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LETTERS

CONCERNING THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE BASALTES

OF THE

NORTHERN COAST OF THE COUNTY OF ANTRIM ;

WITH

AN ACCOUNT OF ITS ANTIQUITIES, MANNERS, AND CUSTOMS.
BY THE REV. WILLIAM HAMILTON, A. M. F.T.C.D.

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MY natural curiosity, and the wish I had to trace the whole extent of the Basaltes of this country, induced me to make a short voyage, some days ago, to the island of Raghery, which lies six or seven miles off the north coast of Antrim, opposite to Ballycastle bay.

I enjoyed a good deal of pleasure in examining that little spot, which to me was almost a new kingdom; and if an account of it can at all contribute to amuse an idle hour of yours, I shall more than double my own gratification.

Though the island be not very remote, yet its situation, so much exposed to the northern ocean, and the turbulence of its irregular tides, have thrown such difficulties in the way of landsmen, that few have visited it but from necessity; and some curious arrangements of the columnar basaltes, with which it abounds, have never been noticed, except by the inhabitants.

The chalky † cliffs of Raghery, crowned by a venerable covering of brown rock, form a very beautiful and picturesque appearance as one sails towards them; and if the turbulence of the sea do not restrain the eyes and fancy from expatiating around, such a striking similitude appears between this and the opposite coast, as readily suggests an idea that the island might once have formed a part of the adjoining country, from whence it has been disunited by some violent shock of nature.

You, to whom demonstration is familiar, will naturally wonder to see two shores, seven or eight miles asunder, so expeditiously connected by such a slender and fanciful middle term as apparent similitude; and yet the likeness is so strong, and attended with such peculiar circumstances, that I do not entirely despair of prevailing even on you to acknowledge my opinion as a probable one.

It does not appear unreasonable to conclude, that if two pieces of land, separated from each other by a chasm, be composed of the same kind of materials, similarly arranged at equal elevations, these different lands might have been originally connected, and the chasm be only accidental. For let us conceive the materials to be deposited by any of the elements of fire, air, earth, or water, or by any cause whatever, and it is not likely that this cause, otherwise general, should in all its operations regularly stop short at the chasm.

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The materials of which the island of Raghery is composed, are accurately the same as those of the opposite shore, and the arrangement answers so closely, as almost to demonstrate at first view their former union. But to explain this more clearly, it will be necessary to give you a general sketch of this whole line of coast.

The northern coast of Antrim seems to have been originally a compact body of limestone rock, considerably higher than the present level of the sea; over which, at some later period, extensive bodies of vitrifiable stone have been superinduced in a state of softness. The original calcarious stratum appears to be very much deranged and interrupted by these incumbent masses. In some places it is depressed greatly below its ancient level-shortly after it is borne down to the water's edge, and can be traced under its surface-by and by it dips entirely, and seems irretrievably lost under the superior mass-in a short space, however, it begins to emerge, and after a similar variation recovers its original height.

In this manner, and with such repeated vicissitudes of elevation and depression, it pursues a course of forty miles along the coast, from Lough Foyle to Lough Larne. It naturally becomes an object of curiosity to inquire what the substance is from which the lime-stone seems thus to have shrunk, burying itself (as it were in terror) under the covering of the ocean: and on examination it appears to be the columnar basaltes, under which the lime-stone stratum is never found, nor indeed does it ever approach nearer to it without evident signs of derangement.

Thus for example: The chalky cliffs may be discovered a little eastward from Portrush; after a short course, they are suddenly depressed to the water's edge under Dunluce castle, and soon after lost entirely in passing near the basalt hill of Dunluce, whose craigs near the sea are all columnar. At the river Bush the lime-stone recovers, and skims for a moment along the level of the sea, but immediately vanishes on approaching toward the great basalt promontory of Bengore, under which it is completely lost for the space of more than three miles.

Eastward from thence, beyond Dunseverick castle, it again emerges, and rising to a considerable height, forms a beautiful barrier to White Park bay and the Ballintoy shore. After this it suffers a temporary depression near the basalt hill of Knocksoghy, and then ranges along the coast as far as Ballycastle bay.

Fairhead, standing with magnificence on its massy columns of basaltes, again exterminates it; and once again it rises to the eastward, and pursues its devious course, forming, on the Glenarm shores, a line of coast the most fantastically beautiful that can be imagined.

If this tedious expedition has not entirely worn out your patience, let us now take a view of the coast of Raghery itself, from the lofty summit of Fairhead, which overlooks it. Westward, we see its white cliffs rising abruptly from the ocean, corresponding accurately in materials and elevation with those of the opposite shore, and like them crowned with a venerable load of the same vitrifiable rock. Eastward, we behold it dip to the level of the sea, and soon give place to many beautiful arrangements of basalt pillars, which form the eastern end of the island, and lie opposite to the basaltes of Fairhead, affording in every part a reasonable presumption that the two coasts were formerly connected, and that each was created and deranged by the same causes extensively operating over both..

But it is not in these larger features alone that the similitude may be traced; the more minute and accidental circumstances serve equally well to ascertain it.

Thus an heterogenous mass of freestone, coals, iron ore, &c. which forms the east side of Ballycastle bay, and appears quite different from the common fossils of the coun

try, may be traced also directly opposite, running into Raghery, with circumstances which almost demonstrably ascertain it to be the same vein.

What I would infer from hence is, that this whole coast has undergone considerable changes in the course of successive ages; that those abrupt promontories, which now run wildly into the ocean, in proud defiance of its boisterous waves, have been rendered broken and irregular by some violent convulsion of nature; and that the island of Raghery, standing as it were in the midst between this and the Scottish coast, may be the surviving fragment of a large tract of country which at some period of time has been buried in the deep.

But I shall wave this tedious subject for the present, and endeavour to compensate for the dryness of this letter by some account of the state and singularities of this little island.

In the mean time, I must intreat you will be so candid as to give me timely notice whenever my letters become dull and unentertaining-I shall otherwise lose my labour to very bad purpose, as the chief object of them is to amuse you.

I am, dear Sir, with the greatest respect, your affectionate, &c.

LETTER II.

DEAR SIR,

Portrush, July 27.

THE remarkable haziness which has prevailed in our atmosphere, during the whole of this summer, both by sea and land, has been very unfavourable to views along the coast, and even in the short trip I made to Raghery, gave me reason to be apprehensive of missing our course, as the rapidity of the tide soon carries a vessel clear of the island. However, with the assistance of a gleam from the meridian sun, we got safely across the channel in the space of two or three hours.

Raghery is near five miles in length, and about three quarters of a mile in breadth; toward the middle it is bent in an angle opposite to Ballycastle, and forms a tolerable bay, affording good anchorage, in deep water with a stiff clay bottom; but a westerly wind raises such a heavy swell all along this coast, that few vessels can ride out a gale from that quarter.

Its tides are very remarkable. Here it is that the great body of water which flows from the ocean during the flood tide, to supply the north part of the Irish channel, is first confined and broken in its course; and a large portion of it is returned near the west end of the island, in a counter tide, which supplies all the loughs and bays for the space of thirty miles, running toward the west, along the counties of Antrim, Derry, and Donegall; while in the mean time the true tide of flood runs toward the east, at the distance of a few miles from the coast, parallel to the former.

From such eddies as this, many singular irregularities arise, and in several places the tide from the westward (or the flood tide, as they denominate it) appears to flow nine hours, while the ebb continues only three.

Seamen, who are accustomed to navigate along this coast, know well how to use these different streams to good purpose. For example: a ship leaving Dublin with the flood tide (which comes into the Irish channel from the southward) may with a leading wind reach the county of Down; there the vessel will fall in with the northern tide of ebb, just then beginning to return to the ocean. With the assistance of this current, and the same leading breeze, the ship may fetch the isle of Raghery; where a judicious pilot, instead of opposing the returning tide of flood, may drop into a northern eddy, which

will carry him as far as Lough Swilly; where the true tide of ebb will again receive him, and bear his ship out of the western ocean.

Thus by prudent management may he enjoy the advantage of four different successive tides, all favourable to his voyage.

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The western winds (which prevail here during far the greater part of the year) sweeping with an uninterrupted blast over the Atlantic Ocean, roll a most formidable wave along this coast, of which I had some experience in crossing to the island. The day was uncommonly still, not a breath of wind to ruffle the water, and yet a heavy majestic swell, ever heaving forward seemed to threaten ruin to our boat, and frequently hid from view even the lofty promontory of Fairhead. From this unruffled surface, however, there was not the slightest danger to be apprehended, and our vessel rose and descended on the glassy wave with entire security. How changed was this scene in the course of a few hours! The moment that the ebb began to return to the ocean, rushing in opposition to this western swell, all was confusion and tumult. The long wave which had just before rolled forward in silent majesty, was now fretted and broken into a tempestuous sea, which the stoutest boats dare not encounter, and even the best ships wish to avoid. This alternate scene of peace and war takes place twice every day, and it is by attention to this circumstance that the passage is made with tolerable security.

The little skiff in which I navigated was built of very slight materials, and did not seem to me well calculated to buffet these stormy seas. I observed that we had received a good deal of water into it; and on my expressing my uneasiness that there was no visible means of throwing it out, one of the men instantly took off his brogue, with which he soon cleared the vessel of water, and put it on his foot again without seeming to feel the slightest inconvenience from the wetness of it; leaving me quite at ease on the subject of pumping the vessel.

Raghery contains about twelve hundred inhabitants, and is rather over peopled, as there is no considerable manufacture which might give employment to any superfluous hands.*

The cultivated land is kindly enough, and produces excellent barley. In a plentiful year six hundred pounds worth of this grain has been exported from it. The craggy pasturage fattens a small, but delicious breed of sheep. Even its inhospitable rocks supply to the hand of industry a rich source of wealth, in the sea-weed it affords for the manufacture of kelp, which, under an indulgent landlord, often goes near to pay the whole rent of the island.†

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From a census since held by the priest of the island, in order to lay a tax of one shilling on each above the age of sixteen years, for the purpose of erecting a mass-house, it appears that the numbers amount to eleven hundred; there are one hundred and forty families, which almost average at the rate of eight persons to each family. The census has produced a great deal of uneasiness in the island, from an opinion that one person will die during the year in each family so numbered.

†This year an hundred tons of kelp have been exported from Raghery, which was bought by the linen bleachers of the north of Ireland, at 51. 5s. per ton, the whole amounting to more than 5251. The annual rent of the island is but 6001. This entire manufacture is carried on by women and children, while the men are employed in more hazardous services. At low water the sea-weed is cut from the rocks, and spread out before the sun to dry; at night it is made up in little parcels, which are opened and shaken out again whenever the weather permits; this process is continued till the weed becomes dry enough to be burnt. A hole is then made in the ground, and a little temporary kiln erected, of loose stones, in which the weed is cautiously and gradually burned. During this process the vegetable salt, and every thing not capable of being easily dissipated by the fire, melts, and coalesces in one mass at the bottom of the kiln. In this state it is exported, no means having been yet established here, or in any part of the adjoining coast, to purify the alkaline salt from the various mixtures of marine salt, &c. with which it abounds.

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