The Caves of Rathlin Island and the Hunt for Bruce's Cave

There is an old ruin called Bruce's Castle on this island, and the legend runs that Bruce and his chief warriors lie in an enchanted sleep in a cave of the rock on which stands the castle, and that one day they will rise up and unite the island to Scotland.
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland, Published 1887
Lady Jane Francesca Wilde ("Speranza."), Mother of Oscar Wilde

My project to photograph the sea caves of Antrim would not be complete without a visit to Rathlin Island. Rathlin lies three miles off the coast of Northern Ireland and fifteen miles from Scotland. Its position, as a stepping stone between Ireland and Scotland, has shaped the island's rich history which stretches back to Mesolithic times.

The sea caves of Rathlin are numerous and varied. There are dark, flooded basalt caves; there are beautifully sculpted limestone caves; there are also raised, relict caves which are now stranded high above the sea. The caves of Rathlin are steeped in history and legend. In early Mesolithic times they were the dwelling places of stone-age man. During times of conflict they were used as hiding places, possibly by the great Robert the Bruce of Scotland. Many are also said to be inhabited by ghosts and perhaps even by the devil himself.

In September 2008 I made my first visit to Rathlin to explore and photograph some of these caves. Let me take you on a tour of the island's most secret places.

East Rathlin - The Hunt for Bruce's Cave

Under the East Lighthouse at Altacarry lies the most famous cave on Rathlin, Bruce's Cave. Legend tells how Robert the Bruce fled from Scotland in 1306 to regain his strength in this great cave. The story also tells how he was inspired to return to the battle in Scotland, and victory at Bannockburn, after watching a spider steadfastly spinning a web inside the cave.

Sadly, the spider legend is probably a figurative tale, written in the 1800's by Sir Walter Scott. However, there is strong historical evidence that Robert the Bruce did come to Rathlin in the winter of 1306, not alone, but with a small army of 300 men.

The arrival of Robert the Bruce on Rathlin

In Rathlin they arrived
and to the land they went
armed to their best fashion.
When the people of the land
saw soldiers in that country
arrive in such quantity
they fled in haste with their cattle
towards a strong castle.

Every day they should send him
victuals for three hundred men
and they should know him as their lord.
But that their possessions should be
their own, free of all his men.

Of all Rathlin, both man and boy
knelt and paid the king homage
and therewith swore him fidelity
to serve him always in loyalty.

The Brus, Volume 3 by John Barbour (translation)
Written in 1375

There are no references to secret caves in this famous historical poem by John Barbour. The writing suggests that Robert the Bruce's base on Rathlin was the castle rather than a cave. Indeed, the ruined castle on Rathlin still bears his name today. To keep himself occupied during his uneventful winter on Rathlin, perhaps Bruce investigated the castle's defensive surrounds, including any hiding places underneath the cliffs. However, I personally doubt he ever had reason to retreat to them. Interestingly, I noticed that the modern survey maps indicated several sea caves in the vicinity of Bruce's Castle. I decided to investigate.

Bruce's Castle on Rathlin Island
Ireland: Its Scenery & Character, Published 1843
Drawn by Andrew Nicholl

Rathlin and The Antrim Coast
Published by Veuve Agasse Paris, 1827
Reproduced courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection

I started my search at the place marked as Bruce's Cave on the modern map. Looking down from the high clifftop, I had further doubts about Bruce's movements. It seems highly unlikely that Bruce hid alone in the cave during a Rathlin winter. Access is only possible by boat and requires a flat calm sea, something of a rarity on this notorious northeastern headland. That was a cave for another day. However, I did find another fantastic cavern hidden from view under the cliffs and positioned just 150 yards from the ruins of Bruce's Castle. This cave is named 'Oweynagolman' on the map and is known locally by the name 'Avaragh'.

Wading into Oweynagolman
© Pete Smith

I was able to climb down the cliff to the cave mouth where I sat for a while and tried to guage the depth of the water between each incoming swell. I had timed my visit with a low spring tide, so it was now or never. After stripping down to my underwear, I braced myself for the cold and jumped in up to my chest. Wading into the darkness while holding my camera gear aloft was a tricky undertaking. The boulders and deeper holes on the bottom threatened to unbalance me and tip my expensive equipment into the water. However, it wasn't long before I was clambering up the dry boulder beach at the back of the cave. The rock architecture of the interior was magnificent. This was a sea cave built for Kings.

Shivering in this dark hall in nothing but my underwear, I did feel a little vulnerable. I took my photographs quickly, all the time keeping a careful watch for any spiders that might pounce on me from the dark recess.

I have come to the conclusion that there is a very good probability that King Robert of Scotland investigated this great hall, spider or not! We shall probably never know for sure, but of all the caves that claim a visit from Bruce, this one under his castle must surely be a strong contender.

Avaragh - Oweynagolman Cave
Uaigh na gColman (Cave of the Pigeon)
Another Bruce's Cave?
© Andy McInroy

I have also been able to link this spectacular cave to some old stories of Rathlin. It is said that the protective bar at the entrance was created by the spell of a local wise-woman to protect the legendary Children of Lir. These children were turned into swans by their wicked stepmother, Aoife, and endured 300 years on the Sea of Moyle. The swan children wished to shelter in this cave and turned to the wise-woman for help. The bar of rock can actually be seen in my photograph across the entrance of the cave. It is revealed only on a low spring tide around which I planned my visit. It was this bar which also made it safe for me to enter so I must also thank the wise-woman of Rathlin for her help.

South Rathlin - Darker Days

Skirting around the shore to the south of Church Bay lies a stretch of cliffs at Kinkeel which hold many examples of relict sea caves. These caves are located on ancient glacial shorelines which have been left high above the current sea level. Many of these caves go in a good distance and one of them is even said to pass all the way under the island to Doon Point. Inside another dripping cave known as the Wet Cave, the signatures of Rathlin's inhabitants are etched onto the walls with dates going back into the 19th century. Many illegible signatures look even older.

The hand of history is heavy in these dark places. One particular chapter from Rathlin history tells how, in 1575, the women and children of Clan McDonnell sought sanctuary in these caves from the invading English troops of Queen Elizabeth I.

Before an alarm could be given the English had landed close to the church which bears Columba's name. The castle was taken by storm, and every soul in it - about two hundred - put to the sword. It was then discovered that the greater part of the fugitives, chiefly mothers and their little ones, were hidden in the caves about the shores. "They were hunted out as if they had been seals or otters, and all destroyed".
The Subterranean World
Published 1871, Georg Hartwig

I visited many of the caves along the shores of Church Bay. It is said that the bones of those massacred lie below the dirt and gravel of the cave floors. While I stood at my camera, waiting for the longest exposures to finish, I had a quiet moment of reflection for the women and children who met their end in such dark places on Rathlin.

The Wet Cave at Kinkeel
© Andy McInroy

West Rathlin - Ghosts of Cooraghy

Now, let me tell you a ghost story.
In the remote western bay of Cooraghy on Rathlin lies a cave.......

A story tells how three men were fishing off the rocks at Cooraghy. With the daylight fading, they decided to shelter overnight in a nearby cave. They lit a fire inside and started to brew their tea. In the centre of the cave, a large, flat topped boulder made a good table to sit their mugs. As the tea was poured, a hand shot out of the darkness and placed a fourth mug on the great stone boulder. The men saw only the hand and did not look round to greet the visitor, but poured the fourth mug. The hand reappeared to take the tea and pulled back into the darkness of the cave once more. The story goes that the hand belonged to the devil himself. Nobody stayed in it after that.

I found a cave at Cooraghy. In the centre of that cave was a large flat topped boulder, just as the old story tells. On the boulder had been placed the skull and scapula of a sheep which you can see in my photograph. Many more sheep bones were scattered nearby. I didn't stay overnight!

Cave at Cooraghy
© Andy McInroy

This first visit to Rathlin in 2008 gave me a real flavour of the sea caves that litter this island coast. There were enough caves here to last me a lifetime and to photograph them all would be a nearly impossible task. However, exactly one year later, in September 2009, I returned to Rathlin, this time to finally access and photograph the great Bruce's Cave that I was only able to look down upon on my first visit. For this adventure I needed some help and islander, Liam McFaul kindly offered me his assistance. So lets step forward a year and return to Rathlin Island on one final hunt for King Bruce......

Bruce's Cave
Etching from 'A History of the Island of Rathlin'
by Mrs Gage, 1851

A tradition exists that Bruce, on one occasion, when hotly pursued, took refuge in this cave, where he remained concealed for a considerable time, supplied with food by a few faithful followers who knew his place of retreat, and visited him as often as they could with safety. But this story is highly improbable, from the extreme difficulty of obtaining access to the cave, which can only be entered in the calmest weather, the most trifling breeze from the east or north raising a tremendous surf, which breaks into the narrow passage with great fury.
Once a Week, Vol.5,
Published 1861 by E.S. Dallas

Etching from E.S Dallas

Bruce's Cave (inside and out)
Postcards by Baird of Belfast c1905
Artist: B. F. Stewart

Bruce's Cave continued to intrigue me long after my first visit to Rathlin Island. I started to dig out references to this famous cave in as many old books as I could find. It was during this research that I discovered two mysterious old etchings from the 1800s. I discovered the first of these in 'A History of the Island of Rathlin', an old manuscript written in 1851 by Mrs Gage. Mrs Catherine Gage was the wife of Reverend Robert Gage, the landlord of Rathlin Island at that time. I also came across two colour postcards. The first of these showed the gaping mouth of the cave from the outside. The second postcard was more interesting to me as it showed the cave interior, including some evidence of a dry boulder beach at the back. Could this be the perfect place to set up my tripod? If only I had a way in!

Despite my enthusiasm, it was already very late in the Autumn of 2008 and the sea swells were picking up again. Through the winter I had to content myself with reading through the old books and using my imagination. At this time, I had found no published photos of the interior of Bruce's Cave. The thought of reaching the recess of the cave and publishing a photograph began to become an obsession with me. Also, I knew that my project would not be complete without a photo of this, the most famous of the Antrim caves.

In early 2009 I managed to get hold of a rare book from 1951 by Mary Campbell titled 'Sea Wrack'. Inside, to my surprise, I found a photograph of the interior of Bruce's Cave, the only one I have ever come across. What is particularly astonishing is the quality of the photograph. It is beautifully composed and exposed and it appears that the photographer may have used some sort of light painting to highlight the stalactites on the ceiling. The name of the photographer is not given, so perhaps it was taken by Mary Campbell herself. If anyone can shed light on who took this photo, please get in touch with me.

Bruce's Cave
Photograph from Sea Wrack: or Long Ago Tales of Rathlin Island
by Mary Cambell, Published 1951

So, not only had Bruce's cave been captured on camera, but it had been photographed astonishingly well. Inspired by this new find, I got in touch with islander, Liam McFaul, an experienced skipper and expert boatman who offered to show me the way in. Over the summer, we tried on several occasions to get into the great cave. On every attempt the sea reared up out of the north and I had to face the disappointing drive back from Ballycastle. As autumn approached, I began to resign myself to another winter of waiting. Miraculously, in mid September, a stable high pressure system finally developed and we made our move.

Rathlin Map
A Dutch Map of North Antrim c1800

Into Bruce's Cave
Andy McInroy

Exploring caves on Rathlin's remote north shore with Liam McFaul
Andy McInroy

On the morning of the 15th of September 2009, Liam and I left the shelter of Church Bay in his small boat. First we headed south around Rue Point before turning northwards again up the east side of the island. As we passed the ruin of Bruce's Castle and approached the East lighthouse, the mighty ramparts of Rathlin's north coast reared up. We turned a short corner and before us the dark cleft of Bruce's Cave appeared before us. Liam guided the boat slowly into the narrow tunnel.

Inside, we got a better appreciation of the sheer size of the cave. The roof was some 70 feet above us and was decorated with the finest stalactites I have ever seen in a sea cave. The narrow channel continued for perhaps 100 yards before ending on a large boulder beach. The cave appeared to continue for another 50 yards further. Sheltering in the cave was a curious seal which passed under our boat and watched us closely as we approached the beach. As the waters became shallower, Liam raised the propeller blades and used the oars to stabilise the boat while I jumped out into the shallow water.

Standing on the boulder beach and looking out of the cave mouth was an incredible experience. I was finally standing inside this famous, yet rarely visited cave. I set about taking my photograph which proved to be far from easy. This was perhaps the darkest cave I have ever photographed due to the sheer depth of the cave and the narrow nature of the cave mouth. I was also conscious that I had to work quickly as Liam was holding the boat in position against the incoming swells. However, it wasn't long before my exposures were taken. Before getting back into the boat I had a look for the possible position that Mary Campbell's photo was taken. Unfortunately, I could not find it. That mystery was one for another day and I jumped back in the boat.

As Liam reversed us out of the cave, he directed my attention up the cave walls which appeared wave-worn and smooth up to a height of 50 feet. This gives some indication of the power of the ocean when a swell builds in this confined space. We were both in agreement that if Robert the Bruce had ever visited this cave, he could not have hid here for long. Such huge swells would easily have reached the extremities of the cave and smashed any occupants against the deepest recesses.

As we pulled away from the cave, I was hugely satisfied at finally getting my photo of Bruce's Cave. You can see the result of our efforts in the photograph below. This photo brings me very close to the end of my project.... or does it? Liam pulled the boat west and kindly gave me a tour of Rathlin's remote north coast and my thoughts of ever finishing this project were dashed. In the 10km of wild coast between the East Lighthouse and the West Lighthouse we visited another dozen or-so caves, some of which were of truly enormous proportions. One of these, which Liam guided the boat into, must have been 200 yards in length. As we got deeper, the light quickly faded and all we could see were the glinting eyes of a family of seals basking on the boulder beach. Others caves contained old bits of rusted metal from the many ships wrecked along this coast.

Perhaps this project is going to take longer than I first thought.

© Andy McInroy

Chapter List
1. The Ghost of Cathedral Cave
2. Portcoon Cave
3. Mermaid's Cave
4. The Stalactite Cave of Larrybane
5. Into the Depths of the Grand Cave, Runkerry
6. The Caves of Rathlin Island and the Hunt for Bruce's Cave
7. The Caves of Prehistoric Man, Whitepark Bay