Rathin Island, located 6 miles off Ballycastle off the Northern Ireland coast and 16 miles from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, is one of Ireland’s hidden treasures. Visitors can take an inexpensive, 45 minute ferry ride to Rathlin from Ballycastle. The island itself is L-shaped, stretching eight miles long and less than one mile wide. It is the only inhabited island in Northern Ireland. The most striking feature of Rathlin Island is its brilliant limestone and basalt sea cliffs, which can reach over 450 feet. But the cliffs and rocky shorelines, while beautiful, are also dangerous. Over 50 recorded shipwrecks are submerged around the island, resting on underwater cliffs, caves, and the sandy sea floor.
Rathlin Island boasts a myriad of intriguing events within its history. In 1306, the Scottish king Robert the Bruce took shelter in a cave. According to legend, he was inspired to continue his fight against the English as he watched a spider doggedly spin its web. Apparently the arachnid’s ambition helped: Robert the Bruce subsequently defeated the English at Bannockburn. Bruce’s Cave is named after him. The island was also a place of sanctuary for the women and children of Clan MacDonell, who sought refuge from the English. However, Rathlin proved a false haven when the clan was ruthlessly massacred in July of 1575 by the Earl of Essex.
Visitors can head to the Boathouse Visitor Centre for information on the history, culture, and ecology of Rathlin Island. There are a number of archaeological surveys around the island, but most Rathlin archaeological sites are closed to tourists. Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation on the island (you can’t bring your car) and can be rented from the local hostel.
Rathlin Island is one of 43 Special Areas of Conservation, designated as such by the Irish government. Many birdwatchers and hikers flock to Rathlin for its beautiful, often rare bird species and refreshing, coastal trails. The island is home to hundreds of seals and thousands of nesting seabirds, including Kittiwakes, Puffins, and Razorbills. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Nature Reserve offers guided tours and can help birdwatchers find spectacular views of Rathlin’s bird colony. Kebble National Nature Reserve is another popular natural attraction, located at the western end of the island.
Rathlin hosts two popular festivals during the year. The Heart of the Glens Festival is held every third week of August in Cushendall Village. With street parties, fireworks, and traditional village life exhibits, the festival is a great way for visitors to have fun and learn about Irish culture. The Glenravel Festival occurs during the last month of August, offering daily events for families, helicopter rides, and a big country fair.
In recent years, Rathlin Island has received more attention from archeologists. University of Ulster researchers recently began a study to identify new Rathlin archeological sites. Other surveys have revealed prehistoric settlement sites and collections of flint tools and pottery. Oweydoo Cave is an especially rich Rathlin archeological site.
Hostels, cottages, and guesthouses are located around the island, accommodating everyone from the budget traveler to the well-off explorer. Many Ireland visitors find the secluded serenity of Rathlin Island to be a welcome, refreshing break from the fast-paced lifestyle found in many European cities.