Ballycastle, County Antrim.
Spectacular views and a world of breath-taking natural beauty can be seen for endless miles along the rugged rocks of Fair Head, Murlough Bay and Torr Head.
Known as Northern Ireland’s tallest cliff face, the impressive Fair Head rises 600 feet above sea level and can be seen from Ballycastle and many other points along the north coast. The rocky headland lies 3 miles (5 km) east of Ballycastle town, and is the closest part of the mainland to Rathlin Island. Highly regarded as a rock-climbing location, it is believed to be the biggest expanse of climbable rock in either Ireland or Britain.
Much of the land at Fair Head is in private ownership, while National Trust own and manage Murlough Bay and some surrounding land. Paths allow visitors to access the area. Visitors will be astounded by its well-preserved natural beauty. Wild goats can be seen roaming among the rocks beneath the clifftops, where a walkway called ‘The Grey Man’s Path’ winds around the rugged coastline. From the road, a manmade Iron Age island or crannóg can be seen in the middle of a lake, Lough na Cranagh. The lakes are stocked with trout and can be fished during the summer months.
According to one story: Fair Head got its name from the tale of a beautiful fair-headed girl who once lived in a castle on Rathlin Island. She had many suitors, leading to a fight between two of them. One was mortally wounded and, as he lay dying, whispered to his servant to dance with the girl on the cliffs below the castle. The faithful servant obeyed, and danced nearer and nearer the edge of the cliff until they both fell over and died. The spot on the mainland where the girl’s body was washed up was from then on known as ‘Fairhead’.
The cliffs are divided into several main sectors. From east to west, these are:
* The Small Crag, a 20m-high sector containing about 70 climbs, which stretches for 1 km above a heavily-forested hillside. The difficulty of access means that abseiling in is usually necessary.
* The Main Crag (including The Prow at its western end) is by far the most important sector. It curves around the headland for 3 km, and contains the longest and best-quality climbs, up to 100m in height. Access is gained mainly by two easy descent gullies near either end of the sector, the Grey Man’s Path at the east, and the Ballycastle Gully at the west. The Ballycastle Gully tends to be the more popular descent route for casual visitors, as there is a concentration of easier climbs in the vicinity. Between the two gullies, the starts of climbs can be reached by picking one’s way through the boulder-field or by doing a usually-vertical abseil of up to 100m.
* Farrangandoo is a popular small sector consisting of columns with intervening cracks every 2m or so, and contains about 30 single-pitch climbs.
* Marconi’s Cove is about 500m distant from the rest of the crag, and was not discovered until 1988, but contains about 25 good-quality single-pitch climbs.
Base camps are usually established near the tops of the descent routes; the walk-ins this far are pleasant and quite short, through the open grazing fields above the crag. However, access to some of the climbs themselves can be quite rough and time-consuming.
To the east, Murlough Bay offers gentler slopes and wooded areas. Deemed as a ‘place of true beauty’, it offers views across the ocean to Rathlin Island, the Mull of Kintyre among other Scottish islands.
There is also an historical importance associated with Murlough Bay, having been the chosen burial place of Irish patriot and poet, Sir Roger Casement, who was executed by the British in August 1916, He was famous for his activities against human rights abuses in the Congo and Peru, and for his dealings with Germany prior to Ireland’s Easter Rising in 1916. A small memorial is held each August in his honour at Murlough.
Both sites are accessible by car and offer excellent walking opportunities, more challenging at Fair Head than at Murlough.
With spectacular views over the Mull of Kintyre, crashing waves and historical intrigue, Torr Head is also a popular destination for those touring the Causeway Coastal Route.
In the 1800s it recorded the passage of transatlantic ships, relaying the information back to Lloyds of London.
It was often the last hope for Scottish clans beckoning aid from allies in Argyllshire. The walls and ruins of Altagore cashel date back to the sixth century. Long before the early Christian church and Irish clans came here, the headland was already remarkable.
Torr Head is also an excellent example of metamorphosed limestone and indicative of volcanic rock sequences in Ireland and Scotland.
Life and Legend
From Ballycastle, far beyond the pebbles and sand of the beach, Benmore or Fair Head rises in the distance. The almost vertical basalt cliff, almost two hundred metres tall stands like the proud bow of a great black ship striking its way into the Sea of Moyle. It is possible to walk to the top of the head from the road behind the beach but it is a walk only suitable for the fit and experienced. Best to take the road to the top and use the car parks.
The road to the head is guarded by two forts, one either side. Less than a mile from the junction, Lisnacallaigh, the Fort of the Witch is the first, followed by Craiganalbanagh, the Scotsman’s Rock rising high above the road which then dips down towards the lough. The saucer of Fairhead is a microcosm of Ireland. Surrounded by low ridges, high above the Atlantic, people have always settled in this welcome protection from the winter gales. In the lough in the centre of Fair Head, four thousand years ago, people made the island. First they built a circular frame of stout oak trunks and then they filled it with stones and later with layers of heather and brambles until they had a safe dry place to build their home, a home that was to shelter many generations until the 1600s. There was a church in this hollow, Killyowen, dedicated to Saint John and there was a tiny chapel too. Killaleenan, the Church covered in Ivy is only 5 metres long and it was probably the first Christian building on the Head. On the crest to the West, the outline of a steep-sided Norman fort from the 1200s is silhouetted against the western sky. It guards a laneway that runs to a small farmstead, between two tall peaks. There is another smaller lough near the top of the head to the north. This is Lough Dhu, the Black Lough.
The Black Lough is haunted by a terrifying legend. The ghost of a devil-horse lives beneath its waters and when the mists envelope the head, it rises out of the water and takes the form of an old grey man. The Grey Man wanders in the half light in the hope of meeting some hapless person taking the lonely path which passes the lough. If the spirit can get them close enough to the water, it will try to lure them to the edge and then pull them in to share its watery grave. Whether the devil horse is still there is not known, but the Grey Man’s Path certainly is. At one point it follows a very steep fissure which leads almost from the top of the head to the ocean below. One of the great columns has fallen across the top of the ravine creating a massive natural doorway. A freestanding pillar beside the path, at the foot of the cliff is Binnagapple, the Headland of the Horse.
People have always thought this was a special place. Near the very edge of the cliff, Cross passage grave, like its famous sister at Newgrange, catches the sun’s rays on a few days of the year at midsummer sunset when its tiny chamber is lit with the magic of the ancients.
The view of Rathlin from here is truly aerial, but be careful… a closer look could cost a fearsome fall to the rocks and the ocean below.
The last lough of Fair Head is on a dangerous walk to the east. Lough Fadden lies in Coolanlough, the Corner of the Lough, near the east side of Fair Head on the cliffs above Murlough Bay.
On the last leg of the road to Murlough Bay there is a lime kiln close to the roadside. There were once many of these, slaking the lime was a long dangerous process. It took a week to make 25 tons of lime. There are car parks on the way to the bay and it is just as good to walk as to drive. Near the last car park before the bay itself, down a rough path to the north, there is a multiple ballaun stone cut out of the living rock. Ballaun stones were used in Pagan rituals for grinding, for example in the preparation of grain for ritual meals. They are also called cursing stones, probably from the prayers that were said when they were in use. Ballauns are most often found on early church sites. Taking the road to the bottom, the ruin of Saint Luan’s church stands on a small ridge in the centre of the bay. Saint Luan in old Irish is Mologe and the name Murlough seems to be a corruption of the name of this early saint. The full circuit of the church walls is still intact, complete with its altar base to the east. Old stories tell of a stone cross at this end and the church is still used for special ceremonies. There are ruined fisherman’s cottages a little to the north and some of the carved standstone from the doors and windows of the ruined church can be seen built into their walls. Murlough itself is isolated and often neglected because it is not on the main coast road run but its views are unparalleled to the Mull of Kintyre and other Scottish Islands, cradled in the gentle curve of the bay.
In the Glens, the rocks are more various because it is on a geological boundary and there are many kinds of rock apart from the more usual basalt, limestone and sandstone. The beach is made of coloured pebbles of all sizes and textures. On the cliff top to the south, there is a village of prehistoric hutsites where it was discovered that the people quarried flint to make tools and clay to make pottery. At the end of summer, they sacrificed flint flakes and broken pottery into pits, so that the land would give them more flint and clay the next year.
Torr Head is reached by a narrow winding road where any driver is ill advised to look at the views. Every metre of this roller coaster route is stunning. It dips on a loop down to the head through pasture land and then the land rises suddenly to the head itself standing proud on the edge. There is the ruin of a coastguard station on top of it now, enclosed by a circular wall. A hundred years ago, the coastguards passed news to London about the safe passage of transatlantic ships, but once it was very different. Echoed by the modern wall, there was once a Celtic Cashel on the rock. It was called Dunworry, the Citadel of Barach the Great. Barach is recorded in several other place names nearby and the site of his grave was known until Victorian times.
Torr is the closest point of Ireland to Scotland and Barach’s cashel at Torr was once a Celtic lighthouse in the charge of an important chieftain. How many signalling fires were made here, to ask for help or pass on news…?
And did the place get its name because of a signalling tower or because the rock itself looks like a tower?
Video produced by Ambient Light Productions