The Sperrin Mountains
Sperrins stone circles
Stories of the Sperrins, Northern Ireland
“The farmers are out in their fields with mechanical diggers these days. There’s no time for superstition about magic rocks and fairy forts. And yet…” Archaeologist, folklorist and guide to the Sperrin mountains, Brendan Gormley, grins and goes on to tell the tale of a farmer who now leaves the bronze age stone circles in his fields well alone.
The farmer hired a digger to excavate stones that his superstitious forebears had given a wide berth. At the end of a long day he set to with the machine and shovelled up the stones. As he got down from the cab he tripped from the step and broke his leg. He was tired; the machine was unfamiliar but just to be on the safe side, ancient stones his other fields remain untouched.
The stones from bronze age and earlier Sperrins’ settlements have saved many acres from cultivation or construction. Also, the surviving ancient peat bogs often remain because the men cutting the peat, locally called turf, would stop work if they found a stone formation, fearing a curse if they disturbed a fairy dwelling.
Sparsely populated for centuries, the forty mile span of the Sperrin mountains in Northern Ireland was once forested and full of people. Now you can walk for an hour and not see another soul. You’ll see goldfinches, buzzards, possibly a migrating eagle. You’ll see miles of heather, or stumble across natural springs and nestling dog violets, bilberries and cloudberries.
People cycle, hang glide and hot air balloon through the Sperrins but the best route is on foot. There aren’t many marked trails but the roads are tiny and farmers see so few walkers, they seldom mind you trudging a careful route through their sheep pastures.
The ideal Sperrins journey is to go with a guide to learn the history, the tall tales and ecology. A local guide can also help explain the uneasy relationship between small scale farming and conservation.
Valuable for fuel, the commercial digging of turf has now been banned but many living in the Sperrins have a traditional right to dig the fuel for their own use. Sometimes the lines become blurred between commercial and private use. My grandmother lived on the edge of the Sperrins and I remember a muddy man coming down with a cart of turf to sell to her and her neighbours. His family sold turf or had nothing.
Farmers have been banned from digging up stream beds for gravel, destroying fish spawning grounds but times are hard and gravel is valuable on building sites. The balance between survival and cherishing a unique landscape is sometimes a tricky manoeuvre. A few more visitors might actually help; the financial incentive of responsible tourism could be seen by locals as more than a nice theory.
Recurring flickers of gold in the Sperrins’ streams led to alarming plans for open cast mining. Thankfully these were crushed. Discrete geological probes are being conducted but nature lovers hope that nothing but traces are ever found.
The gold traces are fun though; Brendan Gormley takes visitors out with waterproofs and sieves to pan in the streams.
“It’s hard work but you do find small quantities. One of the nicest couples I ever met came up with me and used the gold they found for their wedding rings. That was a really magical.”
Also magical is the community funded An Creagan centre. The rocky, semi- circular building was designed to fit into the landscape and has eco friendly cottages for rent, amid bio diversity trails through the beautifully gaunt highland bogs. An Creagan offers locals and visitors cycle hire, traditional music, story telling, children’s wilderness adventures, craft classes and organic meals in the restaurant. The centre blends into the rocks and heather, drawing people in to the Sperrins without disturbing the landscape of mountains formed 500 millions years ago.
From the mossy stone circles that whisper of long gone herdsmen, their lives and rituals, to colourful yarns about 19th century moonshine gangs and their shoot outs with the authorities, the Sperrins echo with stories.
Finishing our journey with Brendan Gormley in a pub in the village of Plumbridge and he gave us one more tale for the road;
“When the first bridge was built here, a malevolent little person appeared and spat in the water beside it saying; ‘That bridge isn’t plumb. You should have let me measure it.’ Sure enough, with the first big storm, the bridge collapsed. The bridge was built again without the help of the spitting supernatural critic and it collapsed again. The third time the little man measured it and said; ‘Now that’s a plumb bridge.’ And it’s been there to this day.”
“Then again”, Brendan laughs, “Plume is a Gaelic word for pool. So it might just be the bridge on the pool. But where’s the fun in that?”
- For Brendan Gormley’s guided walks with stories or gold panning adventures: email@example.com (Tel: 07786674306)
- For other tours, maps of the Sperrins and details of the walking festival going on all through August 2012 sperrinstourism.com
- Eco friendly visits and holidays at www.ancreagan.com
- For affordable glamour and fine dining at the edge of the Sperrins try the boutique hotel Apparo in Draperstown www.apparohotel.com
- General trip information at www.discoverireland.com