Rathlin is a small, L -shaped island about 1400 hectares in area and is situated five
miles (8km) off the Antrim coast just north of Ballycastle
from where the 45 minute ferry journey begins. The island is inhabited by about 100
residents whose ancestors have resided on Rathlin for hundreds of years, and many a yarn
they will tell you about the islands history. Rathlin has spectacular cliff top walkways,
caves and ample wild nature to view making it very popular with birdwatchers, geologists,
botanists, divers, anglers and anyone with a passion for wild
and rugged scenery. Search for flakes of flint at Brockley, for Rathlin porcellanite axes
were the designer weapons of the Stone Age.
The island is also quite famous for Bruce's Cave that is blow the East
lighthouse where Robert The Bruce was said to have sought refuge in 1306 after
his defeat by the English at Perth in Scotland. As he sat in the cave he caught
sight of a spider that repeatedly tried to reach the cave roof by its thread, it
eventually succeeded. He concluded, 'If at first you don't succeeded, try try
and try again', returned to Scotland and defeated the English at Bannockburn.
The ferry can transport cars onto the island but only by special permission and hence
there are very few cars making the roads very quiet and ideal for walking. There is a
minibus service from the harbour to the bird sanctuary, but if you are up to a five mile
walk it is well worth the effort.
The RSPB nature reserve is a stretch of basalt cliff along the north coast
of Rathlin. To make access to this area safe the RSPB leases the viewpoint at the West
Lighthouse from the Commissioners of Irish Lights. This viewpoint, which can be seen as
the white building in the above image, provides spectacular views of Northern Ireland's
finest bird colony. Guillemots and Kittiwakes nest in their thousands along the
steep cliffs whilst the offshore stacks is a safe haven for Razorbills, Fulmars
Peregrine Falcons, Kestrels, Buzzards, Ravens, Wheatears and Stonechats can often be
seen and Skylarks may be heard along the road. Amongst the freshwater marshes
you may see breeding Lapwings, Snipe, Sedge Warblers, Reed Buntings and
Black-Headed Gulls. Church Bay also plays host to Eiders, Ringed Plovers and
Oystercatchers, whilst Black Guillemots breed at cliff bases. Walk on from
Church Bay towards the Rue Point and pass small loughs, home to Grebes, Tufted
Ducks, Moorhens and Coots. Other birds that may be seen on your visit to
the island would be Blackbird, Chaffinch, Chiff-Chaff, Chough, Coal Tit, Common Gull, Common Sandpiper,
Cormorant, Corncrake, Crossbill, Curlew, Dunlin, Dunnock, Gannets, Goldcrest, Goldfinch, Great Black-Backed Gull, Greenfinch,
Herring Gull, Hooded Crow, House Martin, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Linnet,
Long-Eared Owl, Magpie, Mallard, Manx Shearwater, Meadow Pipit, Mistle Thrush, Pied Wagtail,
Purple Sandpiper, Redpoll, Redshank, Robin, Rock Dove, Rock Pipit, Rook, Shag,
Shelduck, Song Thrush, Sparrowhawk, Spotted Flycatcher, Starling, Swallow, Teal,
Turnstone, Twite, Water Rail, Whinchat, Whitethroat, Willow Warbler,
Irish hares and rabbits are most easily seen but if you make your way the Mill Bay or
the old Smuggler's house at the Rue Point you should be able to see both grey and common
seals at fairly close quarters.
The Axe Export
It is believed that man first set foot on Rathlin around 6000-5000BC
on his way to Whitepark bay in the Middle Stone Age. Evidence has been found to
support these findings in the form of auk, bear, elk and many types of fish and
shellfish. Evidence also shows that by about 2500BC Rathlin had built up an Axe
export trade. These axes made from a fine blue stone known as 'Porcellanite'
found in the Brockley town land located towards
the west of Rathlin. There was only two other such locations in Ireland and this
led to distribution throughout the UK. This trade also attracted trading ships
from as far as Crete / Tyre and Rathlin Islanders would have been quite wealthy,
the young boys would have traveled on these ships to locations such as Egypt. The
climate about this time would have had a much milder climate similar to that of
the Mediterranean making it much safer to cross
the sea in the flimsy Curraghs made from wood and
Sadly, around 1800BC Copper axes appeared and the trade dried up within a few
years. Rathlin an island that had been well known and well informed on world
issues fell into an era of obscurity since the trade ships no longer visited
with tales of far off lands. About 1500BC the island was occupied by the
Firbolgs, a small dark Spanish race translating to 'bag men' that may be a
reference to wearing 'woven trousers'. Their reign did not last long as about
1200BC they were driven out by the 'Tuatha de Doman', swords of Bronze.
Next to arrive about 400BC, the Celts who again struck terror with their swords
of Iron. Tall with red blonde hair and considerable artistic genius these people
settled here for over 1200 years. There have been a few iron age burial sites
found and it is said that these contained the swords of iron when first
discovered. During the first century the island was ruled by King Donn who had a
daughter called 'Taisie' that is said to have been the most beautiful woman in
the world with her dazzling blue eyes and long
Around 400AD the Roman Empire was in steady decline from England and during this
time Niall a splendid hero of Gaelic blood, sent many incursions across the
Irish sea in Curraghs. One of these raids was to be legendary in the history of
Ireland when Niall kidnapped several people, one of whom was the son of a minor
Roman official. Saint Patrick as he became known had such an effect on religion
that soon monasteries appeared on many islands including Rathlin which followed
the trend 200 years later.
795AD the Vikings arrived raiding the monasteries for their gold hoards. The
monks won in the end when most of the raiders followed the Christian
1100AD the island came under the rule of the Argyll chieftain
Somerled a great chieftain from whom the notorious MacDonnells of Antrim would
eventually descend. 1156AD the Norwegians fought
and gained ownership of the island amongst others.
The next few decades were to prove quite turbulent in Rathlin's history when in
1169 Henry II King of England gave land grants over the island to John
De'Courcy whom it is beleived built the castle known as 'Bruces', he had built several such buildings in the immediate area
during his stay. The island then fell into the hands of one Hugh De'Lacy in 1205
when he turned King John against De'Courcy, but this did last long as he grew
too greedy and De'Courcy returned with King John's consent to expel De'Lacy.
After King John had finished his purge of Ulster he granted land rights to
Duncan of Carrick who in turn granted it to his kinsman Alan Earl of Galloway.
This only lasted for three years until 1216 when King John intervened again to
grant ownership to the De'Lacy family yet again only for it to be inherited by
the De'Burgos by marraige.
In 1242 the Byssets arrived from Scotland and bought Rathlin and the Glens from
the De'Burgos. It was during this period that it is claimed that Sir Hugh Bysset
let Robert the Bruce hide in the autumn of 1306 after defeat by the English.
Whilst he stayed on the island the Bruce is said to have drawn new inspiration
after watching a spider finally succeed after several attempts to climb to the
roof inside what is now commonly known as Bruce's cave.
The island then changed ownership by the marriage
of Margery Bysset to John Mor McDonnell and would remain in the McDonnell
family name until 1490 when Angus McDonnell was assassinated and in 1493 King
James IV forfeited the title 'Lord of the Isles' and ruled the island. After this date details are scarce as the McDonnells were not akin to keeping
records. The McQuillans are said to have had influence over the island during
this period although there is no proof.
Anyway it wasn't until 1551 that Rathlin once more got into the thick of it.
Captain Cuffe and Sir Ralph Bagenal tried to land near Bruce's cave to defeat
Colla and James McDonnell, but the ship was thrown ashore by the unpredictable
swell and both were captured and later released in exchange for the release of
Sorley Boy. The island suffered a massacre in 1557 at the hands of Sir Henry
Sydney when he captured corn and cattle. Turlough Luineach O'Neill married Lady
Agnes Campbell (James McDonnell's widow) with fourteen days of story-tellers,
jugglers and jesters. The next big massacre was by Sir Francis Drake when he
conned the people into surrendering only to be
slaughtered, but revenge was swift by Sorley Boy by the capturing the castle at
Carrickfergus when he killed over a hundred. The English didn't think the island
was worth holding so Sorley Boy reacquired it
shortly and used it as a base for raids on the mainland against the English. In
1585 Henry Bagenal and Captain Thorton recaptured the island after some sharp
fighting by Sorley Boy and his men near Dunmore before the beat a hasty retreat
to Kintyre. Sorley Boy then captured Dunluce castle and swore allegiance
to Queen Elizabeth in return for land rights he so rightly deserved. This drew
to an end the long conflict between the Scots and the English in the area.
Irish or Scottish
After Elizabeth's death the Stuart monarchy granted a knighthood to
Sorley Boy's son Randal and the grants of Rathlin
and The Glynns. For a while the island was peaceful although the issue
of whether the island belonged to Ireland or Scotland came into focus when the
right of ownership was disputed by Crawford of Lisnorris. Luckily for Randal the
court ruled in his favour and Rathlin was proclaimed an Irish island.
too be continued...
Mary Black, the famous Irish singer came from here.