8 January by Eleanor McGillie
Live It Experience It takes ‘Time Out’ with Nine Glens Walking Tours founder Kevin McGowan who brings people together to explore the beauty of the glens. Eleanor McGillie speaks with Kevin about his passion for storytelling, his passion for the glens and his love of history.
What is your name?
Why did you set up Nine Glens Walking Tours?
Nine Glens Walking Tours was set up in 2016 to showcase to the world the authentic beauty of the Antrim Glens. I have been telling the history of the Glens for some time to a parochial audience and felt it was time to let the world know about the hidden gems and stories that make the Glens Of Antrim the location it truly is. Good to see Lonely Planet is catching up.
You are in your first year of business. How did it go for Nine Glens Walking Tours?
Last year was our first year operating so really it was a case of learning as we went. Naturally we did manage to get some things right and some wrong. Overall I am delighted with the way the season went, on average we were leading groups of about 10 people per walk. I learned that I had no structure in place and my walks were advertised when I decided I was walking. For the 2018 season there will be more streamlined booking system and a more comprehensive and structured calendar of walks. I also need to target the right audience as I realise now that I was targeting a local audience who would already know these routes, This season I will need to look at marketing our walks outside of the immediate area but I am happy with how things went. The work has already begun for this season
Northern Ireland tourism is booming and walking tours are so popular. Where have most of your walkers come from?
Governmental organisations and private organisations. Being someone who has been involved in History and Heritage for many years and at such a young age, my name is easily recognisable in that field. Museum organisations, local government organisations and walking groups used us primarily because there is nobody would have the range of knowledge of the terrain and the history as ourselves.We walk history and we talk history. We also worked with some of the local schools. This season we will be targeting more walking groups and fitness organisations. I think there is a large opening for hill walking in the Glens so a little more emphasis on the walking and less on history. The main thrust of our visitors last season would have been local people, but again that I think comes back down to my marketing strategy.
You have such a passion for the area and the Glens. How did your passion develop?
Through a wide range of sources. We own a farm in Donegal and until a few years ago it was thatched and was what we would call a ceili house. My great uncles were all Gaelic speakers with no TV in the house and just the ‘wireless’ on the Sunday for the GAA games. Many nights we lay in the adjoining room while these men would play cards and talked in the native language, I was four feet away and this was all alien to me. I wanted to know why? I wanted to know who these people were, the stories they told, and I wanted to know why on the same island we spoke differently. Our educational curriculum does not tell us any of this story so after schooling I set out to find the original stories and the oral histories. We had a way of life here, a way of storytelling. Our myths and legends that were specific to us and our ways of life. I then found out that Antrim and Donegal were different and that the stories were unique to the people and varied from place to place and across different cultures. We are so far removed from what we once were and our new generations do not take time to ask questions. If I can walk them through their history on relevant sites and places and connect that to them, it gives me a great sense of pride and satisfaction. That is what Nine Glens Walking Tours tries to do – connect people with their past. Our motto is ‘Travel. Explore. Learn’.
How important is it to tell visitors an authentic story?
There is a saying here locally and that is ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ but we don’t buy that. We find often that the true stories are the best stories and if we delve deep enough and research far enough there is often a great deal of truth behind every story. An example being Games of Thrones, The Red wedding but is this completely fictitious? The season before this episode was filmed the crew were filming in the beautiful heritage town of Cushendun where the bloody murder by the MacDonnell clan on the leader of the O’Neill’s of Tyrone took place. After the release of the famous MacDonnell chieftain Sorley Boy, the MacDonnell’s turned on their guests and slaughtered them allbeheading the O’Neill chieftain Shane ‘The Proud’O’Neill. Coincidence then that a year later a similar scene was written into Game of Thrones. In the Antrim Glens and in Ireland we don’t have to travel far before we find authentic stories of love, tragedy, despair and much more in between. These are the stories that Nine Glens Walking Tours tell, the authentic stories of our island.
Has the season quietened down now?
For us yes, but we haven’t been promoting or organising walks. This is as much a hobby and pastime for us as it is anything else. We operate from April to September and then operate for other organisations out of season. Our last tour was back in October.
Do you collaborate with other tourism providers?
The simple answer yes. We work in close partnership with Live It Experience It member Dalriada Kingdom Tours and we were the only two guiding companies operating on the Island on a weekly basis. This season we have a range of other guides doing tours for us in the Glens. We also work closely with Causeway Coast and Glens Tourist Information and The Rathlin Ferry company. We are members of tourism cluster groups and work with some other providers such as local hotels and cafes.
We have all heard of Boxing Day swims. Do you have any recommendations for New Year walks?
There are swims operating around the North Coast with the local GAA Clubs but I have never thought of a sponsored walk on New Years Day, I might run one this upcoming year.
What has been the highlight of your year to date?
There have been a couple. In September of 2017 we were awarded an award by the Marsh Trust for a series of political tours we delivered last year to tie in with the centenary of the Easter Rising and The Battle of the Somme. We were flown to London by the Museum Service and welcomed with a champagne reception and buffet in the British Museum. It was nice to be awarded and recognised for a year of hard work. But the highlight for me was when I had a group of local people with learning difficulties giving them a tour of Bonamargy Friary. I thought that it was going to be extremely hard for me to try to get the story across and the majority of the group had little interest in stories of a 16th Century building but at the end of the tour their teacher came to collect them and one of the group was able to tell her in great detail the stories that I had told.I got warm inside after that one. We did television work on three occasions last year too and met the ex-president of Ireland so I suppose that was pretty cool.
What are you looking forward to most in 2018?
Learning more stories, meeting new people and walking new routes.
What is your New Year message to young people considering a career as a tour guide?
Honestly my message would be do not do it for the money but do it because you have a passion for it. The walking and talking is the easy bit. The research the collecting of stories, the recording of these stories, the marketing and getting people out on the trails and locations is far more difficult. Hours reading local histories, researching on laptops and visiting location are all unpaid work so you need to want to do I and have a passion and interest in it. I have met guides over the years who think it is easy money and who do not do the research. These are the guides who sell the tour once. We want to leave an impression of pride and passion of our homeland. We want visitors to immerse themselves in our culture and heritage and hope that they will spread the word. People never remember the ten good times, but they will remember the one bad time. Do your homework, take pride and passion in what you do and tell the authentic and beautiful stories that make up our country and us as people.
Nine Glens Walking Tours is a Live It Experience It Member.
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