The long peninsula known as the Island Magee (Islandmagee) is sometimes referred to as the forgotten island, it does have a unique character of its own and is steeped in history which goes back to when people first settled here after the last ice. The drive loops off the main Causeway Coastal Route near Whitehead and is signposted as Brown's Bay Scenic Route.
The drive takes you along the lough side of the island to Ballylumford which is separated by a short stretch of water from Larne harbour. From here you travel around the coast to Brown’s Bay, a popular summer time location. After Brown’s Bay follow the signs for Portmuck which will bring you to a car park and a very beautiful harbour and beach area. Here you can enjoy walks both long and short around the cliff and view Muck Island which lies just offshore. This area is rich in wildlife, the last day I was here I watched a pod of five bottle nosed dolphins feeding in the channel, herding fish in between the island and shore. Porpoises are also present and seals populate the island. At the top end of the island is a tombola which joins Muck to Islandmagee, the only known natural tombolo in Northern Ireland.
Islandmagee was an island before the land rose after the last ice age and people still refer to it as the island. It is an interesting area to explore with lots of small clachans scattered over a network of country roads. It is also home to the amazing Gobbins Cliff Path which was one of the main attractions in Ireland during Victorian times when trains would bring visitors into Whitehead. The Gobbins was a walk designed by Berkeley Deane Wise around the base of the sea cliffs, it went over chasms, through caves and along a path cut into the cliff face, all joined together by a series of foot bridges and tunnels. After decades of abandonment and closure the path is open again.
As you turn off the main Causeway Coastal Route for Islandmagee you cross a long stone bridge which is one of two access point to the island, the other being from Whitehead. The modern name derives from the Magee family who had rights to the island here under the O’Neills. The original name however is derived from the Gaelic ‘Inis Seimhne’, Seimhne being the tribe that once inhabited the island.
Islandmagee has a long history of seafaring and trading between Portmuck and Scotland. In fact one of the many livestock trails of the north ended at Portmuck where livestock would have been exported and imported from Scotland. The name Muck (Muc) means pig and may derive from the exporting of pigs from here to Scotland. The lough also provided valuable sheltered for those that ruled the lands around here which over the centuries has included the Celts, Vikings, Normans, Scots and English. The Vikings who had a burial site on the island gave the lough its original name of Wulsrichefiord, later it became known as Olderfleet.
Olderfleet Castle situated at Curran Point on the Larne side of the inlet was built in the 13th century by the Scots/Irish Bissett family, it was a strategic settlment protecting the lough and Larne from invaders. It was here in 1315 that Edward the Bruce (brother of Robert) landed with 6000 troops at the request of the Irish gentry, he subsequently took the country and was crowned king. At this time the Bissetts had the rights to Islandmagee. Later in 1399, a Margery Bissett (Byset) married John Mor MacDonnell which began the presence of the MacDonnell clan along the north coast.
In 1610, the island was granted to Sir Arthur Chichester, he leased it to Sir Moses Hill, who had arrived in Ireland with the Earl of Essex in 1573. This area was highly regarded by Queen Elizabeth and her advisors as being of strategic importance and this fact is reflected in Moses Hill being assigned Governor of Olderfleet Castle. He married Alice MacDonnell the sister of Sorley Boy MacDonnell of Dunluce and eventually became Provost Marshall of Ulster in 1617.
Saint Patrick also left a mark on Islandmagee in the foundation of Kilcoan Church (Cille Caomhán) which carries the name of one of his disciples Caomhán who become known as St. Caomhán. He is said to have been buried at Kilcoan or the nearby Ross graveyard, today hardly anything remains to be seen of these two ancient churches. The island is very rich in ecclesiastical sites dating from the 6th century, some you can see other have over time vanished below the ground.
As you drive up the Low Road toward Ballylumford you will come to St John’s Church at Ballyharry (on the left hand side). This church was founded in 1575 and succeeded an older church of St. John's in the townland of Ballykeel. The graveyard of the old church is still there, it is located about 400 metres on the right, just after you turn onto the Low Road and overlooks Old Church Bay. This church dates from around the 12th century. Also close to Ballyharry excavations uncovered evidence of a Neolithic settlements which included pottery, flint arrowheads, javelin heads, polished stone and axe fragments.
As you drive towards Ballylumford, located on the right hand side of the road, in front of an Edwardian house you will see the Ballylumford Dolmen. This is the remains of a portal tomb which dates to the Neolithic period (circa 4000BC). It has the classical shape and is one of the best examples around plus it is very easy to view, many are found off the beaten track, this one is on the side of the road.
The big chimneys of Ballylumford Power Station will catch your eyes before you get there. The first station came into operation in 1947, since then it has changed from coal fired to heavy oil and now is operated by combined cycle gas turbines, each change has brought major upgrades in the system. There is also a connector link from the power station to Scotland. The power station played a key role in the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974 when workers here agreed to support the Ulster Workers Council. At the time the plant supplied all of Belfast and the east of the country with electricity.
From Ballylumford you will drive past Larne Golf Club on the tip of the peninsula and arrive at Brown’s Bay. This is a popular summer location for recreation, swimming and walks around the headlands. The small bay sweeps round to Skernaghan Point, a path leading here passes the now still 'Rocking Stone'. This huge rock weighing over ten tons at one time could be rocked slightly by hand. It was a great attraction appearing on postcards during the late 1800s, unfortunately the local authority decided it did not meet Health & Safety regulations and cemented it in place.
As you follow the road from Brown's Bay, look out for the turn off to Portmuck, this will take you to a car park and beautiful wee harbour. This site once had a substantial medieval settlement overlooking Muck Island ( Inis Muc ) or Pig Island. The habitation consisted of a medieval church or abbey and a collection of house, buildings and lanes which ran down to the harbour. Excavations of the graveyard has established that burials took place here as far back as the 6th century. During medieval times the harbour would have been one of the main trading routes to and from Scotland for livestock, it was also a strategic location with a castle keep established here in the 16th century. During the 18th century the coastguard presence in Portmuck was increased to combat the activities of smuggling, Muck Island and the inlet was a popular spot for this activity. The harbour was upgraded in the 1800s to facilitate the export of limestone which operated here until the 1920s, the old harbour then fell into disrepair and was renovated in the 1980s to what we see today.
You can enjoy some beautiful walks and scenery around here, the inlet between Muck Island and the mainland attracts dolphins and porpoises, the island has a vibrant seal colony and is also the second largest bird nesting colony in Northern Ireland with Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Black Guillemots and Guillemots. The land, paths and stiles are managed by the National Trust for public access.
From here you drive through rural landscape back towards Whitehead, on the way you can visit the Gobbins Cliff Path, a new visitor centre for the attraction has recently been built. The Gobbins were one of the major attractions in Ireland during the Victorian period and equalled the Giants Causeway in popularity. The cliff path is well worth a visit, the location is exceptional and although the path only retraces part of famous walk it is still an exhilarating experience. Also take the time to explore the network of small roads on Islandmagee, you never know what you will discover on this very unigue and hidden gem of an island.
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