Rathlin Island – An Eventful History, Beautiful Scenery and Puffins!
Where is it?
Rathlin is a small island off the north Antrim coast. Situated in the Irish Sea, with the Straits of Moyle to the north, it is 6 miles from Ballycastle in Ireland and 15 miles from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. Its rural landscape, picturesque hamlet at Church Bay and slower pace of life, make Rathlin a welcome escape from busy modern living.
“Most of us who live in the north of Ireland have seen Rathlin many times from the mainland. From Ballycastle its white cliffs gleam across the turbulent waters of the Sound, marking the edge of a mysterious and attractive land standing boldly out in the ocean guarded by its seven tides”Wallace Clark, Rathlin its Island Story, 1988
The isle comprises around 3,398 acres. It is shaped like an inverted letter L and measures 7 miles long and about 3 miles wide. At Doon Point the basalt rock column formation is similar to that found at the famous Giant’s Causeway across the sea.
“Here the columns are in every conceivable position- vertical, horizontal, inclined, curved, and even end-on, and here surely some absurd lunar architect played himself and him in his tantrums. At Croch-an-teriv is a veritable basaltic wheel with the columns running out from a common hub or centre like so many spokes”Richard Hayward, In Praise of Ulster, 1946
Today Rathlin is especially known for its bird sanctuary. Tens of thousands of seabirds have their nests on the high cliffs. Kittiwakes, guillemots, gannets, fulmars and razorbills are among the many breeds of bird that call Rathlin home. Indeed, the puffin has become the unofficial emblem of the island. The sanctuary is about 4 miles from the harbour at the West Lighthouse. This is the biggest seabird colony in the north of Ireland.
Flora and Fauna
Rathlin is also renowned for the beauty of its flora and fauna which is a delight in every season. Although a rugged and windswept island almost 500 plant species thrive here. In spring primroses, violets, celandine, delicate harebells and early purple orchids cover the hills. While in summer the island is vibrant with heathers, gorse, valerian, wild honeysuckle, devils bit scabious and fiery montbretia. By autumn the moors turn a glorious russet and the seed-heads dance in the wind. Winter brings its subtler palette of mossy greens and earthy browns decorated with lacy frost.
Rathlin hosts a variety of wildlife also. One of the most striking is the shy Rathlin hare. A genetic variation has produced a golden-furred animal with pale blue eyes. There are also some wild goats scattered about the island. Moths and butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies abound. While seals are a very popular addition to the island’s sights.
“The island is particularly blessed in spring and summer when the seabirds are clamouring and whizzing about the cliffs and rock stacks, and they share the coastal and offshore waters with marine mammals such as seals, whales, dolphins and porpoises. It is time to go down to the sea, which is never far away on Rathlin”Philip Watson, Rathlin, Nature and Folklore, 2011
Rathlin is volcanic in origin and has been inhabited at least from the Mesolithic age. A Neolithic stone axe factory has been uncovered in the townland of Ballygill Middle. Centrally situated on Rathlin are the remains of tumuli (ancient burial mounds).
“There are many relics of ancient times remaining on Rathlin Island, consisting of raths, forts, stone circles and sepulchral monuments. Over a century ago a number of tumuli were opened in a field a short distance from Church Bay. Several skeletons were found in rude coffins composed of slabs of stone placed edgewise, with a covering of the same material. In one of these graves was found, together with the remains, a silver fibula of good workmanship, and a number of beads, which were presented to the Museum of Trinity College Dublin”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
Bronze age cairns have been found at Craigmacagan, Kilpatrick and Slieveacarn. While an early grave dating from around 2,000BC was uncovered in 2006 when the islands only pub, McCuaig’s, was extending their driveway.
Naming the Island
Rathlin Island was known of in ancient times. The Roman author and commander, Pliny, referred to it as Reginia in his encyclopaedic work Naturalis Historia. While the first century Greco-Egyptian mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy called the island Rhicina.
The name has been spelt in various ways over the centuries, such as Raghery, Rechraim or Rachlaim. It is believed that originally it may have come from the Gaelic Ragh Erin meaning ‘fort of Ireland’. Another theory is the name derived from Rac Lean ‘the habitation in the water’
Robert the Bruce
Rathlin is also famous for its connection with Robert the Bruce (King Robert I of Scotland). In 1306, after being defeated at the Battle of Methven, the Scotsman sought refuge on the island. He was welcomed by the Bissett family who ruled Rathlin at the time. The ruins of their castle are situated on the eastern coast facing Kintyre.
Bruce was dejected having been defeated in battle in his attempt to secure the Scottish crown. The story goes that while sitting in a cave beneath the cliff he watched a spider spinning and re-spinning its web. The creature’s persistence gave him hope to continue his struggle for his throne. He returned to Scotland and was victorious at the battle of Bannockburn.
However, this peaceful and idyllic island has a dark and turbulent history. Its location between Ireland and Scotland placed it right in the path of invaders for centuries.
Rathlin was the site of the first Viking raid on Irish soil. The island was attacked in 795 AD. The church founded by St Columbkille in 580 AD was pillaged and destroyed.
“Rachryn was burned by the Danes”Annals of Clonmacnoise, an ancient Irish chronicle first translated into English in 1627
The little church was rebuilt but was subsequently destroyed by Danish marauders on at least three further occasions, in 790, 973 and 1038. The Church of Ireland church of St Thomas’s now occupies this site overlooking the sea.
Slaughter of the Population
In 1557, Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland devasted the island as part of his Ulster expedition. His mission was to subdue the Irish and impose the rule, law and customs of England. He wiped-out the entire population. In his own words “all mankind, corn and cattle in it”.
Less than 20 years later Francis Drake and John Norreys were ordered by the Earl of Essex, then Governor of Ulster, to attack Rathlin. The MacDonnells of Antrim had sent their wives and children, their aged and sick, to the island for protection. The army murdered them all.
“The massacre at Rathlin on 20th July 1575, was one of the most cruel events imaginable”Rev Alfred Richardson A Guide to Ballycastle and Neighbourhood 1905
Queen Elizabeth 1, on hearing news of the slaughter was said to be delighted. She wrote to Essex asking him to inform John Norreys “the executioner of his well-designed enterprise, that she would not be unmindful of his services”
Clans at War
In 1642 Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck on the Cowal peninsula in Scotland, ordered his men to kill all the Catholic MacDonnell inhabitants of Rathlin. The Covenantor Campbells and the Catholic MacDonnells were rival clans.
200-300 Rathlin men, friends and neighbours stood side by side with the MacDonnells, and faced 1,600 Campbell soldiers at Lag-na-vis-ta ‘the field of the great battle’. The slaughter was intense and merciless. The women folk watched from a place known as Crookascreidlin ‘the hill of screaming’.
Then the women, mothers, wives and daughters, were gathered together and marched to the highest cliff at the south of the island and thrown over onto the rocks below. For many decades after, no-one by the name of Campbell was welcome on Rathlin.
The Rathlin islanders were at the mercy of their larger warring neighbours
“….and so much did the place suffer from the repeated ravages of the English and the Scots, that it is stated in a manuscript history of the country to have been totally uninhabited in 1580”Lewis Topographical Dictionary of Ireland
The Gage Family
In 1746 Rathlin Island was purchased by the Rev John Gage, Prebendary of Aghadowey in County Derry. It was sold by the Earl of Antrim, who found himself ‘financially embarrassed’ at the time. The sale price was £1,750.
John’s son Robert inherited the island in 1763 who first built a residence for the Gages on Rathlin. This was the manor house at Church Bay. Now the island’s only hotel.
Robert Gage encouraged weaving on the island with flax and wool woven on handlooms. He also sponsored house building near the harbour, constructed a corn mill, warehouses, a boat house and sought to improve the roads. The Gage family lived on the island for 200 years. In 1784 the rental income from the island yielded £600
The Kelp Industry
The main industry on the island was a trade in kelp, a type of brown algae or seaweed, found around the shore line.
In 1784 100 tons of kelp were sold for £5 and 5 shillings per ton. During the Napoleonic Wars (1808-1812) kelp reached its peak price of £20 per ton, but the market declined rapidly after this.
The chief markets were Campbelltown and Glasgow in Scotland. The kelp was burned in kilns. Ash from burned kelp is rich in iodine and alkali and is used in the bleaching process and in the production of soap and glass. The product was stored in stone buildings known as kelp houses. Kelp can also be eaten either raw of cooked.
“The chief resource of this island consists in the extensive manufacture of kelp, which is exported in great abundance. It is chiefly manufactured by women and children”Lieutenant Thomas Hore, Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1830
Life on Rathlin was not easy, a lot of the island is rocky moorland, not suitable for arable farming. Only in the valleys are there pockets of good soil. Folk grew barley, oats and potatoes and kept some hardy livestock. Their diet subsisted mainly of fish and was supplemented by wild seabirds, caught by swinging down the cliff-face on a rope secured to a stake at the top.
In 1827 the population numbered 1,039. However, lack of employment forced many families to leave. The frequent presence of derelict cottages bears a sad testimony to the poverty of the time. Today the population of permanent residents is around 150 but slowly growing.
In 1898 Rathlin was the site of the world’s first commercial telegraphy. Devised by Guglielmo Marconi, who was employed by shipping insurers, Lloyds of London, a link was made between the East Lighthouse at Altacarry Head and Kenmara House on the clifftop above the harbour in Ballycastle. The East Lighthouse is the oldest one of the three on Rathlin. It was constructed in 1856 and watches over the North Channel. On 6th July the first ‘wireless’ report was transmitted via a 104ft aerial on Rathlin.
Travel to Rathlin
Holders of a Translink 60+ Smartpass can travel completely free on the ferry. Others can check ferry prices and sailings at https://rathlinballycastleferry.com/
To reach Rathlin involves a 40-minute ferry journey from the harbour at Ballycastle. Although a short distance, the sailing can be a tad rough. The channel between the two was formerly called Coire-ve-Brecain, meaning the Cauldron of Brecain. For it is said that Brecain, son of Niall of the 9 Hostages, was drowned here and lost a fleet of 54 curraghs and their crews.
“The distance between the mainland and Church Bay, the only harbour, is about 7 miles, and the channel is often very dangerous, from the tremendous swell occasioned by the meeting of the Atlantic and the tidal waves. A perilous eddy…”McComb’s Guide to Belfast, 1861
A day trip, or longer, to Rathlin will almost certainly ignite an interest in the history and folklore of this beautiful place. This post has barely scratched the surface of the island’s backstory. The scenery is amazing and the people are warm and friendly. You won’t find a lot of shops or pubs, but that just adds to its charm. Island life never looked better!
“Go to Rathlin in rough tweeds and stout shoes, and with the spirit of an explorer, and you will have the time of your life. The islanders are extraordinarily kind and civil and there is an abundance of good plain food, grand company, magnificent cliff scenery, and air like heady wine”Richard Hayward In Praise of Ulster 1946
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