A Living Landscape

Man has inhabited and shaped the landscape in Mourne since the last Ice Age and the sand dunes of Murlough National Nature Reserve contain one of the earliest human settlements in Ireland.  Early Celts were the first settlers who practiced land clearance for agriculture and grazed hefted cattle and goats in the uplands. Since then the ruggedness of the mountain slopes, and the poverty of the thin acid soils in many parts of the Mourne AONB, produced hardy, resourceful Mourne farmers and graziers. 

Cultivating the Land

Cultivating the Land The mountain / sea combination that is iconic of the area was originally fundamental to sustaining farming life here for centuries. Ease of transportation of seaweed from the shore to fertilise the thin acidic soils of the Mourne plain and arable foothills was vital. Wrack (a type of seaweed) was grown on Mourne boulders systematically placed below low water. Remnants of these ‘grids’ on the shore can be seen particularly well today at Mill Bay, near Kilkeel

The effort required in making fields out of boulder-strewn plains and drumlins, heather and gorse clad slopes can clearly be seen in the stone walls (called ditches) surrounding them. Not seen is the number of stone channels beneath the surface, for drainage of the wet, peaty soil. The boundary walls characterise the Mourne farm smallholdings in the lowlands and shared grazing areas in the uplands and are an important and much-loved feature of the landscape. Dry stone walls are not merely just a pile of rocks; they reflect the connection between people and the land. The traditional hand built dry stone walls also allow sufficient spacing between stones to provide habitats for flora and fauna. 

The head of cultivation wall – or mountain wall as it is known and distinct from the Mourne Wall – can still be seen at the lower slopes of the uplands.  It marks the point at which arable cultivation, mostly potatoes, traditionally stopped.  Virtually all arable cultivation is now gone but the ‘lazy beds’ in which seed potatoes were laid on the ground and the turf to either side was folded over them causing raised beds, remain visible in a number of places.  Most of these were abandoned during the potato famine when the life support system that the potatoes had provided failed.


GrazingThe iconic landscape of heather heathland and upland bog in the Mournes is the result of farming activity in clearing the uplands of trees and scrub for grazing with animals. Every bit of available land was utilised in order to sustain the population.

Cattle rearing was once synonymous with the Mournes and only during the nineteenth century did sheep replace cattle in the hills. High mountain pastures, usable only in summer encouraged farmers, and often their children, to ‘booley’ their livestock in areas like the Deer’s Meadow, saving lowland pasture for winter grazing. During this time the family would shelter and even live for a time in booley huts, which were round huts usually constructed from peat sods and occasionally from granite stones. The name of Butter mountain recalls the practice of burying butter in the cool upland bogs.  

When cattle grazing and booley huts eventually gave way to sheep grazing, sheepfolds or ‘bochts’ became the farming structure that dominated the uplands. The practice of cutting turf to heat the traditional cottages that encircled the uplands has also left its mark in places like the Red Bog and Pierce’s Bog.

Granite Working

Granite Working Although agriculture was a predominant activity for centuries, by the eighteenth century the use of granite as a building stone and its suitability, when cut and fashioned, for use as millstones, lintels, window-sills and door-steps gave rise to great local skills in splitting and 'dressing' stone. Late in the nineteenth century better means of transport and an improvement in the type of cutting wedges used - consisting of a small iron wedge or 'plug' - made possible an export trade in dressed stone. Paving-setts, kerbstones, foundation blocks and stone monuments hewn by hand and drawn down the mountain to harbours at Newcastle and Annalong, left the Mournes for use in new road and dock constructions in Belfast and Liverpool and beyond. Mourne granite is claimed to have 'paved Lancashire', while in London the Albert Memorial sits on a piece of Ballymagreehan granite, from a quarry outside Castlewellan

The stone working skills of the hardy locals also built the cut stone Mourne wall that stretches for 22 miles and – almost unbelievably - over the highest summits. The wall is cut dry-stone walling 2.5 m high and 1 m thick in places.  Other, more idiosyncratic use of the local stone can be seen in historic demesnes such as Tollymore, now a Forest Park, with its grand landscaped park including ornate follies and bridge, and the ice-house on the flanks of Slieve Donard which served the former Donard Lodge.

Historic Monuments and Built Heritage

Historic Monuments and Built Heritage The Mourne AONB encompasses pre-Christian and Christian sites; 350 scheduled monuments and approximately 400 listed buildings.  

Prominent pre-Christian sites including ancient burial or sacred places marked with cairns, many on the summits. In the foothills and lowlands the Neolithic dolmens (chambered graves) at Legannany, Slidderyford and Goward, stand proud in the landscape, their granite capstones perching high on solid pillars, while Binder’s Cove in the shadow of Slieve Croob is among the best examples of souterrains (underground passage tombs or defences) in Northern Ireland. 

On the lower slopes, particularly in the Western Mournes, there are Raths, also known as Ringforts - circular farmsteads from the early Christian period enclosed by an earthen bank, including the ‘White Fort’ in Tollymore Forest Park.   Cashels which used stone walls instead of earthen banks also exist, including at Drumena where there is also a souterrain. During Medieval times, the Anglo Normans brought new equipment and techniques to erect massive defensive structures on the coast, such as the Castles found at Greencastle and Dundrum. 

Important Christian sites such St Mary’s Church, reputedly established by Saint Patrick lies at the foot of Slieve Donard. In the hills of the townland of Leitrim, near Rostrevor, is Altataggart mass rock where mass was secretly celebrated during the period of the Penal Laws, introduced into Ireland from 1695 to restrict Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters in favour of the established Church of Ireland. 

The evocative name of the historic old Bloody Bridge at the south eastern end of the Mourne Mountains is attributed to a massacre of prisoners in the area about the time of the 1641 Rebellion after which the stream is said to have run red for two days. This is a popular starting point for walkers trekking along the ‘Brandy Pad’.

More recent built heritage ranged from demesnes such as Tollymore with it’s grand landscaped park.  Within the impressive and iconic gates of the demesne gates a number of ornate bridges and ‘follies’ including a hermitage, were built from Mourne granite by the Roden family who developed the Tollymore demesne, led by Lord Clanbrassil and Lord Limerick.   The latter was much inspired by his travels in Europe of and the work of world renowned garden designer, mathematician and astronomer Thomas Wright, the ‘wizard of Durham’ who worked there in the eighteenth century. 

Georgian houses like Mount Panther on the outskirts of Dundrum, followed Victorian villas, such as those found in Newcastle and Rostrevor and what are known today as the traditional houses of Mourne; the vernacular farm cottages.  The Mourne Homesteads Project, undertaken by the Mourne Heritage Trust from 2000 to 2007, addressed the loss of traditional buildings in the countryside. Seven vacant traditional buildings were restored and a parallel education and training programme was also delivered. 

Coastal and Maritime Heritage 

Coastal and Maritime Heritage The coastal heritage of Mourne is a rich array of fishing, boat-building, seaweed harvesting, gravel transportation and other activities. The rocky indented coastline, in which volcanic dykes cut across the ancient shale, provided opportunities for landing smuggled goods as well as for more legitimate activities. Routes such as the Brandy Pad, used by smugglers trekking through the mountains to evade taxes, are today popular walking routes. With an abundance of fish - particularly herring - around the Mourne coastline, commercial fishing became established in the mid-nineteenth century. Today Kilkeel is Northern Ireland largest fishing port with the catch dominated by nephrops (prawns and similar shellfish). While now a modern commercial enterprise, for many years fishing was simply one of a number of ways through which Mourne families earned a living. Many local boats were owned by farmers, shopkeepers, stone workers and other tradesmen who fished on a seasonal basis, while farming the plain and foothills and working the mountains for stone.

Tourism is of course been an important part of our coastal heritage. Mourne has been one of Northern Ireland’s favourite holiday destinations since the time when one early 19th century traveller described the attributes that ‘impart to the coast a character of extraordinary sublimity’. In 1845 Newcastle was described as ‘the Queen of northern bathing places’ by Dr Alexander Knox in his book on ‘Irish Watering Places’. In 1869 the Belfast and County Down Railway reached the town, making it accessible to greater numbers of tourists, like one who described the former fishing village now ‘extending for a mile along the margin of the water, over which the breeze coming off the sea or rolling down the mountains, smelling of fir cones and heather bells, sweeps with refreshing freedom’.

At the southern end of the AONB, Rostrevor also became fashionable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with growing interest among the landed gentry in the appreciation of nature. Wealthy landowners found virtue in the mountain air, sending their daughters to ‘take the cure’ by sea-bathing and drinking mineral waters and goats’ whey. Rostrevor, with its old castle and demesnes, offered an appropriately picturesque setting for the elegant visitors. Nearby Warrenpoint then became the more prominent resort in this part of the area with its open air sea water swimming pool, although now disused, still to be seen today. In recent times Cranfield, near Kilkeel, has become popular for its fine sandy beach and is well served with camping and caravan parks.

Water Supply

The Mourne AONB contains the reservoirs of Silent Valley, Ben Crom, Spelga, Fofanny and Lough Island Reavy. Silent Valley and Ben Crom alone supply approximately 400,000 people a day across most of County Down and a large part of Belfast, with up to 30 million gallons (130 million litres) of water. The legacy associated with the building of the reservoirs from 1923 to the early 1950s includes wonders of engineering and human endeavour.

By the end of the 19th century Belfast had become an industrial powerhouse, with a rocketing population. Chosen by the Belfast Water Commissioners for the amount and purity of its water, beautiful Silent Valley became a giant industrial site. A triumph of innovation and tenacity over adversity, the dam survived an expensive misjudgement of the depth of rock bottom and the seeming impossibility of digging through soggy soil to reach it to build a watertight seal. It took a world first to achieve success - the use of vast cast iron drainage shafts 200 feet down with men working in compressed air to frantically pump out the water. Watertown, which had the first electric street lighting in Ireland as well as its own cinema, hospital and policeman (called Constable Lawless!) was created in the heart of the mountains to house the workers.

The Silent Valley reservoir opened on May 24th, 1933, when ‘the water, with a roar, crashed through the two giant outlet pipes and sped onwards to the city’. The supply was soon, however, outgrown. To increase it, the 2 and a half mile Binnian Tunnel was constructed by two teams digging from both sides of the mountain, often by candlelight. When they finally met in the middle they were, almost incredibly given the unavailability at the time of engineering planning tools, just two inches off centre! A second storage reservoir, Ben Crom, was opened in 1957. Today, the twin Reservoirs supply most of Belfast and County Down with water.

Deers’ Meadow, once the grazing ground for Irish red deer, was flooded to create Splega Dam, completed in 1957 by the Banbridge and Portadown Water commissioners. Deer’s Meadow delimits the geological divide between the eastern Mournes (which drain into the Irish Sea) and the western Mournes (which drain into Carlingford Lough).

Before these relatively modern developments, in 1839 the flooding of additional lands around an existing lake at Lough Island Reavy, near Kilcoo, created a reservoir to maintain a supply of water for the many linen mills along the River Bann. The function of the water was two-fold. Firstly, it was required for the bleaching of the linen, but in addition the bleacher needed power to be turned and this was done by the use of mill races and water wheels. If the water levels in the river dropped in the drier summer months, when the bleaching of linen was carried out, then the bleachers would not work. An engineer commissioned to overcome this problem concluded that building a dam to create a reservoir of water would be cheaper, by the amount of £7000 a year, than building steam powered mills to run the bleachers. Today Lough Island Reavy It is a great fishing spot, which is controlled by the Belfast Anglers club. The lake contains pike and perch, as well as small numbers of wild brown trout and eels.

Rather strangely, Fofanny Dam on the north western side of the Mournes under Slieve Muck supplies water to Kilkeel on the south eastern side and the closest town to Silent Valley. Fofanny Water Treatment Works, constructed in 2005, is the first underground water treatment facility in the whole of Ireland. It treats up to 52 million litres of water a day from three sources – Fofanny Dam itself, Spelga and Lough Island Reavy – to serve over 100,000 customers. The planted heathland roof and other design features help to integrate this industrial facility into the environment one without compromising the beauty of the surrounding landscape.

So as you can see innovation in engineering to work with the environment has been a feature of the water supply story in the Mourne AONB from its beginnings to modern times.