Skellig Island, Great Skelligs
Great Skellig is not for those that fear heights!. When you climb the stairs, you only see the next stairs but when you stop and turn back, you get a magnificent landscape with the sea 150 meters or so lower!
The first photo shows the open sea, northwards.
The second photo shows the upper part of the stairs and the kind of path between both sides of the island, at mi height. Several people gave up and did not climbed any further, feeling dizzy and stayed in the grass, waiting that their bolder fellows came down from the hermitage.
The third photo shows Small Skellig from mid stairs and the fourth from the first huts of the monastery.
When the boat gets closer, it seems that the rock is covered with snow. Actually, this is not snow. Small Skellig is a bird sanctuary and hosts one of the largest gannet colonies in the world. The largest colony is in Scotland, on St Kilda island. Most of the world population (80%) lives in the British islands. Anyway, there are over 40,000 gannets living on Small Skellig. The whitish color of the rock is both the gannet themselves, their droppings and their drippings! Depending of the wind, we sometimes can smell an atrocious smell! It is good that landing as both almost impossible and anyway forbidden!
Besides gannets, other sea birds nest in smaller colonies on Little Skellig : Storm petrel, Manx shearwater, fulmar, kittiwake, razorbill, common guillemot and Atlantic puffin.
There is no shelter on Great Skellig. The motorboats moor temporarily to a small quay at Blind Man’s cove to allow landing and anchor off the island to wait the visitors. Even on a clear day with a smooth sea, the boat jumps up and down along the quay and landing is not that easy. Actually, landing is often not possible and then the tour boats sail around the island. Weather commands!
We were lucky to be able to land! The small stone and concrete quay gives way to a rocky lane that was carved in the cliff at the end of the 19th when a lighthouse was built. It is named the lighthouse road.
As soon as you climb, the view is stunning. On the third photo, Small Skellig appears in the background.
The south peak stands at the other end of the island. On the first photo, it is seen from the summit of the stairs that go from the monastery to Christ’s saddle. The monastery seemed to be the remotest possible place for monks to live. However, some of them (most likely one at a time, for obvious reasons!) wanted to live in an even more isolated place, outside the community … and they built a tiny hermitage on top of south peak! The access is difficult and dangerous.
The second photo is an enlargement. The south peak appears as a massive mass with two twin summits. On the left, a shelf made of a large rock leaves a narrow passage called “Needle’s Eye”. (arrow). After the narrow passage, one has to climb on 5 m inside a natural chimney (not shown here) to get on the other side of south peak. Several shelves have been arranged and terraced with dry stones in order to have small gardens, an oratory and there must have been a beehive hut but not much is remaining. This place may have been a hermitage for a single monk or/and place where the monks from the abbey might hide when there were attacks by the Vikings, which occurred several times; The monastery was impossible to defend while in this place, a single man could, at Needle’s Eye, block any troupe of warriors, whatever its importance.
I did not tried to climb to the hermitage but only on the right to south peak, on a ridge easily accessed but from where it is not possible to reach the hermitage. The third photo shows two silhouettes on the ridge where I went moments later and took the photos of the next tip.
From the cemetery, the view on the cliffs and the sea is stunning. Blind’s man cove, where visitors land, is 185 m below, on the left of the picture, Boat that wait after their load of visitors look like toys!
This cliff is typical of the structure of the island with numerous narrow shelves, some of which had been improved by the monks that built dry stone walls to create small gardens.
I took this series of photos from the ridge just beneath the south peak.
The first photo shows Christ’s saddle with visitors laying in the sun, the north summit with the stairs that lead to the monastery and in the background, Small Skellig..
The second photo was taken a little further west with a 180 mm telephoto lens.
The third was taken from almost the same place but with a 300 mm telephoto lens.
There are now restrictions to the visits as too many visitors on the fragile ecosystem of the island has been found to be detrimental for it. Boat operators have a permit for taking passengers to the Skelligs. This permit is now not transferable anymore, for example to a son. When a boat operator retires, his permit is lost and new permits are given very scarcely. Boat operators are only permitted to make one trip to the Skelligs each day. Landing on Skellig Michael is limited to about 300 visitors a day even in the busy summer travel season. Out of the summer season, this number is much lower, even if the weather allows landing.
From the sea, it is difficult to spot the monastery that we will visit.
The first photo was taken with 300 mm telephoto lens. You must enlarge the photo. Near the summit, you might distinguish half a dozen mole traps. They are the beehives dry stone huts (clochan in Irish) of the monastery.
The second photo was taken with a 600 mm and the huts stand in the middle.
The third photo is an enlargement of the previous. The quality is lower but now the huts are easier to spot.
While small Skellig had a whitish look due to the many birds, Great Skellig has a greenish look due to grass growing on each shelf of its cliffs.
The creation of garden was somehow easy (not really!) because the wetness of the extreme oceanic climate speed the desegregation of the volcanic rock that gives a thin layer of fertile vegetal soil. No cultivated plant remains from the monks gardens but wild plants make a thick cover which is a testimony of its fertileness. Here, a bed of Silena inflata, of the Pink family (Caryophyllaceae). I have found that in English it was called either bladder campion or maiden's tears, which is obviously very different!
Small Skellig appears first. It is a narrow rock about 500 meters long. It looks like some stranded gigantic dinosaur! The sharp summit is about 150 meters high and is framed on the left by a series of even sharper rocks and on the right by a shoulder, half its height. The higher summit on the left and a lower on the right.
Great Skellig is as rocky and as inhospitable than small Skellig but more massive and thus more impressive. It is 7.5 miles southwest of Valentia island, which, though an island, is stuck to the mainland of Kerry. South Peak of Great Skellig rises 268 meters (879 feet) over the continental shelf and 218 meters (715 feet) of which rise over the ocean level. The north summit, where stands the monastery is smoother and tops at 185 meters. Between South Peak and the plateau, Christ’s Saddle stands at 135 meters.
Great Skellig is 750 meters long and 300 to 350 meters wide. The total area is 18 hectares (44acres).
A little further, the stairs are wider and more comfortable, either directly carved into the rock (first photo) or made of wide slabs of rock that have been taken a few meters away (second photo). What is amazing on Great Skellig is that grass grows everywhere it can cling and gives a thin cover of vegetal soil on the bare rock.
As our tour was not for watching seabirds on Small Skellig, we soon headed to for Skellig Michael. The other side (western) of Small Skellig was as covered with gannets and their droppings than the eastern side but now the wind prevented us from the scent!
A visit of Skellig Michael is something very special and “out of the beaten path”! I was very lucky and happy to have done it. I could not help to think of the pilgrims that for centuries ventured to this remote island. The visit was far from being as easy as it had been for me. The accesses we used did not exist. They had to climb by the rough and steep “East steps”. Moreover, they had to climb on top of south peak, what I did not!
On the way back, we had a last look at Small Skellig with its birds (first photo)
The second photo was taken when we passed the end of Small Skellig with Great Skellig in the background.
The third photo was taken just before entering the harbor of Portmaggee. The Skelligs are now far away! Goodby Skelligs!