Townlands & Gateways

Townland Gateways

Our traditional farm features, such as the gateways, farm buildings and hedges, have helped shape our rural landscape across the AONB. Unfortunately, as farming practices have changed and modernised, machinery has become larger and many of these traditional features have been lost. Many crafted stone pillars and lovely traditional metal gates, have been replaced or fallen into disuse.  

As part of the Turn O’ The Tide Programme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2015. We worked with farmers and other landowners of Strangford and Lecale to repair and re-instate some of these gateways. Preserving this part of our built and cultural heritage, and discovering more about other farming heritage such as lime kilns, corbelled pig sties, fields and field names, kelp grids and other features.  

The publication that was produced as a result of this project can be downloaded below, celebrates different aspects of heritage in the region, particularly stone masonry and ironworking. The old rural gateways dotted through the landscape seem symbolic of the changes the countryside has seen over the years. The project sought to restorate and promote these intricate and unique features of rural architecture highlighting our agricultural landscape and the people who live and work here.

We began by researching townlands in the Strangford & Lecale area to establish the characteristics which make this part of East Down special and unique.

B Fitzsimons – Kilclief

Townland Identity

The idea of identity and belonging is both physical and psychological; it comes from the place we live and the people around us. In the past, before mass media and large scale mechanisation our countryside was a very different place and the townland was at the core of rural identity. It was how people saw themselves, how they identified with their landscape, their traditions and history. Townlands inspired music and poetry, myth and legend and left an indelible mark on the lives of the people that inhabited them.

Today, rural communities have changed significantly and influences are as much global as local. Identification with the townland is being lost and the knowledge of the traditions of the landscape such as field names and folklore are being forgotten.

Shared History 2022

Shared History 2022

Based in the three AONB in Newry Mourne and Down District and Ards and North Down Council areas, this project focused on ‘My townland memories – 1921 to 2021’.

Townlands are an anchor for our sense of place, they haven’t changed through invasion, plantation, or partition. They have been a constant for people and are used throughout Northern Ireland in both the majority communities: a true ‘Shared History’.

The project took people on a journey of discovery or rediscovery of their home townland reflecting on the shared social history of the past 100 years through the use of oral history and archive material. A focused look through the anchor of our townlands will draw upon the diverse perspectives of both the dominant religious, political and historically different communities with a shared history of townlands.

Rural Craft


A unique architectural feature of the rural landscape of Northern Ireland is the gateway.  These gates are often hundreds of years old but many remain in good condition scattered throughout the countryside.  The stone pillars are large and can be round, square or solid granite slabs dependant on the region.  The tradition of constructing pillars like this is believed to be an ancient practice but most of the pillars visible in our landscape today are more likely to have been built within the last few hundred years.  Traditionally, lime mortars were used and many were whitewashed which made them stand out in a background of green fields.  Professor Estyn Evans CBE, a renowned geographer with an intimate knowledge of the Irish countryside and the way of life of its people, records that pillars at the entrance to farms were often described as “man and wife of the house and that one of the pair may have a flat top on which it is said the fairies like to dance”.  In other areas, the pillar tops are conical with a pointed top and it is believed in local folklore that they are made this way to discourage mischievous fairies from entering. 

These pillars were accompanied by iron gates to keep stock enclosed in the field, although it is clear when viewing these gates that they are so much more.  They were a status symbol to the landowner and a display of skill and craftsmanship by the blacksmith.  As you travel around the countryside it is clear that styles of gates change significantly from region to region.  In the past each parish had a couple of blacksmiths who would have been responsible for creating gate styles that would identify him in the area.  In addition to creating scrolling and ornamentation to identify their work they often stamped their gates with a small design or initials.  While restoring an original iron gate in Clogher townland in Downpatrick, the original gate was stamped with the initials J.S and with a flower motif.  The blacksmith restoring the gate also noted how many different pieces of iron were fire welded together to create the gate.  This seems to support records that describe the reuse of iron tyres and wheel hoops to make the gates.  Sometimes, large landowners would commission the blacksmith to create gates unique to them to advertise their ownership of land.  This can be seen at St. John’s point where Major General Browne had an ornate ‘B’ added to the gates on his land. It’s hard to find two identical examples in any gateway, as all of them were hand made from wrought iron and stone. Very often blacksmiths expressed their skills by decorating them with creative ornaments.  

Today, many of these original gates are discarded, lying against hedgerows, replaced by larger mass produced hollow bar aluminium gates.  Changes in farming technology have led to larger machinery that requires a much larger entrance.  Sometimes, one pillar has been kept when the gateway is widened and the other destroyed. 

Download our booklet “Gateways to Strangford and Lecale” to find out more.  

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Related Projects


Help for Farmers to Become More Resilient

The management teams of the Ring of Gullion, the Mournes and Strangford and Lecale AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Nature Beauty) have teamed up with the Woodland Trust to invite interested members of the farming community to sign up for a farm plan project.