The Mermaid’s Secret Lair

The mouth of Spar Cave

The Spar Cave on the Isle of Skye is a truly wondrous place. In the 19th century it was a fashionable destination for well-to-do Victorian trippers, drawn north to the wild and rugged Strathaird peninsula by Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lord of the Isles in which he wrote of a mermaid bathing in a pool concealed deep within the enchanted cell. Steamers set a course here from Glasgow in the 1820s and 30s and locally organised boat trips were well subscribed.

At some point in history the cave’s popularity dwindled and these days only those with a real spirit of adventure find their way to the entrance of a secret underground world that must surely be one of Scotland’s natural wonders.

Accessing the cave is no easy task. It lies well off the tourist trail. One must first follow the winding single-track road south from Broadford to the coastal village of Elgol. From here, an even narrower road crosses a windswept moor to Glasnakille, the last outpost of civilisation on the peninsula.

There is no visitor centre. Indeed, the cave is not even signed from the road and admittance is restricted to just a few hours a day when the tide is at its lowest ebb. From Glasnakille a faint path descends towards the sea. From there, one must carefully pick a course over a clutter of well polished stone and sharp, angular rocks.

Although most people access the cave on foot these days, early visitors arrived by boat. In 1828 weekly trips to the Spar Cave on the schooner/steamship hybrid Ben Lomond were advertised in the Glasgow Herald while boats could also be chartered from Elgol.

The cave entrance remains hidden from view and it is only when you enter a vast ravine that it appears in all its majestic glory. The canyon drives 200 feet inland and vertical walls of rock on either side rise at least 100 feet. John Macculloch visited the cave during his Scottish travels between 1811 and 1821 and he likened it to ‘some deep cathedral aisle’.

Exploring the inner recesses of Spar Cave

The walk up the aisle towards the altar is accompanied only by the gentle whisper of the washing sea behind. At the top of the channel, the moss-covered remains of an old wall stand guard over the entrance. It was built in the early years of the 19th century to prevent people visiting without a guide but it failed to deter some, including Sir Walter Scott who scaled the wall using a rope when he ventured here in 1814. Later it was unofficially demolished by a shot fired from an offshore yacht.

Beyond the ruined wall, two passages present themselves. The tunnel on the right is short-lived and goes nowhere while the one on the left leads into the mystical chamber where Scott’s mermaid ‘bathes her limbs in sunless well, deep in Strathaird’s enchanted cell… where dazzling spars gleam like a firmament of stars’.

At this point a torch is required as any remaining shreds of daylight are quickly extinguished, the passage pitch black as it approaches the base of an incredible flowstone staircase. Creamy white calcium carbonate coats every surface of a square tunnel that rises steeply ahead.

This ‘spar’ gave the cave its popular name, but its true Gaelic title is Slochd Altrimen, or Nursing Cave. This dates from the ninth century when a local princess fell in love with the son of the chief of Colonsay who was shipwrecked on the Strathaird coast. Unfortunately the fathers of the young lovers were sworn enemies and when she gave birth to a child, the baby was concealed in the cave to ensure its survival until the feud was settled.

The flowstone staircase

Coated in a fine sheen of clear water, the marble-like slope at first appears impossible to scale. The calcium, however, offers excellent grip for walking boots and initially there are plenty of good footholds. Half way up, the gradient increases and footholds are fewer but persevere and the ground flattens out to form a plateau flanked by all manner of weird and wonderful configurations, centuries in the making and ever changing under the constant caress of the calcium-rich water that oozes gently through the limestone rock.

The ceiling of the cavern once boasted great stalactites but Victorian souvenir hunters took these. It remains, however, a breath-taking sight, eerily quiet but for the constant dripping of water.

Duncan Macpherson visited the cave in 1921 and described the trip in his book Gateway to Skye. He wrote: ‘Imagination can hardly conceive anything more beautiful that the extraordinary grotto. The first entrance to this celebrated cave is rude and unpromising; but the light of the torches with which we were provided, was soon reflected upon the roof, floor and walls, which seems as if they were sheeted with marble. The floor forms a steep and difficult ascent. Upon attaining the summit of this ascent, the cave opens into a splendid gallery, adorned with the most dazzling crystallisations.’

Calcium carbonate formations

Macpherson’s observations hold good to this day. The narrow cut in the cliff certainly belies the true beauty concealed within. Casting a torch around the walls and ceiling reveals a multitude of strange natural creations, an unworldly mix of different formations. Some are smooth, highly polished orbs of calcium dripping with straggly alabaster dreadlocks. Others are more grotesque, peering out of the gloom like monstrously deformed faces, sprouting endless steams of gnarled tentacles. Pools on the floor ripple constantly under the eternal dripping of cool water, calcium deposits solidifying around the edges in thin sheets of unbreakable ice.  

Beyond the plateau, the floor slopes away sharply, dropping to a deep pool of water flanked by flowstone arches. This is Scott’s ‘sunless well’. The only way across is to swim, but the cave ends abruptly a short distance on.

Unfortunately, visiting time to the Spar Cave is limited by the tide. Although the cave itself never floods, the channel outside fills completely with water as the sea rises, cutting the cavern off until it is ready to receive its next visitors. Only then can the mermaid return to her peaceful bathing.

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