And so to the last island on my coastal blogging journey. With its distinctive boomerang shape, Rathlin Island has the distinction of being the only inhabited island within the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland. The island is easily accessible from the mainland, being linked to Ballycastle by means of a ferry service for passengers and vehicles, the maximum crossing time being 40 minutes. Most of the signs of civilisation, including a bar, accommodation and shops, are to be found next to a small west-facing harbour, the departure point for the ferries. Among the historic sites on the island are a Kelp House, where kelp used to be stored prior to being sent to Scotland, a standing stone and the site of a Neolithic settlement, a reminder of the earliest human presence on the island between 4000 and 2500 BC.
There is a well-known story about the Scottish king Robert the Bruce, in which he is taking refuge in a cave after being driven from Scotland by Edward I of England. He observes a spider persevering in repeated attempts to bridge a gap with its web, and the spider’s efforts inspire him to return to Scotland to regain his crown. As is often the case with such stories, there are a number of places where this event is claimed to have taken place, but a few years ago one of Robert’s descendents claimed that it happened on Rathlin Island.
Another notable event from history was the Rathlin Island Massacre in 1575. At that time there was a castle on the island, and the MacDonnells of Antrim took refuge there and used it as a base for their resistance to the Enterprise of Ulster. Their leader, Sorley Boy MacDonnell, also decided to send a host of women, children, elderly and sick to the island for safety. However, this proved to be a bad move when Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norreys, acting for the 1st Earl of Essex in his campaign to subdue Ulster, attacked the castle, and even went as far as seeking out the more vulnerable folk who were hiding in caves. The result was 600 dead, including over 400 civilians. The dead included the entire family of Sorley Boy MacDonnell, who was forced to watch helplessly from the mainland.
Rathlin Island had a mention on the last episode of this year’s Springwatch, when it was announced that the corncrake has returned to the island, making it the only place in Northern Ireland where the bird has been heard in recent years. According to the island’s RSPB page, as well as the corncrake, the island is home to Northern Ireland’s only breeding pair of chough, while other birds to be found there include puffin, guillemot, kittiwake, razorbill and fulmar.
Map of the area.
Church Bay - geograph.org.uk - 469318. Photo by Anne Burgess, via Wikimedia Commons.