We leave Bangor marina and continue our voyage north, stopping for a night at Glenarm where we catch up with our washing. The marina staff are friendly, but there is not much to see and do there apart from a castle which is only open to the public at certain times of the year. Unfortunately, they don’t coincide with our visit, so we content ourselves with looking at a fisherman’s cottage instead.
We press on. We are now in sight of Scotland – the Mull of Kintyre is clearly visible on the horizon, only 15 miles away. We are now entering the ancient sea-kingdom of Dalriada, which spanned what is today Antrim in Northern Ireland and Argyll in Scotland. Its Gaelic-speaking people were called Scots by the Romans and eventually gave their name to Scotland.
The wind is from the north west and freshening. The sea captain orders his long-ship crew to break out the sail so that they can save their energy from rowing. They will need it later when they reach the Slough-na-More between the mainland and Reachlainn. According to his reckoning, the current will be with them and take them in to Baile an Chaistil, but it will still be rough and they will need to keep the ship on a straight course. Even though he has done the trip many times, he still feels some trepidation – one might get to know the sea, but it is never one’s friend.
He thinks of his next assignment. He has been called from his farm in Aontroim by the king of Dal Riada, Áedán mac Gabráin, to use his ship to take soldiers from Baile an Chaistil across the treacherous Sruth na Maoile to the great river Abhainn Chluaidh. Off to his starboard, he sees other long-ships coming from different directions but converging on Slough-na-More, all having received similar orders. It seems that the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelfrith from Northumbria is getting a bit too big for his boots and has invaded their allies, the Britons, on the mainland. Those Anglo-Saxons need taking down a peg or two, and our King Áedán is the one that can do it, he thinks. That will teach the pesky Anglo-Saxons to invade our Celtic brothers. Never mind that we have just finished having a bit of a scrap with the Britons ourselves, we Celts have to stick together. After all, Toutatis will make sure that we win.
Even though he has signed up to this new-fangled religion of peace and love introduced by that strange chap Colmcille, the sea captain still prefers to put his trust in the old gods when it comes to matters of war. He is glad that he managed to get the livestock out to their summer pasture and the barley and oats planted before the call came – at least there should be something to harvest when he comes home. If he comes home.
“Time for a cup of tea?”, the First Mate says, bringing me back to the present with a jolt. I had been imagining what it might have been like to be a sea captain in the Dalriadan sea-kingdom in the seventh century heading across the North Channel to the Clyde for the Battle of Degsastan between the Gaels and English in 603. Unfortunately, the Gaels get thrashed, marking the beginning of the decline of Dalriada.
The sea becomes more turbulent and we need to alter course to head directly into the wind. We are entering Slough-na-More, the hazardous stretch of water between Rathlin Island and the Antrim coast, where the tidal flow is forced through a narrow channel to produce strong currents, backflows and overfalls. Even though the current is in our favour, tacking in such conditions is difficult, so we furl the sails and motor instead. Ruby Tuesday takes each wave as it comes, riding over it then plunging into the trough behind. We try and keep her on a slight angle to the wave direction to avoid her slamming.
Up ahead we can see the imposing bulk of Fair Head, the north-eastern point of mainland Ireland. The origin of the name Fair Head comes from a rather poignant little tale. It seems that a beautiful girl once lived on a castle at Rathlin Island. Her beauty was known far and wide, and prospective suitors came from all over to woo her, but she rejected them all except two. Neither of the two would withdraw, so it was decided to settle the issue by a fight between them. They fought long and hard, but eventually one of them won. As the loser lay dying and not being able to bear thinking about the girl being with his opponent, he spoke to his manservant, telling him to ask her to dance with him at the marriage celebration. He was then to dance her over the edge of the cliff. This all happened, and the girl’s body was found later washed up amongst the rocks at the base of Fair Head, giving it its name. Such is love.
We eventually reach Ballycastle marina and tie up. The small town lies adjacent to the marina, so we relax by having an ice-cream in the sun before exploring.
We see the Marconi memorial commemorating the first commercial radio transmission in the world, from Rathlin Island across to Ballycastle. Apparently this was for the coastguard to report the passage of ships along the north coast of Ireland to Lloyds in London.
The next morning we take a local bus to explore the so-called Causeway Coast. Some miles west of Ballycastle, we get off and walk down the small road signposted to the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, the first ‘must see’ we have been told about. We pause to take in the view – picturesque fields sweep down to the steep cliffs rising out of the sea, with a small whitewashed church on the edge between land and water. It is picture postcard Ireland.
A little bit further on, we come to the rope bridge itself spanning a precipitous gap between the mainland and the small rocky island of Carrick-a-Rede. There is a queue of people waiting to cross it a few at a time, but we follow the track to its end and look back. Old fogeys that we are, we have done enough such thrills in our lifetimes not to feel the urge to try this one. It is no more than a tourist attraction nowadays, but apparently fishermen used to fish for salmon from the island and constructed bridges across the narrow gap to bring their catch back to land.
Back on the road, we catch the next bus which takes us to the stop for the Giants’ Causeway, and we walk the kilometre or so down to the coast. The stones are part of the same geological structure as the structures at Staffa, and were formed by volcanic activity around 60 million years ago. When lava cools slowly, it forms hexagonal columns. Legend has it that the Causeway was built when a giant from Ireland was challenged to a duel by a giant from Scotland, and the latter needed a way of getting across to the bout. We were amused to hear that DUP ministers had insisted on a Young Earth Creation explanation in the Visitors’ Centre of the formation of the stones 6000 years ago. What’s a factor of 10,000 amongst friends?
We sit and have a coffee at a street cafe in the next town, Coleraine. A man approaches and asks if he can share our table as there are no others spare. We are fine with this and he sits down. After some small talk, I decide to ask him about Brexit.
“Brexit?”, he says, as if confused. “Oh, you mean Leave. Well, everyone around here would have voted for Leave. If you want to talk to any Stayers, you’ll have to go to Belfast. That’s where they all are”, he continues defensively, as if they are a race apart.
I want to ask him why people voted for Leave in Coleraine, but unfortunately he is joined by his wife at that stage, and the chance is lost.
We arrive back at the boat and meet our new neighbours, Richard and Maryanne. They have a motorboat and are heading in much the same direction as us.