Ray salt works, Lough Swilly

The recent fine weather inspired a trip to Donegal to visit the fine upstanding remains of a salt works at Ray. Two salt houses are present along the shore, of which the older, more southerly site is the best preserved. Marked ‘Ruins of Salt Pans’ on the 1830s OS maps, it features three main rooms with an annex featuring a fireplace (likely accommodation for the salt master). The seaward room most likely held a tank for water and pumping apparatus – an aperture in the wall revealing where it was transferred to the adjacent pans room. Also notable was a small landing place to the rear and various surface finds including ceramics, boat nails, and the remnants of iron cooking vessels.


Salt works from the north-east


The southern salt works at Ray

To the north, the 1st edition OS map marks ‘Salt Pans’ near an L-shaped building. This has evidently been amended from its original form, as the northern component of the structure latterly functioned as a two-storey dwelling house with cellar. Like the southern example, it has a landing place comprising a cobbled slipway.


The northern structure with original building in the foreground, dwelling house to the rear.


Crumbling plaster work in the dwelling house reveals segmental arched doorways characteristic of the other salt buildings.

A number of sites along the Swilly await to be explored – Hugh Boyd claimed that, in the 1720s, Ballycastle was the only salt works between Lough Swilly and Drogheda – implying that some of these sites date to at least the early 18th century. In the absence of rock salt imports they must have been boiling sea water – rock salt was imported to nearby Rathmullan by 1745.

8 responses to “Ray salt works, Lough Swilly

  1. Fascinating stuff. ”Ray” is pronounced RYE in this part of the world 🙂 There is a townland in Cranford, across Mulroy Bay from the other side of the Fanad Peninsula called ‘The Pans’. Could that have been something to do with salt as well?

    • Thanks – at the north end of Cranford there is a group of buildings called The Salt Pans, and on the coast Pan Rock. No doubt this was the location of a salt works, though it doesn’t appear until later in the 19th century. There are a number of great sites around Swilly / Fanad and out to Melmore that we’ll be visiting in due course – watch this space!

      • Oh I certainly will – I’m originally from Carrigart myself so will be very interested in your excellent work! Lucky you to be researching in such a beautiful part of the world!

  2. This is the home of my great grandmother (Rose Shovlin). I have a picture of her standing in the doorway. My dad used to visit the Pan’s House during the summer as a child from Scotland. I can send you the photo of my great grandmother standing at the back door (to the Lough Swilly side). I would be interested in learning more about its history and when it went into ruin. Best regards, Mary Hanrahan

    • Mary – thanks for getting in touch. I’d love to see any photos you have of either structure at Ray – these were reasonably sized (although by no means the largest) salt works for this area, but there is surprisingly little known about them and they are not listed in the archaeological monuments held by government (this may change). I’ll dig out what we have for you…

  3. HI , My mother Etain Thompson nee Delap, currently owns the land at Ray, from the lay-by to Ray bridge. Its ownership has been in the family since 1716, but it was let out for substantial periods over the years. (possibly when Mary Hanrahan’s family lived in it). We have MANY photos!!!!! The house was vacated in 1981 when my elderly great aunt Deidre went blind suddenly. Despite many attempts to secure and maintain the house from Belfast, it was a loosing battle! The wider families hearts were broken!!!! As for the future we are hoping to clear and develop the site as much as panning and finances allow. I would be happy to supply anyone with any details of this special place.
    Best regards
    Joy Ward

  4. Joy, thanks for getting in touch. Ray is a much overlooked site of salt production, but a potentially very important one. We would be very interested in seeing your photos and learning more about the site. You may wish to email me (w.forsythe@ulster.ac.uk) so we can continue the conversation and make arrangements.

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