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!)