SHEILA JOHNSTON takes a walk up Scrabo Hill to visit Scrabo Tower. The tower, which was built in 1857, is one of Northern Ireland’s best known landmarks and the views from the top – overlooking Strangford Lough and the whole of North Down – are spectacular.
Where in Ireland do you get a place associated with Druids, Sir Charles Lanyon, Vikings, roundhouses, prehistoric reptiles, the tusks of wild boar, the Great Famine, flint arrowheads — and the nephew of Napoleon?
It’s a place I’ve just come from, Scrabo Hill and Tower in north County Down. It takes a lot more puff to climb it now than it did when, as a child, I scampered up the hill and then ran up the 122 steps to the top of the Tower without stopping for breath.
Nowadays, the benches set beside the steep path are more appreciated!
The hill itself is a prominent feature of the landscape around the market town of Newtownards. Opinion varies as to where the name ‘Scrabo’ comes from. Some say it means ‘a rough or craggy hill’. Another possibility is that it means ‘a cow pasture’.
The latter doesn’t seem to be very likely as there are rocky outcrops and very poor grazing at the top. However, the land further down is certainly suitable pasture.
Scrabo Hill is indeed rough and craggy and the freestone underlying it makes a malleable but sturdy material for building so it is no wonder that quarries appeared on the hillside.
Not only was this stone used for the Tower itself, it was used centuries before in the monastery at Greyabbey, Co Down, in 1193. It was also used in the building of Queen’s College, now Queen’s University, and the Albert Memorial Clock Tower in Belfast.
Work on Scrabo Hill, for both the foundations of the Tower and for the golf course next to it, yielded valuable artefacts, such as stone axeheads and flint arrowheads. Lower down the slopes, footprints of reptiles from the Triassic era, 200 million years ago, have been found.