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The Rough Fort

An water-colour illustration of how the Rough Fort at Limavady might have once looked with round, low, thatched dwellings and cattle in fenced enclosures
An artist's impression of the Rough Fort at Limavady | © Philip Armstrong

The Rough Fort is an Early Medieval circular earthwork a mile west of Limavady and was the first property left in care to the National Trust in Northern Ireland. These fortified farmsteads, also known as Rath or Ring Forts, were defended farmsteads and occupied mainly by a single family group of cattle farmers. It’s estimated that more than 45,000 Ring Forts were constructed in Ireland between the 7th to 9th centuries.

The story of the Rough Fort

The Rough Fort outside Limavady was gifted to the National Trust in 1937 by owner, Mr Marcus McCausland, who was the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Committee of the National Trust at the time. Surrounded by oaks, beeches and Scots pines, it measures 67 metres by 72 metres overall and is defined by an enclosing circular bank with an external ditch beyond. It is one of the best examples of a Rath in Northern Ireland and one of the best-preserved in our care.

What is a Ring Fort or Rath?

A Rath was a home for cattle farmers. As a defended homestead, the bank and ditch enclosed enough space inside for the family’s cattle to be penned in overnight or to be driven into it during times of danger. In a cattle-dominated society, the defensive aspect would have proved crucial, particularly from any ‘hit and run’ style cattle raiding.

Archaeologist Angle: “The Rough Fort in our care is an example of a counterscarp rath. This means it has remains of an additional low bank lying beyond the enclosing outer ditch. It’s likely that its interior contained one or more round houses built of wattle, wood and thatch. Sitting prominent in the landscape, it offered commanding views over the surrounding landscape and its size probably reflected the status and wealth of its residents.”

Malachy Conway, National Trust NI Archaeologist

A sepia archive photo of the Rough Fort area depicting a road with two boys on bicycles in the foreground, a horse and cart a little further along the road and the tree-lined ring or rath behind it
An archive photo of the Rough Fort | © Limvady Museum

A gift from the fairies

Like thousands of other monuments which still stand in our countryside today, Raths like the Rough Fort owe their preservation in part to the superstitions which surround them, particularly when sited in valuable agricultural land. Ring Forts were believed to be the haunt of the fairies, with many locally called Fairy Forts. This tradition meant that locals were loath to damage such monuments for fear of retribution from the ‘wee folk’. This may be why Ireland has so many well-preserved examples.

The North Coast Association

The refurbishment of the Rath was made possible thanks to funding from the North Coast Association. A group of volunteers, who live in the North Coast region and promote the National Trust locally, they continue to raise funds for this work and associated projects, helping to preserve this special place for everyone, for ever.