In a landscape heavily scattered with distinctive peaks, Skellig—although much less than half the height of its nearest neighbours, Toorennamna to the east and Lackawee to the south—stands out from its surroundings. Backed by mountains and commanding the boggy plain around Ardgroom, it stands oddly, almost deliberately, in the mouth of Glenbeg, like a citadel from some Tolkien epic defending the entrance to the long, narrow, secret valley. Skellig’s great role, however, was not in defending an entrance, but in the shaping of the landscape, by impeding egress; for the glacial forces of ice and meltwater which scoured the glen were unable to wear down this crag, and instead turned sharply to the north, carving out the narrow gap of the abhainn na nCappul, the river of the horses, which still takes the waters of Glenbeg Lough through the coastal lowlands—perhaps horse-breeding terrain, giving gallops (albeit somewhat boggy) in an otherwise hilly area—to the sea.
‘Skellig’, to most minds, refers to The Skelligs, the craggy islands stretching into the Atlantic off Iveragh on the northern side of Kenmare River: once the resort of pilgrims and ascetic monks, and now the resort of equally driven birdwatchers. But a skellig is a sceilg, a sharply rising crag, whether rising from land or sea, and all the skelligs in this region, whether called so or not, were once part of the land. The more famous islands rise through the sea from their roots on the continental shelf; the coastal plains and valleys around them flooded when the landscape was slowly forming, leaving them as islands—spectacular, inhospitable islands—in the sea. This Skellig remained, and remains, inland, a mile or more from the shore; but in its isolation it commands the lands to northward (Bunskellig, the foot of Skellig) and to the west.
Despite its apparently strategic position, there is no reason to think that Skellig’s possible military advantages were ever used; indeed, there is little enough evidence of any early settlement in and around Glenbeg. The nearest stone circles and burial sites are spread around what is now the coast road, running along the lowlands on the seaward side under the modest dominance of the ringfort in the grasslands at Dromard. Clearly the purposes of these builders in the first millennium and earlier were adequately served by domestic defences; there was no need to invest resources in purely military structures, and the fastness of Skellig and Glenbeg was left to the sheep.