The Causeway Coast, particularly the Giant's Causeway itself, must be the Province's most renowned area internationally and boasts the only World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. Designated in 1989, it is a place of extraordinary beauty encompassing 18 miles of spectacular coastal scenery with dramatic cliffs and headlands broken by the wide sweep of fresh sandy beaches backed by dunes. Dark volcanic rocks and brilliant white chalk, eroded by the vigorous North Atlantic, form magnificent geological features including the renowned Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
This natural beauty is made all the more impressive by the small harbours, fisheries and farms delicately poised on the storm-torn coastline. A rich and fascinating variety of wildlife thrives on the offshore islands and rocks, amid the cliffs and sand dunes, and within the farmed countryside.
Above the sea, in abrupt contrast, the land is intensively farmed up to the very cliff top. The few trees that survive the battering by salt winds are huddled in sheltered hollows.
Buildings are prominent in this open landscape with good examples of clachans (groups of single storey houses) and isolated nineteenth century farm houses surrounded by barns and outbuildings.
Further information on the AONB can be obtained from the Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust who with the the support of the Causeway Coast AONB Management Group has developed an Action Plan to co-ordinate the landscape management of this AONB.
Giant Steps from Portstewart to Ballycastle
'A Companion to the Causeway Coast Way' by local author Philip Watson has been published by the Department in conjunction with Blackstaff Press Ltd. This book is an excellent resource for anyone walking, driving or just reading at home. It gives details of the Causeway Coast Way, one of eight Waymarked Ways within Northern Ireland, promoted by Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland. [Opens in New window]
Geology of the Causeway Coast AONB
The oldest rocks in the area are restricted to a few places along the coast such as Portrush and White Park Bay. These are of Jurassic age (190-135 million years ago) and consist of sediments laid down in the warm waters of those times. Sub-tropical oceans were still a feature in the succeeding Cretaceous period (135-65 million years ago). The white limestone or chalk was formed from the remains of plants and animals. They contain fossil evidence of the animals which inhabited these ancient seas. By the end of the cretaceous period, relative sea levels had fallen leaving dry land. The brilliant whiteness of the chalk contrasts with the more recent basalts, as does their modes of origin.
Volcanic and fissure eruptions spewing out magma and ash were related to the opening of the modern Atlantic ocean during the Tertiary period (62-2 million years ago). The basalts are mainly 65-60 million years old. The Lower and Upper Basalts represent the more prolonged periods of eruption, with successive flows increasing the thickness of basalts, the resultant rock formed by the cooling lavas. The intervening Middle Basalts were formed in a similar manner but during this period violent volcanic eruptions were more frequent as at Carrick-a-Rede and Kinbane.
Eruptions were not continuous and during quiet periods weathering of the basalt surface occurred producing tropical soils. One outcome of an extended period of such weathering was the major inter-basaltic horizons to be found between the Upper, Middle and Lower Basalts. In places this weathering progressed to the point where enriched iron and aluminium ores formed and these have been commercially exploited in the past. Partially rotted vegetation also accumulated in places forming lignite as at Ballintoy.
Much of the area of coast from Runkerry round to Dunseverick Castle was acquired by the National Trust between 1961 and 1964. The old name for the Giant's Causeway was clachanafomhaire roughly translated as 'the stepping stones for the Fomorians'. These were small dark people who supposedly inhabited Ireland before the Gaelic-speaking people arrived.
Complex falling and rising of sea and land over several million years left recognisable features in the bays and around the headlands. it would be wrong to assume that this is a static coastline; changes take place all the time.
The Giant's Causeway formed where molten lava flowed into a valley. The lavas became solid red-hot rock, but as they cooled they contracted and vertical cracks opened which ran to the depth of the new rocks, so forming columns. Thus the columns developed at right angles to the cooling surface. If the process had been entirely even all the columns would have been hexagonal, but in fact only half of them are. The columns also shrank vertically which is how the convex and concave 'ball and socket' joints were formed. Four, seven and eight-sided columns are known and there are imperfect instances of nine and ten-sided columns.
The Giant's Causeway was first mentioned in visitor' accounts and descriptions in the last decade of the Seventeenth Century. In the latter part of the Eighteenth Century visitors began to arrive in increasing numbers. In 1883, a hydroelectric tram began a service along the picturesque coastal route from Portrush, past Dunluce Castle to Bushmills. This line was extended in 1887 to a terminus in the grounds of the Causeway Hotel thus bringing visitors within easy reach of the Giant's Causeway. The tram operated until 1949 when competition from motor cars and public road transport ended a unique experience for visitors.The section of tramline from Ballaghmore Road near Portballintrae across the golf course and dunes to the site of the former terminus near the Causeway Hotel has been re-developed as a stream train route, a popular tourist attraction for visitors to the area.
The Causeway attracted so many visitors in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries that various cottage industries built up. There was an old lady looking after the wishing well and there were jarveys and boatmen, and huts and stalls for souvenirs. There were also gates and an entrance charge was made. In 1962, the National trust removed the gates and huts and admitted the public free of charge. A Trust information centre opened and a small cafe provided. In 1986 Moyle District Council built a large visitor centre. This unfortunately some of the building was destroyed in a fire in 2000 and a temporary building has been put up. At the moment there is an international competition to design a new building and an announcement is due in Autumn 2005.
A Tale of Two Giants
The Giant's Causeway looks man-made, so who was its colossal creator? There are many legends about Finn MacCool and the Causeway Coast. Some say that he built the Causeway to bring his wife across to Ulster from the Scottish island of Staffa.
Another story told is that be built the Causeway so that his great rival Benandonner, a Scottish giant, could travel on dry land to engage in a decisive battle. When Finn saw him approaching he took fright as Benandonner was a larger and more fiercesome rival than he had anticipated. Finn fled home where his wife Oonagh disguised him as a baby and placed him in a cradle. When Benandonner appeared, Oonagh invited him in for tea and asked him to keep quiet so as not to disturb Finn's 'baby'. Benandonner looked at the massive 'baby', took fright and exclaiming that if this was the child he had no wish to meet the father, fled back to Scotland. He ripped up the Causeway as he went in fear of the awful Finn pursuing him home.
In October 1588, the Girona, a galleass of the Spanish Armada sank off Lacada Point. The Armada had been thwarted by the English fleet in the Channel and a great many ships were forced to sail round the north of Scotland and west of Ireland to return home. She foundered on the Causeway Coast with only five of the thirteen hundred men on board surviving.The discovery of the Girona in 1967 by Robert Stenuit was one of the most important nautical archaeological finds of modern times. Items salvaged were purchased for the nation in 1972 and are held in a permanent collection at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. The area where the ship wreck was discovered is now a protected Marine Archaeological Site.
Natural Heritage of Causeway AONB
From late April through to July, many of the wild flowers that flourish along the Causeway Coast add colour to the rocky coves and headlands. With a pocket guide to wild flowers you can identify a dozen or more common species, including scurvy grass, sea pink, sea campion, kidney vetch, devil's bit scabious and silverweed, as well as some coastal heath plants such as common heather (ling) and bell heather. Even the familiar bluebell likes to be beside the sea in places.
Marram grass, strong yet flexible, is the anchor that holds the dunes in place. It thrives in this dry and abrasive habitat, putting down deep roots that bind the loose sand. In dry weather, the long narrow leaves curl inwards to prevent water loss by evaporation, but open again in more humid conditions. Looking closely at he leaves might confirm the weather forecast! Marram grass can be weakened when undercut by waves to expose its roots, and if washed out, the dunes become mobile again, the wind forming blow-outs and ridges of pure sand. Too much human trampling can also damage the marram grass.
A conspicuous plant along the edges of the cliff-top path is gorse, often called furze or whin in Ireland. In spring its bright yellow flowers add vivid colour to the landscape. Gorse is very useful along these exposed cliff tops, acting as a barrier to discourage you from going too close to the dangerous cliff edge. It also provides insect food and shelter for small birds.
Insect life within the AONB includes a wide range of butterflies, crane flies, beetles and weevils. The burnet moth, green with red spots, lives among the marramgrass. It is common in summer when the adult moths hatch from cocoons attached to the grass stems. The grove snail lives in the marram grass too, its shell usually striped brown on a pale background. Grove snails which inhabit more open ground have plain green or pinkish shells. The camouflage may be good, but it does not fool the hungry song thrush. It bashes the snails open on isolated stones known as thrush anvils. The Giant's Causeway National Nature Reserve supports the only known population of narrow-mouthed whorl snail in Northern Ireland.
This is a harsh coast for trees but they do survive in sheltered valleys or hollows. In these areas ash, hazel and blackthorn add some softness to the otherwise stark coastline. Other groups of trees, mostly sycamore and sitka spruce, have been planted as shelter belts around farms and houses. Slightly inland, at Bushmills, the Dundarave estate has large and attractive woods that have been skillfully planted using a great variety of trees.
Scrub, heath and bog occur on rocky or poorly drained soils throughout the area but especially on the higher ground of Lannimore Hill above Ballintoy and to the east towards Ballycastle. Such unimproved land adds variety and natural irregularity to the often rectangular field patterns.
Animal life is not lacking. Rabbits, many of them black, are still plentiful in the bays. The Irish hare is common and the badger is also an inhabitant and indeed one bay, Portnabrock (east of Bengore Head), is named after him. The fox may be seen occasionally and the Atlantic grey seal is a frequent visitor to the more remote bays.
Not surprisingly, the Causeway Coast is a good place for seabirds, many nesting on its rugged cliffs and offshore islands and feeding in the rich waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Channel. Most spectacular are the crowded and noisy seabird breeding colonies at Rathlin Island off Ballycastle, or Carrick-a-Rede and Sheep Island, both near Ballintoy. Seabirds that can be found around the Causeway Coast include fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, shags, razorbills, puffins, eider ducks and choughs.
The chough, named after its ringing call, is one of Northern Ireland's rarest birds. This glossy black crow with a curved red beak and red legs, is a bit larger than a jackdaw and may be seen only on Rathlin. The bird is a specialist feeder, probing for insects in soil and among short pastures. In healthy populations, it is a sociable bird, the pairs forming a close bond and remaining together throughout the year. Their decline in numbers prompted the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in consultation with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust to set up a scheme to encourage farmers, through payments and advice, to reduce intensive farming practices and to provide suitably grazed short swards attractive to choughs in areas where the few remaining birds are known to breed and feed.
The River Bush supports a wide variety of birds including sanderling, ringed plover, turnstone, purple sandpiper, dunlin, redshank, whimbrel, lapwing and golden plover. From April to September, the aerobatics of the little sand martins will amaze you as they hunt insects on the wing over the River Bush and fly rapidly below the footbridge. These agile brown and white birds migrate for the winter to Africa. A much shyer bird is the colourful kingfisher. You may glimpse it occasionally as a streak of blue darting rapidly across the water.
Raven and peregrine falcon are neighbours on the Causeway cliffs. Listen for the deep croak of the ravens as they soar and perform aerobatics over the cliffs. The peregrine falcon, the fastest and fiercest bird of these cliffs, can be heard shrieking from the cliff-bound bays. Peregrines hunt other birds, snatching these as the falcon plunges towards the earth in a dive - called a stoop - when it can attain speeds in excess of 100mph (160km/hr).
There is two way traffic of freshwater eels in the Causeway Coast rivers such as the Margy at Ballycastle, the Bush and the Bann. The tiny young eels, known as elvers, arrive in April after a two to three year drift as larvae across the Atlantic from their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea, east of the Bahamas. Swimming upriver, they spend from about seven to at least twenty years growing to maturity in rivers and lakes before returning to the Atlantic as fat, silver adults on dark autumn nights. They swim back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die.
The turbulent waters cause overfalls and upwellings that concentrate small organisms and fish near the surface, attracting feeding seabirds and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). Whales are not easily visible from the land unless you are prepared to sit for long periods scanning the sea through binoculars or a telescope. Sometimes a chance observation while out on a fishing boat or on a ferry will bring a rush of excitement as you see a fin and a round back breaking the surface. This is most likely to be a porpoise or one of the dolphins, but occasionally larger whales pass by, such as killer and minke whales.
Seals spend most of their time closer to the shore than whales and have favourite sites where they will come ashore and rest. The large Atlantic grey seal and the smaller common seal can both be seen around the coast. They are often attracted to salmon nets in summer, a habit which has made them unpopular with the fishermen.
The huge and harmless basking shark, which can be up to 40ft (12m) long and weighs around 3.5 metric tonnes is a rare summer visitor. It swims along slowly, close to the surface with its enormous jaws open wide, filtering tiny plants and animals of the plankton from the water. Other marine life that can be found along the Causeway Coast include sponges, sea squirts, sand eels, crabs, scallops, small fish, shrimps, prawns and sea anemones.
Wrack is seaweed washed up on the shore or the living weed exposed at low tide. It was an important resource for coastal residents in Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when it was gathered by men, women and children. The seaweeds were dried and burned in kelp kilns to form a sticky toffee-like substance, which eventually hardened to form kelp. Kelp was used by the Ulster linen industry for bleaching. Kelp was also useful in the manufacture of soaps. Seaweeds were also collected to spread as manure on the land.
There are stretches of sand at Portrush's East Strand and White Rocks, at Bushfoot Strand in Portballintrae and at White Park Bay. The highest Atlantic waves break at Bushfoot Strand and, coupled with rip currents, make this the most dangerous beach in Northern Ireland for swimming. White Park Bay also has rip currents and swimming here is also dangerous. Dune systems are fragile. The sea in this area tends to bring in no new sand and the activities of people in the dunes, couple with strong winds and high tides, can lead to erosion and degradation of this important zone.
There are many different designations along the Causeway Coast and these include
World Heritage Site (WHS)
In 1986 the World Heritage Convention accepted the Giant's Causeway and Causeway Coast onto its list of sites and monuments. The Causeway meets two of the criteria for an outstanding natural property
It is a prime example of the earth's evolutionary history during the Tertiary epoch. It contains rare and superlative natural phenomena.
Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)
The purpose of this designation is to help protect and where possible improve the landscape for the benefit of those living in the area and for visitors who come to see and enjoy its natural beauty.
Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI)
ASSIs are areas in which the natural features are deemed to be of the highest quality, especially for wildlife and earth science conservation. The following ASSIs have so far been designated on or close to the Causeway Coast: the Bann Estuary; Craigahulliar rock exposures at the quarry site near Portrush; Ramore Head and Skerries Islands at Portrush; Portrush West Strand; the White Rocks; Portballintrae shore; Runkerry shore; the Giant's Causeway and Dunseverick; White Park Bay; Sheep Island; Carrick-a-Rede; and three areas on Rathlin Island as well as the island's coastline and Ballycastle Coalfields.
Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)
Three candidate sites are being considered for this designation - the Bann Estuary, the North Antrim Coast and Rathlin Island.
Special Protection Area (SPA)
Sheep Island off Ballintoy, owned by the National Trust since 1967, is an SPA. The main interest relevant to the designation is the nationally important colony of breeding cormorants. Other seabirds also breed there in moderate numbers.
Nature (NR) and National Nature Reserves (NNR)
Nature and National Nature reserves are managed specifically to conserve nature and to promote education and research. Portrush Sill NR is a historic geology of rocky shore and the Giant's Causeway NNR is designated for its coastal cliffs, columnar basalt and salt marsh.
Earth Science Conservation Review (ESCR) site
At least thirteen ESCR sites are listed from Portstweart Strand/dunes to Carrick-a-Rede. These sites are important for their geology, geomorphology, palaeontology or mineralology, or combinations of such features.
Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA)
This designation applies to an area of 34,600 hectares around the Antrim Coast, Rathlin and the Glens of Antrim. The designation applies because of areas of species-rich, semi-improved grassland and heath. The department of Agriculture and Rural Development for Northern ireland administers the various schemes within the ESAs. Farmers are encouraged to take part in environmentally sensitive practices but participation is voluntary.
Cultural Heritage of Causeway AONB
Catching fish and shellfish along parts of the north coast has provided food and a way of life since Mesolithic times. Near the causeway, small ports and harbours have supported inshore fisheries for at least 300 years, and salmon continue to be fished at sites first recorded in the 1640s.
In 1926, the small harbours of Dunseverick and Portballintrae contained twenty working boats supporting fifty-four fishermen. Now there are no full-time fishermen at these ports, largely due to declining fish stocks, increased freight charges and alternative employment ashore, but traditional salmon netting continues.
From May to September, fixed bag nets for salmon can be seen at Port Moon and Carrick-a-Rede.
Commercial ice houses were associated with the fisheries along the north coast. Set into the hillside, their thick rubble walls insulated ice well into the summer salmon season. This could then be used as required to pack the fish for dispatch to market.
Above the beaches and storm-tossed cliffs lies a fertile and productive farmland. Chocolate brown basaltic soils support agriculture with crops of barley and potatoes set among improved grasslands. Lush pastures are typically grazed by suckler cows, fattening cattle and sheep, though there are also a few dairy herds. Overall the landscape is open and windswept with perpetual exposure to harsh salt winds that stunt tree growth and twist hedgerow thorn bushes. Field boundaries near the coast are usually earthbanks (ditches) or dry stone walls, with hawthorn hedges becoming more typical inland. Post and wire fences are now frequently used to supplement or replace hedges and banks.
Mining and quarrying
Not all commercial activities were sea and shore based. The more extensive inter-basaltic or red beds between the Lower, Middle and Upper Basalts contain varying amounts of iron and aluminium ores. These metal ores were mined from the 1860s to the 1920s, the peak extraction being between 1870 and 1880. The ore was shipped to processing plants in Britain. The dark basalts were quarried for road building and other uses. Outcrops of columnar basalts at various sites along the Causeway Coast were also quarried for the popular symmetrical stones used in the more decorative forms of stonemasonry. Lignite was extracted from the hillside above Ballintoy village in the 1750s, and also at this time lignite was taken near the Giant's Causeway.
Quarrying of white limestone (chalk) was carried out on a large scale at Larrybane (Ballintoy) and also near Ballintoy harbour and at Ballymagarry above the White Rocks near Portrush. Many lime kilns survive on the coast, where the burned limestone products were used for limewash and in agriculture.
Built Heritage of Causeway AONB
Portrush Coastal Zone
Portrush Coastal Zone is located next to the shore between Portandoo Harbour and the Blue Pool and beside Portrush Nature reserve. The centre is operated by Northern Ireland Environment agency and it is the only place where you can dabble in a living rock pool without getting your feet wet and find anything from a limpet to a lobster. Walk around the displays or sit back and watch a film or video in the audio-visual threatre. The Centre is open over the summer months but contact the staff at 8 Bath Road, Portrush, tel. 028 7082 3600 to check opening hours or for group bookings.
Spectacularly sited beside the coast road (A2) between Portrush and Bushmills. The dun name and rock-cut souterrain suggest early Christian period occupation on the rocky headland. The earliest parts of the castle are probably fourteenth century but it is not documented until the sixteenth century, when it was in the hands of the MacQuillans and later the MacDonnells. Badly damaged in an artillery attack by the English Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrott, in 1584, the castle was repaired and extended by Sorley Boy and James MacDonnell, but decayed from the seventeenth century onwards. The site is now maintained by Northern Ireland Environment Agency and a visitor centre has been provided. The castle ruins and grounds are open to the public.
'Old Bushmills' Distillery
Bushmills Distillery, Bushmills village is situated on the banks of the River Bush, in the midst of a lush barley growing area and close to an abundant source of peat. The combination of clear water, good quality barley and peat to fuel the kilns and stills provided the distiller with all that is needed to practice his art. Not surprising then that what is claimed to be world's oldest whiskey distillery still in operation, is situated here. Today barley is drawn from a much wider area and peat is no longer a major fuel source, but the water from St. Columbs Rill has been constantly used for the production of whiskey since distilling first began in the village. This small stream, which is a tributary of the River Bush, flows through the distillery and provides all the water used in the production of 'Old Bushmills' whiskeys. The special character of this water derives largely from the fact that it flows over a combination of peat and basalt.
This castle depended for defence on being perched at the edge of a promontory. Its name, Dun Sohairce, is said to be derived from the chieftain who first fortified it. One of the five roads that radiated from Tara, ancient capital of Ireland, terminated here and the name occurs in many of the ancient Irish tales. It was stormed by the Danes in 870 and 924AD. Later it became the focal point in the MacDonnell's kingdom of Dalriada which covered north Antrim and Argyllshire.
White Park Bay
A magnificent natural amphitheatre of limestone, with a mile of golden strand, flanked on the west by Port Braddan's snug harbour and on the east by a 'raised beach' (with caves) leading on to Ballintoy Harbour. On the top of a small hillock near the centre of the bay is a small circular cairn 36 feet in diameter. Two Neolithic sites have been explored, one just west south west of this cairn and the other near the east end of the bay.
Larrybane (the ancient white site) was a magnificient headland of white limestone which was once occupied as a promontory fort c 800AD. Owing to the weakness of planning law in the 1950s the headland was quarried away, but the National Trust acquired the land and also the neighbouring basalt quarry and has made this stretch of coast available to the public.