On the wall of the Old Dock adjacent to Kerr Street Brae, you will see a number of protruding stones with flat top surfaces: these are the Pilgrim Steps which take their name from the emigrants who descended them and crowded onto small boats, clutching their worldly possessions before boarding a tall sailing ship which they hoped would take them to a new country where they would make their fortune.
Emigrants may also have been taken from Port-an-Dhu, an inlet on the east shore, across the narrow channel to the Skerries Road where they boarded the tall sailing ships to take them across the Atlantic. The passengers on these large ocean vessels then endured weeks at sea before they reached Philadelphia, New Castle (Delaware), New York and Charleston in America. The ships then returned to Belfast or Londonderry, packed with profitable cargo such as fish, whale products, livestock, salt meat and timber. New England also built many ships for Irish and Scottish merchants.
The term ‘pilgrim’ is usually a religious term, where someone will travel to a religious place as a symbol of their faith or in order to experience a religious journey. These travellers were known as ‘pilgrims’, as the earliest of the ships, in the 18th century, carried persecuted Presbyterians fleeing Ireland in search of religious freedom in the New World.