Travel Destinations ~ Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island is the most northern and only inhabited island affiliated with Northern Ireland. The land mass is shaped like the letter ‘L’ and is 4miles long and 2.5 miles wide. It stands approximately 5 miles for the north coast of Northern Ireland, the area of outstanding natural beauty known as the ‘Glens of Antrim’, and 15miles from the famous, Scottish peninsula of the Mull of Kintyre.
It is said, in local myth, that, as with all territories, there was a disagreement over the ownership of the Island. Did that small but wonderfully and diversely scenic, historic land belong to Northern Ireland or their Scottish neighbours? The feud was settled, as the story goes, by releasing a snake onto Rathlin. If the snake survived in the wilds of the marshy heath then the island would be crowned as Scottish but if the serpent perished then surely the very soil was Irish as Saint Patrick himself was known to have driven all the sleek-bellied snakes from Irish shores. The snake died and Rathlin was born under Irish rule.
Today the island is home to around one hundred islanders and visitors are charmed and inspired by the peaceful quiet and community of the shores. Church Bay is the centre of activity with the old generational home of the ‘Manor House’, now acting as restaurant, pub and hotel to this remote region.
The harbour, set in the middle of the island’s three lighthouses, is simple and enchanting as the sun sets over its piers and eddying yachts. There is an anachronistically modern row of light painted houses by the ‘Haven’ beach on Church Bay most of which are self-cantering, guest homes and beside these the pub and kitchen diner named after Robert the Bruce.
There are two churches on the island, one recently restored to polished modernity, known as St. Thomas’s – Church of Ireland and the other at the brow of water-falling hill is its Roman Catholic sister. However there is only one graveyard; the only place in Northern Ireland where you can be born as a Roman Catholic and die as a Protestant. Notably there is also a line of four graves to the ‘unknown sailors’ with prayers that they may now rest in peace with their God.
The island has a blood curdling history not for the faint hearted and legends and myths abound due to the terrors of those slain there. It was a refuge to many a lost and exiled soul, the most famous arguably being that of, Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. Little remains of the ruins of Bruce’s Castle on the Easterly cliffs of Rathlin but one tale has stood the test of time. During Bruce’s stay (1306-07) it is believed that during his despair and fears for his countrymen and his hopeless task of regaining his rightful seat in Scotland he was contemplating his woe in a cave below the East lighthouse from where he could torture himself by viewing but not touching his homeland. There in a rest-bite from his burdens he watched a little spider trying fruitlessly to swing his web over the cave’s entrance. The small creature dizzied itself spinning, weaving and swinging for hours, unknowing of its regal audience, until finally the web held and Bruce, in awe, found great meaning from the spider’s perseverance and determined persistence. Scotland would again be his.
Another favourite fable in Irish legend is that of the ‘Children of Lir’, the terrible tale of a doting father and jealous wife who curses the children with blackest magic to transform into swans and remained thus anamorphed for three hundred years. ‘The Waters of Moyle’ that sweep up to the island are where these children endured their existence until the time came when they would be free. However three hundred years spans a long time so as their now decrepit and aged bodies were reborn from the feathery wings of swans they found their freedom only in death.
Rathlin has been witness to many wars and invasions as the first benchmark before the mainland and as the wind whistles through the dockings and the street lights stop on the why to Mill Bay and the Kelp house that once provided rent and income for the islanders, an eerie still envelops the coast. It is the kind of quiet that can only be experienced in such remote and isolated bearings. However the laughter and craić from the free houses nearby soon dispel any fearful misgivings.
Within memory Rathlin had no electricity. I spoke to a resident who explained that before the pipeline from the mainland, households had separate generators, though they were turned off early into the night so as not to disturb neighbours. There is no police on the island and none have patrolled there since the days that were rife in smuggling contraband. Everyone knows everyone else and coming for a weeks stay as a non-native leaves you pleasantly adrift in the feeling that you are standing on a whole other world from what you know.
The scenery is breathtaking. There are sign-posted walks to the three lighthouses – East, West (the upside down lighthouse) and South (Rue) lighthouse and to reach them you traverse hills, walk by cliffs, stop and reflect by the many Loughs (the largest of which is Lough Ushet) and wonder at the natural colours and painting of the verdant heaths.
For bird watchers there is a RSPB sanctuary at the West point of the island and in season it is the perfect place to watch puffins, the clowns of the sea, nestled in the craggy rocks and cliff face. Also it is the home of the only breeding pair of Red-Billed Choughs in Northern Ireland and if twitching is not your forte than you cannot fail to be impressed by the myriad of seals that bask in the sun on Rathlin rocks. The howling cries of these ‘sea dogs’ is haunting and beautiful as is their awkward movement on land and their expressive faces.
Rathlin Island is not some poverty stricken forlorn place, even if the school has only 5 students. In fact it is a vibrant and magnanimous place where, in some ways, I felt more alive than I do in my home town or many of the cities and speculator monuments I have visited. It is thriving and busy in the summer season as the two ferry’s carry curious visitors and walkers from all walks of life and nationality to its beaches. (20mins – fast ferry, 45mins – slow ferry, cost – £10.80 per adult return).
There is a smooth stone throne inscribed with dozens of names of visiting artists, writers, photographs, singers and performers and just to add another piece of interesting trivia, it is also where Marconi made his first wireless telegraphy link to Ballycastle on the mainland. It is steeped in history and worth and an amazing place to visit or stay in the islands luxury accommodation.
You can find more information on http://www.discovernorthernireland.com.