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by Andy McInroy
|My Antrim Cave Project continued this month when I had the opportunity to visit Bruce's cave on Rathlin Island. This was one of the hardest caves to access and photograph. This famous cave brings me close to completing my project. I hope you enjoy this story of mystery and adventure.|
The Hunt for Bruce's Cave Continues
Bruce's Cave continued to intrigue me long after my first visit to Rathlin Island. I started to dig out references to this famous cave in as many old books as I could find. It was during this research that I discovered two mysterious old etchings from the 1800s. I discovered the first of these in 'A History of the Island of Rathlin', an old manuscript written in 1851 by Mrs Gage. Mrs Catherine Gage was the wife of Reverend Robert Gage, the landlord of Rathlin Island at that time. I also came across two colour postcards. The first of these showed the gaping mouth of the cave from the outside. The second postcard was more interesting to me as it showed the cave interior, including some evidence of a dry boulder beach at the back. Could this be the perfect place to set up my tripod? If only I had a way in!
Despite my enthusiasm, it was already very late in the Autumn of 2008 and the sea swells were picking up again. Through the winter I had to content myself with reading through the old books and using my imagination. At this time, I had found no published photos of the interior of Bruce's Cave. The thought of reaching the recess of the cave and publishing a photograph began to become an obsession with me. Also, I knew that my project would not be complete without a photo of this, the most famous of the Antrim caves.
In early 2009 I managed to get hold of a rare book from 1951 by Mary Campbell titled 'Sea Wrack'. Inside, to my surprise, I found a photograph of the interior of Bruce's Cave, the only one I have ever come across. What is particularly astonishing is the quality of the photograph. It is beautifully composed and exposed and it appears that the photographer may have used some sort of light painting to highlight the stalactites on the ceiling. The name of the photographer is not given, so perhaps it was taken by Mary Campbell herself. If anyone can shed light on who took this photo, please get in touch with me.
So, not only had Bruce's cave been captured on camera, but it had been photographed astonishingly well. Inspired by this new find, I got in touch with islander, Liam McFaul, an experienced skipper and expert boatman who offered to show me the way in. Over the summer, we tried on several occasions to get into the great cave. On every attempt the sea reared up out of the north and I had to face the disappointing drive back from Ballycastle. As autumn approached, I began to resign myself to another winter of waiting. Miraculously, in mid September, a stable high pressure system finally developed and we made our move.
On the morning of the 15th of September 2009, Liam and I left the shelter of Church Bay in his small boat. First we headed south around Rue Point before turning northwards again up the east side of the island. As we passed the ruin of Bruce's Castle and approached the East lighthouse, the mighty ramparts of Rathlin's north coast reared up. We turned a short corner and before us the dark cleft of Bruce's Cave appeared before us. Liam guided the boat slowly into the narrow tunnel.
Inside, we got a better appreciation of the sheer size of the cave. The roof was some 70 feet above us and was decorated with the finest stalactites I have ever seen in a sea cave. The narrow channel continued for perhaps 100 yards before ending on a large boulder beach. The cave appeared to continue for another 50 yards further. Sheltering in the cave was a curious seal which passed under our boat and watched us closely as we approached the beach. As the waters became shallower, Liam raised the propeller blades and used the oars to stabilise the boat while I jumped out into the shallow water.
Standing on the boulder beach and looking out of the cave mouth was an incredible experience. I was finally standing inside this famous, yet rarely visited cave. I set about taking my photograph which proved to be far from easy. This was perhaps the darkest cave I have ever photographed due to the sheer depth of the cave and the narrow nature of the cave mouth. I was also conscious that I had to work quickly as Liam was holding the boat in position against the incoming swells. However, it wasn't long before my exposures were taken. Before getting back into the boat I had a look for the possible position that Mary Campbell's photo was taken. Unfortunately, I could not find it. The angles seemed wrong and I have some doubts that the photo may have been taken in another cave. That mystery was one for another day. I jumped back in the boat.
As Liam reversed us out of the cave, he directed my attention up the cave walls which appeared wave-worn and smooth up to a height of 50 feet. This gives some indication of the power of the ocean when a swell builds in this confined space. We were both in agreement that if Robert the Bruce had ever visited this cave, he could not have hid here for long. Such huge swells would easily have reached the extremities of the cave and smashed any occupants against the deepest recesses.
As we pulled away from the cave, I was hugely satisfied at finally getting my photo of Bruce's Cave. You can see the result of our efforts in the photograph below. This photo brings me very close to the end of my project.... or does it? Liam pulled the boat west and kindly gave me a tour of Rathlin's remote north coast and my thoughts of ever finishing this project were dashed. In the 10km of wild coast between the East Lighthouse and the West Lighthouse we visited another dozen or-so caves, some of which were of truly enormous proportions. One of these, which Liam guided the boat into, must have been 200 yards in length. As we got deeper, the light quickly faded and all we could see were the glinting eyes of a family of seals basking on the boulder beach. Others caves contained old bits of rusted metal from the many ships wrecked along this coast.
Perhaps this project is going to take longer than I first thought.
Text and photos © Andy McInroy