Human occupation and influence at Murlough
The dune system at Murlough is estimated at being up to 6,000 years old with the present landscape owing much of its appearance to millennia of natural processes.
'Murlach' the recognised Irish form of the place name meaning ‘sea inlet’ is a development from the Old Irish 'Muirbolc' meaning ‘sea-bag’ (lagoon or inlet of the sea). A particularly stormy period in the 13th and 14th-centuries resulted in a huge movement of sand. Dune was formed upon dune resulting in the unusually high dunes seen at the property today.
Human history at Murlough
The history of human use at Murlough spans some 4,000 years with evidence of human occupation from Neolithic, Bronze Age and Christian periods through to the present day.
Ten archaeological sites are recorded within the dunes under National Trust ownership, all of which were located during a series of archaeological excavations in 1948, 1950-51 and 1958 by Pat Collins. These sites demonstrate quite extensive prehistoric occupation or settlement and burial covering the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Early Christian periods.
Prehistoric sites in the immediate environs of the dunes include a Portal Dolmen and two standing stones, possibly remains of a former megalith. Early Christian sites are well represented in the general area with a ringfort and three souterrains. Medieval sites are represented by Dundrum Castle and also by two recorded battle sites in Dundrum in 1147.
The middle ages
During the middle ages the dunes were unsurprisingly used as rabbit warrens, being overlooked from the north by Dundrum Castle, which was built in the late 12th / early 13th-century by John de Courcy when establishing the Anglo-Norman earldom of Ulster. The rabbits from the Murlough warrens would have been harvested for their meat and pelts and their grazing had a major influence on the development of the heath grassland characteristic of the site today. These habitats would have been maintained by rabbit grazing, but myxomatosis led to their virtual disappearance during the 1950s and the subsequent scrubbing up of the dunes particularly with sycamore and sea buckthorn, both of which have been introduced to Ireland. The National Trust has undertaken scrub management including gorse and bracken control and set up livestock grazing to open up the grassland and heathland to create more favourable conditions and encourage an increase in rabbits.
Buildings and use during the war
The property contains three listed buildings, all located towards the northern end of the peninsula. The grade B1 Stable Block, now used as the Wardens Office is part of the outbuilding complex associated with Murlough House. At the entrance to the peninsula on the shore of Dundrum Inner Bay lies the grade B Listed Keel Point Gate Lodge, built around 1877 for the 4th Marquess of Downshire. Immediately beside the gate lodge and providing the main point of access to the dunes across the bay is the grade B2 Listed Downshire Bridge. At the northern edge of the peninsula lies a boathouse with accompanying slipway and on the western edge of the property close to the main Newcastle Road lies a gate house known as Slidderyford Cottage.
The dunes were heavily used during World War II as a base for troops, planes and tanks. Two sites from this period of usage survive within the Trust ownership, a former rifle range located close to the northern end of the peninsula and a possible tank park on the south side of the approach road to Murlough House and Warden’s Office. Northeast of the property within the Ballykinler Army Base lies the recorded site of two circular crop marks now thought to be related to military training on that site.