Irish Seaboard Islands

Skellig Michael

Skellig MichaelThe best surviving example of an isolated early medieval monastic island settlement on the Celtic fringe of Europe, Skellig Michael gives us clues about what parts of St Kilda might have looked like in these early times – from around the 6th to 8th centuries AD. A spartan and very remote existence, the monks lived on birds, eggs and fish, along with produce from a sheltered monastic garden.

The monks lived in cellular beehive structures made from local materials. Although much later in date, Calum Mor's house in Village Bay, Hirta, could represent an evolutionary development of this type of structure.There is, however, only circumstantial evidence for the presence of an Early Christian monastic community on St Kilda.

Skellig Michael was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1996.

Innishmurray

Also with very well preserved monastic remains, but of more typical form, Innishmurray has a long history of occupation which ended in 1948 with the evacuation of the last 46 inhabitants. Only four miles offshore, the island was nevertheless cut off for weeks at a time during winter, and for several days each summer.

Like St Kilda, natural resources were relatively poor and restricted, but on Innishmurray the food supply was based on fish rather than birds. In the 19th century and up to the evacuation, however, the economy was mainly based on the sale of illicit whiskey.

Great Blasket

With a population of up to 200 in the past, Great Blasket was abandoned on 17 November 1953 after a steady decline. In the early 20th century, scholars visited and encouraged the islanders to document their folklore and traditions, and a strong Irish Gaelic culture was recorded for posterity – in music, poetry and prose.

Up to the early 19th century rod fishing was practised, but a new type of boat opened out the possibilities of fishing on open waters. Other than in times of food shortages, birds and their eggs were taken more as a delicacy than as part of the staple diet.

Although the arrangement of the villages differs, the house type has similarities with those of St Kilda's Village Bay. Originally thatched with reeds, felt was later used for roofing.

Innishmaan

One of the Aran Islands, the geology of Innishmaan was suitable for creating dykes around the small fields to protect the meagre soils from erosion. The resultant landscape has created an impressive pattern of conjoining fields, part of a continuing cultural landscape.

Tory Island

The distinctive arc of Village Bay on St Kilda is a response to the form of the available landscape and the resources within it. A similar layout survives, on Tory Island on the west coast of Ireland, where the arc of the village fits within a small area of land suitable for agriculture, and a fan of strip fields emanates from the house plots.

While many of the places cited above have fascinating stories to tell, St Kilda retains by far the most evocative physical legacy of a tiny, remote island community, dwarfed by nature yet able to live in harmony with its environment until the values and influences of the wider world made the islanders’ way of life untenable. Today, visitors can still stand in the village street and easily imagine the community in its heyday, and it is this experience that touches the heart of everyone who has made the pilgrimage to the island ‘at the edge of the world’.