Strangford Lough through the ages

Audley's Castle on Strangford Lough

Strangford Lough and its surroundings are steeped in history, dating back thousands of years. Prehistoric communities would have found rich pickings in the abundant natural resources of the lough and its foreshore. Mesolithic shell middens (piles of discarded shells), dating back to 7000BC, are evidence that our ancestors took advantage of the plentiful supply of oysters, cockles, mussels and other edible shellfish. Burial sites like those discovered at Audleystown and Millin Bay have been dated to around 4000BC. These early inhabitants would have travelled around the lough using simple dug out log boats like the one that was discovered in Greyabbey Bay dating back to over 5,000 years ago.

Early Christian period

In 432AD, St Patrick is said to have sailed through the Strangford Narrows and up the Quoile Estuary, bringing Christianity with him. By the mid 6th-century, a number of major monastic centres had developed in the area, including Down, Nendrum, Movilla and Bangor, as well as a number of smaller sites like Comber and Kilclief.  
The monastic communities brought with them great technological and organisational skills necessary to exploit the marine environment on a commercial scale. For example, 7th-century, wooden fish traps have been found at various locations around the lough. However, the monks of Nendrum on Mahee Island proved to be particularly sophisticated by building a number of sea walls that trapped water at high tide. This water was then released through an opening which turned a horizontal mill wheel, used to grind corn. The earliest of these was dated to 619AD making it the oldest known tidal mill in Europe.


Between the 9th & 11th-centuries, Vikings were regular visitors to the lough, giving it the Norse name 'Strangfyorthe', meaning the place of strong currents or strong fjord. They were no doubt attracted to the area by the promise of rich plunder at the various monastic sites. However, they were not always a warring people, and there is evidence to suggest that many traded peacefully and even settled locally.


In 1177, John de Courcy and his Norman Knights invaded Downpatrick. The surrounding region was brought under Norman control by building a number of fortified mottes and founded the Cistercian monasteries of Inch Abbey (1180AD) and Grey Abbey (1193AD). The monks of Grey Abbey took the building of fish traps to a whole new level, replacing the wooden traps with stone structures, sometimes more than 220 yards (200m) long.  
With the decline of English power in the 14th-century, the southern part of the lough became an isolated area of English control but still of great commercial and strategic importance. This led to the construction of a number of tower houses being built, many of which can still be seen today including the 15th-century castles at Kilclief, Audley’s, and Sketrick, and the 16th-century castles of Strangford, Castle Ward, Portaferry, Quoile and Mahee.  
By the 18th-century, the towns and quays around Strangford Lough, were busy places, with goods being imported and exported around the world. Boat building and fishing were important local industries, as was the production of 'kelp' (the name given to the burned ashes of seaweed)
Today, there are still a great many clues to the scale and importance of this kelp industry in the form of kelp grids, kelp kilns and kelp houses. See if you can spot them.