Ballintoy is situated in one of the most picturesque parts of North Antrim between the Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede. As you come over Knocksoghey Brae from Ballycastle or in from Whitepark Bay you are greeted by spectacular views, each one characterized by Ballintoy Church. The white church looks deceptively Mediterranean in its appearance, in fact the square tapering tower once supported a steeple which was removed by a hurricane in December,1894, leaving the church with its 'unique' look.
The area around Ballintoy is exceptional for walking, the scenery is stunning and the locality steeped in history and folklore, a short walk from the village brings you to the sweeping curve of Whitepark Bay which was one of the earliest settled sites on the north coast. The name Ballintoy like most places in these parts has two translations, one commonly refers to it as the ' Town of the North ' another translation refers to it as ' The place of the Axe '. A narrow winding road takes you down to the harbour of Ballintoy, the last house which will catch your attention on the right hand side is called 'Bendhu' and was built by Newton Penprase an artist and teacher who built it over many years. The harbour, built from limestone blocks and surrounded by limestone cliffs was once a hub for north coast fishing, boat building and local industries. It is well sheltered from the Atlantic by scores of black basalt islands and looks out across Boheeshane Bay to Larry Bane Head, Sheep Island, Rathlin Island and Scotland. There are many family names linked to Ballintoy, one we know a lot about are the Stewart family who first settled at Dunseverick in 1560 and later moved to Ballinstraid.
In 1625, Archibald Stewart received a grant from Randal MacDonnell, the first Earl of Antrim for two districts known as Ballyclough and Ballintoy, the yearly rent was nine pounds. This grant included Sheep Island and the little islands of Camplie. The Earl reserved the salmon fishing of Portnalarabane, (Larry Bane) and the Deer Park (high ground south of the village of Ballintoy known as Altmore). One story tells of members of the family getting possession of a portion of their Ballintoy property by foul means, having murdered the rightful owner on a hill near Knocksoghey. The victim's name is said to have been Maelderig or 'Red Chief' and his people where afterwards known as Reid's on the Antrim coast, a name closely linked to Ballintoy and the coast of Kintyre in Scotland.
The castle and the old church that stood on the site of the present day church was lay siege to during the 1641 rebellion when local Presbyterians took refuge inside. The local priest Father MacGlaime was said to have asked that water be allowed in each day for the women and children and it was agreed. Each day he would take buckets of water down to the church where they were hauled up to the top of the tower. The unsuspecting force around the church did not know that oatmeal was placed below the water line. After a week of laying siege to the church and with no sign of starvation from within, they began to wonder how these people could survive. The garrison in the castle were able to hold at bay the attackers until relief arrived and those laying siege retreated to Ballycastle. When the truth of what Father MacGlaime had done came out, he was subsequently murdered by people who had took part in the siege. One of those inside was a Thomas Boyd of Lisconnan who later made a disposition before Oliver Cromwell's commissioners which is kept in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.
During the late nineteenth century the harbour was extensively used for the production of lime and the shipping sett stones. A small rail track existed for moving the cargo from the main area down to the quay. At Brockie Quarry near Larry Bane over one hundred men were employed chipping and shaping sett stones that went to pave the streets of cities such as Dublin, Cork, Wexford, Limerick and Glasgow. The well built lime kiln stands as a testament to the harbour's industrial past, burnt lime would have been drawn away by horse and cart to help build the numerous stone cottage and rural halls. Ballintoy is still a working harbour for local fishermen who continue a tradition that goes back to when man first arrived here. It naturally produces good boatmen due to the dangerous waters which they and their father's have come to understand, respect and work upon. The large boat cave to the right of the car park would have been used to repair, lay over and build boats inside. Though scores of basalt islands act to shelter the harbour from prevailing storms, it can still on occasions get battered, for me it is one of the most awesome location to watch a full blown Atlantic storm from, I have seen waves riding up the armour walling and washing over the footpath at O'Rourke's Kitchen.
The area of rocks between Whitepark Bay and Ballintoy harbour is known locally as 'The Park End' this spot can pick up some of the biggest swell waves along the north coast. The harbour mouth itself looks out to Sheep Island which has a reef stretching across towards Larrybane. In October, 1906 the 'City of Bristol' a steam powered Fleetwood trawler homebound from Iceland ran aground on the reef and was lost - in thick fog the Captain mistook Sheep Island for Bull Point on Rathlin.
Sheep Island derives its name from a time when sheep were taken out by boat and grazed there during the summer months, now it is left for birds to colonize and the occasional human to visit and gather dulse.
The last big rock as you leave the harbour on the left hand side is known as Rock-an-Stewart and was the scene of a tragedy and brave rescue in April, 1884. The Giant's Causeway guides where returning from their annual trip to gather spar from the cliffs near Kenbane Castle, this would later be displayed in small boxes and sold to visitors on the pathway down to the Causeway Stones during the summer months. On board were John, Hugh and James McLaughlin accompanied by Robert Hutchinson. A young boy name John McFaul whose parents lived at the Causeway and who was employed by John Robinson at Carnduff, near Ballycastle, took advantage of the boat ride home. There was a swell running which was producing a sizable roll on the sea, closer inshore it was creating breakers. As they approached Rock-an-Stewart a large swell wave broke and they were caught on the inside. The wave capsized the boat and flung everyone into the water. John McDonald who was manning the Coastguard Station had been watching the progress of the boat across the bay witnessed the accident. He immediately rushed down to the harbour and was joined by John Jarrett and James McNeally (Coastguards) along with Bryan O'Roarke and Richard McKay (Fishermen), they quickly launched a boat and headed out into the breakers. Due to their skill and great courage they were able to rescue John and Hugh McLaughlin along with Robert Hutchinson, all three were still holding on to the upturned boat which was amongst broken water and close to the rocks but there was no sign of James McLaughlin or young John McFaul whose lives the ocean claimed.
The walk between Ballintoy to Whitepark Bay is well worth taking, following an ancient pathway trodden since man first set foot here some 9,000 years ago. The bay in geological terms is known as a 'raised beach', the ocean would have once washed into the curved cliff face both Portbraddon and Ballintoy harbour would have been submerged at this time. As the ice age came to a close the land mass gradually rose leaving us with this exceptional bay. The ancient sand dune system is rich in flora and fauna, it also contains several carbon dated Neolithic sites, arrow heads are occasionally found by the observant walker. Along the shoreline, if your lucky, you can still find the odd fossilized ammonite or brachiopod washed out of the layer of Jurassic clay which underlies the beach area. In the dune system there is also an ancient mound known as a Tumulus which may be a burial site, another word for Tumulus would be Si - in Irish mythology the fairies are said to have been the people of the Si. One prominent volcanic stack is aptly named the 'Elephant Rock'.
As a young boy I was told by an uncle that it was an elephant which had the misfortune to be caught as it tried to flee from an erupting volcano - it certainly fired my imagination to the wonderful shapes and rock outcrops that are plentiful around the north Antrim coast. Close to the elephant rock you will find a nicely eroded limestone arch which at high tide is surrounded by water, overlooking these rocks a cave exists which was excavated by archaeologists and revealed Iron Age artefacts. The whole area round to Ballintoy has an amazing number of basalt islet and is quite unique, it is also one of the finest locations to view the power of Atlantic storms as they pound into the natural defences that protect Ballintoy harbour. The waters around Ballintoy can be treacherous and over the centuries they have caused many tragedies, well known for picking up large swell waves and for having strong tidal currents and rips between the islands - the blackness of the basalt islets clearly reveal the zones of constant wave action and even the tallest stack will get washed by winter storms.
Two natural arches exist close to either end of Whitepark Bay - Dunnaglea at the Ballintoy end and another at Gid Point (round from Portbraddon on the path to Dunseverick) - both are natural basalt arches. The late Bertie McKay of Portbraddon told me he used to see an elderly gentlemen who would come down on sunny evenings with a folding chair and would sit at a certain point on the beach to view a line of site from the beach through the natural arch and the setting sun behind Gid Point. The coastal area around Ballintoy is of great interest to geologists who frequently come to investigate the volcanic basalt and sedimentary limestone which are found in close proximity. There is certainly something unique about this part of the north coast which goes beyond the natural beauty - perhaps it is the affinity inside us or knowing that man first set foot here, or that we can still walk through a shoreline landscape that has remained virtually unchanged since that time. One thing is sure - we are privileged to have such a magical place to enjoy.