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.


Drumena Cashel and Souterrain

Drumena cashel wall)
Within the walls of Drumena Cashel

This cashel, near Castlewellan, Co. Down, is a great example of a cashel, or ringfort. It was a common type of farmstead in early medieval times, where the farm was enclosed within a strong circular wall. Drumena Cashel is roughly circular in shape, about 40m wide and with walls up to 3m thick.
Some excavations and restoration took place in the 1920’s and the present entrance to the cashel is probably not the original entrance.

Drumena CashelFoundations of a house that had been built inside the fort at some time. The long wall behind is part of the cashel wall.

Like many cashels and raths, there is a souterrain within the enclosure and this would have been used for storage and maybe also as a refuge. This souterrain is particularly well-preserved.

Drumena souterrain (3)
Entrance to the souterrain with cashel wall behind

Both the fort and souterrain are easily accessible and the souterrain is big enough to walk around in comfortably. The souterrain is T-shaped and has 2 entrances, one with steps down into it, which were probably put in when it was restored (see title photo).

It is much easier to access than many souterrains and if these are the original entrances they weren’t built to deter invaders. So many souterrains have a low entrance that you have to crawl through, or at least crouch down to get in and then just as you get inside and start to straighten up there might be a protruding stone, deliberately placed to bang your head on!
It is certainly a more superior type of souterrain than some I have been in!
Drumena Souterrain entrance (2)

Drumena souterrain (1)

Drumena souterrain (2)

One of the passages leads to a small chamber which has an air hole in one of its walls.


Drumena souterrain
Spiral shapes on one of the stones inside the souterrain


Dolmens of County Down

Some dolmens of Co. Down, from the much photographed Legananny (below) to some in  rather surprising places!

Legananny Dolmen

Built in an elevated position on the slopes of Slieve Croob  and looking towards the Mountains of Mourne, Legananny is one of Northern Irelands best known dolmens.

This extremely tall portal tomb is made of granite and has a large capstone slab finely balanced on the points of three tapering pillars.
Many dolmens are associated with figures from ancient legends and Legananny, is a translation from the Gaelic, Liagan Aine, meaning pillar stone of Aine.

Around the winter solstice the morning sun shines through the two portal stones, illuminating the underside of the capstone.


Continue reading “Dolmens of County Down”

Binder’s Cove Souterrain

Binder’s Cove, or Finnis Souterrain, near Finnis in Co. Down

Last year, when I was crawling through the wet, muddy and claustrophobic Claigan Souterrain on the Isle of Skye and getting muddy from head to foot, I thought of Binder’s Cove and longed for a bit of luxury in my souterrain exploration.
Binder’s Cove is easy to find, has parking beside the road, a footpath up to the site, steps down to the souterrain and it’s own lighting, powered by the solar panels at the entrance.

Binder's Cove Souterrain  (6)
Solar panels power the lighting for the souterrain

There are thousands of souterrains in Ireland but few are easily accessible. This well-preserved 9th century souterrain was opened to the public in 2003 after the landowner and Banbridge District Council thought that it would be a good idea to open the site to the public and give locals and visitors the opportunity to see inside what was a very common, but hidden, feature of the early Christian landscape.
Work was carried out to stabilize the stonework, install the solar panels and lighting and also improve the mud floor so that visitors don’t get muddy.


Binder's Cove Souterrain
The lights switch off automatically after 15 mins but can be switched on again by pushing the button on any of the individual lights (if you can find the light switch in the dark!). It’s amazing how quickly 15 minutes pass when you’re exploring a fairly large souterrain and when the lights went out I was glad I had my headtorch.

The main passage is 30m long and has two shorter passages of about 6m leading off on the right hand side. The entrance passage is only 1m high, so a bit of a squeeze at the beginning, but then the height increases to 1.5m.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

7. Binder's Cove Souterrain

There was some shallow water at the very end of the main passage. In this part of the tunnel my breath (at least I assumed it was my breath) appeared as a white mist in front of me – very spooky!

It is called Binder’s Cove because Binder was the name of a previous owner of the field and Cove is a corruption of cave, a common term for a souterrain in Ireland.

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