The Giant's Causeway – Where Geology Blends With Mythology
Nature sure has its way of dazzling us. Sometimes the greatest wonders lie before our eyes, full of enigma and secrets that are lost in time. Geological formations are often full of odd shapes and seemingly unexplainable creations, some of which defy all sense of logic. They are millions of years old, but seem to be out of the future! Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway is one such sense-defying natural formation. A seemingly out of place, science fictional creation, this coastal outcrop consists of at least 40,000 interlocking basalt columns with uniquely straight edges. The whole sight is hard to believe, and we can only assume how it was grasped by ancient populations. That is why today we will delve deep into both the hard scientific facts, and the ancient mythologies behind this unique location. Is there anywhere else like the Giant’s Causeway? Time to find out.
Understanding the Odds and Ends of the Giant’s Causeway
This truly exceptional location is located at the very northern coast of the island that is Ireland. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, it is situated in County Antrim, roughly 3 miles (4.83 kilometers) from the village of Bushmills. Its unique appearance makes it one of the most visited tourist spots in the country, with 2018 being the record year – more than a million visitors came to the site. Known to the Irish as the Clochán na bhFomhórach, it is a place of myths and legendary beliefs. But what exactly is it?
The Giant’s Causeway in the evening light. Credit: Ossie / Adobe Stock
Now, one little glimpse at the Giant’s Causeway is enough to let you know that this is something truly out of the ordinary. You might find it hard to believe that this is not a man-made object, and entirely the work of nature. But it’s true, it’s all completely natural. So what are basalt columns? Well let’s talk geology. First of all – basalt.
Basalt is an igneous extrusive rock, which is basically formed when volcanic lava gets to the surface and rapidly cools down. This makes it common all over our planet, thanks to the numerous volcanic eruptions far into the Earth’s past. In fact, almost 90% of all volcanic rock on Earth is basalt.
Still, you might be wondering, what about the columns? Well, columnar basalt is similarly formed. If a particularly thick flow of lava begins to cool at a rapid rate, the so-called contractional joints or fractures begin to form.
The differences between vertical and horizontal pressures during cooling will result in the formation of these unique columns, which are usually hexagonal. Depending on the rate of cooling, the size of the columns is defined. In cases of extremely fast cooling, a basalt column can be as small as 1 centimeter.
The basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
When Nature Goes Haywire
So what about the Giant’s Causeway? When was it created? It’s safe to say that it was a very long time ago. More precisely, around 50 to 60 million years ago. It occurred in the geological epoch of Paleocene, which itself lasted between 66 and 56 million years ago, and was marked by some really unique events which can explain the creation of the Giant’s Causeway. During this epoch, the famous K-Pg Extinction Event occurred, an asteroid impact that wiped out 75% of all living species, especially the terrestrial dinosaurs.
The era was also marked by extensive volcanism, numerous eruptions that caused major changes in the Earth’s climate. And it is certain that this unique mass of columnar basalt in Ireland is the direct result of one of these volcanic eruptions. In fact, the Giant’s Causeway of today is simply a remnant of a much larger land mass which existed in those very ancient times. It was known as the Thulean Plateau, and was a large basaltic lava plain which stretched over a mind-boggling 1.3 million km 2 (500 thousand sq. miles) in area and 6.6 million km 3 (1.6 million cubic miles) in volume.
But there is no doubt that the ancient inhabitants of this region of Ireland thought of it as something very different. Volcanoes? Basalt columns? “Don’t be silly”, they’d say. For the ancient Irish, this was a place of legend, a background of numerous myths that were essential for their identity. One of the main protagonists related to these myths is the legendary Irish hero, Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill).
Much of it comes from the iconic Fenian Cycle, a famous work of old Irish prose. This work is also known as the “an Fhiannaíocht”, and is centered on the legendary exploits of Finn MacCool. This character appears also in the myths and legends of both Scotland and the Isle of Man, and in this way he acquires the role of a pan-Gaelic figure.
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In the story of Giant’s Causeway, Finn MacCool is described as a giant who is challenged to a fight from another giant, the Scottish Benandonner. The story then unfolds in the spirit often sported in ancient European myths – full of wit, noble deeds, and glory. Finn accepts the challenge, and is resolved to outwit his opponent.
In order to be able to meet his giant Scottish foe, Finn builds a huge causeway across the North Channel. But once he sees how Benandonner is enormous and much larger than he, Finn resorts to cunning. He disguises himself as a baby, and pretends to be nursed in a cradle by his own wife, Oonagh.
Benandonner sees this, and deduces that if Finn’s child is so enormous, Finn himself must be incredibly large – a giant of giants. Frightened by this prospect, the Scottish giant Benandonner flees in panic across the bridge, destroying it behind him so Finn could not follow. And thus, what remains of that bridge is the Giant’s Causeway we see today.
Fionn mac Cumhaill meets his father's old retainers in the forests of Connacht; illustration by Stephen Reid. (Public Domain)
A Link Between Brotherly Gaels
It is certain that the universal mythical figure that is Finn MacCool was adapted to suit this story. This is mostly because Finn is not generally described as a giant in Irish mythology, but simply a human hero with larger-than-life abilities. But if we consider one unique fact, we can see how the creators of this ancient tale fit everything together in order to have a believable mythical story. That fact is Fingal’s Cave, situated directly across the channel in Scotland’s Hebrides, and once a part of the same lava flow as the Giant’s Causeway.
Fingal’s Cave is another iconic location of columnar basalt, located on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides. The island itself is uninhabited, but the cave makes it a very popular tourist destination, and a sight that never ceases to amaze.
This sea cave looks like something out of an imaginative science fiction novel, with its perfectly shaped opening, the tall and super straight columns of basalt, and the incredible natural acoustics within it. Almost identical to the Giant’s Causeway, these basalt columns are perfectly shaped and hexagonal, although a part of the cave itself.
And even its name, Fingal’s cave, echoes the myth about the Giant’s Causeway because in Scottish Gaelic mythology Fingal is the name of Finn MacCool. In a way, this myth, the causeway, and the cave, connect Ireland and Scotland and hint at their shared ancient identity.
The island of Staffa was not always uninhabited. When Scottish families did live there, Fingal’s Cave was nothing special – they spent their entire lives aware of it. But when the famous English naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks visited this part of MacQuarrie lands, he discovered the cave and was utterly astonished. Since then, it entered the eye of the general population and became a popular attraction, drawing many prominent figures to experience this wonder of nature. The German composer Felix Mendelsohn is one of them – he visited the cave and subsequently wrote his iconic piece inspired by it: The Hebrides, Op. 26 (Fingal’s Cave Overture).
Fingal’s Cave. Credit: totajla / Adobe Stock
Arguably, the Giant’s Causeway in the North of Ireland enjoys a much older popularity. It is known that in 1692, the site was visited by the Bishop of Derry. The very next year, the prominent Irish baronet, Sir Richard Bulkeley brought it to prominence with his presentation to the Royal Society. From then on it gradually became a widely known attraction.
In 1739, the Dublin-based artist Susana Drury made the causeway the subject of one of her watercolor paintings. It won her a Royal Dublin Society award and skyrocketed the popularity of the location. Since then, the Giant’s Causeway gradually became known to the wider public. Decade after decade, it received more visitors, and its story and the old Irish myth became known to all.
The Giant’s Boot and the Camel – Odd Geological Formations
The Giant’s Causeway is vast, and very old, and as such it has several symbolic spots that add to the uniqueness of it all. Some of these features even add to the original myth of Finn and the giants, such as the weathered stone called the Giant’s Boot. Shaped by the wind and the water for countless centuries, this stone perfectly resembles a big upright boot. And for those who are keen to believe in the ancient myth – it is the proof they have been searching for: Benandonner the giant left his boot as he fled from Finn MacCool.
Another feature that cannot be missed is the Chimney Stack, a super tall and solitary column of basalt that survived the weathering of time and still stands tall and proud in the face of elements. Other interesting features are the so-called Shepherd’s Steps , the Honeycomb, the Giant’s Gate, and the Giant’s Harp. Each of these features has a symbolic appearance that adds to the character of the Giant’s Causeway location.
The Chimney Stack at the Giant’s Causeway. Credit: Ossie / Adobe Stock
Another unavoidable feature of this location is the so-called Wishing Chair . Formed from perfectly arranged basalt columns, it resembles an actual armchair, and has been a popular tourist spot for decades. Resembling a sort of a rocky throne, it is a great spot for funny photographs. Early on, only women were allowed to sit on the Wishing Chair, but that restriction has been removed. In fact, the chair is so popular, that it has been rubbed smooth and shiny by the countless behinds that have adorned it over the years.
The Causeway’s Clifftop Trails are a great way to observe the stunning views and rock formations. The perfect way to get a detailed bird’s eye view of the region, the Clifftop Trails are arranged into four distinct routes – yellow, blue, green, and red – each one offering a bigger challenge. In this way you can get a decent amount of exercise, enjoy some hiking, and experience the Giant’s Causeway in a truly unique way.
The Camel. We can’t forget the Camel, of course. Yet another of the several natural features of the Giant’s Causeway, the Camel is located at Portnaboe, and resembles a…well, you get the idea. The legend says that it was once a powerful camel, the chosen steed of Finn MacCool, which was since turned to stone. It is, in fact, just an oddly shaped basaltic dyke, which gained its camel-like shape as the rapidly cooling lava flow pushed its way through dense layers off rock.
For anyone who was skeptical of the Giant’s Causeway, thinking that in a sense it’s not much to see, the truth cannot be further away. This fantastic location is one of the best reasons to visit the northern tip of Ireland, and experience for yourself this unique blend of the Earth’s natural processes, its distant geological history, and the colorful mythology of ancient Ireland.
The Giant’s Causeway has remained a much-loved place for visitors for centuries. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
A Blend of Science and Myth
The Giant’s Causeway is Ireland’s foremost and perhaps only such collection of basalt columns. But it certainly isn’t the only one in Europe. Columnar basalt dots the land across the continent, with sites boasting equally inspiring views such as this one in County Antrim.
And each one is the perfect glimpse into the turbulent and highly violent geological history of planet Earth, which millions of years ago was dominated by primitive life forms, brutal asteroid impacts, and repeated volcanic eruptions across the globe – all of which changed the planet for good, and formed the world in which we live today.
Top image: Sunset at the Giant’s Causeway. Credit: acaggese / Adobe Stock
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