The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway, North County Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway on the North Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland.

NGR: NR 1332 0335. On the north coast of County Antrim, 2½ miles northeast of Bush-mills, in Northern Ireland, is the mysterious rock formation known as The Giant’s Causeway, which is also a well-known tourist attraction and no doubt a must for any geologist! These strange hexagonal and polygonal-shaped columns of black basalt being grouped into colonnades that cover a four-mile wide area of the Antrim coastline, and there are thousands-upon-thousands of them! The legendary giant, Finn McCool, used the causeway as stepping-stones between the Irish coast and the Scottish coast. These basalt columns, towers and pyramid-shapes vary in size between very tall to quite small, and they have been smoothed by the pummeling waves from the sea and from weathering over thousands of years, though the rock formations date back 50 million years to the time of lava-spewing Volcanoes. There are other strange rock formations here that have, over the years, acquired strange names due to their shapes: The Giants’ Organ and The Camel’s Hump for instance. Take the Causeway Coastal Path (west) from Dunseverick for 4 miles along the cliff-tops, or from the visitor centre at Bushmills (check first to see if the centre is open at this time of Covid-19).

The Giant’s Causeway in Co. Antrim, N. Ireland.

Wonders of the World (1930) tells us that: “The Irish would not be true to the spirit of Celtic mysticism and poetry had they not woven around one of the wonders of the world, the Giant’s Causeway in the County of Antrim, a mesh of legend, folklore and romance. The existence of fields upon fields of gigantic, truncated pyramids of columns of varying polygonal sides had to be explained, as also that of the Porticoon and Dunkerry caves, into the darkness of which boats are rowed on the swell of the waves and in whose mysterious depths sounds reverberate as from the cannon’s mouth. Here, where the columns rise, forming, as it were, the back to a low step, is My Lady’s Wishing Chair; there were the basaltic mass takes a weird shape, are the Nurse and Child who were petrified by a giant because his wife had betrayed him — so runs the legend.  And, in a similar strain run hundreds of legends, the chronicling of which would constitute an epic poem of giants unparalleled in the literature.

“The giant Fin MacCoul, would be the hero, for he it was who is reputed to have built the Great Causeway across the sea to Scotland, so that his enemy, the Scottish giant, might step over high and dry to get the thrashing he so richly deserved. The Giants’ Amphitheatre, with its perfect tiers of broken columns overlooking the bay, was built by him to amuse his quests, and when he breathed heavily, the pipes of the Giants’ Organ, likewise formed of high columns, played a tune the exact notes of which have presumably been lost to us.

Giant’s Causeway.

“It would be impossible within the limits of a short paragraph to do justice to the strangeness and poetry of the Giant’s Causeway.  It is a honeycombed series of beaches without a grain of sand, flanked by the ruins of two castles, Dunseverick and Danluce, situated high above the sea on isolated crags. Nor must the Carrick-a-Rede be forgotten, that lonely rock island in the path of the salmon shoals.  To reach it during the season fishermen sling a rope bridge be-tween it and the mainland, eighty feet above the roaring waves.  A photograph gives but a passing impression of what is surely one of the unique spots on our globe.  Unfortunately it cannot do justice to the whole range of wonderful beach, for the very simple reason that no two spots resemble each other, but are as varied in form as are the legend or romance atta-ched to each.  The size of the columns and pyramids varies likewise, some attaining a height of thirty feet.  Now they are close-fitting, forming a level tessellated floor, now loose and irregular.

“At times their regularity is so perfect as to appear to be wrought by hand and to have been artificially grouped into colonnades of most exquisite harmony and design; at others, all is wild and broken and thrown about as though giants had really spent their time and their strength in destroying the very things they are reputed to have created.”

Romantic Britain (1948) says that: “On the Antrim coast is the Giant’s Causeway where a mass of once molten rock has cooled and solidified into innumerable columns of basalt, most of them of hexagonal shape. Fingal’s Cave in the Isle of Staffa, presents a similar formation and legend claims both these outcrops as remnants of a bridge built by an Irish giant. The Giant’s Causeway at Antrim is said to have been flung across the sea to Scotland by Fionn, to hasten his hostile encounter with a fearsome Scottish rival. Cloughmore (Big Stone) at Rostrevor, was hurled, it is said, by the Scottish giant at Fionn’s head and just missed it! Fionn retaliated with the Isle of Man which he pulled out of the space now occupied by Lough Neagh.”

Nicholson (1983) adds that the Giant’s Causeway is: “A rare and famous series of cliffs that resulted from gigantic outpourings of volcanic basalt in remote tertiary times. The rock cooled as a lower layer of thousands of regular hexagonal columns and an upper layer of slim uneven prisms like a crazy architect’s fantasy. This amazing piece of coast belongs to the National Trust.”

Sources / References & Related Websites:-

Nicholson, Guide To Ireland — The Essential Touring Companion, Robert Nicholson Publications Limited, London, 1983.

Romantic Britain (Edited by Tom Stephenson), Odhams Press Limited, Long Acre, London, 1948.

Wonders Of The World (forward by Sir Philip Gibbs, K.B.E.,), Odhams Press & Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., London, 1930.

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Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2020.

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Spooyt Vane Keeill (Chapel), Near Kirk Michael, Isle of Man

Spooyt Vane Keeill, near Kirk Michael, Isle of Man.

NGR: SC 30750 88760. In woodland a little to the south of Glen Móoar and close by the Monk’s Road, ½ a mile southwest of Ballaleigh village, in Kirk Michael Parish, Isle of Man, is the Spooyt Vane Keeill, an ancient ruined Chapel of St Patrick (Cabbal Pherick), which is thought to date back to between the 8th-10th Centuries AD. At the side of the chapel, inside an enclosure, are   the remains of a hermit’s or priest’s cell, a boundary wall and burial ground. The foundations of this keeil, mainly boulders and turf, are now very grassed over, but it is still fairly easy to make out with an entrance at one side. 130 yards SE of the keeill can be found the spectacular ‘Spooyt Vane Waterfall’, a tourist attraction. The keeill site is 2 miles southwest of Kirk Michael. We don’t know when it was last used as a chapel but it is recorded that the last priest was found to have worked on the Sabbath Day, and for doing this he met with rather a bad end. To reach the site take the A4 Peel road SW out of Kirk Michael for 1½ miles, turning off onto Ballaleigh road, but just before the village take lane SE to Spooyt Vane carpark and Waterfall; the keeill site is in woodland to the SW. The chapel and waterfall are on private land, so it is best to get permission before you visit them.

Ancient keeill, Spooyt Vane. Photo: Jim Barton (Creative Commons).

The ruined Spooyt Vane keeill is situated on top of a hill above the river in the Glen Móoar woods. It is a very primitive ancient chapel and is rectangular-shaped in design with slightly rounded corners. It measures 23 feet x 13 feet with a narrow entrance at the W side. The walls are built rather roughly from unhewn stones, river boulders, rubble and turf, which are now very grassed-over but, in places, these walls still stand to between 30-40 inches in height (2ft 5“ to 3ft 3”). There are remains of a window at the E side. The stone altar which had stood at the E side was taken away for safety, while a thin cross-slab found recumbent on the ground in the entrance was taken to the church at Kirk Michael, again for safety reasons. At the southwest side is an enclosure with turfed bank and inside this there is a ruined Culdee cell at the corner – this being the primitive abode of a hermit or priest, and somewhat similar to a monastic cell. There is more information on the archae-ology of the site at: isle of website (below).

The Manx Museum And National Trust (1973) tells us: “The keeills were the small early Christian chapels built throughout the Island following the conversion of the Manx to Christianity.  Over one hundred and eighty such buildings are known to have existed (though visible remains of less than a quarter of this number survive today).  The sites are found in all parts of the Island, and it is thought that their distribution is probably related to the ancient Celtic land divisions known as treens, a keeill being found on almost every treen.  The earliest keeills were probably built of sods, or wattle and daub, and no trace of these now remains, but ruins survive of later examples, consisting of stone-faced walls, dating from perhaps the eighth to the twelfth centuries.  In a few late examples mortar has been used in their construction, but the more usual form is earth walls, faced with rough dry stone walling.  The keeills were small plain rectangular structures, usually measuring inter-nally about 15 feet by 10 feet; in some examples the base of an altar remains at the eastern end.  The keeill was often sur-rounded by an enclosure or burial ground, and in some cases traces of the priest’s small habitation cell may be observed.  The keeills probably had thatched roofs when in use.”

Andrew Jones (2002) says: The earliest keeils, being so small, could not have been intended for congregational worship but rather as places in which the first Christian missionaries could offer up their simple service of prayer and praise. Preaching would have been conducted out of doors, and so too would baptism, for a holy well is usually found near these old chapels. Many of the keeils that have been examined are known to have been built on sites that had been sacred for a long time previously, thus illustrating that respect for tradition which was a marked characteristic of Celtic Britain.” And The Viking Heritage (1979) adds that: “For centuries before the longships of the Vikings first appeared off our coasts, our Celtic forbears worshipped at tiny keeills or chapels, the remains of many of which are still to be seen in the countryside. The dedications of many are lost, but those which are known form an impressive monument to the founders of the Manx Church — Patrick, Brigid, and Columba among them. Greatest of all the saints of Mann were Germanus, disciple of St. Patrick, whose cathedral stands on St. Patrick’s Isle at Peel, and Maughold, a repentant brigand who was set adrift in a coracle by Patrick.”

Sources / References & Related Websites:-

Jones, Alan, Every Pilgrim’s Guide To Celtic Britain And Ireland, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2002.

The Manx Museum And National Trust, The Ancient And Historic Monuments of the Isle of Man, The Manx Museum & National Trust, Douglas, Fourth (Revised) Edition, 1973.

The Viking Heritage — Isle Of Man — Millennium Of Tynwald, The Viking Heritage — The official pictorial souvenir to commemorate the Millennium of Tynwald, Shearwater Press, Douglas, Isle of Man, 1979.

Geograph (Creative Commons) photo (above) is by Jim Barton:

Keeills and Cake; Cabbal Pherick, Kirk Michael.

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Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2020.