The southern Porcupine Basin is characterized by axial stretching factors that are greater than six and typical of rifted margins. As such, the basin can be regarded as a natural laboratory to investigate the evolution and symmetry of rifting leading towards continental separation and breakup. A bright reflection (here named P) cuts down to the west from the base of the sedimentary section, is overlain by small fault blocks and appears to represent a detachment fault. P may in part follow the top of partially serpentinized mantle: this interpretation is consistent with gravity modelling, and with numerical models of crustal embrittlement and mantle serpentinization during extension. Furthermore, P closely resembles the S reflection west of Iberia, where such serpentinites are well documented. Although overall the basin remains symmetrical, the consistent westward structural dip of the detachment implies that, at high stretching factors, extension became asymmetric. Farther south, the ‘Porcupine Median High’, appearing lens-shaped in cross-section, overlies the tilted fault blocks and is onlapped by postrift sediment. Despite no evidence for synrift magmatism, this high has previously been interpreted as a basaltic structure. However, it develops above the line of intersection of the crust–mantle boundary with the P detachment, and hence may be related to the spatial limit of serpentinization. The median high may represent a serpentinite mud volcano or diapir; we suggest that such structures produce the serpentinite breccias found within the rifted continent–ocean transition of nonvolcanic margins.