Friday, 11 November 2011

Walking the Cassie cattle trail: 2. From the 'Resting Slap' to the Witchthorn

Leaving the Resting Slap with its views of Belfast Lough and Carrick Castle, the Cassie trail opens up from an overgrown path to a tractor-friendly country lane. My original intention, as promised in the last blog which covered my walk with Ray Cowan from the Beltoy Road to the Resting Slap, was to continue on down the Cassie past the Witchthorn as far as Porg Hill. Porg Hill is where the Poag family farm had been.

There are no Poags still living in Bellahill, but a Barry Poag had read this blog some time ago and wrote to me from Canada (where his grandfather Robert Poag had emigrated to, from here, in the early 1900s).
Over the past year Barry has been corresponding with Ray and I regularly. He has shared a wealth of material from his own family and local history research. There will be much more of these Bellahill Poags when we do eventually reach Porg (or should it be Poag?) Hill. But first of all, Barry has sent some printed information on the Witchthorn - and this opens up a whole new story.

The excerpt is from a book on "The Forest Trees of Britain" published by the well-known English naturalist Rev. C A Johns in 1849. It was supplied to C A Johns "together with the annexed sketch", by the author's uncle, Alexander Johns of Carrickfergus, and it describes the Witch thorn at "Bellahill" on the estate of M. Dalway, Esq. The significance of this discovery for Barry Poag lay in the detail of the account, for Alexander Johns' informant was none other than Barry's great-great-great grandfather James Poag (who indeed states that he remembered the tree 70 years beforehand, that is, in the 1770s!):
"The schoolmaster of the Witch-Thorn National School (the tree has given its name to the place) referred me to an old man named James Poag, residing about a quarter of a mile from the spot. I found him at home, but gained little information; he is 87 years of age, a tailor by trade, and was busy at his work, three lads plying the needle with him; he said his sight was not so good as it had been, and his hearing rather dull! He invited me to take bread and butter and milk, all his house afforded, and told me he remembers the tree for 70 years, and that from his earliest recollection the trunk has always been as large as it is now. Within these few years some branches have been cut off, (a very rare occurrence indeed with an aged Thorn) which being reported to the agent of Mr Dalway, that gentleman went to the spot, and has taken steps to prevent a repitition of the act. The large trunk is 4 feet 2 inches in circumference, and the other 3 feet 6 inches; the thorn is about 20 feet high. It stands on high ground, and the father of the present proprietor told my informant that he had seen the Witch Thorn from the Scotch coast."
The map shows the section of the Cassie from the Resting Slap as far as Porg Hill and the Poag farms in Bellahill, and the sites of the Witchthorn and the Witchthorn National School. Neither of the 'witchthorn' sites survive, although Ray was able to point out the their sites from what he had been told.

Older maps show that the school was there in the 1830s, and it must have survived until the 1870s when the two 'new' Bellahill National Schools were built. These were located on 'proper' roads a t either end of the Cassie (the Beltoy Road, and the Dalway's Bawn Road).

The precise locations of the Witchthorn and the Witchthorn National School are both marked on this detail from an 1858 land valuation survey. A thick red line marks the townland boundary between Crossmary to the south and Bellahill (Ballyhill) to the north and east. Carrickfergus County (North-East Division) is to the west of the Copeland Water.

The thin red lines are farm boundaries - the farm at the top marked 10A is the Cowan home farm, and the one marked 21 bottom right is the 'original' Poag farm.

The Cassie runs across the top of the Cowan farm to the Resting Slap (which is where it meets the top 'point' of Crossmary townland) and then down past the Witchthorn along the townland boundary towards Porg Hill on the Poag farm. The Witchthorn therefore would have been a townland boundary marker before enclosure, not to mention a distant landmark for those on the cattle trail droving towards the 'Resting Slap'. It is fascinating that the 1849 account states that M. Dalway's father told James Poag that the tree could be seen from the 'Scotch coast'.

Alexander Johns had supplied an illustration of the Witchthorn along with his account, and this has to be an actual representation because he describes the tree as having two trunks, one 4 ft. 2 inches in circumference, and the other 3 ft. 6 inches. He also states that the tree was (in the 1840s) 20 ft. tall and that branches had been recently removed which he shows on the ground.
Alexander Johns was born in Cornwall in 1784, and was Ordnance store-keeper of Carrickfergus Castle from 1812. He died in the town in 1866 and was an accomplished illustrator, as his following sketches of Carrickfergus demonstrate. Indeed, he provided all of the original illustrations of local antiquities for Samuel M'Skimmin's "History and Antiquities of Carrickfergus

In the previous post I ended with a photo of Carrickfergus Castle viewed from the Resting Slap, and it fascinates me to think that this was the spot from which Alexander Johns sketched the Witchthorn, after eating a bread and butter 'piece' at James Poag's farm.

Another connection: the Johns' house in Carrickfergus in the 1860s was on the seafront at Joymount where the road leads to the Scotch Quarter, and on to Eden. This photo shows it on the left with a first-floor conservatory. The building (now demolished) was used to house Carrickfergus Technical School when my father was Principal there in the early 1950s.

Back at the Resting Slap, looking back towards Beltoy, is the overgrown path straight ahead that Roy and I had just walked before now proceeding on to Porg Hill. Here the beginning of the wider lane can be seen disappearing into the fields at both sides of the Resting Slap.

As soon as we turn round the corner, the Cassie opens out into a double-width lane, with the worn track only taking up less than half of the total width between the hedges.

And on the ground to the right are the sites of both the Witchthorn and the old Witchthorn National School.

It is not surprising that there is no sign of the school, but because of the superstition against interfering with a 'witch' thorn (the Ulster-Scottish equivalent of the Irish 'fairy' thorn) it is remarkable that nothing of the tree survives. The Scottish beliefs in Broonies (Brownies) and Pechts (Picts) operated here rather than Fairies and Danes. So it was witches, rather than fairies, that were supposed to dance and congregate at these trees - if not live under them! Witch trials were held in Carrickfergus, the most notable one being the trial of the 'Islandmagee Witches' in 1710 when 8 women from Islandmagee (the destination of the Cattle trail) were found guilty in what was to be the last witch trial in Ireland.

And so it's on down the Cassie towards Porg Hill ...

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