Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

Across the windswept waters of the Sea of Moyle on the North Coast of Ireland lies Rathlin Island part of County Antrim. Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshshore 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 with fabulous views back to the town and White Park Bay but the dangerous tides that caused many of those shipwrecks are the result of the Irish and North seas meeting with their treacherous currents.

Situated just off the Causeway Coastal Route Rathlin is 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.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

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.

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Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

From Ballycastle to Rathlin Island is just 10 km across the Sea of Moyle. On a clear day, you can see the Mull of Kintyre Scotland as well as Islay one of Scotland’s most famous islands (Isla Whiskey). Historically Rathlin was part of a large kingdom that included all the islands between Scotland and Northern Ireland and parts of Northern Ireland as well.

Because of its closeness to Scotland, it has often been at the centre of many an argument over ownership of both the land and the island itself. It was finally settled in 1617 by a simple test that had also been applied to the Isle of Man, if a snake or other poisonous serpent could survive on the island it was taken as being part of the mainland. If it died then Ireland was the owner, Ireland finally was declared the true owner.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

Rathlin was probably the first Irish island to become inhabited, archaeologists believe humans arrived here somewhere between 6000 – 5000BC from Scotland. It can also claim to have a gruesome history as it was the scene of several major massacres of the population. Rathlin Island is also where the first Vikings invade the land.

It isn’t unusual in Ireland in the North or the Republic to connect legends and stories to the land. Here on Rathlin Island folklore tells us the story of the Enchanted Island. The is supposed to appear from the sea once every seven years. The story says that if you lift some soil or a pebble from under your feet and can throw it onto the island then it will never sink back under the sea again.

Check out some more of Ireland’s Islands 

Rathlin Island taken from Torr Head Northern Ireland the green bump of Torr head stands out against the bright blue sky

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How long do you need on Rathlin island?

You could see most of Rathlin Island on a day trip from Ballycastle. Rathlin is quite small and if you get there early in the morning you can take one of the many hikes and head out to see the birds and puffins on Bert’s puffin bus.

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.  

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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”.

Rathlin Island harbour from a drone showing the pier and the small row of houses that are on the island

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How to get to Rathlin Island

Rathlin Ferry tickets

Rathlin lies off the coast of Ballycastle a six mile journey across the Sea of Moyle and Ballycastle is where you can catch the ferry to the Island. Depending on which Ballycastle 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.

How much is the ferry to Rathlin Island? The return trip on the Rathlin Island ferry costs  £12 return and in the summer months, there are around 9 sailings a day on each ferry.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

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 Islands only school a small white cottage that holds 10 students

Best Things to Do on Rathlin Island FAQ

1. What are some of the main attractions on Rathlin Island?

Some of the main attractions on Rathlin Island include the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre, Seal Colony, Ballycastle Ferry, Cliffs, and Robert the Bruce’s Castle.

2. How do I get to Rathlin Island from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland?

You can take a scenic ferry ride from Ballycastle Harbour to Rathlin Island operated by Rathlin Island Ferry. The ferry ride offers picturesque views of the coast.

3. What activities are available at the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre?

At the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre, visitors can learn about the diverse seabird species that inhabit the island, observe puffins, and enjoy stunning views of the surrounding landscapes.

4. Are there accommodations available on Rathlin Island for overnight stays?

Yes, there are several accommodations on Rathlin Island where visitors can stay overnight, ranging from cozy bed and breakfasts to self-catering cottages offering a comfortable stay.

5. What is the best way to explore the island if I am visiting for a day trip?

If you are visiting Rathlin Island for a day trip, you can explore the island by taking a bus tour, embarking on a short walk along the coastline, or visiting the local attractions near the harbour.

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 leash
  • Protect all domestic animals, wildlife, plants and trees
  • Respect the residents’ privacy and property
  • Leave Rathlin as you found it – or better!
  • Visit respectfully

22 What to do on Rathlin Island

RSPB Rathlin West Light Seabird CentrePuffins at Rathlin Island

Rathlin is home to a population of 150 citizens give or take and a massive seabird colony of tens of thousands of birds and the largest seabird Colony in Ireland including puffins and wildlife that rests along its shores including both grey seals and common seals you might even get lucky and spot a Minke whale breaching the sea. On the land look out 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.

Three Atlantic Puffins standing cliff edge.

When are the puffins on Rathlin Island? The best time for puffin spotting on Rathlin Island will be between April and June when they return to the Island for mating season.

a puffling on Rathlin Island

Bert’s Puffin Bus 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 bird sanctuary on Rathlin Island the RSPB West Light 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.

Berts Puffin Bus on tour of Rathlin Island

This is the area where you will spot puffins nesting (depending on the time of year) along with kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

Hike Rathlin Island

There are 6 trails on Rathlin that you can hike or bike and the easiest one is the Roonivoolin Trail.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

Roonivoolin Walk:
4  miles, circular route. A breathtaking clifftop and Lakeland walk.

Keeble Cliff Walk and Keeble Nature Reserve
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.

Kinramer Permissive PathTrail:
1.9 miles circular route. A waymarked trail across open ground with coastal views.

Rathlin Trail:
4 miles linear route. The amazing nature walk includes the RSPB seabird viewpoint and island coastal scenery.

Ballyconaghan Trail:
4 miles circular route. Open hillside and farm track on the north of the island with fabulous views to Scotland.

Rathlin West Lighthouse

The West lighthouse is the only lighthouse with a light located at 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 of the walk down to the lighthouse is £5 for adults, £3.50 for students and £2.50 for children.

a view of the west lighthouse and the dramatic steps down to see puffins on rathlin island

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.

Kebble Lough a giant wetlands marsh and lake on Rathlin Island

East Lighthouse

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 on Rathlin a stark drop down the cliffs into the Irish sea

The East Lighthouse is also the place where Marconi pioneered the first commercial use of 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.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

Rue Lighthouse

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.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

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 the Scottish Kings’ defeat in his fight for the Scottish crown, Bruce sought refuge on 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.

a blue historic plaque stating that Robert the Bruce took refuge onRathlin Island

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.

Diving the Wreck of the HMS Drake WWI

The HMS Drake had just finished escort duties for convoy HH24 from America in 1917 and on its return was torpedoed by a German U-boat, U-79 five miles north of Rathlin Island.

The Drake, having sustained some damage to the steering, and taking water, headed for Church Bay, but collided with the cargo ship Mendip Range. It made it to Church Bay where it anchored, but soon began to list, and eventually capsized and sank. By this time the surviving crew members had been transferred to other vessels in the vicinity.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

The ship type is rare and represents an intermediate design of armoured cruiser that quickly became obsolete. In May 2017 the Drake was scheduled under the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects, there is diving allowed on the site on a ‘look but do not touch’ basis.

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. 

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

The Church of the Immaculate Conception

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.

Manor House Hotelcafe

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.

Water Shed Cafe

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.

Renting Bicycles 

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, handmade “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.

Rathlin Glamping Pods

Want an alternative to hotels? Then Rathlin Glamping pods are 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. 

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island
©Rathlin Glamping Pods

Boathouse Visitors Centre

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.   

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

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.

McCuaig’s 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.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

Mill Bayseal spotting on Rathlin Island

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.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

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!

The Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival

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.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

Boat Trips around Rathlin

Operating out of Rathlin Island Harbour you will find on offer year-round commercial charter service. Specializing in wildlife expeditions, support vessel roles, and access to the Scottish islands.

Rathlin Island is ideal for a day trip to simply enjoy solitude and tranquility. In good weather you can see as far as Scotland.The island is home to many birds and seals can be seen.

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.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

Where to stay on Rathlin Islandis there a hotel 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.

Manor House Rathlin Island

A lovely BnB Manor House offers free wifi, a 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.

a view of the White Manor house on Rathlin Island that is the islands only hotel

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.

Arkell or Arkle house a bnb on the island of Rathlin

Where to stay near in Ballycastle

The Old Manse

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, and 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.

The Abbey Movie House

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.

Ultimate 22 things to do on Rathlin Island

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.

Rathlin Island is well worth a trip and if you love the outdoors, wildlife, hiking and just spending time in a little corner of Northern Ireland that not too many people tend to know about Rathlin Island is your dream trip. From Ballycastle you can visit Rathlin by ferry, walk the Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge, visit Dunluce Castle, hike the Giant’s Causeway and visit all those Game of Thrones sites you watched on TV.

Have you made it to Rathlin Island yet?

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  • Faith was born in Ireland raised in Canada and has lived in over 10 countries in Europe including England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, Northern Ireland, Wales, along with Mexico, Antigua, the US and has slow travelled to over 40 countries around the world. Graduating with a degree in Anthropology and Women's Studies Faith is a student of history, culture, community and food and has written about these topics for over 40 years.

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