Fair Head

Fair Head is a rocky headland at the north-eastern corner of Northern Ireland, in County Antrim. It lies 3 miles (5km) east of Ballycastle town, and is the closest part of the mainland to Rathlin Island. It is a very highly-regarded rock-climbing location, and is believed to be the biggest expanse of climbable rock in either Ireland or Britain.


The headland of Fair Head rises 196m above the sea. Wild goats can be seen roaming among the rocks beneath the clifftops, where a walkway called "The Grey Man's Path" winds around the rugged coastline. From the road, a manmade Iron Age island or crannóg can be seen in the middle of a lake, Lough na Cranagh. The lakes are stocked with trout and can be fished during the summer months. Much of the land at Fair Head is owned by the National Trust, so ensuring that its natural beauty is preserved.

According to [http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/article.aspx?co=16&ca=25&to=&sca=25&articleID=801 one story] , Fair Head got its name from the tale of a beautiful fair-headed girl who once lived in a castle on Rathlin Island. She had many suitors, leading to a fight between two of them. One was mortally wounded and, as he lay dying, whispered to his servant to dance with the girl on the cliffs below the castle. The faithful servant obeyed, and danced nearer and nearer the edge of the cliff until they both fell over and died. The spot on the mainland where the girl’s body was washed up was from then on known as ‘Fairhead’. However, it is likely that the name (in Irish, "Beinn Bhán", "white headland") goes back to before the era of castles, and could be a reference to the chalk cliffs which can be seen in places along the east of the headland.


Fair Head is widely regarded as Ireland's finest climbing crag, but for a variety of reasons including its relatively remote location and the physical strength and unfamiliar climbing techniques often required there, does not attract the volume of climbers that one might expect at a crag of such quality. Its cliffs stretch for a distance of over 5km around the headland, rising to a maximum height of over 100m. They are not sea-cliffs, but have been described as a mountain crag by the sea, since they tower above an extensive boulder field and their isolation and size gives climbing there a big-wall mountaineering feel.

The cliffs are composed of dolerite, giving a mixture of steep cracked walls, corners, and, in many places, sets of columns reminiscent of organ-pipes. The dolerite sits on top of a bed of chalk which is visible in places.

The cliffs abound in well-protected steep crack climbing, between one and four pitches long. Many of the cracks involve hand-jamming, so some climbers tape their hands to protect the skin from what they term "Fair Head rash". Other climbs involve off-width or full-width chimneying, which is not often encountered in other Irish crags. As with nearly all Irish crags, only traditional protection ("clean climbing") is used.

The current guidebook, published in 2002, lists about 400 routes from under grade VS/4c up to E6/6b, but more recent climbing includes routes up to E8/6b.


The first climbs at Fair Head were done in the mid-1960's by some Belfast-based climbers and members of the Dublin-based Spillikin Club. Most of these climbs followed loose and dirty chimneys and are rarely repeated nowadays, but the seed had been planted, and before the end of the sixties development of the crag had started in earnest. However, it was not long before the increasing political violence in the North started making its presence felt; the Fair Head area was generally unaffected, but development of the crag slowed to a trickle during the early 1970's. However the attractions of Fair Head eventually proved irresistible and development picked up again in the late seventies, led by the husband-and-wife team of Calvin Torrans and Clare Sheridan and a number of other Dublin climbers. This small band devoted themselves to developing Fair Head, founded the Dal Riada Climbing Club (named after the ancient kingdom which included this area), and acquired a climbing hut nearby to accommodate themselves and other visiting climbers. The [http://www.climbing.ie/dalriada/ Dal Riada] continue to attract the cream of Irish climbers and are still to the forefront in the development of Fair Head to this day. There is still unclimbed rock at Fair Head; opportunities, mainly in the higher grades, are waiting for those who have the talent and dedication.


The cliffs are divided into several main sectors. From east to west, these are:
* The Small Crag. This 20m-high sector containing about seventy climbs stretches for 1km above a heavily-forested hillside; the difficulty of access means that abseiling in is usually necessary. Together with the problems often caused by midges, this make the sector unpopular, in spite of the quality of climbing to be had there.
* The Main Crag (including The Prow at its western end) is by far the most important sector. It curves around the headland for 3km, and contains the longest and best-quality climbs, up to 100m in height. Access is gained mainly by two easy descent gullies near either end of the sector, the "Grey Man's Path" at the east, and the "Ballycastle Gully" at the west. The Ballycastle Gully tends to be the more popular descent route for casual visitors, as there is a concentration of easier climbs in the vicinity. Between the two gullies, the starts of climbs can be reached by picking one's way through the boulder-field or by doing a usually-vertical abseil of up to 100m.
* Farrangandoo. This popular small sector consists of columns with intervening cracks every 2m or so, and contains about 30 single-pitch climbs.
* Marconi's Cove is about 500m distant from the rest of the crag, and was not discovered until 1988, but contains about 25 good-quality single-pitch climbs.Base camps are usually established near the tops of the descent routes; the walk-ins this far are pleasant and quite short, through the open grazing fields above the crag. However, access to some of the climbs themselves can be quite rough and time-consuming.


Visiting climbers have traditionally stayed at the Dal Riada Hut above nearby Murlough Bay, but in August 2007 this building was repossessed by its owners, the National Trust, and it remains unclear if another hut will be acquired [http://www.fairheadclimbers.com/cgi-bin/m_b/YaBB.pl?board=news;action=display;num=1188394895] . The most popular option now is a hostel in Ballycastle town, where there is a selection of bars and restaurants. Wild camping is also possible, but is not allowed on the land owned by the National Trust (roughly, the land around and east of the Grey Man's Path).


* Calvin Torrans and Clare Sheridan (editors), "Fair Head Rock Climbing Guide" (Mountaineering Council of Ireland, 2002) ISBN 0-902940-18-X [http://www.climbing.ie/isbn.html#fairhead]

ee also

*List of climbing areas in Ireland

External links

* [http://www.thenorthernirelandguide.co.uk/2006/01/14/a-walk-along-fairhead/ The Northern Ireland Guide: Pictures and Information on Fair head and the Crannóg]
* [http://www.fairheadclimbers.com/ Fair Head Climbing]
* [http://www.climbing.ie/counties/antrim.html#fairhead Irish Climbing On-line] - Fair Head section
* [http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&om=1&z=14&ll=55.216686,-6.150885&spn=0.034618,0.067635&t=k Google Maps] - satellite photo of Fair Head

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