Monday, 9 August 2010

The Big Picture: Eslers and the 'Scotch' Cattle Drove Roads of mid Antrim

The old cattle drove routes across county Antrim run east-west (across the grain to the north-south direction of most of the main lines of communication). This is because they were heading to the main ports (especially Larne) connecting them to the Scottish drove roads that have been so well documented already on the other side of the 'sheuch'. One Scottish drove road in south-west Scotland is described as 'starting in Portpatrick' where 20,000 cattle a year were being landed from Donaghadee in county Down in 1800. (The parallel story of the county Down drove roads is one I'll leave for another day!)

For Ulster-Scots, these routes were the main arterial connection between the Scottish mainland and the Ulster-Scots settlers of the 17th century and later. This on-going connection is what shaped the very core of the Ulster-Scots heartland in terms of language, culture and religion. Along these routes are the broadest Ulster-Scots speaking areas, and the most dominantly Presbyterian communities in Ireland.

But my efforts at retracing the main drove road from Portglenone to Larne came about as a spin-off from researching the family history of my mother's grandfather - James Esler - whose family came from the cluster of small Esler hill-farms on the 'Long Mountain' between Portglenone and Ahoghill in the 1860s.

Esler is a lowland Scots name (originally German, I understand, meaning 'donkey dealer', or 'hosteler'), and 95% of all Eslers in Ireland were living in County Antrim in the early 19th century. Family tradition has it that three brothers came over from Scotland in the 1600s and settled in three areas - Kilwaughter (on the mountain slopes behind Larne), Eslertown (at the Cross between the Glenwhirry and Braid valleys, east of Ballymena), and Ballynafie (between Portglenone and Ahoghill on the Long Mountain). The map shows these three clusters, and it seems the Eslers' control of the hill pastures was strategically placed at points on upland pasture between market towns where the drovers and their beasts could stop off for the night.

So, that's where I was with my 'historical exploration' when I discovered that two James Eslers (father and son) were also living in 1860 beside Dalway's Bawn, east of Eden in Carrickfergus.

Two things seemed to confirm that this was connected to a cattle trail from Ballynure to Whitehead and Islandmagee. In the first place, both James Esler and his son from Bellahill were 'Agricultural labourers' rather than full farmers, and James Esler Senior was a 'byresman' for Dalway's Bawn itself! (A 'byre' is a cattleshed). Secondly, there were other Esler farms in the immediate vicinity. A 90-acre farm right on the coast at Whitehead was shared in ownership between two Esler brothers in 1860. These brothers were also joint landlords for the newly-erected Coastguard Station and houses in Whitehead. What an opportunity to keep an eye on the Customs and Excise men! Yet another two Esler farms were located in the townland of Balloo, in Islandmagee. These were on the Gobbins Road from Whitehead to Portmuck, which had a small harbour where pigs were exported to Scotland and horses brought in. The Gobbins cliffs between Whitehead and Portmuck had a few hidden coves and 'smugglers caves' - and one of these was on the Esler farm at Balloo! A 'horse cave' at Portmuck was where horses smuggled in were supposed to have been hidden, and I like to think that the Eslers were not only bringing cattle and pigs from Ballynure to send to Scotland, but were bringing horses in the other direction - to Ballynure Fair Hill which was renowned for its annual horse fair.

Going back to the Elizabethan history of this part of the world, Portmuck Castle and Castle Chichester at Whitehead were important outposts of Chichester at Carrickfergus, but they were also linked in terms of strategic defense to Dalway's Bawn.

Castle Chichester was excluded from the Esler farm land which surrounded it at Whitehead, as it was owned by the Chichester family, but the adjacent port was where regular postal packages from Scotland were landed in the 18th century. Of course, as I observed before, 'muc' in Irish is 'pig' - so 'Portmuck' means 'swine port' (nothing to do with the cleanliness of the harbour!)


  1. Hi there,
    Fascinating Article Philip. I'm also interested in the heritage of the name Esler as this is also my Family name. I had previously learnt of the Scottish and Irish connection following contact with the parents of Gavin Esler the BBC correspondent whom my family wrote to during their research into the family history.

    I believe there is a hamlet in East Antrim called Esler but I've never been able to verify this...

    I'll be following your blog with interest.

    Thank you

    Stephen Esler

    1. Hi Stephen,

      My grandmother was an Esler, they came to Australia in the 1860's. There seems to have been a big push to get out of Antrim ay that time with other families and surnames all staying together to form various communities once they had arrived.

      My great grandfather William Esler was born in Broughshane, his father Benjamin was born in Glenwherry from emory. I am curius if you found out where Gavin's family fit in?

      Thank you

      bradleyjohn.thompson at g mail dot com

  2. Stephen,
    Yes, there is an Eslerstown, a clachan in the heart of Esler Country near Kells in the Glenwhirry Valley (right in the middle of the biggest cluster shown in the map).
    I would be very interested to know more of your Esler connection if you have researched your family tree. Another 'Esler' who I made connection with recently is flying in next week for a meet-up and a visit to some of the sites.

  3. Hi there

    I think the James Esler from Bella Hill that you mention in your piece may be my husband's great great grandfather who was an agricultural labourer from Bella Hill in Carrickfergus born around 1833. He married Mary Drummond also from Bella Hill in 1858 and they had eight children including my husband's great grandfather Alexander Esler. James's father was also James. You mention John Esler senior can you tell me if John is the grandfather of James Esler from Bella Hill?

  4. Hi Pie Wummin,
    Great to make contact! You will be related to Tony Quigley whose mother was an Esler from the same family as your husband's in Belfast?
    We (Tony and I) have recently been on a trip to Carrick to see the grave of James Esler and Mary Drummond and also the Bellahill farm site, as well as the Ballycarry church they were married in in 1858. As you might expect we have been sharing a lot of family history details by email (which would be too detailed for this blog) so if you would like to 'join in' drop me an email (address in my profile).
    Unfortunately the 'John' Esler Senior yopu mention was a typo (now corrected!) for James Esler Senior!!! which I hadn't noticed.

    The story of your husband's Eslers after they moved to Belfast about 1900 is a fascinating one, as I'm sure you know, and there were 4 sisters of James Esler Junior who stayed on in the Carrick area, but only one married. So there are no Bellahill Eslers in the Carrick area today.

  5. Thank you so much for your reply. I have sent you an email and would really like to exchange information with you regarding the Esler connection.

  6. Pie Wummin - haven't got your email, did you send it via the MSN generated link? If so I don't think that words. Try an ordinary email to:

  7. Hi Philip

    I am having great difficulty posting here. It keeps saying my current account does not have permission to access this page. I have tried forwarding the email I sent you earlier but it appears to be the same address you have given in your last post. My email address is

  8. I too am an Esler descendant but I am having difficulty finding the ancestors of Andrew Esler from Glenwherry who married Jane McCulloch in about 1840 and migrated to Victoria. Andrew was said to be the son of David Esler and Ann Sandsrson (though I think it could be Anderson as one of their sons was names John Anderson Esler.) The family came to Victoria inthe 1860s. Any information would begreatly appreciated.

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  11. i come from a family of eslers from ballymena my great grand father was john esler married to annie ross his father was william john esler we dont know who he married ive tried to trace but have came up with 2 or 3 differnt william johns or where did he come from can anybody help me

  12. like to hear from other people

  13. Where I am from in Moorfields, Ballymena, situated between Larne and Ballymena, there lived two elderly siblings on a hill farm a mile or two away. Paul and Matha Esler were their names. They lived without electricity right up through the 1990's. They had an open fire and i remember visiting with my granny and the snowflakes falling down beside the fire. Very charming old pair. Paul drove a small grey open massey ferguson tractor to the local shop maybe once a week or month.

    Anyway just a thought, hope it helps.