Kinbane Castle – A Hidden Gem on County Antrim’s Coast
Kinbane Castle – Introduction
The ruins of Kinbane (also known as Kenbaan) Castle stand a rocky promontory jutting out into the wild sea waters. It is situated on Kinbane Head, between the town of Ballycastle and the scenic Ballintoy village, in the townland of Cregganboy. The castle, built for defensive reasons, enjoys a magnificent setting with views over the water to Rathlin Island.
“It is inaccessible by land except on foot, along a narrow path down the main cliff, and then up the steep beginnings of the chalk headland…..Approach by the sea is equally difficult, for the beach to the NW of the headland is boulder-strewn and it is impossible to draw a boat up”T E McNeill Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol 46 1983
Construction of Kinbane
According to the historian H C Lawlor, Kinbane is the first stone castle erected by the MacDonnell’s in County Antrim.
The castle was originally constructed in 1547 by Colla MacDonnell. The MacDonnell’s, from Scotland, had established themselves as a powerful clan in north Antrim.
Their claim to Lordship of the Glens or Glynns, came from a marriage alliance with the Bisset family. This territory had been ‘gifted’ to the family by the English king Henry III (1207-1272). Eoin Mor MacDomhnaill (MacDonnell) had wed Margery Bisset in 1399, she was heiress to large swaths of land along the coast and the Glens.
Colla was the third son of Alexander MacDonnell, Lord of Islay and Kintyre and Catherine, daughter of Lord Ardnamurchan of Scotland. Colla’s marriage to Eveleen McQuillan, brought about a (temporary) peace between the two warring rival families. However, Colla enraged the McQuillan clan by claiming that through this marriage he was now heir to the McQuillan lands!
When Colla’s older brother decided to return to Scotland, Colla was appointed Captain of the Route. The Route was a large area along the coast of Antrim from Coleraine to Ballycastle. On his death in 1558, this post was passed to Colla’s younger brother Sorley Boy MacDonnell.
The castle was originally known in Irish as “Caisleán Ceinn Bán” due to its location. In Irish Ceinn Bán means ‘white head’ – a reference to the surrounding limestone rock.
The castle was 2 storeys in height. It had a large courtyard surrounded by a curtain wall with a walkway for patrolling guards. The rounded gateway was in the southern wall. To the west of the gate was a four-sided tower with a narrow loop (a vertical for window for archers) directed to protect entrance.
The inner basalt stone tower was about 6.7m square. The flanking walls reached from the tower to the cliff edge on both sides. The south wall is reported to have fallen into the sea in the 1820’s.
The tower was entered by a door on the northern wall. On one side is a recess in the wall which was used as a cupboard. The southern side features two loop openings. The first level had a wooden floor and was accessed by ladder. It had a door leading to the wall-walk. There was also a small inner chamber. A line of weep-holes at roof level acted as drains for the rainwater.
Surrounding the tower but within the protective curtain wall would have been a number of wooden buildings – cabins, stores, stables and so forth.
“Apart from its historical interest, Kenbaan castle is important architecturally, as it is a typical specimen of the early type of Hiberno-Scottish castle of the mid-sixteenth century”Belfast Newsletter 20th Jul 1929
Kinbane Castle – Blood on the Rocks
During 1551, Kinbane was besieged by English forces led by the Lord Deputy, Sir John Croft, from Croft Castle in Herefordshire.
In an account of the expedition it was reported that he had ‘ much defaced’ the castle.
Four ships were sent to Rathlin Island, where the English were informed that the MacDonnell’s had stored their treasure for safe-keeping. However, the invaders were roundly defeated and suffered heavy losses in the encounter.
A few years later, in 1555, the castle was again attacked by the English and badly damaged by cannon fire. Colla had the castle repaired and rebuilt, proving that it was seen as an important location in the MacDonnell’s defensive strategy.
Beneath the castle, in the rocky promontory is a cave or hollow known as Lag na Sassenach, ‘Hollow of the English’. In the sixteenth century, a troop of English invaders were using the cavern during the siege of Kinbane. In a covert operation by allied clansmen along the coast, the cave was surrounded and the invading soldiers killed.
Kinbane – Changing Ownership
The Death of Colla
Colla died in Kinbane in 1558. He is thought to be buried in Bonamargy, the traditional MacDonnell burying ground.
Gillaspie MacDonnell (Giolla Easpuig MacDomhnaill) inherited the castle. He was the son of Colla and Eveleen McQuillan.
Subsequently he gave Kinbane to his uncle Sorley Boy MacDonnell in return for a property of equal value on the island of Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.
In 1571, Sorley Boy organised a fair and public games at Ballycastle to celebrate his nephew’s ‘coming of age’. One of the ‘sports’ organised for the public’s entertainment was bullfighting. Unfortunately, one frightened and enraged young bull, broke free from his enclosure. The animal gored Gillaspie with fatal consequences.
(Incidentally, this festival may have been the origin of the annual gathering now known as the Ould Lammas Fair. This fair is still held every August in Ballycastle, without the bullfighting).
Gillaspie left behind a wife and baby son named Colla, after his grandfather. When he grew up, this child was known as Coll Kittagh, this means ‘left-handed’, and refers to his ability to wield a sword in either hand.
Coll Kittagh was a renowned warrior. He met his end in 1647 on the orders of the Earl of Argyle.
Imprisoned on a boat belonging to Captain Gillaspick of Kirkcaldie, Coll was hung over the side ‘so he was both hanged and drowned’.
Owen Maclan Dubh MacAllister
In the sixteenth century Sorley Boy rewarded his loyal follower, Owen Maclan Dubh MacAllister (Black John MacAllister) with Kinbane Castle. However, Owen was killed in 1571, while fighting alongside Sorley Boy, during an attack on Carrickfergus Castle.
The MacAllister clan remained at Kinbane until the eighteenth century. The last descendant of this family was Miss Kathleen Isabel Boyd, who passed away in 1944. The surname MacAllister is still a common one in the glens today.
Kinbane Castle in Ruins
The castle was subsequently purchased by the Woodside family of nearby Carnsampson (Carn Samsuin). As their primary interests lay in the fishery there, the upkeep of the castle was not seen as a priority.
Over time, Kinbane Castle fell into ruins.
During the nineteenth century, we are told, the castle was a popular picnicking spot
“At present, little remains of this building except part of the massy walls of the tower or keep, from which its bold and romantic situation, adds not a little to the beauty of the scenery of this wonderful coast. During summer, it is often frequented by parties, and the scene of many a festive collation; where instead of the grim warder pacing at its gate, are seen inside its portal the fairest of the fair”Dublin Penny Journal 26th January 1833
“The ruins of Colla MacDonnells’s stronghold represent the remains of a monument of antiquity around which much of the history of northern and eastern Antrim is entwined”H A Boyd Glynns Vol 23 1995
Visiting Kinbane Castle
Kinbane castle is now a State Care Monument. Access to the castle is down a steep cliff path of 140 steps. As the steps are very uneven care must be taken in trying to access the site for a visit or picnic.
Thankfully the coastal views are stunning which gives you the excuse to take loads of breaks on the way back up that path again!
Kinbane Castle, 81 Whitepark Road, Ballycastle, County Antrim BT54 6LP
Note that the cliff path may be closed at times for maintenance work to safeguard future visitors. Check that the path is open when planning your visit – See Visiting Kinbane Castle .
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