Millin Bay Cairn and a trip to the Ards Peninsula

Looking through my archives, I noticed that it was about this time of year, a few years ago, that we visited the site of Millin Bay Cairn. I hadn’t written a post on it because, quite frankly, there isn’t much to see. However, it was still a grand day out and the cairn itself is very interesting because of its unusual design and the discoveries made when it was excavated in 1953.

Driving up to the Ards Peninsula from South Down we had to take the ferry across Strangford Lough, but before we did that we took a little detour over to Audleystown Court Tomb. I’ve written about it in a previous post as it’s one of my favourites and a lovely example of a dual court tomb (a long double-ended tomb).

Audleystown Court Tomb with Strangford Lough just visible on the right

The ferry goes from the pretty village of Strangford across to Portaferry on the Ards Peninsula. Although it was a bright sunny day the water was quite choppy with a brisk wind blowing down the lough.


We drove across to Millin Bay on the east side of the Ards Peninsula and soon saw the sign for the cairn.

Unfortunately, all that can be seen are a few upright stones which look as if they could be part of a stone circle. These are all that remain visible above the ground after the tomb was back filled following the 1953 excavation. What was found under the ground was much more interesting!

The tomb was constructed in the late Neolithic and is quite unique in that it doesn’t fall into any of the usual categories of tomb found in Ireland.

A long stone cist was built alongside an earlier stone boundary wall and the wall and cist surrounded by an oval of upright stones. These were then incorporated into a larger mound surrounded by large upright stones and these are the stones still visible today.

The layout is best seen on the information board at the site.

The information board also has this fascinating photo from the excavation, where the boundary wall and oval of upright stones can clearly be seen.

The cist contained the skeletal remains of at least 15 people and the cremated remains of another. Rather being individual skeletons, the bones had been sorted and carefully arranged in groups of skulls, long bones, etc. The bones could also have been used in ancestor worship and rituals before they were placed in the tomb as it is thought that they had been kept somewhere else for a considerable time before they were placed in the tomb.

The bones as they were found in the cist.

8 small cists, thought to be later burials, were also found within the cairn material.

The cairn is close to the shore, with views out to sea, and the Isle of Man visible on a clear day – not this day though. Despite the sunshine, it was very cold on the coast and my thoughts were more about keeping warm than lingering in the field.

What better to place to warm up on a cold day, than a tropical butterfly house. On the way back we stopped at Seaforde Demesne gardens and butterfly house and got nice and warm in the butterfly house and had a bite to eat in the Garden House cafe.

Dunnaman Court Tomb, Co. Down

Also called the Giant’s Grave or Massforth Court Tomb.

A particularly long court tomb situated in a field beside the graveyard at St. Colman’s Church, Massforth, on the outskirts of Kilkeel.

Nothing remains of the forecourt or the covering cairn of this tomb but it is worth seeing for the remains of the 12-13m-long gallery and some features of the wall construction.

Looking down the tomb from the single boulder across the closed end of the gallery to the opening at the other end where the forecourt would have been

The outer walls are made from large split granite boulders and jamb stones segregate the gallery into 4 chambers.

Rather being placed end to end, the large boulders along the length of the tomb were  placed so that the stones overlap each other(see below). This is a feature seen at some of the Clyde Cairns in Scotland and other court cairns in Ulster and probably made the structure more stable. At Dunnaman, where only the bare skeleton of the tomb remains, it is particularly obvious.

Overlapping split boulders

Looking towards the NE end of the tomb (forecourt end). Note the old sign in the bushes behind.

There’s a  sign and information panel at the entrance to the site but the old sign is still there in the bushes behind the tomb.

The tomb is close to the A2 Newry road and is easily accessible via a signposted path.


Clontygora Court Tomb

Clontygora is one of the Neolithic tombs situated in the Ring of Gullion, an area of south east Ulster famous for its outstanding geology, history and archaeology.

Clontygora (5)

This would have been a massive structure when it was covered by its cairn of stones  but it is still one of the most impressive Neolithic tombs in Ireland and a good example of a court tomb.
Fortunately, many of the huge stones used to build the 3 burial chambers and the forecourt are still in situ. Granite orthostats up to 2.7m high form the U-shaped forecourt and the burial chambers are made from huge split granite boulders. One of the chambers is still covered by a 3m long capstone.

A cairn of some considerable length would have covered the 3 burial chambers and the U-shaped forecourt in front of the entrance would have extended the length even further.

The U-shaped forecourt

It is still one of the most impressive court tombs, despite the fact that it was pillaged in the 1730’s to provide stone for the nearby Newry Canal and again in the 19th century for building the quay at Narrow Water. One can only wonder what it must have looked like before it was plundered, when it was a giant cairn sitting prominently up on the hillside above the plain of Meigh.

Clontygora – from Chluainte Gabhra – the meadow of the goats. The tomb is also known locally as The King’s Ring.

Some of the other megalithic tombs in the Ring of Gullion that are well worth seeing are Ballymacdermot Court Tomb, Ballykeel Dolmen and on the summit of Slieve Gullion itself, is the wonderful Sleive Gullion Passage Tomb.

Annaghmare Court Tomb


Annaghmare is one of the best preserved court tombs and is situated on a small knoll in a forestry plantation close to the Armagh – Monaghan border.
It’s secluded location in a clearing in the forest gives it an ambience that is often missing from other neolithic sites in the area and this is probably the best tomb to visit to feel a connection to the neolithic.

This long, trapezoidal-shaped cairn consists of a well-built court area which leads through two impressive portal stones to a gallery of three chambers.


Towards the rear of the cairn are two more chambers (added at a later date), which lie at right angles to the axis of the cairn and are entered from the side. Excavations showed that these two chambers had never actually been used for burial.

The two rear chambers

The court is particularly well-preserved and contains some very large orthostats. Some of them are sure to have been chosen for their size and shape and probably placed in significant positions within the courtyard wall. Dry stone walling fills the gaps between the orthostats.

When the cairn ceased to be used it was ritually sealed up by blocking the entrance with stones and then filling in the whole of the court area. It was filled with stones right up to the height of the tall orthostats, thus blocking the entrance and hiding all the large court stones from view until it was excavated about 5000 years later.


Audleystown Dual Court Tomb

A double-ended tomb overlooking Strangford Lough in County Down

Audleystown Dual Court Tomb (3)
Showing one side of the cairn, with its revetment wall, forecourt and inner chambers

Audleystown is a good example of a dual court tomb and the layout is still very plain to see.
The wedge-shaped  cairn is nearly 27m long with a shallow forecourt area at each end and each forecourt has a gallery of 4 chambers leading in from it.
The long sides of the cairn are edged with neatly built dry-stone revetment walls.

Audleystown Dual Court Tomb (1)
The galleries leading inwards from each end of the cairn

Excavation in the 1950’s revealed much evidence of ritual. The bones of 34 people were found – 17 in one gallery and 17 in the other, some unburnt and some cremated.. The bones had been selected and placed in different parts of the chambers and some of the long bones and ribs had been carefully placed in parallel rows.

Audleystown Dual Court Tomb (2)
Primroses fill the burial chambers

Situated in an attractive position looking across the vast expanse of Strangford Lough

Strangford Lough