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There’s old in them thar hills

By Gráinne Brinkley

DOMINATING the Belfast skyline, the Belfast Hills are popular with dedicated weekend walkers and nature-lovers. A hike up the many walkways that begin in the forests below, to the vistas from the top of Divis or Cave Hill rewards walkers with stunning views over Belfast and as far away as the Mourne mountain range.

But the hills are more than just convenient spots to blow the cobwebs away, they are full of historical and cultural heritage that’s little known outside of those with an interest in such things. However, thanks to recently-secured funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Landscape Partnership programme, the Belfast Hills Partnership has launched the first ever Belfast Hills Heritage Festival as a way of bringing the history and culture of the hills to the city dwellers below.

Running from July 2-8, the festival will include a series of music, talks, tours, intrigue, storytelling, art and old-style games in the hills that frame not only Belfast but Lisburn, Antrim and Newtownabbey.

“We organise walks and talks on the hills all the time but I decided it was time to bring the heritage of the hills down into the city,” said event organiser, Jo Boylan, Outreach Officer for the Belfast Hills Partnership.

“We want schools, community groups and anyone else to come and use the hills and learn more about them.  We decided that this festival would be a good way of engaging people in what’s literally on their doorstep and a good way to start off the next few years of outreach programmes for the hills that will be funded by the Landscape Partnership programme money.”

The Belfast Hills Heritage Festival will feature events from Slievenacloy Nature Reserve on the southern tip of the hill range in the South West of Belfast to Carnmoney Hill in the North.

“The Belfast Hills is a huge geographical area, people would be surprised at how much heritage is associated with them,” said Jo.

“The history goes right back to the Bronze Age to when there were settlements up there. We wanted the festival programme to reflect this and to take place in the four main council areas which the hills straddle – Belfast, Lisburn, Antrim and Newtownabbey.”

The festival kicks off next Monday with ‘History in the Heart of the Hills’ at Belfast Castle, which will see a series of talks given by local history and archaeology experts on the Belfast Hills followed by an afternoon walk to discover some of the hidden historical treasures of Cave Hill.

“Two archaeologists from Queen’s University – Professor Valerie Hall and Harry Welsh – will be talking about their recent findings at Ballyaghagan on Cavehill,” said Jo.

“Late last year an excavation project at the site involving 600 people unearthed a farmstead that potentially dates to post-plantation period northern Ireland. Also as part of ‘History in the Heart of the Hills’ we will host talks by two local historians, Ben Simon and John Grey, who have just written books on the people who would have lived here, so they will be bringing the human element to the history of the hills for those who come along.”

Another programme highlight is the ‘Black Bull of Colin Glen’, a walking tour with a difference.

“It brings the hills alive through Gaelic mysticism, poetry and song,” said Jo.

“At each stop on the walk through the glen, a local historian will give a talk about the Gaelic history of the site. There will also be poetry readings and music, all written specifically about the glen, performed at each stop. I think this is a great way to illustrate it and make people look at the area in a different light.”

The festival will culminate with a treasure trail and fun day in the grounds of Belfast Castle.

“This will be the highlight of the festival and will appeal to young and old,” explained Jo.

“When you arrive at the castle you will be given a map for the treasure trail, but rather than find treasure you will have to find the ghosts of characters from the history of the hills who will be hidden nearby.  There will be highwaymen, members of the aristocracy and people from Bronze Age settlements.  When they are found, participants will have to quiz them to find out who they are. The ethos behind this event is to try and bring heritage alive as it’s good to talk about these characters from the past but for some people, especially children, to meet them and question them would be even better fun and you will learn more. This event will also include a an old-style carnival fair in the grounds of the Castle with traditional fair rides, archery and birds of prey demonstration.”

If you would like to know more details on the events taking place as part of the Belfast Hills heritage Festival, log-on to, email or call 02890 603 466.


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