Visiting Rathlin Island
Across the windswept waters of the Sea of Moyle lies Rathlin Island. Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island and it is one of the best-kept secrets in the North. Rathlin’s name comes from the Irish Reachlainn which means ‘place of many shipwrecks’. Rathlin is only 6 miles from Ballycastle but the dangerous tides that caused many of those shipwrecks are the result of the Irish and North seas meeting with their treacherous currents.
An island whose ancient history stretches back in time hundreds of years Rathlin Island has played its part in the legends of Robert the Bruce of Scotland, the massacre of Sorley Boy’s family and Viking raids. Its waters harbour shipwrecks from World War II and WWI and over 40 wrecks were lost to the cold deeps of the Sea of Moyle.
This part of the Causeway Coast is often missed by visitors in a hurry to see all the Game of Thrones sites along the Northern Irish coast. Rathlin is a mere 25-minute journey from Ballycastle, and you can take a ferry quite easily across the waters.
Rathlin is home to a population of 150 give or take and tens of thousands of birds including puffins and wildlife that rests along its shores includes both grey seals and common seals you might even get lucky and spot a Minke whale breaching the sea. On the land lookout for the wild orchids, fields carpeted in purple and gold heather and keep an eye out for the golden hares with their blue eyes as they race across the meadows.
Rathlin Island History
A 19th-century British visitor to the island found that Rathlin had an unusual form of government where they elected a judge who sat on a “throne of turf”. It was during this time that Rathlin’s population peaked at 1800.
Rathlin Island Massacre
Rathlin Island was not only a sanctuary but a well-known hiding place for the resistance during the sieges of Ulster by Sorley boy MacDonnell. The island was used by Sorley boy and his followers as a place of safety for their families during their struggles with the British crown.
The Rathlin Island castle was under siege by Sir Francis Drake and the Earl of Essex and when they took the Castle they agreed to safe passage for the hostages when the garrison surrendered. Sadly despite the terms of the surrender the victors hunted down the old, sick, young women and children in the caves of Rathlin and slaughtered them.
The entire family of Sorley Boy MacDonnell were murdered in the massacre. Reporting to Queen Elizabeth the Earl of Essex who had ordered the murders boasted that Sorley Boy MacDonnell watched the massacre from the mainland helplessly and was “like to run mad from sorrow”.
Getting to Rathlin Island
The Rathlin Island Ferry
Rathlin lies of the coast of Ballycastle and that’s where you can catch the ferry to the Island. Depending on which ferry you catch it can be a 25 min journey or 45 minutes if you take the slow ferry. The slow ferry transports vehicles to the island, however, you are not allowed to take a car across to Rathlin as you must have a special permit and live on the Island. The fast ferry is foot passengers only. The return trip on the ferry costs £12 return and in the summer months, there are around 9 sailings a day on each ferry.
The ferry trip is brilliant and will give you a chance to chat with island locals and learn something of the history of Rathlin Island. We met an older lady who was telling us how back in her day the kids used to be in boarding schools as the ferry didn’t run often to bring the kids back and forth. These days with more frequent ferry crossings the children can go to school in various areas of N. Ireland like Belfast or Ballycastle and there is now one primary school on the island.
With a population of around 500 Rathlin Island has one pub, a post office, a grocery shop, one primary school and two churches, one protestant and one catholic. The school is, of course, the smallest in Northern Ireland and usually has around 7 pupils at any given time.
Rathlin Island Code of Conduct
To protect the Island and its wildlife Rathlin has a code of conduct that they request visitors follow:
- Enjoy the Island and respect its life and work
- Take your litter home or use the bins provided
- Take care on the roads – drive carefully, cycle on the left, walk on the right
- Guard against all risk of fire
- Avoid damage to walls and fences
- Keep your dogs on a lea
- Protect all domestic animals, wildlife, plants and trees
- Respect the residents’ privacy and property
- Leave Rathlin as you found it – or better!
- Visit respectfully
Where to stay on Rathlin Island
There’s not a lot of choice of Rathlin Island accommodation but what you have to choose from is all top-notch.
A lovely BnB Manor House offers free wifi, 24-hour front desk, a children’s playground and a shared lounge. There is a restaurant that serves a full Irish breakfast (vegan available) or continental breakfast every morning.
Arkell House BnB
Located near Church Bay this little BnB has 3 guest rooms and serves a full breakfast. There is free wifi and a lovely garden to just hang out in. A quick walk to Church Bay and a great place if you plan to bike or hike Rathlin Island.
A comfortable and spacious hostel that provides a wide range of facilities to suit families, intrepid lone travellers and larger groups. They have family rooms, dormitories, hot showers and a continental breakfast is available.
Because Rathlin is an island obviously there isn’t a lot of choice for staying on the Island itself so I highly recommend these two locations in Ballycastle which are within walking distance of the harbour and the ferries. While you are in Ballycastle you can take a Food Tour with Irish Feast that you will remember forever. They also do food tours of Rathlin Island and Bushmills.
We stayed here our first time in Ballycastle and go back as often as we can. This is a superb BnB sitting within 5 minutes of the centre of Ballycastle and the perfect place for a romantic stay.
The rooms are beautifully appointed with free wifi and a gorgeous garden. They offer free bikes and the Full Irish breakfast is superb. There is also free parking, flat-screen TV’s and many of the rooms are suites with private bathrooms and loads of room. Ours had a small balcony with lovely views of the garden.
A brilliant option for a larger group the Abbey Movie House is a townhouse that sleeps up to 9 people. The house is immaculate and beautifully decorated with all the mod cons you can think of. There is a fabulous movie room downstairs with a giant screen where you can watch Netflix to your heart’s content.
The kitchen is gorgeous and comes complete with all the conveniences including a dishwasher and washing machine. They were also kind enough to leave some basics including tea and coffee, cereal and bread for breakfast.
The location is excellent as well just a short walk from the centre of town which by the way has great restaurants and pubs.
Things do on Rathlin Island
- Birdwatching & West Lighthouse
- East Lighthouse
- Robert the Bruce
- Church Bay
- Churches on Church Bay
- Boathouse Visitors Centre
- McCuaigs pub
- Mill Bay
Hike Rathlin Island
There are 6 trails on Rathlin which you can hike or bike and the easiest one if the Roonivoolin Trail.
4 miles, circular route. A breathtaking clifftop and Lakeland walk.
Keeble Cliff Walk:
1.9 miles circular route. A waymarked trail across open ground with coastal views.
Kinramer North Walk:
2.1 miles circular route. A waymarked trail across open ground with coastal views.
1.9 miles circular route. A waymarked trail across open ground with coastal views.
4 miles linear route. The amazing nature walk including the RSPB seabird viewpoint and island coastal scenery.
4 miles circular route. Open hillside and farm track on the north of the island with fabulous views to Scotland.
Birdwatching on Rathlin Island
When you get off the ferry you will more than likely see Bert’s Puffin bus waiting at the pier. It costs £5 to take the bus (round trip) to the RSPB Seabird Centre to see Rathlin Island puffins. Located on the west of the island this is where you will find dramatic seascapes where the waters meet the land and the dramatic cliffs and sea stacks are home to huge bird colonies.
This is the area where you will spot puffins nesting (depending on the time of year) along with kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills.
The West lighthouse which is the only lighthouse with the light located on the bottom of the building. It is also a light that flashes red and not white. The walk down to the lighthouse is 98 steps down the cliffside to the viewing platform and a further 64 steps to the bottom floor of the lighthouse. The centre itself is accessible but you won’t see many nesting puffins from up there. The centre is open from April to September and the cost for the walk down to the lighthouse is £5 for adults, £3.50 for students and £2.50 for children.
You will see many dramatic landscapes on the way to the Lighthouse one of which is Kebble Lough. The scenic lake and surrounding wetlands attract many nesting birds such as ducks, coots, grebes and snipe. You may also catch a glimpse of that legendary golden hare. If you don’t spot the hare you can see the orchids and the pyramidal bugle in bloom in springtime.
Rathlin Island Lighthouses
The East Lighthouse was built in 1856 and you can see its white light when leaving Rathlin Island on the Ferry. Off the coast of the lighthouse if it’s a clear day you will see the Scottish Islands of Islay and Jura. The caves hidden below the lighthouse hold a special place in history as a hiding place for kings.
The East Lighthouse is also the place where Marconi pioneered the first commercial use of the wireless. Marconi’s contract was with Lloyd’s of London, instrumental in the shipping trade at the time. Rathlin East lighthouse was passed by all inward shipping vessels from America and Canada en route to Liverpool. The lighthouse keepers kept records of all passing ships but Lloyds needed the information to get to London in the quickest time possible and Marconi made this possible with his “wireless” communications.
Located on the south part of the Island this is a not so impressive lighthouse but the views are stunning and you can see the Causeway Coast off in the distance.
Robert the Bruce and Rathlin Island
During the 5th to 8th centuries, Rathlin Island was the centre of the Kingdom of Dalriada which stretched from Antrim to the Scottish Isles.
After Robert the Bruce’s defeat in his fight for the Scottish crown, it was said he escaped to Rathlin Island and hid in a cave beneath the East Lighthouse. The cave is now called Bruce’s cave but it can only be reached by boat.
The legends say that during his exile Robert watched a spider spin a web trying time and again to cross an impossible gap. The spider eventually succeeded and Bruce took this as inspiration for his crusade to become the King of Scotland. He returned to Scotland and won a victory at The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Church Bay Rathlin Island
Church bay gets its name from the first church on the island St. Thomas’s. A church has been located here from 580 A.D. Church Bay is where the ferries dock from Ballycastle.
St Thomas’s Church is near the harbour and the original church was burned down during a Viking raid on the Island in the 8th century. This new church was built in 1812 and it is a protestant Church of Ireland building.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception is located next door to the Island’s primary school and was built a few years later than the protestant church. During the penal times in Ireland, Catholic masses were celebrated in Ballynagard under a rock formation in the centre of the island.
A large Georgian house dominates the harbour and is called the Manor House Hotel Rathlin Island. It was built in the 1870s for the Gage family, who bought the island in 1746 from Lord Antrim. The charming, historical Georgian Manor House built in the 18th century overlooks the harbour with stunning views of the Atlantic. As well as a guest house it has a licenced cafe open to the public.
The Water Shed Café (formerly The Harbour Café) is a, friendly snug, cosy little cottage by the harbour, that serves a wide variety of snacks, teas and coffee. They serve a great cup of coffee and you can enjoy crepes (sweet and savoury) lovely fresh-baked scones, cakes and tray bakes.
There is a bicycle hire company on the island run from Soerneog View Hostel.
Breakwater Studio Rathlin Island
Breakwater Studio is a studio and gallery for Yvonne Braithwaite. Her work in acrylics is available for sale and the studio also sells cards and wildlife paintings on rocks under the name of “Rathlin Rock”. The studio also stocks a range of Pottery, “Field Day” Candles, Lip Balms, Soaps and Diffusers, Handbags, Scarves, hand made “Rathlin Mugs” and other small giftware items.
Rathlin Island Coop Shop
A community-run shop that operates with some paid workers and volunteer staff. They offer household goods. Pop in and pick up your snacks for hiking and biking the island and then grab some locally caught crab to take back with you.
Want an alternative to hotels? Then Rathlin Glamping pods is for you. Each beautiful pod can sleep up to 4 people and has its own ensuite. Now that’s my kind of camping, and the views of the Sea of Moyle are outstanding.
Boathouse Visitors Centre Rathlin Island
A short walk from the harbour you will find the Boathouse Visitor Centre it holds many artefacts, information and photographs of life on Rathlin and the staff who live on Rathlin are a font of information about anything to do with the Island. You can also pick up books and souvenirs here.
Rathlin Island Post Office
Stop by the post office to mail your letters or cards and your post will get the unique stamp of Rathlin Island. The Rathlin Post Office is situated in the Island Treasures gift shop.
McCuaigs pub Rathlin Island
McCuaig’s is located in church bay and it is the island’s only pub. It is also the only place on the island with an ATM.
Just around the corner from Church Bay is Mill Bay. A colony of seals live here and you can often see them bathing on the beach or bathing in the clear waters. This area is popular with children because of the many rock pools.
Two species of seal inhabit the coast and seas around Northern Ireland. The common is smaller and has a face like a puppy and the grey seal is bigger with a longer head. If you plan to photograph the seals in Mill Bay or any area please follow the guidelines below:
- Any approach must be visible and sensitive
• Be responsive to how the seals are reacting to you
• Do not creep up on seals, crowd or encircle them, or make loud noises to prompt them to look toward you
• Never attempt to touch or feed seals
• When one or two seal heads are raised approach no further
• If any seals scramble into the water, you are too close and should retreat!
Events on Rathlin
Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival takes place at the end of May or early June and includes tours, talks, tall ships, live music, and Artisan Market and exhibitions. The festival celebrates the maritime heritage of the Antrim Coast.
Operating out of Rathlin Island Harbour they offer year-round commercial charter service. Specialising in wildlife expeditions, support vessel roles, and access to the Scottish islands.
From the start of summer, daily trips are offered to the seabird colony at the West Lighthouse on Rathlin. Expect to see tens of thousands of visiting birds up close including puffins, razorbills and guillemots.
They also offer charter runs to many other pick up locations and fishing trips/days out to Rathlin. Tickets for the Bird colony trip from Rathlin harbour/1 hour trip are £10 per person.
Rathlin Island is well worth a trip and if you love the outdoors, wildlife, hiking and just spending time in a little corner of N. Ireland that not too many people tend to know about Rathlin is your dream trip.
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