance of the individual creative personality. A heightened interest in nature and landscape,
based on subjective experience rather than scientific objectivity, also characterized the movement. Landscapes of the sublime — remote, dramatic, and even dangerous — provided inspiration for the Romantics in literature, music, and art. Scenery with historical associations, whether real or fictional, was particularly prized.
Nowhere suited the Romantic sensibility better than Staffa, one of the Hebrides, a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. Approachable only by boat, across an often turbulent strait, the rocky island was notable for a large cave located in a cleft among the cliffs. This cave became associated with the legendary hero Fingal, who appeared in Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books; Together with Several other Poems by Ossian, son of Fingal, published in 1761 by James Macpherson. Presented as the rediscovered work of a third-century Scottish bard, the poems were later found to be a concoction of Macpherson’s own imagination, a fact which did little to diminish their attractions for the Romantic generation.
Staffa inspired two masterpieces of the Romantic movement: J.M.W. Turner’s painting Staffa–Fingal’s Cave, 1831–32, and Felix Mendelssohn’s dramatic concert overtureThe Hebrides: Fingal’s Cave, sketched in 1829 and first performed in 1832. Both incorporate a subjective response to landscape, elements of representation, and a sense of historical association. In a striking example of Romantic synaesthesia, each work seems to appeal to more than one of the senses. The composer Richard Wagner described Mendelssohn’s Hebrides as a “masterpiece of a landscape painter of the first order.” This section examines the parallels between the two works and their creators, in the context of the Romantic enthusiasm for Scottish scenery.