Once upon a time (in the 1960s), three spinster women closed their tea room, left the tower that had been their home and went down the hill never to return.
The Misses Millin were born in Scrabo Tower situated at the top of Scrabo Hill and, as adults, had run a tea room; serving traditional Irish cream tea with goat’s milk. Nowadays no one lives there and you definitely can’t get a cuppa tea there, let alone with goat’s milk.
Tiernan and I have lived in viewing distance of Scrabo Tower for years and finally, today we visited. It’s only recently I have fully begun to appreciate the story behind this seemingly random tower on the hill and its connection to places I already knew: like Mount Stewart. We hauled ourselves up the slope, reminiscing our unfit attempt at climbing Slieve Donard, which is outlined on the horizon and looks significantly smaller than I remember.
Scrabo Tower is such a poignant part of the landscape in Northern Ireland. Tiernan has even said that when he sees it, he knows he’s almost home. It means a bunch of things to a bunch of people; looming like the perfect location for a murder mystery or romantic like Rapunzel’s Tower. Some hilarious person has placed a skull in one of the upstairs windows, which makes me think of the former. ***Update: skull has been moved – ’twas a sad day #bringbackskully2017
Like many hills in Ireland, Scrabo Hill was once an hillfort. A dolmen stood atop it before it was blown up during a fit of Victorian archaeology to expose a horde of Viking silver below. And before you get any fancy ideas – metal detectors a banned on the hill 😉 Fossils and dinosaur footprints have also been found in the surrounding sandstone. Who thought a little hill could reveal so much about the history of the planet?
All this creative archaeology made way for the building of the 41m tall tower that looms there today.
In loving memory…
Everything the light touches is our kingdom.
That is more or less true of Scrabo Tower. Built in 1857 as a memorial for the Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, the tower oversees much of the land that would have belonged to him in the 19th century. If you were to go up the tower today (which you can now do) you can see the Harland and Wolff cranes in the Titanic Quarter, the Mourne Mountains, the Isle of Man, and on a good day, Scotland. Not that the Londonderry family owned Scotland…
Scrabo Tower also adds to the repertoire of famed 19th Century architect Charles Lanyon, who is credited with much of Belfast’s architecture – most notably Queen’s University. After the 3rd Marquess died in 1854 a contest was announced to pay homage to his life with a memorial structure to be built on Scrabo Hill. Interestingly not only is the current tower a shadow of his original design, but Lanyon’s design was only the fourth seed – all the other ‘winning designs’ were too expensive for the £2000 budget. Even after significant alterations, the fourth place design still came in £1000 over budget!
If you’re interested in the architectural history of Northern Ireland (which I am, increasingly) then this is an important stop on the Lanyon Trail (that’s not a real trail, I just invented it. #lanyontrail. Let’s make that a thing. You might need a bike… or a car for it though). Second hashtag of the day right there. On a roll.
In the first half of the 20th Century, Edith, Lady Londonderry, wife of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry, created her own mythology about Scrabo Tower. The Magic Inkpot is a collection of tales about two children, Mary and Robin, who are protected by a magic ink pot and have wily adventures. Dervilla the Witch of Scrabo appears as a character.
The stories are heavily inspired by Celtic myth, which fits in well with the traditional myths of Ulster (and other parts of the Celtic world, I’m sure). Stories of the great Dagda and the Fomorians that are associated with other sites like Grianan Aileach were sources of inspiration for Lady Londonderry’s story. Copies of The Magic Inkpot go for a neat £100-300. So if you want to find out more of the story, you’d best head to the natural play area at Mount Stewart.
Fun fact: My cat is named Ed after Edmund Brock, the Mount Stewart artist-in-residence who provided some of the illustrations for The Magic Inkpot. Since he was found there, it seemed appropriate to give him a Mount Stewart name.
Reopening the Tower
In 2014 the tower was closed indefinitely due to water ingress and safety fears, opening only a couple of times since then. After essential structural repairs, the Department for Communities partnered with the National Trust to open the tower for the summer of 2017. A modest charge is applied to help keep the tower verticle. Did you know it’s been struck by lightening at least 3 times?
The brave can climb 122 steps up to the parapet and enjoy those sweeping views across County Down and Belfast from over 160m above sea level.
July 7 – September 17, 2017
10am – 4pm (last entry strictly 3.30pm)
Family £10 (five people, including up to 3 adults)
Are you planning on visiting Scrabo while it’s open for a limited time only? Do you want more Scrabo stories? How about that #lanyontrail? Let us know below!