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The legends of Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s fairytale site

Giant’s Causeway, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is said to have formed about 60 million years ago

Giant’s Causeway is on the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland
Giant’s Causeway is on the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland (iStockphoto)

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Growing up, Oscar Wilde’s story of a giant who built a wall around his beautiful garden to keep children out was one of my favourites. The tale of the angry giant whose garden falls into perpetual winter till he sees the error of his ways may be an allegory for Christian love but to a little girl learning to read on her own, it opened a window to the humanity of giants, those fearsome, formidable creatures everyone in the fairy-tale world loved to hate.

Naturally then, when we were in Belfast, the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, with an unexpected free day, I knew where the family had to go next: Giant’s Causeway, to walk in the footsteps of a giant!

Bordered by the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean and dramatic cliffs, Giant’s Causeway, or Clochán an Aifir, is an awe-inspiring natural wonder. Comprising over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, it is said to have formed about 60 million years ago, when Ireland was still attached to North America. Located on the Antrim coast, between Portrush and Ballycastle, it’s Northern Ireland’s only Unesco World Heritage Site —and its top tourist magnet.

The water takes centre stage, its waves wild, strong and a hundred shades of blue—gaining strength, hitting the craggy cliffs and withdrawing, to do it all over again. The wind is fierce as it blows inland and I fancy I can almost taste the salt in the air. We take the coastal path to walk down to the causeway, marvelling at the changing seascape as Jess, the guide, offers us the scientific spiel about how the natural wonder was formed during the Paleogene period. She tells us continual flows of lava moved towards the coast, cooling when they came in contact with the sea. “The many layers of basalt formed columns, with the pressure between these columns chiselling them into polygonal shapes over time,” she says.

By now, we are almost at the end of our clifftop walk, uneven and single-track in places, with 162 steep stone steps that don’t seem so tiresome if you are focused on the causeway. The tops of the basalt columns, mostly hexagonal, form stepping stones that lead away from the cliffs and disappear under the ocean. Jess says the tallest rise about 39ft, with the solidified lava as thick as 92ft in places.

We look at the spectacular sight, the quiet as deafening to city slickers as the sound of an irate ocean. The guide in Jess makes way for the local legend teller, who offers contrasting stories on the history of this monument. Folklore suggests an Irish giant, suitably named Finn McCool, created the causeway to cross the Irish Sea and face his rival, the Scottish giant Benandonner. Soon after their terrifying encounter, Benandonner fled to Scotland, destroying the causeway and leaving behind the basalt remnants we see today.

Another fable, based on an 1830 poem, goes that McCool fell in love with a Scottish maiden and laboured to build the causeway and see her. His grandmother, worried that the Irish lad would settle in Scotland, used her magic to create a storm and destroy the causeway. Each day, McCool would build a section; each night, she would obliterate it. Till the day he worked through the night, reached the other side exhausted and died in the arms of his beloved.

No one’s really sure if the Giant’s Causeway is a labour of love or hate. But fairy-tale lovers like me enjoy alternate origin stories.

Whatever its history, the causeway—said to be a portal into the earth’s ancient past—continues to provoke scientific debate and capture the imagination. The dynamic coastal landscape of Atlantic waves, weathered cliffs and secluded bays creates the perfect setting. Jess tells us the area is a haven for seabirds, with petrels, cormorants, shags, redshanks, guillemots, razorbills and fulmar making it their home. Many species of plants have taken root in the mossy rocks.

The continuing drama of the elements brings to mind the nearby Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge we had visited earlier. The shaky-looking bridge, suspended almost 100ft above sea level, is said to have first been constructed by salmon fishermen almost 200 years ago. It connects the mainland to the tiny Carrick-a-Rede Island, home just to a fisherman’s cottage.

Crossing the bridge was exhilarating; we had gorgeous, clear views of Rathlin Island and the Scottish islands. The Atlantic Ocean here, we are told, houses basking sharks, dolphins and porpoises. Sadly, we didn’t see any.

Jess insists on two more stops: the wishing chair, a natural seat formed by a set of aligned columns, now an Instagrammable hot spot, and McCool’s camel, a formation of cooled lava that resembles a humped camel.

The long walk, fresh air and salty breeze leave us hungry. We trudge back to the visitor centre and make our way to The Nook, a small public house housed in a historic listed building that dates to the 1850s. We choose to sit outside, the sea and sky scoring over wooden panelling and a fireplace, as we sup on flaky fried fish and fat chips and hot buttered scones, followed by steaming hot coffees.

My mind takes me back to a small path along the basalt columns that leads to the bay’s most famous feature: the giant’s boot. Apparently left behind in Port Noffer by McCool, the weathered stone boot is said to be a whopping size 93.5.

Geological studies may have revealed the origins of Giant’s Causeway but I am happy to believe giants once existed. And to walk in one’s footsteps to boot!

Teja Lele is an editor and writes on travel and lifestyle.

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