Inishowen is strange country. Ireland’s most northerly corner spreads south from Malin Head as a broad, diamond-shaped peninsula, its nether angle rooted in a slim-waisted isthmus of low boggy ground where Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly do their best to join hands. Inishowen – Owen’s Island – is only an island in name these days, but time was when high tides regularly cut off Donegal’s northernmost peninsula. It still retains the other-worldly feel of a place more often bypassed than visited.
That atmosphere of being neither island nor mainland extends to little Inch Island, a gently domed green hummock in the throat of Lough Swilly. Inch lies tethered to the western edge of the isthmus by two straight, slim embankments. ‘Built by the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway in the 1850s,’ remarked Andrew Speer, regional manager of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, as we stood on the long-disused Letterkenny railway line, looking across the water to Inch. ‘Much to our benefit today – not mention the birds.’
Before the railway arrived, the broad collar of land between Inch and the mainland was all sloppy, marshy tidal slobs. But once the railway company had run their two embankments out to the island, the entire area was drained and reclaimed for farmland, with the basin between the banks used as a lagoon for receiving overflow at times of flooding. Lagoon, marsh, wetlands, grasslands – what could be more perfect for over-wintering geese, for whooper swans and nesting gulls, for ducks and grebes and wading birds? Nowadays the whole damp, fascinating complex of habitats is managed by the NPWS as a wildfowl reserve of international importance.
Walking the old railway line on this cloudy, showery morning, we looked out on the lagoon where mute swans sailed among fleets of black and white tufted duck. Dog rose and buttercups, angelica and vetch brightened the shaggy verges of the path, deliberately kept jungly to break up the outline of walkers and prevent the birds being scared away. ‘Whooper swans in winter by the thousand,’ said Andrew. ‘Huge rafts of scaup and coot. Greenland whitefront and greylag geese. We’ve kingfishers and a good population of otters – and more than enough black-headed gulls, as you can see …’
The gulls were fighting and screaming above an islet in the lake, their harsh, throaty voices like spoilt children squabbling. Below them on a long stony spit a line of cormorants stood in black silhouette, wings held out crooked at the elbow to dry in the stiff breeze. Beyond the birds rose the low whaleback of Inch, a ruined cottage on its shore. North up the lake the view sharpened and steepened dramatically into the peaked profile of Scalp Mountain, while further south the modest ridge of Greenan Mountain was crowned by the distinctive pillbox hat of Grianán of Aileach, the Temple of the Sun, great stone-built stronghold and symbol of O’Neill power in Donegal.
Once he’d set the framework for us, Andrew had to go. But we were lucky enough to have born-and-bred local historian Dessie McCallion to walk on with us, filling in the picture with gentle humour. Dessie pointed landwards with his twisty briar stick, indicating the flat green fields cut off from the lagoon by the tall bank of the Letterkenny line. ‘I remember in the 1950s everything reverting to woodland and marsh because the farmers couldn’t agree who was responsible for keeping the drainage ditches clear. Then it was drained and ploughed and intensively farmed. Now the whole estate is going organic – and it’s amazing how the birds go for the organically grown grass when they’ve got the choice.’
At the western end of the railway path we turned out along the Farland embankment. Its narrow wall separates the smooth waters of the lake from the choppy tides of Lough Swilly, where the gaunt ruin of Inch Castle looms on its promontory. Dessie plucked gorse flowers, releasing rich coconut smells. ‘As a girl my mother would bring these home, boil them up and bottle the water to use as hair conditioner. They only had Sunlight soap for shampoo in those days! Blondes used the blossoms, dark-haired girls the shoots. I wonder how many would know about that nowadays.’
One day soon the embankment path is to be extended across Inch Island to complete a circuit for walkers. For now, you have to turn back at Inch’s shore. We lingered before we did, looking along the wetland margin of the island, a haze of creamy white, blue and pink – meadowsweet, pyramidal orchids, forgetmenots, buttercups …
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 7; leaflet guide from NPWS (npws.ie) or local TICs
Rail/bus (nirailways.co.uk): Derry (8 miles/13 km)
Road: From A2 (Derry Letterkenny), brown ‘Inch Wildfowl Reserve’ sign points down lane. Ahead at right bend to Pump House car park.
WALK DIRECTIONS: Left along track for 1¾ miles (2.6 km); right across Farland embankment to Inch Island. Return to car park; continue along track to Toobin bird hide, and return.
LENGTH: 5½ miles (9.5 km): allow 2-2½ hours
DON’T MISS … !
• Bird-watching from the hides (bring your binoculars!)
• tern islet
• view of Grianán of Aileach
ACCOMMODATION: An Grianán Hotel, Burt, Inishowen (074-93-68900; angriananhotel.com) – very comfortable, helpful; right on the doorstep
WALKING in IRELAND: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking.
BOOK: Christopher’s book Walking in Ireland (Ebury Press) contains 50 of his favourite Irish Independent walks.
Letterkenny Tourist Office: 074-912-1160; discoverderrydonegal.com