Reflecting on the salt works excavation at Ballycastle Bay

The salt works on the North Antrim coast are first mentioned in the will of Randal McDonnell in 1629. Two sites are marked with remarkable accuracy on Petty’s Down Survey map of the 1650s. The Hearth Money Rolls of the 1660s states, ‘two salt pans …yield great profit to their possesour’, they were certainly worth confiscating by the Duke of Schomberg on behalf of Williamite forces during the 1690s and reappear on Cole’s 1694 map.

Barony_map web

‘Two Salt pans’ on the Down Survey map

In the 18th century the site at the focus of our recent excavation – Ballyreagh – disappears from all documentary and cartographic sources. It’s partner, at Tornroan, is marked as ‘the old salt pans’ in a 1790 map.

Our salt pans at Ballyreagh superficially at least appear to have been in operation for about 70 years through the 17th century, however we have no records of how much salt they produced and whether production was continuous. The site comprises two elements – a seawater reservoir, or bucket pot, and the salt works building where the pans would have been housed. The main findings of this season’s excavation can be summarised as follows:

1. The salt works building is a drystone, double-boulder construction utilising existing beach boulders at two corners. Each wall abuts the next at the corners rather than interlocking with the adjacent stone, which would have produced a weak structure. An absence of roofing material suggests it was thatched or had a turf roof.

2. Excavation revealed that the wall continued beyond the western corner demonstrating that our room was one part of a larger complex – this likely lies to the rear of the site within the (unexcavated) hill slope.

3. There was no sign of a fire pit (although coal was plentiful), nor any structure associated with supporting the pans. Rather the occupation level had a spread of coal and metal working waste (iron slag) was present. This seems to indicate that this part of the building was used to work on tools or pan repairs or simply to store fuel.

4. Finds were extremely sparse from the working surface and construction phases. One fragment of a clay pipe, animal bone (some butchered) and teeth, and a broken gunflint. In addition, reused in the walls was the quern stone as well as another carved stone of unknown function (see below).

5. The nearby bucket pot is undoubtedly a Scottish influence, however it only fills on the last hour of a rising tide which raises questions about its capacity and effectiveness given the labour involved in constructing it.


Broken gunflint and brass button from the salt works excavation

Broken gunflint and copper alloy button from the salt works excavation

Randal McDonnell (d.1636) was the first earl of Antrim. Son of Sorely Boy, he at first sided with his Gaelic kinsmen but later became an enthusiastic supporter of the English government in Ireland. In doing so he retained his estates in Ulster despite his Catholicism. McDonnell’s territories were outside the official plantations, yet he would eventually attract English families and established a village at Dunluce, a fair at Ballycastle and established an export trade in agricultural produce. Our poorly built and materially impoverished site at Ballyreagh would seem to indicate that it was established by a people with little expertise in masonry construction and having a largely organic material culture – i.e. his Gaelic retainers. His Scottish kinsmen would have been familiar with the bucket pot, although it’s position on the narrow tidal range of north-east Antrim rendered it less productive than elsewhere.  A brief survey of exports from McDonnell’s estates in the early 17th century show that livestock was more important than salted meat and it may be that the Earl was being seen to modernise with limited actual effectiveness. His new town at Dunluce was similarly grand in ambition but ultimately doomed. In civilizing his ‘rude’ part of Ireland he was commended by the court but it may be that a good deal in these early years was for show in an area where tensions still existed.

Carved stone block - note the chisel marks evident on the end face

Carved stone block recovered in the wall rubble – with the chisel marks evident on the end face

In 1641 William Erwin and his wife were killed at the salt pans in Ballycastle by Turlough Og O’Donnell and Phelim O’Boyle. The rebellion of that year occurred for many reasons, including local grievances and we may speculate what resentment a salt works established by the native populace and then transferred to British tenants may have aroused.

Our salt works would seem to indicate then a stuttering start to industry and modernisation on the north coast of Ireland, but one caveat is needed for this preliminary interpretation. We have uncovered only one part of a larger complex and more could be revealed in future illuminating the true scope of McDonnell’s scheme.



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