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History of Carrick-a-Rede

A small white single-storey cottage with a slate roof, next to dark grassy cliffs and green sea, at Carrick-a-Rede, County Antrim
The fisherman's cottage on the island at Carrick-a-Rede, County Antrim | © National Trust Images/Annapurna Mellor

The famous Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge was first erected by salmon fishermen in 1755. Suspended almost 100ft above the Atlantic Ocean, the exhilarating crossing covers a chasm connecting to the rocky island of Carrick-a-Rede. The name, from the Gaelic 'Carraig-a-Rade', means ‘The Rock in the Road’, an obstacle for the migrating salmon as they search for the river in which they were born. Follow in the footsteps of the vanishing fishermen by uncovering the history of Carrick-a-Rede.

Centuries of tradition

Atlantic salmon were first fished at Carrick-a-Rede and Larrybane in 1620 but it wasn’t until 1755 that the first rope bridge between to the rocky island of Carrick-a-Rede was erected to reduce reliance on a boat to reach the island.

In the 19th century more than 80 fishers, 21 salmon fishers and 10 fish carriers were working in the parish of Ballintoy. Catches of up to 300 salmon a day were common until the 1960s.

Vanishing fish

Centuries of salmon fishing are now just a memory. Fishing pressure at sea and river pollution led to a decline in salmon and the last fish was caught at Carrick-a-Rede in 2002.

Alex 'Achi' Colgan, the last fisherman at Carrick-a-Rede, took over the licence when his uncle retired and worked there for over 30 years, leaving in 2002 when co-workers became hard to find. This fishery needs four men to work it and it’s hard, heavy work.

Two fishermen climbing up steps cut in the rocks with sacks of salmon on their backs and their boat in the sea below at Carrick-a-Rede
Two fishermen climbing up stone steps with salmon on their backs at Carrick a Rede | © National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

The last fisherman

The hardest fishery

Now 80 years old, the Ballintoy man recalls: 'It was hard work, It was the hardest salmon fishery on the coast. You're stood on the edge of a cliff, it's very deep water.

‘I suppose it was dangerous but we never had any accidents. When the weather was bad it was dangerous enough.’

No longer viable

Achi recalls that they would regularly catch up to 300 fish a day. But in the final season before closing, they only caught 250 in total from spring to autumn.

‘It wasn’t viable, there weren’t enough fish. The same applied to the whole coast. It was sad enough, but we couldn't pay anybody to work. There were some years it didn't pay at all.’

Recreating a piece of fishing history

Until 2014, there was a crane (technically 'derrick’) at Carrick-a-Rede. A large wooden apparatus fixed to the cliff-face, it was used to lift and lower a fishing boat up and down into the water. Without the crane, Carrick-a-Rede's fishing industry wouldn't have been the success that it was.

Since the boat couldn’t be left on the sea (it would be dashed against the rocks during swells and storms) it was hoisted ashore and docked on dry land.

The simple wooden rowing boat carried sheets of heavy nets and a crew of at least three. Propelled through the water by oars and manpower, nets were cast and gathered high above sea fields of migrating salmon. Although a passive form of fishing, since the fish trap themselves by swimming into an enclosed space created by the net, it required great skill to set the net correctly, and an intuitive knowledge of winds, tides and the sea.

Devastated in a storm

The crane weathered the elements on the 'rock in the road' for over a century, however, storms during winter 2014 spelled the end for its old timber frame. Breaking away from the rusted steel mount, the perished timber washed away.

Recreating the crane

The countryside team were soon tasked with constructing a new crane. The parts of the timber and steel frame which hadn’t been obliterated by the storm were all Frank Devlin, the Countryside Manager, had to help create a new design and build the crane. Today, visitors can see the re-created crane, which helps tell the story of the fishing industry on the causeway coast.

Sunset over the coastline at Carrick-a-Rede, County Antrim in summer

Discover more at Carrick-a-Rede

Find out when Carrick-a-Rede is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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