The Giant’s  Causeway


ACCORDING to Irish legend, a giant by the name of Finn MacCool from Ireland wanted to fight a giant named Benandonner from Scotland. However, there was a difficulty. There was not a boat big enough to carry either one across the sea to the other! Finn MacCool, says the legend, solved this problem by building a connecting causeway using huge columns of stone.

Benandonner accepted the challenge to fight and traveled over the causeway to Ireland. He was bigger and stronger than Finn MacCool. As soon as Finn MacCool’s wife saw that, she craftily decided to dress her giant husband as a baby. When Benandonner arrived at their house and saw the “baby,” he became afraid, thinking that if this was the baby, he did not wish to meet the father! He fled back to Scotland! To make sure that Finn MacCool could not possibly follow, he ripped up the road behind him as he ran. In Ireland all that remained were the stones that now make up the Giant’s Causeway.

For over three hundred years, millions of visitors have been told this humorous tale as an explanation of how the Giant’s Causeway came to be. What is the real explanation, and what makes it such a special attraction? We decided to see for ourselves.

A Causeway for Giants!

The Giant’s Causeway is found on the north coast of Ireland about 60 miles [100 km] northwest of Belfast. On arrival there we took the short walk from the visitor center down to the shore and rounded the corner. Before us was an astonishing sight​—thousands of large, vertical stone columns up to 20 feet [6 m] in height. Some people have estimated that there are about 40,000. But it was not the number of them that caught our attention. It was their symmetry. They are each between 15 and 20 inches [38-51 cm] across, their tops seem to be flat, and every one appeared to have six sides. They are so uniform that when viewed from above, their tops mesh together like a honeycomb. We later discovered that about a quarter of the columns have five sides and that there are also a few with four, seven, eight, and even nine sides.

The Giant’s Causeway is in three sections. The largest one, the Grand Causeway, begins on the shore at the foot of the cliffs. Initially, it appears to be more like a haphazard series of gigantic stepping-stones, some as high as 20 feet [6 m]. As it extends toward the sea, the notion of a highway for giants is readily seen because the honeycomblike tops soon level off. There the causeway resembles a cobbled road that varies in width from 60 to 100 feet [20 and 30 m]. At low tide we were able to walk out a few hundred yards on this roadway of stones before they gently sloped away beneath the waves, seemingly heading toward Scotland.

The other two parts, the Middle Causeway and the Little Causeway, are grouped alongside the Grand Causeway. These are both shaped like mounds rather than roads. Their flat tops make it easy for any adventurous visitor to clamber from one to the other. Great care must be taken doing this, for we found that the columns nearest the water were wet and very slippery!

Other Giant Formations

We continued to walk along the four-mile stretch of coastline generally known as the Causeway Headlands, and we saw thousands more of these columns exposed in the cliff faces. Down through the years, people have given names to some of the formations. Two of them are named after musical instruments. One of these, the Organ, is so named because its long regular-shaped columns resemble the pipes of a giant organ. The other, the Giant’s Harp, has huge curved columns that sweep down to the shoreline.

The theme of giants is promoted in other names. For example, there are the Giant’s Loom, the Giant’s Coffin, and the Giant’s Cannons, as well as the Giant’s Eyes. There is even a Giant’s Boot! On the beach farther along from the Giant’s Causeway, we saw that boot-shaped stone. It stands about seven feet [2 m] high. Some folk have calculated that the mythical giant who supposedly wore the “boot” would have been at least 53 feet [16 m] tall.

Another formation, the Chimney Tops, recalls the association of the Giant’s Causeway with the famous Spanish Armada. Isolated from the main cliff face by erosion and weathering, the Chimney Tops are a few columns that stand exposed on a promontory overlooking the Causeway coast. It is easy to imagine how sailors looking at them from out at sea could mistake them for the chimney tops of a large castle. Apparently one Spanish warship, the Girona,  in fleeing from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, fired a broadside at these pillars, thinking them to be an enemy castle.

The Other End of the Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway was supposedly built to join Ireland and Scotland together. Where, then, is the other end? Identical basalt columns are found 81 miles [130 km] to the northeast on Staffa Island, a very small, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. (The name Staffa means “Pillar Island.”) Benandonner, the Scottish giant who fled from Finn MacCool, was also named Fingal, and the main feature of Staffa Island​—the large sea cave formed inside these basalt columns and extending about 88 yards [80 m] into the rock—​was named Fingal’s Cave, after him. The breaking of the waves at the cave inspired the German composer Felix Mendelssohn to compose his “Hebrides” overture, also known as “Fingal’s Cave,” in 1832.

How Formed?

Since these uniformly shaped columns were not made by the hands of feuding giants, how did they come to exist? We found that the real answer lay in understanding how some rocks are formed.

Northern Ireland is situated on an area of compact limestone. Long ago, volcanic activity deep within the earth’s crust forced molten rock, which was in excess of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit [1,000°C], upwards through fissures in the limestone. Once in contact with air, it cooled and solidified. But why did it not simply harden into a gigantic, irregular-shaped mass?

Molten rock, or magma, is composed of many chemical elements and can thus create a variety of rock types. The type formed so dramatically at the Giant’s Causeway is basalt. As this magma slowly cooled, it shrank, and because of its chemical composition, regular hexagonal cracks formed on the outer surface. Gradually as the magma continued to cool inwards, the cracks went progressively downward, producing the profusion of pencillike columns of basalt.

 ‘Where Is the Boast of the Architect?’

Columns such as these are not unique to Ireland or Scotland. In most other parts of the world, however, considerable effort is often needed to get close to them. It is rare to find so many well-preserved hexagonal columns in a setting that makes them accessible to everyone.

At the end of the 18th century, Sir Joseph Banks was so moved by the striking beauty of the relatively few columns he discovered on Staffa Island that he remarked: “Compared to this, what are the cathedrals or palaces built by men! . . . Where is now the boast of the architect?”

Our visit to the Giant’s Causeway, one of Ireland’s natural wonders, inspired similar feelings of admiration in us. We wandered among this natural architecture and reflected on the power and creative ability of the Grand Creator and Architect, Jehovah God.

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A Natural Phenomenon​—Most of the stone columns are hexagonal

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Courtesy NITB

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The basalt columns span four miles [6 km] of coastline

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The Giant’s Boot, about seven feet [2 m] tall

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These 40-foot-high [12 m] columns resemble the pipes of a giant organ

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Top left: Courtesy NITB; bottom: © Peter Adams/Index Stock Imagery