Puffins on Rathlin Island, image courtesy of Chiara Ceci
Rathlin Island is Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island and home to a spectacular array of wildlife located five miles north of Ballycastle on the North Antrim Coast. With the re-opening of the RSPB Seabird Centre and first time access to the Rathlin West Lighthouse, it's a unique visitor experience not to be missed.
Rathlin Island lies just off the famous Causeway Coastal Route journey and offers a distinctive island holiday experience, so why not take a ferry from the seaside town of Ballycastle to visit this idyllic destination. The island’s ultimate experience will be immersive and memorable.
Imposing iconic lighthouses, sporadic deep sea shipwrecks, a dramatic coastal scenery shrouded in a rich cultural heritage, Rathlin Island is on the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean. There are many ways on offer to explore the island’s heritage from walking, cycling and rigid inflatable boats.
Rathlin’s beguiling coastal landscapes adorned with stunning natural assets are popular to visitors looking to escape life on the mainland. You’ll have no choice but to succumb to the islands’ charms. Explore the rugged terrain of the island a dramatic patchwork of idyllic green fields, towering sea-cliffs and sensational sea- views. The island appeal is very diverse and opportunities exist to get up nice and close to nature with wildlife in abundance.
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 visitors from all walks of life who can 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.
(Rue Point Lighthouse, Rathlin Island)
You can now take a tour of the only ‘upside down’ lighthouse in Ireland. Visitors can now access this legendary icon. Whether you are interested in wildlife, curious about engineering or maritime heritage, or simply want to experience life on an island, Rathlin West Lighthouse is the place for you. Enjoy the spectacular vistas as you walk, cycle or bus it up from the ferry terminal. Rathlin West Light is a lighthouse and one of the largest seabird colonies in the UK and part of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland trail.
Every year thousands of migrating seabirds return to breed here. The sights, sounds and even the smell of so many seabirds at such close quarters is an experience you’ll never forget and the RSPB NI team will be on hand to help you identify the unique birdlife. It's also home to one of the most extensive ranges of sea life in Europe, with birds, dolphins and seals visiting the island.
Walking and Cycling and Activities
Take a walk or hire a cycle around the island and don’t forget to take time in admiration of the island's three legendary lighthouses.
Also see: Rathlin Island Walking Tours
Walk guides are available from Ballycastle Visitor Information Centre.
Cycling routes on Rathlin: Rathlin Island Trail
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 awash with seafaring history, surrounded by some forty ship wrecks. From cargo ships sinking and depositing their cargo near Rathlin, one that perished included rum, coffee and pimento . On route from Jamaica to Scotland. During the two world wars, numerous boats carrying cargo, munitions and troops were torpedoed. 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 now a 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 industry 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. In gratitude he donated £25,000 to the island for rescuing him.
Boathouse Visitor Centre
The island's visitor centre and museum, the Boathouse Visitor Centre, 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 are for sale. Open April to September daily 9.30am - 5pm.
With lots to keep everyone entertained, make sure Rathlin Island is on your must-see list.