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Rathlin Island

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

Rathlin walkingTake 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 2016, although the lower viewing platform is open to the public).  

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

Rathlin Island - Church BayImmerse 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.

Seal Colony 

Seal spotting, RathlinA seal colony exists in Mill Bay and offers them a safe paradise. So look out for those disguised mammals while they are resting up.


Manor House, RathlinRathlin Island is home to a range of quality accommodation properties for visitors.

Bed & Breakfast / Guesthouse: Arkell House | Coolnagrock Bed & Breakfast
The Manor House is currently closed for refurbishment and is expected to re-open by Summer 2016.

Self Catering: Tra Aisling | The Hayloft

Hostel / Bunk House:
Kinramer Cottage | Rathlin Island Hostel 

Places to Eat

Bruce's Kitchen at McCuaig's Bar (café seasonal) | Harbour Café (seasonal) | Emma's Chip Ahoy | Rathin Island Lobster & Crab

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)

See also:

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