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Britain > N.Ireland > Co.Antrim > Rathlin Island

An island with a dark history, now overrun with bustling seabirds

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RSPB Seabird Centre
Scuba Diving
Visitors Centre
This strange, L-shaped piece of land is the only inhabited island off the Northern Irish coast. People have been living here for a long time, perhaps even since the Roman age. There was definitely a small resident population by the 8th century, as they became the victims of the Vikings' very first raid on Ireland.

Rathlin Harbour
Photo Theyoungones1994
Its buildings were burned and its wealth was pillaged but, sadly, this wasn't the island's only encounter with violence. It set the scene for more than one bloody massacre, with both men and women hurled to their doom off the tall cliffs. This happened in both the 16th and 17th centuries, with several thousand people meeting their death.
In the 1980s, Rathlin had another scare as millionaire Richard Branson ditched his hot air balloon into the nearby waters after flying across the Atlantic. He was fine, but sometimes it seems that everybody who comes near the island meets with death or disaster.

Rathlin Island Lighthouse
Photo Paul Bowman
Thankfully, this isn't the case. One example is Robert the Bruce, Scotland's famous hero. While hiding in a Rathlin cave, he watched a spider trying forlornly to spin a web across a gap. After countless attempts it eventually succeeded. Robert, deeply affected by the creature's perseverance, summoned the courage to return home and fight for his country. Like the spider he achieved his goal, winning Scottish independence in 1314 AD.

Robert The Bruce
Photo in the Public Domain

Did You Know?

The world's first commercial wireless telegraphy link was established by employees of Guglielmo Marconi between East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island to Kenmara House in Ballycastle on 6 July 1898.
Today, the island is home to only 70 permanent residents. For every one human there are at least a hundred birds, including puffins and razorbills. They swarm around Rathlin's cliffs, which stand up to 70 metres tall. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds runs a nature reserve and Seabird Centre on the western coast. The staff are happy to provide binoculars or telescopes.

Atlantic Puffin
Photo Boaworm
Seals usually lounge casually around the harbour, and from the ferry crossing you can sometimes spot dolphins. But even if the animals weren't there, Rathlin's view would be worth the visit. You can see south, all along the Northern Irish coast, and north, towards the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.

A Seal on Rathlin Island
Photo Paul Bowman
The best time to visit is in late summer, when the bird population is largest and the visitor centre is open. Transport is via a ferry from Ballycastle, six miles away. As you make the crossing, bear in mind that your boat is passing over the wrecked remains of several dozen unlucky ships. This makes scuba diving a popular activity. The most common target for underwater explorations is the HMS Drake, a 14,100 ton First World War cruiser that was sunk by torpedo.

Rathlin Island Ferry
Photo Johnlp
You can see some of the shipwrecked objects without having to go underwater, at the Rathlin Island Visitors Centre in the harbour. The exhibits also tell more stories of the island's long, exciting history. Alternatively you can go out and see it for yourself, by walking through Rathlin's scenery of prehistoric stones, weathered graves, ruined castles and imposing churches.
Visitor Information
Rathlin Island Ferry operates a daily timetable, subject to weather conditions. Return Tickets cost around £10 per adult, £5 children. Ballycastle Ferry Terminal, 18 Bayview Road, Ballycastle, County Antrim, BT54 6BT. Tel: 028 2076 9299
Rathlin Island Visitors Centre is open daily 10.30am to 4pm during the months of May to August. Entry is FREE. Church Bay, Rathlin Island, BT54 6RT. Tel: 028 2076 2024

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