Just off the coast of Northern Ireland, Rathlin Island is a captivating gem that beckons travellers with its beauty and intriguing history. The island is mainly known for its seabird sanctuary, which allows visitors to see puffins in their natural habitat. However, Rathlin Island has had a thrilling history since people first landed here in the prehistoric era. With its dramatic cliffs, sweeping panoramas, and rare seabirds, Rathlin Island offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
Whether you seek tranquillity in its untouched landscapes, wish to explore its rich cultural heritage, or yearn for an unforgettable adventure, Rathlin Island promises a memorable experience that will leave you enthralled from the moment you step foot on its shores.
Rathlin Island is located 10 km/6 miles off the coast of Antrim in Northern Ireland and is only accessible by ferry. Weather dependent, there are several crossings each day from Ballycastle Harbour. Ballycastle is just an hour’s drive from Belfast city (90 km/56 miles) and about three hours from Dublin city (256 km/160 miles).
Although some bus services visit the region, renting a car or arranging a guide/driver is the better option; this will offer you more flexibility, make your trip more relaxing, and, if guided, provide an extra level of service.
Archaeologists believe that Rathlin Island was one of the first Irish islands inhabited, somewhere between 6,000 to 5,000 BC. Records suggest these settlers came over from Scotland. As far back as the Neolithic era, Rathlin had a stone tool factory. Many of the distinctive porcellanite axes from this era have been found throughout Europe and the UK. Several cists were also discovered on the island. Cists are essentially stone slabs set in the ground in a box-like structure and used for burials in the Bronze Age. These show that, despite its isolation, humans have inhabited the island for centuries. Rathlin Island is an archaeologist’s dream, as there is evidence from several historical periods.
Due to Rathlin’s location between Ireland and Scotland, it was directly in the path of raiders like the Vikings. They first attacked and pillaged the island in 795 AD, and it was the first Irish island to be terrorised by the Vikings. Eventually, the Vikings ended up settling on Rathlin. They used the island as a base for exporting silver and other valuables back to their native land.
Although a small island, Rathlin has seen its fair share of violence and bloodshed. In 1557, in an attempt to impose the customs and laws of England during his Ulster expedition, Sir Henry Sidney decimated the island’s population.
Not even 20 years later, in 1575, another massacre occurred on Rathlin. This time, Francis Drake and John Norreys led a force to the island. They slaughtered hundreds of women, children and the elderly of Clan MacDonnell, who had travelled to Rathlin to seek refuge.
Again, in 1642, the island was attacked by Scottish Campbell soldiers. Campbell ordered the soldiers to kill the MacDonalds who resided on Rathlin. The MacDonald men stood up to fight against the Campbells despite being outnumbered. Once the Campbell soldiers annihilated them, they threw the MacDonald women over the cliff edge to the cold sea and rocks below. It’s unknown how many people perished during this battle; some figures state it as low as a hundred or as high as three thousand.
In 1898, Guglielmo Marconi developed a link between Ballycastle on the Irish mainland and the East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island. On July 6th, the first wireless telegraph message was sent from the island.
Although close to Northern Ireland, Rathlin Island is only 18 km/11 miles from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. The proximity to both countries led to ownership disputes between them throughout history. In 1617, authorities took a rather unconventional approach to settling the matter.
As St. Patrick had banished all the snakes from Ireland, a snake was released on Rathlin as a test. If it lived, the island would be under Scotland’s control; if the snake died, it would belong to Ireland. The snake died, and Ireland became the rightful owner of Rathlin Island.
During the 1700s and 1800s, Rathlin’s salt rocks formed a prominent part of its economy. On the east of the island lies Pans Rocks, the location of the evaporation pans for producing the salt.
From the late 1700s until the 1930s, the island was a significant centre for gathering and processing kelp. Back then, locals used kelp to produce bleach for linen makers throughout Northern Ireland and Scotland. After the Napoleonic Wars, the demand for kelp rapidly declined. However, you can still see the remains of low-drying walls and kilns used for processing on the island today.
Like the Giants Causeway, volcanic activity formed Rathlin Island. The same lava that formed the Causeway flowed over the island. This produced the black and white cliffs found on Rathlin and common throughout the northern Antrim coastline.
Rathlin Island also has many sea stacks dotted around its coastline, making for fascinating viewing. Sea stacks are landforms of rock standing upright in the ocean. They are the remnants of headlands that have been eroded over time by wind and water actions.
Read more about Ireland’s wild geology here.
First built in 1856, the Rathlin East Lighthouse is still operating today. The lighthouse is only partially open to visitors, but the views of the ocean from the outside are magnificent. You almost feel like you’re at the edge of the world.
As we now know, Rathlin Island is more than just seabirds and seals. It has a rich and tragic history. The Boathouse Visitor Centre gives us a background of this diverse history and life on the island in the present with a series of displays and collections.
To the south lies another of Rathlin Islands’ lighthouses. The permanent structure that is there now was built in the 1920s. It is an unmanned lighthouse that keepers operate from Rathlin East Lighthouse.
Before Rathlin’s three lighthouses were in operation, the island was treacherous to journey to. This led to many shipwrecks throughout history. There are over 40 wrecks dotted around the coast. The HMS Drake, sunk during World War I, was notably struck down by a torpedo and is now a listed monument to the War. In addition to shipwrecks, the Rathlin seas are teeming with marine life, creating a wonderland for divers.
At the RSPB Seabird Centre, you can enjoy views of the largest seabird colony in Northern Ireland, with puffins, guillemots and more seabirds gathering to breed from April to July. A scenic stroll from the visitor centre, followed by a descent of 98 steps, leads you to the viewing platform. Take advantage of the binoculars and telescopes provided, allowing you to observe these remarkable creatures up close and appreciate their intricate beauty in all its glory. The Seabird Centre promises an unforgettable experience. Read more about spotting puffins in Ireland here.
The RSPB centre on Rathlin Island offers more than just the presence of seabirds. Adjacent to the centre, visitors can find Ireland’s unique ‘upside down lighthouse’. Unlike traditional lighthouses, the West Lighthouse has its light at the bottom of the structure. It was constructed within the cliff face between 1912 and 1917. Additionally, the lighthouse boasted an impressive fog signal, known as the ‘Rathlin Bull’, which could be heard from over a distance of 30 km/19 miles.
A sealing colony awaits at Mill Bay, providing visitors with a charming spectacle. The shallow waters and sea caves on Rathlin’s coast serve as an ideal breeding ground for the creatures. Although they seem tame, they are still wild animals and can be easily frightened. Viewing them from the road above is the best option, as it doesn’t disturb their sunbathing!
Read more about spotting Ireland’s marine wildlife here.
Folklore in Ireland is a rich tapestry of captivating stories and mythical traditions passed down through generations, enchanting both locals and visitors alike. Rathlin Island is no exception.
Among the many legends surrounding Rathlin Island, one is particularly renowned – the tale of Robert the Bruce. In 1306, the Scottish King sought refuge in Rathlin after being ousted from Scotland by Edward I of England. An intriguing event unfolded during his time on the island: Robert the Bruce supposedly observed a spider repeatedly striving to bridge a gap with its delicate web. The spider eventually triumphed. Inspired by this display of perseverance, Robert the Bruce drew strength, rallied fresh forces, and embarked on a triumphant return to Scotland to reclaim his kingdom. His eventual success led to the restoration of the Scottish crown in 1314. To commemorate this remarkable feat, a cave nestled within the island’s cliffs is known as ‘Bruce’s Cave’, forever preserving the memory of the King’s journey.
We all know the folklore surrounding the formation of the Giants Causeway. Related to that is the tale of how Rathln Island formed. The wife of the giants who created the Causeway went to Scotland to get more rocks and dropped them into the sea on the way home, which then formed Rathlin Island.
On your ferry journey from Ballycastle to Rathlin Island, you’ll cross the Sea of Moyle. The Children of Lir spent 300 years as swans on this sea after being cursed by their evil stepmother. In Ballycastle, there is a sculpture honouring the Children of Lir.
A National Trust trail that will lead you through many different habitats like heathlands, mire and fen. You might be lucky enough to spot wild hares, skylarks and dragonflies.
Distance: 2 km/1.3 miles
This loop trail offers striking panoramas of both the Irish and Scottish coastlines. On the track itself, you have many opportunities for bird watching. Birds such as skylarks, peregrines and lapwings might be spotted on this walk.
Distance: 6.4km/4 miles
Embarking on this loop walk will offer you an array of breathtaking sights during the changing seasons. Passing by Kebble Lough and around the Kebble cliffs, you’re assured of impressive views of the turbulent ocean.
Distance: 3.8 km/2.4 miles
Although short, this trail is challenging as it includes ascending and descending rock faces and trawling through some uneven terrain. It will bring you through woodlands and around cliff edges.
Distance: 2.4 km/1.5 miles
For the adventurers, this trail doesn’t have a clear path and will bring you through meadows, heathland, and along cliff edges. Signposts are there to guide you around the route, but exercise caution around the cliffs.
Distance: 2.2km/1.4 miles
The Rathlin Trail leads you from the Rue Point Lighthouse to Kinramer South. This track is joined to the other walks mentioned, so it can be extended if you want to explore more of the island.
Distance: 6.4 km/4 miles
Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland.
There are buses from the harbour to the bird sanctuary visitor centre. However, Rathlin Island is an excellent spot for biking and hiking to soak in all the sights.
People do live on Rathlin Island; currently, it has a small population of about 160 people.
Rathlin Island has a bike rental service. The roads are surfaced but can be narrow and winding in places. A cycle from the Rue Point Lighthouse to the West Light Viewpoint is about 11 km/7 miles and would take about an hour to complete without stopping to take in the scenery.
Rathlin Island has three lighthouses covering the island’s east, west & south.
Puffins can be seen on Rathlin Island from about April to July.