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by Andy McInroy

Great Sea Caves of Antrim
Chapters 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5a - 5b - 6a - 6b - 7

Chapter 6
The Caves of Rathlin Island
and the Hunt for Bruce's Cave

There is an old ruin called Bruce's Castle on this island, and the legend runs that Bruce and his chief warriors lie in an enchanted sleep in a cave of the rock on which stands the castle, and that one day they will rise up and unite the island to Scotland.
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland, Published 1887
Lady Jane Francesca Wilde ("Speranza."), Mother of Oscar Wilde

My project to photograph the sea caves of Antrim would not be complete without a visit to Rathlin Island. Rathlin lies three miles off the coast of Northern Ireland and fifteen miles from Scotland. Its position, as a stepping stone between Ireland and Scotland, has shaped the island's rich history which stretches back to Mesolithic times.

The sea caves of Rathlin are numerous and varied. There are dark, flooded basalt caves; there are beautifully sculpted limestone caves; there are also raised, relict caves which are now stranded high above the sea. The caves of Rathlin are steeped in history and legend. In early Mesolithic times they were the dwelling places of stone-age man. During times of conflict they were used as hiding places, possibly by the great Robert the Bruce of Scotland. Many are also said to be inhabited by ghosts and perhaps even by the devil himself.

In September 2008 I made my first visit to Rathlin to explore and photograph some of these caves. Let me take you on a tour of the island's most secret places.

East Rathlin - The Hunt for Bruce's Cave

Under the East Lighthouse at Altacarry lies the most famous cave on Rathlin, Bruce's Cave. Legend tells how Robert the Bruce fled from Scotland in 1306 to regain his strength in this great cave. The story also tells how he was inspired to return to the battle in Scotland, and victory at Bannockburn, after watching a spider steadfastly spinning a web inside the cave.

Sadly, the spider legend is probably a figurative tale, written in the 1800's by Sir Walter Scott. However, there is strong historical evidence that Robert the Bruce did come to Rathlin in the winter of 1306, not alone, but with a small army of 300 men.

The arrival of Robert the Bruce on Rathlin
In Rauchryne thai aryvyt ar
And to the land thai went but mar
Armyt apon thar best maner.
Quhen the folk that thar wonnand wer
Saw men off armys in that cuntre
Aryve into sic quantite
Thai fled in hy with thar catell
Towart a rycht stalwart castell

Bruce's demands of the islanders
Everilk day thai suld him send
Vittalis for thre hunder men,
And thai as lord suld him ken,
Bot at thar possessioune suld be
For all his men thar awyn fre

The submission of Rathlin
Off all Rauchryne bath man and page
Knelyt and maid the king homage,
And tharwith swour him fewté
To serve him ay in lawté,

The Brus, Volume 3 by John Barbour
Written in 1375


(In Rathlin they arrived)
(and to the land they went)
(armed to their best fashion.)
(When the people of the land)
(saw soldiers in that country)
(arrive in such quantity)
(they fled in haste with their cattle)
(towards a strong castle.)


(Every day they should send him)
(victuals for three hundred men)
(and they should know him as their lord.)
(But that their possessions should be)
(their own, free of all his men.)


(Of all Rathlin, both man and boy)
(knelt and paid the king homage)
(and therewith swore him fidelity)
(to serve him always in loyalty.)

There are no references to secret caves in this famous historical poem by John Barbour. The writing suggests that Robert the Bruce's base on Rathlin was the castle rather than a cave. Indeed, the ruined castle on Rathlin still bears his name today. To keep himself occupied during his uneventful winter on Rathlin, perhaps Bruce investigated the castle's defensive surrounds, including any hiding places underneath the cliffs. However, I personally doubt he ever had reason to retreat to them. Interestingly, I noticed that the modern survey maps indicated several sea caves in the vicinity of Bruce's Castle. I decided to investigate.


Bruce's Castle on Rathlin Island
Ireland: Its Scenery & Character, Published 1843
Drawn by Andrew Nicholl

Rathlin and The Antrim Coast
Published by Veuve Agasse Paris, 1827
Reproduced courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

I started my search at the place marked as Bruce's Cave on the modern map. Looking down from the high clifftop, I had further doubts about Bruce's movements. It seems highly unlikely that Bruce hid alone in the cave during a Rathlin winter. Access is only possible by boat and requires a flat calm sea, something of a rarity on this notorious northeastern headland. That was a cave for another day. However, I did find another fantastic cavern hidden from view under the cliffs and positioned just 150 yards from the ruins of Bruce's Castle. This cave is named 'Oweynagolman' on the map and is known locally by the name 'Avaragh'.

Portbradden Flints
Wading into Oweynagolman
© Pete Smith

I was able to climb down the cliff to the cave mouth where I sat for a while and tried to guage the depth of the water between each incoming swell. I had timed my visit with a low spring tide, so it was now or never. After stripping down to my underwear, I braced myself for the cold and jumped in up to my chest. Wading into the darkness while holding my camera gear aloft was a tricky undertaking. The boulders and deeper holes on the bottom threatened to unbalance me and tip my expensive equipment into the water. However, it wasn't long before I was clambering up the dry boulder beach at the back of the cave. The rock architecture of the interior was magnificent. This was a sea cave built for Kings.

Shivering in this dark hall in nothing but my underwear, I did feel a little vulnerable. I took my photographs quickly, all the time keeping a careful watch for any spiders that might pounce on me from the dark recess.

I have come to the conclusion that there is a very good probability that King Robert of Scotland investigated this great hall, spider or not! We shall probably never know for sure, but of all the caves that claim a visit from Bruce, this one under his castle must surely be a strong contender.

 

Oweynagolman  Cave, Rathlin Island
5P6
Avaragh - Oweynagolman Cave
Uaigh na gColmán
(Cave of the Pigeon)
Another Bruce's Cave?
© Andy McInroy

I have also been able to link this spectacular cave to some old stories of Rathlin. It is said that the protective bar at the entrance was created by the spell of a local wise-woman to protect the legendary Children of Lir. These children were turned into swans by their wicked stepmother, Aoife, and endured 300 years on the Sea of Moyle. The swan children wished to shelter in this cave and turned to the wise-woman for help. The bar of rock can actually be seen in my photograph across the entrance of the cave. It is revealed only on a low spring tide around which I planned my visit. It was this bar which also made it safe for me to enter so I must also thank the wise-woman of Rathlin for her help.

South Rathlin - Darker Days

Skirting around the shore to the south of Church Bay lies a stretch of cliffs at Kinkeel which hold many examples of relict sea caves. These caves are located on ancient glacial shorelines which have been left high above the current sea level. Many of these caves go in a good distance and one of them is even said to pass all the way under the island to Doon Point. Inside another dripping cave known as the Wet Cave, the signatures of Rathlin's inhabitants are etched onto the walls with dates going back into the 19th century. Many illegible signatures look even older.

The hand of history is heavy in these dark places. One particular chapter from Rathlin history tells how, in 1575, the women and children of Clan McDonnell sought sanctuary in these caves from the invading English troops of Queen Elizabeth I.

Before an alarm could be given the English had landed close to the church which bears Columba's name. The castle was taken by storm, and every soul in it - about two hundred - put to the sword. It was then discovered that the greater part of the fugitives, chiefly mothers and their little ones, were hidden in the caves about the shores. "They were hunted out as if they had been seals or otters, and all destroyed".
The Subterranean World
Published 1871, Georg Hartwig

I visited many of the caves along the shores of Church Bay. It is said that the bones of those massacred lie below the dirt and gravel of the cave floors. While I stood at my camera, waiting for the longest exposures to finish, I had a quiet moment of reflection for the women and children who met their end in such dark places on Rathlin.

The Wet cave, Rathlin Island
5P33
The Wet Cave at Kinkeel
© Andy McInroy

West Rathlin - Ghosts of Cooraghy

Now, let me tell you a ghost story.
In the remote western bay of Cooraghy on Rathlin lies a cave.......

A story tells how three men were fishing off the rocks at Cooraghy. With the daylight fading, they decided to shelter overnight in a nearby cave. They lit a fire inside and started to brew their tea. In the centre of the cave, a large, flat toped boulder made a good table to sit their mugs. As the tea was poured, a hand shot out of the darkness and placed a fourth mug on the great stone boulder. The men saw only the hand and did not look round to greet the visitor, but poured the fourth mug. The hand reappeared to take the tea and pulled back into the darkness of the cave once more. The story goes that the hand belonged to the devil himself. Nobody stayed in it after that.

I found a cave at Cooraghy. In the centre of that cave was a large flat topped boulder, just as the old story tells. On the boulder had been placed the skull and scapula of a sheep which you can see in my photograph. Many more sheep bones were scattered nearby. I didn't stay overnight!

Cave at Cooraghy, Rathlin Island
5P32
Cave at Cooraghy
© Andy McInroy

This first visit to Rathlin in 2008 gave me a real flavour of the sea caves that litter this island coast. There were enough caves here to last me a lifetime and to photograph them all would be a nearly impossible task. However, exactly one year later, in September 2009, I returned to Rathlin, this time to finally access and photograph the great Bruce's Cave that I was only able to look down upon on my first visit. For this adventure I needed some help and islander, Liam McFaul kindly offered me his assistance. So lets step forward a year and return to Rathlin Island on one final hunt for King Bruce...... Continue to page 2

Bruce's Cave
Bruce's Cave
Etching from 'A History of the Island of Rathlin'
by Mrs Gage, 1851

Continue to page 2