Rathlin Island: an archaeological survey of a maritime landscape Northern Ireland Archaeological Monographs 8 by Wes Forsythe and Rosemary McConkey with 26 Contributors 482 pp., 358 illustrations mostly colour, 21 tables Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Waterman House, 5–33 Hill Street, Belfast BT1 2LA, 2012, £29.99 (hbk), ISBN 978-0337097041
Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
© 2014 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2014 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 43, Issue 1, pages 226–228, March 2014
How to Cite
Martin, P. (2014), Rathlin Island: an archaeological survey of a maritime landscape Northern Ireland Archaeological Monographs 8 by Wes Forsythe and Rosemary McConkey with 26 Contributors 482 pp., 358 illustrations mostly colour, 21 tables Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Waterman House, 5–33 Hill Street, Belfast BT1 2LA, 2012, £29.99 (hbk), ISBN 978-0337097041 . International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 43: 226–228. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12050_16
- Issue published online: 10 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
This book is a sequel to Strangford Lough: an Archaeological Survey of the Maritime Cultural Landscape, by T. McErlean, R. McConkey and W. Forsythe (Belfast, 2002, reviewed in IJNA 32.2). The ‘windswept environment of an island surrounded by ferocious tidal currents and regularly lashed by storms’ (p. 2) was deliberately chosen for detailed survey to provide a contrast to the sheltered shoreline of a sea lough. Rathlin Island lies 5 miles (8 km) off the north-east coast of Ireland. The island has a long arm running east-west with cliffs and deep water on its north side, and a short arm running southwards from its east end where the land is lower. At the inner angle, south-facing and sheltered, is Church Bay, the main harbour and settlement. The island covers an area of c.1420 ha (3500 acres), and its rocks are mainly limestone and basalt. The current population is just over 100. Its peak of population was c.1200, towards the end of the 18th century.
The first chapter presents an introduction and methodology. The aims of the survey were threefold: ‘to carry out a comprehensive archaeological survey of the coastal zone’; ‘to put coastal monuments into context within the island landscape and its past, and to assess the role of maritime activities in island life, economy and contacts’; and, ‘to explore the cultural and historic influences acting on the island at various periods as expressed through archaeology’ (pp. 5–6). Chapter 2, by R. Quinn, B. Lafferty, K. Wesley and R. Plets, describes the natural environment, including information about past sea-level changes. Chapter 3, ‘Archaeology and History’, consists of 29 sections (144 pp.) by a variety of contributors. It presents a detailed chronological account of the island's past based on published historical and archaeological sources, oral history and place-name studies, enhanced by the results of the archaeological survey of the island carried out between 2002 and 2007 by the authors and colleagues from the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Ulster at Coleraine. This information is set within its wider geographical and historical contexts. Because of its location, Rathlin Island had links with the southernmost of the Scottish islands, and with the Kintyre peninsula (only 13 miles/21 km away), as well as with the adjacent Irish mainland.
Subsequent chapters discuss specific themes (ch. 4, ‘The Caves of Rathlin’, ch. 5, ‘Fishing and Agriculture’ and ch. 9, ‘Historic Settlement’) or groups of archaeological sites, such as those connected with the kelp industry (ch. 6), ‘Landing Places and Boat Shelters’ (ch. 7), and ‘Boats and Ships’ (ch. 8). These are followed by a gazetteer of sites by type, ranging in numbers from two knapping sites and three lighthouses to 59 ‘landing places, boat shelters and boat houses’, 82 shipwrecks, and 95 sites related to the kelp industry. Clearly important to the local economy, the burning of seaweed to produce an alkali for various industrial uses, and later to produce iodine, lasted here from c.1700 to 1940. There are three appendices, a bibliography and an insufficient index.
A key chapter is that on ‘Landing Places and Boat Shelters’, because without landing facilities life on an island is not viable, and the range of such facilities demonstrates how the coast was used at various times. Rathlin has two ‘natural harbours’. One, Church Bay, is the main harbour and settlement today. The other, Ushet, lies at the southern tip of the island, nearest to the mainland, and seems from map evidence to have once been the more important. However, it was ‘blocked up in the 18th century to prevent smuggling’ (p. 262, though another mention on p. 185 gives the date as 1817). It would have been interesting to know how this was done, whether it was only aimed at vessels over a certain draught, and whether the blockage is still extant.
Beyond the two harbours, there are 25 locations where beaches have been modified to improve landing facilities. The exposed nature of much of the coastline is demonstrated by the presence of 49 ‘boat shelters’, which are not generally found in more protected locations. These consist of low walls creating a rectangle or oval open at one end, well above the high tide mark, located where the natural topography suggests, sometimes making use of natural banks or rock faces as one of the sides of the shelter. Protected by these walls a small boat would be safe from damage by the wind or by debris thrown up by storms. The authors also list a few ‘nausts’, defined as ‘boat-shaped hollows excavated into the coastal fringe at the top of the beach’, their sides often revetted with stone (p. 268). On the ground the distinction between nausts and boat shelters must sometimes surely be unclear.
There are three boathouses on the island. In our study of boathouses in the Sound of Mull, an area of Scotland where much of the maritime infrastructure is comparable to that in the north of Ireland, the boathouses were not of vernacular build (round corners and thatched roofs) but had right-angled corners, gables and slated roofs. Each belonged to a particular estate, and was linked to the big house by a well-engineered track (Martin and Martin, IJNA 32.1, 91–110). Those on Rathlin look similar, and as the island only had one landlord, why were there three boathouses? One is located in Church Bay, and is presumed to have been built either by the landowner or by the Coastguard (and is now the heritage centre). Sadly no measurements are given for it, as they could suggest the size of boat it once housed. Another is not far away at Ballynoe. It is 4 m long externally, and its front opening is 2.38 m wide. It was built as a store and later converted to a boathouse. Presumably it belonged to Ballynoe House, the oldest on the island (pp. 179–80) and once the home of the island's owner (no location is given, and the house is not included in the gazetteer). If so, it would be older than and replaced by the Church Bay boathouse. The third example is at Portawillin, on the east coast. It is described in the text as measuring 4.8 x 4.4 m, though it looks less square than that in the photograph on p. 260. There is no picture or measurement of its main door, or any hint as to why it was built and by whom.
Another chapter of interest to IJNA readers is ch. 8. ‘Boats and Ships’, by Wes Forsythe and Colin Breen. The first section (4 pp.) discusses local boats. Skin boats were replaced in the 18th century by clinker-built skiffs, known locally as ‘drontheims’, a corruption of ‘Trondheim’, as they were introduced as imports from Norway, though they were soon adapted and built locally. The next section (7 pp.) discusses shipwrecks around the island, quantifying them by date, by cargo, by countries of origin and destination. This is followed by a discussion on finding wrecks using geophysical techniques (7 pp.). ‘Navigation’ (5 pp.) covers the hazards which caused some of the shipwrecks, early charts and maps, and natural features used by locals as markers for navigation. ‘Ship graffiti’ from six sites on the island are presented, all dating from the 18th century or after. The chapter ends with a short section on lighthouses.
There are lots of maps, but most are distribution maps demonstrating a particular point, using symbols not words. The gazetteer gives references to the Irish grid, but nowhere in the book could I find an overall general map on which I could easily locate the places mentioned in the text. The Strangford Lough volume presented a massive amount of data but had no chapter of conclusions. The same is true of this book. In the Preface and ch. 1, however, the authors explain that the island was deliberately chosen as a contrast to Strangford Lough, to assess how much and what type of archaeological evidence of maritime activities survives on an exposed coastline. Yet at the end there is no assessment of the similarities and differences between the two study areas and the surviving archaeological evidence. There is, however, a section at the end of ch. 1 (p. 18) which discusses new avenues of research which the work presented here has already opened up.
The book is produced in a large format, with good quality paper and good reproduction of images, within a page of where they are referred to. Most are reproduced at a useful size, but a few, particularly maps, are rather small, especially some of the distribution maps, to an extent that it is hard to distinguish between the colours and symbols used. Some material relating to particular sites or finds is presented in boxes. I found it very pleasing that even when boxes spread over several pages they always start at the end of a paragraph in the main text, which I found much easier than when the positioning of boxes causes paragraphs to be split.
There are lots of cross-references within the text and between the narrative and the gazetteer, though these are not exhaustive. The gazetteer entry for the boathouse at Portawillin, for example, does not include any reference to the illustration of it on p. 260. The presentation of the material, in a chronological narrative followed by chapters on particular monument types, inevitably leads to repetition. The description of a whirlpool said to lie between the island and the Scottish coast, its association with St Brecain, and discussion as to whether this was or was not the well-known whirlpool between the Scottish islands of Jura and Scarba, appears in three places (though not in the index). It is first discussed on pp. 109–10 in the medieval section of the archaeology and history chapter, then on p. 195, relating to Brecain/Bracken's Cave, and lastly on p. 280 in the introduction to the section on shipwrecks (where Brecáin is written with an accent).
The Strangford Lough volume had a 6-page glossary. This book has none, though there are some definitions provided within the text. The word ‘quay’ has been given a very broad definition, to cover what many would have described as ‘piers’ and ‘jetties’ as well as quays. There are a few missing apostrophes, and other minor problems which, like the repetition, could have been eliminated by more thorough editing. However, these are minor criticisms. This is a well-illustrated and affordable publication about the archaeology of a maritime landscape, using approaches which could successfully be applied in other areas. The research and fieldwork has been thorough, and this volume provides a sound basis for further research on Rathlin and for comparisons with research results over a much wider area.