A Guide to Visiting Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island is Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island, located five miles north of Ballycastle on the North Antrim Coast and just 12 miles west of Scotland's Mull of Kintyre. Read on to learn more about the island and its range of activities, events and accommodation options.
Rathlin Island lies just off the famous Causeway Coastal Route journey and offers a unique island experience, so why not take a ferry from the seaside town of Ballycastle to visit this idyllic destination.
The island is known for its rich history and traditional culture, as well as its stunning landscapes, seascapes and diverse wildlife. These qualities have made it an inspirational retreat for walkers, artists, writers, musicians, bird enthusiasts, divers, photographers or generally for those who just want to enjoy the peace and tranquility of island-life.
About a hundred people live on Rathlin Island today. The many ruined cottages and old dry stone walls and pillars are a strong feature of the landscape and stand witness to violent incidents in the island’s past. Legend has it that the wee folk, the fairies like to dance on these pillars.
Walking and Cycling and Activities
Take a walk or hire a cycle around the island and don’t forget to admire the the island's three lighthouses (the West lighthouse is under renovation and indeed the RSPB Seabird centre is closed until the season of 2015).
Walking routes on Rathlin: Ballyconaghan Trail | Roonivoolin Trail | Kebble Cliff Walk | Rathlin Trail | Kinramer Trail | Kinramer North Trail
Also see: Rathlin Island Walking Tours
Walk guides are for sale in outlets on Rathlin Island and from Ballycastle Visitor Information Centre.
Cycling routes on Rathlin: Rathlin Island Trail
Culture and Heritage
Immerse yourself in the island’s rich cultural heritage.
• Many peoples settled here and amongst the first were the Mesolithic and Neolithic settlers. The Vikings also landed in Church Bay, being one of the first recorded attacks on the island of Ireland in 795 AD, and left behind a number of Viking graves, Norse coins and intricate brooches.
• Rathlin was later the scene of a number of bloody massacres with the 1575 MacDonnell massacre being one of the most horrific. The Irish MacDonnell clan had sent their women, children and elderly from the Scottish mainland for safety from the invading English. This didn’t prevent the English fleet under the Earl of Essex (whose soldiers included Sir Francis Drake) finding them, and killing the entire population. The massacre was said to have included the family of the great Scottish warrior Sorley Boy MacDonnell.
• On the north east point of the island is Bruce’s Cave, a black basalt cavern where legend has it that the Scottish King Robert the Bruce hid away in 1306, after being defeated by the English at Perth. Watching a spider repeatedly trying to spin its web gave him the resolve not to give in, and he returned to Scotland and defeated an English army at Bannockburn. There are many cultural and heritage links between West Scotland and Rathlin.
• Rathlin is surrounded by some 40 sea wrecks, the most famous of which is HMS Drake in Church Bay. She was one of the fastest and heaviest cruisers of her time and was escorting a transatlantic convoy when she was hit in Rathlin Sound by a torpedo from German U-Boat U-79 early on 2 October 1917, killing 19 of her crew. The island is a very popular destination for diving.
• Other historical sites of interest include a Stone Age axe-making site about halfway towards West Lighthouse, and to its north, earthworks known as Doonmore; the remains of a primitive kind of sauna known as a 'sweathouse'used by monks near Church Bay at Knockans; and the remains of the kelp store which was built to keep seaweed dry – seaweed was a natural resource for agricultural fertilisers and the kelp indsutry was a key island industry in the 17th - 19 centuries.
• Rathlin's most recent famous visitor was Richard Branson, whose hot-air helium balloon crashed into the sea off Rathlin in 1987 after its record-breaking transatlantic flight from the USA.
• Boathouse Visitor Centre: The island's visitor centre and museum, the Boathouse, is a short walk from the harbour in Church Bay. It contains a wealth of artefacts, photographs and information about Rathlin's history and life on the island. Souvenirs and island-related books for sale. Open May to August daily, 10.30am to 4pm.
A seal colony exists in Mill Bay and offers them a safe paradise. So look out for those disguised mammals while they are resting up.
Find the Puffins!
The RSPB Seabird Centre will not be open to the public during 2014 meaning the island's famous puffins will nest without an audience, but an ingenious idea has been hatched. There will be more puffins than ever all over the island as residents have stitched, knitted, glued, painted and with growing ingenuity, produced puffins galore. You’ll have to go and look for them though – a new way of Rathlin birdwatching!
Rathlin Island is home to a range of quality accommodation properties for visitors.
Bed & Breakfast / Guesthouse: Coolnagrock Bed & Breakfast | Manor House (opening Easter 2014)
Self Catering: The Hayloft | Puffin Cottage
Hostel / Bunk House: Soerneog View Hostel | Kinramer Cottage | Rathlin Island Hostel (new for 2014)
Places to Eat
Bruce's Kitchen at McCuaig's Bar (café seasonal) | Harbour Café (seasonal) | Emma's Chip Ahoy | Rathin Island Lobster & Crab
• RSPB Roonivoolin Rambles (10 May – 16 Aug)
• Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival (23 May – 1 June)
• Rathlin on Camera with Tom McDonnell (21 June)
• Forage Rathlin Island: 2 – 4 June | 3 – 5 July | 26 – 28 August
Other Things to Do on Rathlin
• Island Treasure Souvenir and Gift Shop
• Breakwater Studio Rathlin- Art Studio of Yvonne Braithwaite
• Kebble and Kinramer Nature Reserves
•Rathlin Boat Tours
Getting to Rathlin Island: Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd
Getting around the island: Soerneog View Hostel Cycle Hire
Download the Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd brochure for more information on visiting the island.
Videos: Rathlin Island (Causeway Coastal Route Alive) | Rathlin Island - A Place Apart (NIEA) | Rathlin Island - Paddle Boarding (Discover NI)