In the National Trust Community Learning Centre at Car Park 3 (Innisfree) which can be accessed by one of the trails from the Giant’s Causeway Centre there is a boat suspended from the ceiling. The story behind this unique craft is just as fascinating as its journey to its present sanctuary.
The boat was built around or possibly before 1850, the money for its construction was raised by public subscription organized by a Jackson Mill who at the time leased the land around Port Moon. At the time of its construction the bays around the Causeway headlands were places of work; kelp harvesting, fishing, cattle grazing and crop growing all took place between Runkerry and Dunseverick. The local name used by fishermen for the causeway bays was ‘Lochaber Shore’, a name which traces its origins to Scotland. Many other names such as the Aird have similar Scottish connections.
Fishing and rowing went hand in hand, the fishermen along the north coast would be out fishing whenever the weather allowed, they were strong powerful rowers and they needed to be to tackle the seas and tides locally. They would row to Raghery (Rathlin Island) and back in a day's fishing and it is recorded that on occasions when the catches and conditions were good, they would do it twice a day. Another task would be to row out with their barrels packed with ice and fish to rendezvous with passing schooners which would then take the catch to the markets in Belfast, Londonderry and Glasgow. On the return trip the barrels would be thrown over the side of the moving ship and the fishermen would row out as fast as they could to recover their barrels for the next shipment, this was before the infrastructure of roads and motor vehicles. The ice for packing the fish was collected during the cold winters and preserved in basalt stone structures known as ice houses which would keep the ice usable right through the summer. You can still see several examples around the coast at Portballintrae, Port Moon, Carrick a Rede and Kinbane.
The ‘Arrow’ was designed and built to race, the boat's sleek shallow draught would carry four rowers and a coxswain. It was used by the fishermen of Por Moon and Dunseverick at racing events which would be held during the summer months at Portbraddon, Ballintoy, Portballintrae, Portrush, Ballycastle and also further afield in Donegal and down the coast at Cushendall, Cushendun and Carnlough.
The following piece was written by Philip Watson whom we owe a great debt to for his passion and actions regarding the Arrow…… History is a journey that often begins with small steps. The first faltering step in this story was a comment thrown to the North Antrim wind by fisherman Sammy Gault one day when we were lifting lobster creels off Port Moon. “Somebody” he said, “should do something about the old boat in there” The wind whipped away his words and I asked “what boat?” “The old racing skiff Arrow. She’s been lying up in the rafters of that place for near to a hundred years.”
The place he was referring to was the long, low red-roofed fishing bothy tucked under the imposing cliffs of Portmoon, a bay a few miles east of the Giant’s Causeway. Ten years passed. The second step came in 1984 when I began research for a new visitor centre to be built at the Giant’s Causeway. Maritime history was one topic that gradually crept up the list of priorities to be considered for interpretation in this centre. I recalled Sammy’s remark and went to see him. We hatched a plan – over strong tea and fruit cake – to save the Arrow.
Bertie McKay, salmon fisherman of Portbraddan told us he thought the boat had been built sometime in the last third of the nineteenth century. He recalled seeing it in the Portmoon fishery bothy many times, at least as early as 1923, and related stories he'd heard of her exploits. Reports in the Coleraine Chronicle newspaper featured the achievements of the Arrow and her rowing crews at local regattas in the 1880s (for example, the Portrush annual Regatta of 27 august 1888, reported in this newspaper on Saturday 1 September 1888). By the turn of the century she seems to have disappeared from the area’s history, except to be remembered in two poems written locally prior to the 1930s. The Arrow, it transpired, was believed to have been built at Inishowen in North Donegal, paid for by local subscriptions and she belonged to, and was raced by, the residents of Lochaber Shore, a local name for the Causeway bays and headlands. She was built to race, not a fishing boat but a sleek if beamy skiff of 25 feet length, made to fly across the waves. Boat-builder James McLernon of Portballintrae was roped in to join a small expedition to rescue the Arrow from obscurity, and permission was sought from, and granted by, Sir Patrick Macnaghten, owner of the bothy, to dismantle part of the north gable to remove the old boat.
On Monday 14 October 1985, a day of a moderate swell on a calm sea, Sammy, James, myself and a couple of helpers went in the Gault’s boat to Portmoon, opened the upper end of the north gable of the bothy and, as our eyes became accustomed to the gloomy interior, we could see the old boat resting upside-down across the rafters, dusty, faded but with the words Arrow and Portmoon still legible on her sides. We eased her out into daylight. Never was an arrow removed from its quiver with such care and reverence.
James braced the old boat with some netting strung over the top and we set her gently on the sea. A little water leaked through the shrunken timbers, but with a minimum of baling, we towed her, riding high over the sea, to Dunseverick Harbour – the Arrow’s first voyage for over 80 years. A small crowd had gathered to see this historic vessel, and she was loaded onto a trailer and brought safely to James’s workshop in Bushmills, where the painstaking process of restoration could begin. Restoration took seven months and included replacing many damaged planks, oiling all the timbers, staining them, re-shaping the vessel which had spread after so long resting on her upper boards and painting the original pale blue upper boards and replacing the for’ard canvas (old brass tacks gave a clue to the original cover's presence).
A new tiller was made, based approximately on the old string-steered version, and racing oars -different from those that would have been used in the 1880s- from Red Bay were supplied. It may not have been the purist’s idea of the original, but it was as close that could be done locally, given the absence of plans or any details of the original other than what was there in the boat itself. In the interim, we decided to visit Moville and Greencastle on the Inishowen Peninsula of Donegal to try and find out if there was any record of the Arrow having been built in that area. On 15 November 1985, Sammy, James and I spent the day talking to boat-builders, fishermen and others in that area. We found that written records at the boat-yards did not go back far enough to record the building of such a vessel, although the builders agreed that she had almost certainly been made here, and would have cost “a few pounds” in the mid to late 1800s. The oldest fisherman in the area remembered his father talking of the regattas and the skiff racing. We were a generation too late – the Arrow and her like had slipped from living memory.
On Friday 23 May 1986, the Arrow was transported by lorry to the almost completed Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre. An ironical twist of fate was that no space was left for her, as the centre was due to open on 29 May, and it was considered unsafe to display such a valuable item out of doors. Thus she ended up once again in the rafters, slung across in the main reception hall, missed by many except those who read the interpretation panel and happened to look up! The good news is that the famous old boat was not destroyed in the fire of 30 April 2000 that consumed the centre. Some time before, in a renovation of the interior, she had been removed for storage with the National Trust at nearby Aird. Note: The boat survives, but sadly the three men, Sammy Gault, James McLernon and Bertie McKay are no longer with us, nor is Sir Patrick Macnaghten...... Philip Watson
She remained in storage at the Aird until 2012 when the Arrow project was handed to Art Ward as part of the National Trust's Community Engagement activities which were part of the requirements in building the new visitor centre. Art is now making sure the Arrow keeps its place in local history. 'The Arrow is an integral part of the fishing heritage of the Causeway bays and headland,' 'We are working to bring it back into the public domain'. Art has picked up where Philip Watson left off. He is looking forward to displaying the historic vessel in the National Trust's Community Learning Centre and has his heart set on a community education program that can be used in local primary schools to keep awareness of the important heritage and fishing traditions of the north coast alive in another generation.
‘The Arrow’ A Poem
There is a small village not far from my home; In the days of my youth there I oft did roam To speak of a hero known many miles round; A champion oarsman his name is ‘Joe Brown’ . Now this hero I mention and his name tell to you, With the three ‘Curry brothers’ made up that boat crew Being Oarsman of valour they proved honour soon, It was these famous four that belonged to Port Moon
The course being selected lay near Ramore Hill, Where the boys from Portmoon met the men from Moville In their fast racing Drontheim called ‘Arrow’ by name; Her crew and her coxswain – five heroes of fame. They came from Moville and from sweet Innishown; To be beaten by any it never was known. But their glorious honour that day was pulled down, By the three ‘Curry Brothers’ and famed ‘Joe Brown’. And as they lay there awaiting the start; James Martin, the coxswain brought joy to their hearts, For he says – “My brave men”, with a smile on his face, “I’ll steer you to victory and win this great race.” “Jackson Mills” from Portmoon when this great race was ore, Met these champion heroes from Lochaber Shore Says – “your victory this day proves your valour to all; From Fair head in Antrim to famed donegal” Now to conclude and to finish my song, I now leave it to others to correct where I'm wrong, Near the famed “Giants causeway” in a quiet humble home, You will there find the author of this little poem James McAllister, Tonduff.