Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island, Ballycastle, County Antrim, BT54


Explore one of Ireland’s most beautiful, wild and rugged wonders of the world – the tranquil Rathlin Island.

Enveloped in never-ending tales of myth and legend, the ‘L’ shaped island is home to a small population.

Steeped in rich history, the island possesses many a hidden treasure including the Iron Age Fort, a 14th century castle and a 16th century tower house.

Take a ferry ride and let your mind wander as you breathe in this six-mile long and one mile wide stretch of unfolding beauty.

A Special Area of Conservation, its towering limestone and basalt cliffs are home to tens of thousands of seabirds, and is a  popular choice for birdwatchers, with a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserve offering spectacular views of Rathlin’s bird colony.

Northern Ireland’s only breeding pair of choughs can also be seen during the summer months, after the RSPB successfully managed the natural habitat to facilitate the return of the Red-billed Chough.

Seals ply the shores and an abundance of shipwrecks make the waters here ideal for wreck diving.


First inhabited back in 6000 BC, over the centuries Rathlin Island grew rich, exporting axe heads and sea kelp, and later became a haven for smugglers.

Of the many myths and tales of Rathlin Island, the most famous tells of Robert the Bruce. In 1306, the Scottish King was driven from Scotland by Edward I of England and took refuge on Rathlin. While he was on Rathlin, it is said that he watched a spider persevering again and again to bridge a gap with its web. Eventually it succeeded. Robert the Bruce took heart from the spider’s efforts, raised fresh forces and returned to Scotland to fight for his kingdom. He too, eventually succeeded and in 1314, regained the crown of Scotland. Later, a cave on the island’s cliffs, which stand at an impressive 230 ft tall, was named after him and is now known as ‘Bruce’s Cave’.


Regular ceilis and festivals take place throughout the summer, as well as model yacht racing.

The visitors’ centre at Church Bay is open from May to August, with minibus tours and bicycle hire available. The island is also popular with scuba divers, who come to explore the many wrecked ships in the surrounding waters.

In the harbour is the Boathouse, where visitors can learn  of the island’s extensive history as well as present day island life, and see some artefacts from shipwrecks around the island.

A short distance away at Mill Bay there is a colony of seals, which makes for some interesting viewing.


Rathlin Island lies six miles off the Antrim coast and access to the island can be obtained  through Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd. They operate two ferries  – the regular MV Canna,  which ferries cargo and 100 passengers on a 45-minute journey, and the new fast ferry service which does the crossing in 20 minutes.

Life and Legend

The ride over the sea to Rathlin begins an exhilarating experience.  Of course it depends on the day, because the Sea of Moyle can be a turbulent place where two seas meet. The Atlantic storms in from the west and the Irish sea moves north and as the two battle in winter the maelstroms turn the waters wild with whirlpools and waves, clashing like cymbals in an orchestra of sound and movement and colour. Each point of this boot shaped island has a lighthouse and the number of wrecks in its waters is proof of the need for them.

Travelling the coast road, sometimes the contrasting rock is forgotten because it is out of sight beneath, but a view of Rathlin Island soon brings the colours back into focus, a white wall of tropical cliffs overlain with Antrim basalt  and of course the same formations are echoed in the view of the mainland from the island.

The harbour is at Church Bay and was always the main landing place, beside its only beach. People have landed here since the beginning, first the hunter gathers and then the first farmers who quarried porcellanite to make stone axes.  They exported the axes to the mainland, trading for food and goods. Above the bay the Bronze Age people made their cemetery. Exposed over the years by winter storms, many Bronze Age graves were disturbed. Their graves were boxes made of stone with ashes inside and a bowl or beaker that once held a drink or a meal for the long journey ahead.

Later the Vikings found the same place and buried one of their chieftains in a grave that was already 3,000 years old. He went on his journey with his longsword and a fabulous silver brooch. A little inland, another Viking king was buried in his long boat. Rathlin was the first place in Ireland the Vikings raided in 795. But later they settled here, a staging post for the export of Antrim silver back to their homeland. Robert the Bruce fled to Rathlin in 1306 and stayed in Rathlin Castle which was named after him.  For a time he also hid in Bruce’s cave where he met a spider. From the sea, the cave mouth is completely filled with water, but inside there is a platform where a man could live for a while. As he bided his time he saw a spider silhouetted against the bright light outside. He watched intrigued as it tried to spin a thread from one part of the cave roof to another. Seven times it tried and finally made the connection on the eighth. The spider inspired the Bruce to return to Scotland where he won victory after victory until he had secured Scotland’s freedom.

Most people come today to see the most ancient and modern inhabitants, the seals and the fish and the birds. There is a population of tens of thousands.

The bird sanctuary is around the west lighthouse where thirty permanent species nest securely on the 200-foot cliffs.  There are guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and razorbills to name a few and the occasional peregrine falcon. Of course the birds don’t know they are protected by the sanctuary and they nest all over the island. The Sea Stacks around the sanctuary brave the waves with their strange out of place shapes. The biggest is an enormous wedding cake on its stand lapped by the waves.

From the late 1700s the island was a major centre for gathering kelp and processing it and there are still many kilns and storage bins along the shore.

The world’s first commercial wireless telegraphy link was established by employees of Guglielmo Marconi between East Lighthouse on this island to Kenmara House in Ballycastle on the 6th of  July 1898.

The island is popular with divers, who come to explore the shipwrecks which lie in its waters, including the heavily armed fast cruiser HMS Drake, which was torpedoed and sank just off the island in 1917.

When the limestone was laid down, the land that was to become Rathlin lay further south, about where the Straights of Gibraltar are now. The lava flow which formed the Giant’s Causeway flowed over the island and created the black and white cliffs that are the hallmark of North Antrim. Later, the Bronze Age people took over. Their main cemetery was above church bay, but they left monuments all over the island and one of their gold ornaments, a dress fastener was found in the 1920s. The legend of their coming was recorded. It is said that the Fir Bolg, the men with spears, “took possession of Racha”. In 500BC the Celts arrived and brought the Gaelic language, which was the first language of the islanders until the 1900s. In the 7th century Adomnán mentions “Rechru” and “Rechrea insula” and these may also have been early names for Rathlin. The name Rechru or Rachery, since anglicised to Rathlin, is mentioned by Pliny in the 1st century A.D., set as it is, in the seaway between Ireland and Scotland.

Three Massacres

Rathlin has been the site of a number of infamous massacres. An expedition in 1557 by Sir Henry Sidney devastated the island. The massacre in July 1575, when the Earl of Essex ordered a force to the island, led by Francis Drake and John Norreys. The English killed hundreds of the women and children of Clan MacDonnell, who had taken refuge there. Also in 1642 Covenanter Campbell soldiers of the Argyll’s Foot were encouraged by their commanding officer Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck to kill local Catholic MacDonalds, near relatives of their arch Clan enemy in the Scottish Highlands Clan MacDonald. This they did with ruthless efficiency throwing scores of MacDonald women over cliffs to their deaths on rocks below. The number of victims of this massacre has been put as low as one hundred and as high as three thousand.

Video produced by Ambient Light Productions

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