Rathlin Island (Co. Antrim)

Rathlin Island (Reachlainn, also Reachra in Scottish Gaelic) (winter pop. 75) is located 10km / 6mi off the coast of Co Antrim, and is the northernmost point of the region. The L-shaped island is 7km / 4mi from east to west, and 4 km / 2.5mi from north to south. It is the most northerly inhabited island off the Irish coast and the only inhabited offshore island in Northern Ireland. It is only 25km / 15.5mi from the Mull of Kintyre, the southern tip of Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula.

The island has a distinct character all its own. Inhabited since the earliest times when flint was mined and exported, the island was successively conquered and reconquered by the Vikings, the Scots, the Normans and the English. Ownership was legendarily litigated between Ireland and Scotland, and the island was found to be Irish because there were no snakes[1].

A ferry connects the main port of the island, Church Bay, with the mainland at Ballycastle. The ferry carries foot passengers and a small number of vehicles. Although it is provided as a subsidised “lifeline” service, the ferry is popular in summer with day trippers come to view the cliffs and their huge seabird populations, and also with divers, who come to explore the many wrecked ships in the surrounding waters.

The Visitors’ Centre at Church Bay is open from May to August, with minibus tours and bicycle hire available. The island has around 30 beds for overnight visitors.

The island once had a human population of around 1,000. Rathlin’s dialect of Irish is now extinct, but was in many respects closer to Scottish Gaelic than Irish, particularly the southern dialects.

According to the Annals of Ulster, Rathlin was the site of the first Viking raid on Ireland, marked by the pillaging of the island’s church and the burning of its buildings, in 795 AD.

There are caves in the tall dark cliffs on the northeast side of the island, the most famous of which is Bruce’s Cave, named after Robert (the) Bruce, aka Robert I of Scotland: it was here that he is said to have encountered the famous spider. The south facing cliffs west of Church Bay are chalk overlaid with basalt, and very picturesque. There are some interesting shapes and stacks near the western end of the island.

An infamous massacre took place on Rathlin 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.

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

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

Rathlin is a Special Areas of Conservation and has an RSPB nature reserve offering spectacular views of the impressive 70m / 230ft cliffs, home to tens of thousands of seabirds, including Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins; Peregrine falcons, Buzzards and Eider are also regularly seen. The island is splendidly situated for passage migrants in spring and autumn.

A large colony of Common Seal may be found in Mill Bay, just south of the main harbour.

Rathlin mice are the biggest in Ireland.

Wallace Clark‘s book Rathlin – Disputed Island is very informative.



[1] Saint Patrick was supposed to have banished all snakes from Ireland.

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