Rathlin Island

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Rathlin Island
Scots: Racherie

County Antrim


Rathlin between the coasts of Antrim and Argyll

Location: 55°17’32"N, 6°11’30"W
Grid reference: D134518
Highest point: Slievenard, 440 feet
Population: 75  (2001)

Rathlin Island is an island off the north coast of County Antrim. It is the northernmost point of the county and indeed of Northern Ireland. Rathlin is the only inhabited offshore island of Northern Ireland, with a rising population of now just over 100 people.

The island is roughly gamma-shaped, 4 miles from east to west, and 2½ miles from north to south. The highest point on the island is Slieveard, otherwise known as Kilpatrick, 440 feet above sea level.

Rathlin lies 15½ miles from the Mull of Kintyre, the southern tip of Argyllshire's Kintyre peninsula.

Natural history

Rathlin is of prehistoric volcanic origin, having been created as part of the British Tertiary Volcanic Province.[1]

Rathlin is one of forty-three Special Areas of Conservation in Northern Ireland. It is home to tens of thousands of seabirds, including common guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and razorbills – about thirty bird families in total. It is a popular place for birdwatchers, with a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserve offering spectacular views of Rathlin’s bird colony. The RSPB has also successfully managed natural habitat to facilitate the return of the Red-billed Chough. Northern Ireland's only breeding pair of choughs can be seen during the summer months. The cliffs on this relatively bare island are impressive, standing 230 feet tall.

Bruce's Cave is named after Robert the Bruce, who became King Robert I of Scotland: it was here according to some later legends that he saw the famous spider swinging on a thread which taught him that “if at first you do not succeed, try and try again”.

The island is also the northernmost point of the Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.[2]

Recently the Maritime and Coastguard Agency of the United Kingdom and the Marine Institute of Ireland undertook bathymetric survey work in the area north of County Antrim, updating Admiralty charts (Joint Irish Bathmetric Survey Project). In doing so a number of interesting submarine geological features were identified around Rathlin Island, including a submerged crater or lake on a plateau with clear evidence of water courses feeding it. This suggests the events leading to inundation - subsidence of land or rising water levels - were extremely quick. Marine investigations in the area have also identified new species of anemone, rediscovered the fan mussel (the UK's largest and rarest bivalve mollusc - thought to be found only in Plymouth Sound and a few sites off the west of Scotland) and a number of shipwreck sites,[3][4] including HMS Drake,[5] which was torpedoed and sank just off the island in 1917.

Getting to the island

A ferry (operated by Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd) connects the main port of the island, Church Bay, with the mainland at Ballycastle, 6 miles away. Two ferries operate on the route - a fast foot passenger-only catamaran and a larger ferry which carries both foot passengers and a small number of vehicles, weather permitting.


Rathlin was probably known to the Romans. Pliny the Elder refers to "Reginia" and Ptolemy to "Rhicina" or "Eggarikenna". In the 7th century Adomnán mentions "Rechru" and "Rechrea insula" and these may also have been early names for Rathlin.[6] The 11th century Irish version of the Historia Brittonum states that the Fir Bolg "took possession of Man and of other islands besides - Arran, Islay and 'Racha' " another possible early variant.[7]

Rathlin was the site of the first Viking raid on Ireland, according to the Annals of Ulster. The raid, marked by the pillaging of the island's church and the burning of its buildings, took place in 795 (The burning of Reachrainn by plunderers; and its shrines were broken and plundered.)

Robert the Bruce sought refuge upon Rathlin, owned by the Irish Bissett family, in 1306, staying in Rathlin Castle. Originally belonging to their lordship the Glens of Antrim, the Bissetts were later dispossessed of Rathlin by the English, who were in control of the Earldom of Ulster, for welcoming Bruce. Later, in the 16th century, it came into the possession of the MacDonnells of Antrim, a branch of the Clan McDonald from the Hebrides.

Rathlin has been the site of a number of infamous massacres. In 1557 during a rebellion by Sorley Boy MacDonnell, an expedition by Sir Henry Sidney in 1557 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.[8][9]

In 1642 the Civil War and the clan feuds of the Highlands combined to cause another massacre. Covenanter soldiers of the Argyll's Foot, drawn from the Clan Campbell, were encouraged by their commanding officer Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck to kill the papist MacDonalds of the island, who were a branch of the Campbells’ clan enemy, the Clan Donald. This they did with ruthless efficiency throwing scores of MacDonald women over cliffs to their deaths on rocks below.[10][11] The number of victims of this massacre has been put as low as one hundred and as high as three thousand.

In the later 18th century kelp production became important with Rathlin becoming a major centre for production. The shoreline is still littered with kilns and storage places. This was a commercial enterprise sponsored by the landlords of the island and involved the whole community.[12]

A 19th century British visitor to the island found that they had an unusual form of government where they elected a judge who sat on a "throne of turf".

The world's first commercial wireless telegraphy link was established by employees of Marconi between East Lighthouse on this island to Kenmara House in Ballycastle on 6 July 1898.[13]

More recently, Richard Branson crashed his hot air balloon into the sea off Rathlin Island in 1987 after his record-breaking cross-Atlantic flight from Maine in New England.

The island formerly boasted a population of over one thousand in the nineteenth century, and its current winter population is around one hundred. This is swelled by visitors in the summer, most come to view the cliffs and their huge sea bird populations. Many visitors come for the day, and the island has around thirty beds for overnight visitors. 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.

Rathlin Island's dialect of Irish is now extinct, and could have been described as intermediary form between the Ulster Gaelic dialects and Scottish Gaelic.

In 2008, the RNLI Portrush lifeboat, the Katie Hannan grounded itself after a large swell hit the rear end of the vessel on breakwater rocks just outside the harbour on Rathlin while trying to refloat an islander's RIB. The lifeboat was handed over to an outside salvage company.


The island was settled during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. A Neolithic stone axe factory has been found on in the townland of Brockley on Rathlin Island, similar to one on Tievebulliagh mountain near Cushendall.[14] Each features the same porcellanite stone.

There is also an unexcavated Viking vessel in a mound formation.[15]

Rathlin in literature

Bruce’s Cave on the island is part of the legend of Robert the Bruce; here he is said to have seen a spider repeatedly trying to swing across on a thread, which was an encouragement to Bruce to try yet again to achieve the throne. (Other stories record that the legendary spider was seen by Sir James Douglas and recounted to Bruce.)

Turbulent Priests, a novel by Colin Bateman, features a fictionalised Rathlin Island, by the name of "Wrathlin Island".[16]


Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Rathlin Island)


  1. "Causeway Coast and Rathlin Island Geodiversity Profile". Northern Ireland Environment Agency. http://www.ni-environment.gov.uk/land-home/landscape_home/country_landscape/57/57-geo.htm. Retrieved 2009-08-02. 
  2. "Antrim Coast and Glens AONB". Northern Ireland Environment Agency. http://www.ehsni.gov.uk/landscape/designated-areas/aonb/aonb_antrimglen.htm. Retrieved 2009-08-02. 
  3. "The Joint Irish Bathymetric Survey Project" (Video). MCA. http://www.vnrs.co.uk/mca/video/rathlin.wmv. Retrieved 2009-08-02. 
  4. "Prehistoric land under the sea". BBC News. 2008-07-30. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/7532771.stm. Retrieved 2009-08-02. 
  5. Wilson, Ian (2011) HMS Drake. Rathlin Island Shipwreck. Rathlin Island: Rathlin Island Books. ISBN 978-0-9568942-0-5
  6. Watson (1994) pp. 6, 37
  7. Chadwick (1949) p. 83
  8. John Sugden, "Sir Francis Drake", Touchstone-book, published Simon+Schuster, New York, ISBN 0-671-75863-2
  9. "Sir Francis Drake and Music". The Standing Stones. http://www.standingstones.com/fdrake.html. Retrieved 2009-08-02. 
  10. Royle, Trevor (2004), Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-1660, London: Abacus, ISBN 0-349-11564-8  p.143
  11. "The Carolingian Era". MacDonnell Of Leinster Association. http://macdonnellofleinster.org/page_4g__carolingian_era.htm. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  12. O'Sullivan, Aidan & Breen, Colin (2007). Maritime Ireland. An Archaeology of Coastal Communities. Stroud: Tempus. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-7524-2509-2. 
  13. "Guglielmo Marconi 1874-1937". northantrim.com. http://www.northantrim.com/Marconi.htm. Retrieved 2009-08-02. 
  14. Weir, A (1980). Early Ireland. A Field Guide. Belfast: Blackstaff Press. p. 96. 
  15. O'Sullivan, Aidan & Breen, Colin (2007). Maritime Ireland. An Archaeology of Coastal Communities. Stroud: Tempus. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-7524-2509-2. 
  16. Bateman, Colin. "Turbulent Priests". Colin Bateman. http://www.colinbateman.com/priests.html. Retrieved 2012-01-12. 
  • Chadwick, Hector Munro (1949) Early Scotland: the Picts, the Scots & the Welsh of southern Scotland. Cambridge University Press.
  • Watson, W. J. (1994) The Celtic Place-Names of Scotland. Edinburgh; Birlinn. ISBN 1-84158-323-5. First published in Edinburgh; The Royal Celtic Society, 1926