Ballylough House: Meet the Co Antrim couple whose home was once owned by an ancestor of Princess Diana, and is said to have three ghosts
David and June Traill tell Lorraine Wylie about chequered history of Ballylough House near Bushmills, now a B&B but previously the scene of fierce clan wars and where historical pageants are held
Just a few miles from Bushmills and close to major attractions including the Giant's Causeway, Ballylough House, which has been run as a bed and breakfast since 2017, is a perfect place to base a holiday. Although as I discovered when I visited the owners, David and June Traill, Ballylough is very much a destination in its own right.
Set well back from the main Castlecat Road, the two-storey, five-bay Georgian property boasts 150 acres of scenic walkways, ancient woodland and a beautiful walled garden.
But there's more to Ballylough than picturesque views and warm hospitality. From the little bridge that straddles St Columb's Rill on the main approach to the house to the medieval castle at the back of the property, the place is steeped in history. Little is known about the site's earliest occupants but in 1789 the estate was purchased by the Traill family.
Keen to know more, I arrived at the house, where David and June told me about the people - as well as the ghosts - that have made Ballylough their home.
Seated in the drawing room, we're joined by friend of the family and event organiser Brian Moore. Introductions out of the way, June pours coffee while David settles into the role of storyteller.
"If we go right back in Ballylough's timeline, then evidence suggests it was probably occupied during the Iron Age," he says. "There's a crannog and a rath on site, and at the back of our lawn there's the ruin of a castle that we think was built by the Savages for the MacQuillans. Around 10 years ago, when a small archaeology team from Queen's University and the Ulster University at Coleraine came up to do a dig, they found evidence of an even older castle underneath the existing one. We think that one dates to around 1275. We don't have all the details but it's a very exciting discovery."
With a captive audience, he moves on to the tale of two clans.
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"The MacQuillans built Dunluce Castle around the 15th century before the Macdonalds, aka Lords of the Isles, came riding in from the north and pushed them all the way back here to Ballylough," David adds. "Of course, back then, feudal wars were common and, over the years, the MacQuillans and Macdonalds continued to raid each other, stealing cattle and taking people as slaves. Indeed, there is a story that tells how, during an attack, the MacQuillans captured one of the high born MacDonald women and carried her off.
"Apparently, she developed a case of Stockholm Syndrome and fell in love with her captor, a MacQuillan prince.
"It seems that romance blossomed, they decided to marry and a truce was called between the two clans. Sadly there is no happy ever after. The tale ends with a massacre when, during the wedding feast, the Macdonalds rose up and put everyone to the sword. Apparently, the bride's ghost, known as the Grey Lady, can still be seen wandering the grounds at Ballylough."
Is she a friendly ghost?
"Yes, the Grey Lady is well known round here," June chips in. "But it is said that if you see her, it's a premonition that someone close to you is going to die."
Is there anything positive about a premonition of impending death?
"There's nothing negative about a sighting of the Grey Lady," June assures me. "She appears only to those whose nearest and dearest is very ill and expected to die. I think, in those circumstances, it really is quite a positive thing to know the end is near and to have a little time to prepare and say goodbye."
While I'm pondering this, David throws not one but another two spectres into the mix.
"We have another ghost called Mae Rae," he says. "Her name literally translates to 'May with the red hair' and, according to legend, she was a local woman who looked after the children here. Apparently Mae and her charges were killed during an attack and she's been roaming around ever since, searching for her husband. Our third ghost in residence is thought to have been a servant who was murdered in the tunnels leading from Ballylough to Dunluce Castle. Not to worry, though, they're all benign and very friendly."
The ghostly theme laid to rest, conversation turns to the Traill family history. Mentioned in records as far back as the 11th century, there's no shortage of stories to share. David settles for one of his favourites.
"The one that interests me begins in Normandy where two brothers from a tiny village go off to fight in the Battle of Hastings and, sadly, one is killed," he reveals.
"The Traills then turn up in Woodford, just outside Bedford where, three generations later, the Black Death arrives and the family up sticks and move to Blebo in Scotland.
"They settle, intermarry with the Bruces and become very involved with politics and the church. Then we find another two brothers involved in battle. This time it's the Civil War (1642-1651) and the Rev Robert Traill, Chaplain to the Royalist Army, is on the opposite side to his brother, James, who was one of Cromwell's two main commanders. The reverend, wounded at the battle of Edge Hill, ends up before Cromwell and is eventually sentenced to death.
"Fortunately, his brother intervened and Robert, saved from the chopping block, is banished to Holland. He was allowed to return when Charles II came to the throne.
"However, the reverend didn't like how the king ran his court or the country and before long was charged with treason and, once again banished to Holland. Eventually, he was able to come home to Edinburgh where he died in 1676.
"Just two generations later, in 1789, the Venerable Anthony Traill came over to Northern Ireland where he and his wife Agnes bought Ballylough House from the Stewarts, who were the land agents acting for the Macdonalds. The Traills have been here been here ever since."
Among the more fascinating facts about the family is its link to royalty. Records cite John Traill, Laird of Blebo, and his wife Agnes Bruce as the great-grandparents (12 times removed) of the late Princess Diana.
Nearer home, Colonel William Traill won a place in Northern Ireland's hall of fame when he pioneered the world's first commercially run hydro-electric powered tram system. Operating between Portrush and the Giant's Causeway, the line was opened in 1883 by a character of note - the 5th Earl Spencer, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Fast forwarding a few generations, I ask David about his personal connection with Ballylough.
"I was actually born in Canada and lived there until I was around three," he explains. "My father, Richard, who was the younger son in the family and not expected to inherit this place, went to live in Vancouver. His older brother, my uncle Bill, had suffered from TB as a child and spent 18 months in Forster Green Hospital in Belfast. He later moved to Kenya where the climate is warmer and a lot kinder. He did return to Ballylough but only for a year. In the end, he bought his family tickets to New Zealand and never returned. My granny wrote to my father and told him he'd better come back and run the place, which is what he did."
What was it like growing up at Ballylough?
"Looking back, it was a fantastic childhood, we had beautiful surroundings with a lot of space to play in," David recalls.
"I remember my granny being a very Victorian kind of lady. Initially, when my parents arrived, there was just me, although my mother was expecting my brother at the time. The three of us lived in the west wing while granny had the rest of the house to herself. By the time my two brothers and twin sisters arrived, living arrangements had changed. Granny acquiesced and agreed to give us the house while she lived in the west wing."
Like most of his peers, David was sent to boarding school. The experience has left him with a curious sense of identity.
"I was sent first to primary school in Kilkeel then on to St Columba's in Dublin," he says. "I like to describe my background this way. I learned my Irish history in the north and I learned my Irish history in the south. That makes me a well-balanced Irishman - I have a chip on both shoulders!
"Seriously though, boarding school was a great experience. The friendships forged at school have lasted a lifetime."
After graduating from the Ulster University at Coleraine, David carved a niche in the world of finance, living in Cyprus and working for Sun Alliance.
Apart from the occasional comment, June has been happy to let David take the lead - but now it's her turn in the spotlight.
"My father was South African," she reveals. "I was born in Kenya and during my early years our family lived on a farm there, known as the Rooken-Smith farm. Later, after my parents divorced, my mother remarried an Irishman, Michael Wright, and in 1965 we went to live on a farm near Crossmaglen."
The more reserved of the couple, June's tone is softer but as a storyteller she and David are equally entertaining.
"My mother and stepfather both had children so there's eight of us altogether," she says. "As you can imagine, with that many siblings, there's a lot of names to get through. I tend to simplify things by referring to us as 'his, hers, theirs and ours'. I think that covers everyone."
Northern Ireland's troubled past has tainted many childhood memories but June's recollections are mainly positive.
"Yes, of course we had the daily shelling, rockets, Army on the streets, etc," she says. "On one occasion our school was blown up and I have vivid memories of us kids bawling our eyes out, feeling very upset.
"But looking back, I have many fond memories of growing up in Crossmaglen.
"I was around nine at the time when our school was bombed. Afterwards, my sister Sarah and I were sent to boarding school in England while my brother and another sister continued at St Joseph's in Crossmaglen."
Following the death of their grandfather, James Wright, June and her sister returned from England and were sent to boarding school in Dublin. Her parents moved from Crossmaglen to the Wright’s family home at Gilford Castle, Craigavon, in 1979.
“I really wanted to be an architect,” June tells me. “But to get the necessary A-levels, it was quicker to come home to Northern Ireland. Then my aunt Sue was diagnosed with breast cancer so I decided to go over to Kent where they lived and help look after her and her family. At the time, her son James was just four years old and her daughter Rachel was eight. It was a difficult situation for everyone. Today, James works in logistics and Rachel is head teacher in a primary school.”
Sadly June’s aunt passed away, leaving her in need of some emotional space.
“After my aunt passed, I felt the need to get away,” she remembers. “I just wanted to travel for a while and so I rang the QE2 company and asked which were the best jobs on their cruise ship. They told me that beauticians were always in demand and so I took a beauty therapy course and got the job. I was in England at the time and planning a trip home when David’s parent’s rang and asked if I’d give him a lift.”
David adds: “The finance industry is very stressful and I always looked forward to coming back to Ballylough for some peace and quiet.”
The two families had become good friends after June’s family moved to Northern Ireland, although she didn’t know David very well at that stage. And they didn’t realise it at the time but that event was to change the course of both their lives — although, as June explains, she wasn’t looking forward to sharing a long car journey with an “old man”.
“I agreed to pick David up but I was dreading it!” she admits. “I remember ringing my mum and asking her what on earth I could talk to him about! It’s funny now but back then I was just 21 and a six-year age gap seemed huge! David was only 27 but, from my perspective, he was an old man although, as it turned out, I needn’t have worried. He was excellent company, we talked the whole time and he was very amusing.”
Regardless of how scintillating his conversation, it wasn’t enough to trigger any romantic interest. Fortunately, however, David had a special party trick that worked wonders.
“Our family’s fancy dress parties were famous,” June recalls. “But when my sister invited David along, she insisted that, as I knew him, I should come too. I hadn’t wanted to go but in the end I was glad I did because as soon as I saw him drink whisky from a bottle between his feet, I was hooked!”
The couple were married at Gilford Castle, in 1988... and June never did take the job on the QE2. She and David have four sons, Shane, who is now 29, Paddy (27), Bruce (25) and Henry (22) — Ballylough B&B’s bedrooms are named after the boys.
“I realised that I didn’t want to work in the beauty industry after all,” she says. “Of course, I still wanted to be an architect but that avenue was closed to me so I ended up working as an office manager for Reid computing company.
“Later, David and I went to live in Cyprus which is an amazing place. I loved living there, it is so beautiful, very family orientated. In fact two of our sons, Shane and Paddy, were born in Cyprus. Our third son, Bruce, was born in Gibraltar.
“You know, life was very different for new mothers back then. For a start, there was no such thing as maternity leave. I had Bruce on the Thursday and was back in the office on Friday afternoon. Our youngest son, Henry, is our little Irish one, he was born in Craigavon. Fortunately, my mother was around to help out.”
What brought the family back to Northern Ireland?
“The education!” they say in unison.
June says: “We were both offered jobs in finance in London but I didn’t want to raise our children there. We came home to Gilford Castle in 1994 and moved to a small cottage here at Ballylough four years later. Then, in 1999, we moved into Ballylough House.”
June goes onto to explain how, over the years, change has also come to Ballylough.
“A lot of the land has gone, there is no farming here so for us to make the property ‘wash its face’ or bring in an income, we have to come up with new business ideas.
“So in keeping with our charity, Ballylough Living History Trust, we run what’s known as the Battle of the Boar.”
Brian steps in to shed some light on the event. “We’re not celebrating an actual battle,” he smiles. “It’s just a name. But anyone with an interest in military history would appreciate the opportunity to see the various uniforms and the different methods of combat that have evolved through time.
“Having said that, the Battle of the Boar is so much more. It’s a chance to see the various life styles of a bygone era. For example, we have a Viking village where people can learn how to make belts and arrows or the Bronze Age where a very talented woman demonstrates bronze age pottery. Then there’s the Normans who show off their garments. As well as informative, the Battle of the Boar event is vibrant, colourful and the music is fantastic!”
June isn’t the only one in her family to take an interest in pageants and the creative arts.
“My nan, Nelly Roberts, used to run pageants in England, employing up to 5000 actors at a time,” she says. “My mother, Christine, is a talented artist and dress designer. At one time, she made costumes for the London Ballet.
“So, growing up, I was surrounded by creativity. My nan has quite a fascinating story. She was well known in archaeological society and, indeed, was part of the team who discovered the Roman Baths! Whenever I visited, she took me to interesting places such as Hastings and told me fascinating stories of historical re-enactments. Her brother, Frank Haines, started up the Barn Owls, one of the original music groups to entertain the troops, so they have quite an incredible story in their own right.”
What does June hope historical re-enactments will do for Ballylough?
“It’s one of our educational strands,” she says. “I believe that people learn history through experience rather than books. We try to tell the story of the MacQuillans and the Macdonalds through re-enactment.”
As well as preserving the heritage at Ballylough, June is passionate about improving the lives of individuals and the community.
“I’m very interested in a thing called ‘social prescription’. For example, one project is to take therapies, such as counselling, outdoors. We want to use nature to promote healing and a sense of wellbeing.
“Equally, we want our children to associate going outdoors with feeling good. Instead of a hassle, things like putting on hats and coats can be linked to the idea of having fun. I like to think of it as ‘re-wilding’ our children. I’m very excited to have a scout group coming here to spend a few nights learning things like bush craft. Our own boys all love coming home to Ballylough where they can relax and unwind.”
How do David and June envisage the future at Ballylough?
“We’d love to have the opportunity to open a heritage site,” June says. “We’d use it as an educational and wellbeing facility. That’s what we’d really love for Ballylough. It’s a very special place, the people in the community have been wonderful to us and I’d love others to enjoy it too.”
David nods in agreement.
“We could shut the gates and keep it as a private home. But you know what? How often do you get an asset like this? It’s a place that should be shared.”
For information about bookings and events at Ballylough House, visit ballylough.co.uk, and to find out about bed and breakfast breaks, visit ballyloughbnb.co.uk