The Schoolmaster’s Bedchamber

by Robin Morton
Audio version recorded by Ian Sinclair for Whitehead Railway Museum

As a guide at Whitehead Railway Museum, I am often asked about steam trains, carriages and signals. But on one occasion, a visitor pointed to a photograph that we have on display showing 12 railway personnel posing proudly in front of the name-board at Whitehead station in the early 1900s.

The Belfast & Northern Counties Railway sign directed visitors to a range of local attractions such as the Gobbins Path, the promenade and….the Schoolmaster’s Bedchamber. My visitor wanted to know more.

This pre-World War One photograph shows the station staff at Whitehead in front of the platform signboard which features The Schoolmaster’s Cave. The photograph is on display at Whitehead Railway Museum

I was stumped. But mercifully, another member of the group who lived in Whitehead came to my assistance. She explained that the Schoolmaster’s Bedchamber was a cave which was to be found on the Blackhead Path at Whitehead.

But where did it get its name? Research on Whitehead Community Association website informs me that the teacher in question was Thomas McCartney, who resided in a cave at Blackhead in the early 1800s.

McCartney had a busy life. He started teaching at hedge schools in Islandmagee before establishing his own school near Whitehead. He would have taught in Ulster-Scots which was the lingua franca of the day.

A frugal man, he slept in barns for several years but then decided to take up residence in the seaside cave. Although it was chilly, it was quiet and private – the perfect retreat for a busy man.

The cave he chose was originally known as The Smugglers’ Cave and at high tide the sea flows into the entrance. But McCartney created living quarters which were above the high tide mark. A big plus was that the cave was sheltered from the prevailing wind and rain.

On winter nights he could hear the wind howling and the sea roaring. But on calmer days he was able to catch fish and do some beachcombing. In the summer he could while away the days until school resumed.

The locals got wind of his new home and some presumed he was doting, so much so that they used to refer to him as “Mad McCartney”. He was said to have a “forbidding manner” and had few friends. But he was renowned as a good teacher who was kind to children.

Researchers have established that as McCartney grew older, some kindly parents of his pupils clubbed together to build him a little cabin where he saw out the rest of his life. He died in 1855 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Ballykeel Cemetery on Islandmagee.

Little did McCartney appreciate the legacy he was creating. When the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway opened the Blackhead Path in 1892 they included the Bedchamber as one of the attractions. They built steps up to it and a little platform at the entrance.

And when Mid & East Antrim Council re-opened Blackhead Path in 2020 they erected a visitor information sign which relates the story of Thomas McCartney and the Schoolmaster’s Bedchamber. Thomas McCartney is long gone, but his place in history is now secure.

Robin Morton