In Search of Grace: Skellig Rocks

An excerpt from Peter Reason’s book, In Search of Grace

There are many places on the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland that might be called ‘sacred’. Ancient standing stones and Celtic crosses remind of us of the intensity of old beliefs that have faded in the modern age. Places of historical significance evoke the often-tragic dimensions of history: abandoned villages, sites of battles, massacres, clearances, the unmarked spot ten miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale where the Lusitania was torpedoed. And for many of the Celtic diaspora, the towns and villages from which their ancestors emigrated hold a particular personal poignancy.

Among the more dramatic are Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, two precipitous rocks that lie out in the Atlantic about 15 miles from Derrynane Harbour in County Kerry, where my little yacht Coral was anchored. For hundreds of years small bands of monks lived on these rocks. They built beehive huts for shelter, collected rainwater for drinking and seaweed to create vegetable gardens in the few sheltered spots. Most important of all, they devoted their lives to contemplation and worship, to ‘living in the presence of God’.

Skellig Rocks in fog

It seemed like a good day to visit: the sea was quiet and there was little wind. My crew, Suzy and Gib, hauled up the anchor and I steered Coral out of the harbour, careful to keep the two beacons that mark the safe passage in line so as to clear the underwater hazards. But the calm weather was misleading: as we turned west toward Bolus Head and the Skelligs beyond, we saw an ominous yellow-grey cloud of sea fog drifting our way. Looking back, I saw that the entrance to Derrynane was already obscured—it would be dangerous to turn back—but ahead, in the far distance, there was a hint of a horizon. It seemed that this patch of fog might be limited to the coastline.

It wasn’t. It was patchy, at times gathering right around the boat in a circle of damp greyness; at other times opening up to a hint of blue above us and a vague horizon. In hushed silence we sailed slowly, peering through the fog and listening hard. After about half an hour we heard the splash of little waves washing on rocks and the calling of seabirds. It sounded rather close. Then a vertical cliff side emerged out of the gloom, closer than was comfortable. We had strayed off course, too near to Bolus Head. I took in the tortured strata of the limestone rock face, the water washing around the scattered boulders at the bottom of the cliff, the seabirds flying in and out of the gloom; and, after a momentary alarm, I steered Coral clear. No harm done, but a warning. At least I knew exactly where we were! It was silly to try to sail when it was impossible to steer accurately. I started the engine and set a steady course out to sea toward the Skelligs. The lower slopes of the headland were soon swallowed up in the mist, but as we motored away from land, blue sky opened above us, daylight filtered through and just the top of the cliff emerged in sunshine like a heavenly body.

The mist came and went. When the visibility opened up, we could see a circle of calm water around us, the darker blue of the sea close to Coral fading into the light blue of the sky, with no visible horizon. The sea was dotted with tiny puffins—they looked as if they were this year’s chicks, just fledged. They bobbed about in the waves like little bits of fluff, struggled to take wing, but were entirely confident about diving. Two gannets seemed at first to be ignoring us, but suddenly took flight as we got close, beating a path along the water with their feet, wings powerfully lifting their bodies clear. They are very big birds when you see them up close. A small fishing boat came into view about half a mile away, a bright red hull almost glowing against the featureless blue, seeming to float in a space between the gently undulating sea and the featureless sky. As we passed it, the two men on board paused from attending to their lobster pots to raise hands in solemn greeting.

The mist closed about us again, but then a stronger shape began to emerge: a hint, a ghostly outline, then a firm presence. A pyramid of rock rose in front of us, its base hidden in the murk, so that it appeared suspended above the surface of the sea: Little Skellig, with its colony of gannets. In a moment of excitement, Gib and Suzy hurried forward with their cameras to get a better view, but the rock immediately disappeared as the fog closed back around us. Disoriented, I took Coral forward very slowly, caught a first whiff of bird shit, then the whole rock face opened less than twenty yards in front of us. The mist swirling around it, gannets in the water all around us, gannets on every available ledge of rock, the hubbub of their harsh, grating call filling our ears.

I turned off the engine. Coral rocked almost imperceptibly on the strangely calm water; we were just a few yards from the rock but I knew there was an immense depth beneath us. We stood on the deck and silently took it all in: this huge lump of rock, massively solid yet full of fissures and ledges and crags and gargoyles, rising sharply from the sea, covered in gannet droppings as if carelessly whitewashed; the smell of rotten fish and the sound of the birds; the pattern of dots they formed sitting on their nests; the shadows of those flying past fleeting across the sea.

Further west we caught a glimpse of Skellig Michael, a second ghostly shape lurking in the mist. Leaving the gannets to their own business, we motored the half-mile or so toward it. Again it came on us abruptly. First we saw the shapes of the tourist boats that had brought visitors from the mainland clustered around the foot; then the upward sweep of rock; and through the mist clinging in the crevices, we could just make out the beehive huts constructed by the monks hundreds of years ago. Slowly we circled round. Skellig Michael is bigger by far than Little Skellig, rising so high out of the water that we had to crane our necks to see the top. Suzy and Gib were silenced, awestruck it seemed, by its mysterious grandeur. I was content to make a quiet circumnavigation, enjoying the way the day had unfolded, feeling a bit like the archetypal ferryman who had brought visitors to this sacred spot. How much better could this day’s pilgrimage have been, I wondered, with the brush with danger, the slow passage across a boundless sea and the rocks appearing so mysteriously out of the mist?
We rounded the western end of the rock and turned back toward the mainland. As we passed the cliffs on the northern side, we could see the old landing place, the steps coming down to the water’s edge, the path that follows a steep angle up from the sea then turns sharply to continue up the higher cliff toward the huts. We imagined how this was all cut by monks with simple hand tools, how they had laboriously carried supplies up the cliff from their boats in their robes and sandals.

Then the sun finally broke through, the mist evaporated and along with it some of the mystery of the rocks. In the bright daylight we quite suddenly dropped our quiet solemnity. We even got a bit hysterical. Suzy, who had enjoyed diving from Coral’s side every morning, wondered whether she could swim ashore, climb the path and greet the tourists at the top in her bikini. Thankfully she wasn’t too serious.

But she was serious later, as we sailed back toward the mainland, suddenly asking us, “What do you take away from an experience like that?” We tried to answer her but didn’t get very far, even when we came back to her question after supper that evening. Gib said, “I felt we had entered another world, the gannets’ world, not our world.” Suzy agreed. “Little Skellig was surreal almost, totally unexpected: the sounds, colours, movements, shapes and shades. It was so unknown, such a surprise, so unfamiliar, it took me into worlds I didn’t imagine existed,” she said. We all agreed that the images of the Skelligs appearing and disappearing in the mist were strongly impressed on our minds: we could recall them vividly, even if we had difficulty finding words to describe them. Somehow fog turns one’s perceptions upside down or inside out: you have a hint, a glimpse of something special, only to have it almost immediately obscured. This seems to be an appropriate way of understanding an experience of the sacred. Grasp at it, try to hold on, and it is gone.

Peter Reason is a writer and a sailor and professor Emeritus at the University of Bath. His work links the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources. Peter lives in Bath, UK.

book coverIn Search of Grace is the story of an ecological pilgrimage undertaken by the author in his small yacht, Coral, from the south of England and round the west coast of Ireland, to the far north of Scotland. It explores themes of pilgrimage: the overall pattern of separation from the everyday, venturing forth, and returning home. It tells of meeting wildlife, visiting sacred places, confronting danger, expanding and deepening the experience of time, of silence and of fragility.

In Search of Grace is available from Earth Books, Amazon, and other retailers.