I have always been fascinated by the islands we have dotted around our coast. My wife finds it hard to understand that for my 30th birthday in June I'd love a visit to Tory island 9 miles off the north coast of Donegal, rather than somewhere more exotic. It is unusual then, that it has taken me so long to visit our most well known island, Rathlin. This was fixed last weekend. I loved it!
Rathlin, from the Irish Reachlainn (the genetitive form of Reachra, meaning 'place of many shipwrecks') has a certain feeling of remoteness attached to it. It is separated by only 6 miles of water but the waters of Rathlin Sound are treacherous due to the tides of the Irish and North Seas meeting and creating dangerous currents. During winter, islanders can go many days being completely cut off from the mainland.
I arrived on Rathlin on a Saturday morning and stayed for two nights. Whilst I knew my afternoons would be spent in the island's only pub watching the final weekend of the Six Nations on the Saturday and Liverpool v Man Utd on the Sunday, I knew I would be spending a lot of time walking and photographing what is a beautiful island. I was having a bit of trouble thinking of the best way to structure this blog but have decided that I will divide the island into parts, show the photos I got in each area of the island and scatter any history or information along the way.
Rathlin is an L-shape so it could be argued by some that it doesn't really have a north, east, west and south, but I'm about to pretend otherwise!
Following on from these landscape shots, I'll also have a section each on the pub, the churches and the wildlife. I really hope you enjoy the photos and find the history interesting.
All of the images in this blog are available in many formats from my Rathlin Island gallery at http://www.hibernialandscapes.com/rathlin-island/ For any queries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Church Bay, shown in the photograph above is the location of the harbour, ferry terminal and most of the island's facilities. The island is surrounded on most sides by high cliffs (both limestone and basalt) and a safe landing place was historically rare. The bay is named after the first church on the island, St Thomas's. A church was located here as early as 580 A.D and indeed Rathlin is Ireland's first inhabited island, believed to have been inhabited from as long ago as 7,000 B.C.
We stayed in Church Bay with Alan and Hilary of Arkell House and from the moment we arrived they made it clear nothing would be too much trouble. The views here are stunning, such as this one from our bedroom window!
A 19th century British visitor to the island found that Rathlin had an unusual form of government where they elected a judge who sat on a "throne of turf". It was during this time that Rathlin's population peaked at 1800. However, two thirds of the island left the island from this very harbour during the Irish Famine and the population has not recovered since. At present, the island's population is approximately 125 (though this varies during the year and swells considerably during the summer months with visitors and islanders who live elsewhere during winter.
Rathlin has been the site of a number of massacres. On an expedition in 1557 Sir Henry Sidney devastated the island. In July 1575 the Earl of Essex sent Francis Drake and John Norreys to confront Scottish refugees on the island, and in the ensuing massacre hundreds of men, women and children of Clan MacDonnell were killed.
Just around the corner from Church Bay is Mill Bay. A colony of seals live here and you can often see them bathing on the beach or bathing in the clear waters. This area is popular with children because of the many rock pools.
This large Georgian house which dominates Rathlin’s harbour was built in the 1870s for the Gage family, who bought the island in 1746 from Lord Antrim for £1,750.
The last member of the family to live at the Manor House was Brigadier Rex Gage, CBE, MC, who died in 1973. It lay derelict for a while before it was taken over by the National Trust and then re-opened in 1998 as a 12-room hotel. It is currently undergoing further refurbishment and hopes to reopen next year.
When you arrive on Rathlin, a prominent part of the shoreline just south of Church Bay is this large and interesting old building. This was the 'kelp store'. Until the 1930s, when artificial methods replaced it, kelp was a rich source of iodine and soda for glass and soap manufacture and the islanders made an income by gathering it. Kelp production ended in Rathlin in 1938 – 25 years after the Antrim mainland. The information board nearby explains that the kelp store then became a dance hall until eventually abandoned.
Below is a shot I took on the walk back from sunset on the island's northern cliffs. The sunset was strong and whilst the streetlights were on and the island was getting dark there was still great colour in the sky.
the east of the island
I set my alarm for 5.30am on Sunday morning and made the three mile walk from my warm bed to a windy and cold Altacarry Head. What a great decision! The views were stunning. Along the walk I could see early morning oranges and reds around Fairhead and Torr Head on the Northern Irish mainland. As the road wound round I could clearly see the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, and this amazing sunrise developing before me. If you look closely in the above photo you can see the Mull of Kintyre with the sun rising just over it.
The East Lighthouse was built in 1856 and has been guiding ships through this important stretch of water for almost two centuries. When I moved closer to the cliff-edge I could start to see the Scottish islands of Islay and Jura to my left and I began to realise just how close to Scotland Rathlin is. In fact, from the 5th to the 8th century Rathlin Island was the centre of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada which stretched up from County Antrim through the Scottish islands.
It was this connection to Scotland that meant that it was in a cave just underneath this lighthouse where Robert The Bruce took refuge after being defeated in 1306 during his fight against the English for the crown of Scotland. The cave is now called Bruce's Cave but can only be reached by boat.
During his lonely exile it is said that he watched a spider patiently trying again and again to spin a web across an impossible gap and eventually succeed. Inspired, he returned to Scotland, to win victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
It was during my walk around the island after this photo I realised just how quiet the island was at this time of year. I was walking for hours and I didn't see a single car. In fact the photo below is by far the busiest I saw the island, with one car waiting at one side of the road for a quad (and the driver's dog) to pass by! Bliss!
The north of the island
I didn't expect this. I was told the northern cliffs were impressive but not this. The Cliffs of Moher are world famous. These don't seem to have an official name! They certainly don't have one on my detailed OSNI Map anyway. I guess it's the remoteness. The Cliffs of Moher have a visitor centre and a constant stream of tour buses but these cliffs are a 1.5 mile hike across open heather and grassland from the nearest road (after you've got to the island by boat!)
I do know that the bay is called Altachuille Bay and there is an old coastguard lookout nearby that was used during the war. From this spot again, Kintyre, Jura, Islay are visible, as is Inishowen in North Donegal. What a beautiful place. And the sunset wasn't half bad! I was in a great mood by this point. I got my sunset and now I had a walk back down in the dusk to the harbour for chill con carne and Guinness!
the west of the island
I said before that some people my argue that you can't really get distinct north, east, south and west out of an L-shaped island and they're probably right. In my definition, the 'west' of the island is everything west of Church Bay but not as far north as Ballyconagan and Altachuille Bay. The 'west' takes in the townlands of Knockans, Ballygill, Kinramer (where the main wooded area is, on an island of mostly grasses and heather and not many trees) as well as the Kebble nature reserve.
It is in the west of the island where these dramatic cliffs and sea stacks are. This is home to a huge colony of puffins along with the many other species of birdlife Rathlin has to offer including razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes.
The view above is taken from the West Lighthouse which is the only lighthouse in the world with the light located at the bottom of the building. It is also one of only a few lighthouses in the world that flash red instead of white.
This is also the location of the RSPB Seabird Centre which is currently undergoing renovations.
Kebble Lough, guarded by a 'friendly bull' lies just east of the cliffs and as we left a sharp rain shower came in behind us to disrupt our sunny walk! Thankfully I managed to capture the rain coming in just before it soaked my camera.
Indeed, as we continued to walk we were again bathed in sunshine and watched the rain move over Fairhead, Rue Point and Torr Head instead. We were happy with how quickly it moved on.
There's no reminder (other than daffodils I guess…) quite like lambs to remind you that spring has arrived. As we walked back along Rathlin's longest road from Kebble to Church Bay we passed through the townland of Ballygill and found these lambs enjoying the weather.
the south of the island
The final area of the island I want to talk about is the south. This is the area south of Church Bay and Mill Bay. Rathlin has no less than three lighthouses which probably demonstrates the difficulty of the surrounding waters. We have the East and the West lighthouses and so you'd probably expect this one to be called the South Lighthouse, but you'd be wrong! This is Rue Lighthouse, at Rue Point. You can see the Causeway Coast in the distance. It's definitely the island's least aesthetically pleasing of the three lighthouses, but the surrounding area is no less stunning. The south part of the island is dotted with lakes, cliffs and small beaches.
We made our way to Rue Point not by road, but along the excellent way marked Roonivoolin walk which brought us along the stunning cliff-line of Roonivoolin. Views in all directions were fantastic, but in the photo below you can see the view back to the other side of Rathlin. This view shows off the mix of limestone and basalt in the cliffline, with black on top of white.
Just to the east of Rue Point is Ushet Point. Here, an old granary can be found just across the Sea of Moyle from Fairhead. Ushet Point is one of the only other safe landing points on the island other than Church Bay.
On our walk back to Church Bay (sadly, to watch Liverpool lose to Manchester United….) we walked past Ushet Lough. It was surrounded by many Irish hares running around (just a wee bit too quickly for this landscape photographer!) I did manage to get one shot which you can see in the wildlife section below.
As many of you will know, I also enjoy pub photography. When I arrived on Rathlin the pub was the first place I went, to watch Ireland win the Six Nations (again!) Before everyone gathered at kick-off I grabbed an opportunity to photograph the pub empty.
McCuaig's opened in 1985 in Church Bay. It is the island's only pub and an important meeting place for islanders and visitors alike. Since 1st March it has been under new management and I must say I found the staff and regulars very friendly, with one of the islanders inviting us to his home to watch the football to make up for the lack of Sky tv in the pub! I wish the new management all the best.
Before the pub opened in Church Bay, a pub of the same name operated out of the front room of a Mr McCuaig, where the youth hostel is now. The new pub is decorated with much of the memorabilia from that pub. I think I'd have enjoyed to have photographed that old pub! People I spoke to were unsure how long the old McCuaig's was in operation but I would imagine it was a fairly casual affair!
religion on the island
Rathlin has one post office, one pub, one chip shop, one grocery shop and one school. But it's still part of Northern Ireland, so of course it has two churches! One Protestant and one Catholic. Both are modest but beautiful with interesting histories.
As the church of the establishment for centuries, the Church of Ireland's church of St Thomas's had the pick of locations and chose wisely, perched under some cliffs near the harbour and gives Church Bay its name. A church has been on this site since approximately 580 A.D. It was burned to the ground during the Vikings' first raid on ireland in the 8th century. The current church was built in 1812.
The interior of St Thomas's Church.
The Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception is located slightly further up a steep hill next to the island's only school and was built a few decades after the most recent incarnation of the Protestant Church. During Penal times mass was celebrated under the shade of an overhanging rock in Ballynagard in the centre of the island.
However, in 1816 the Catholic church purchased the site of an old mill and using stone quarried from the south of the island built the current church in 1865.
wildlife on the island
Rathlin Island as I mentioned before is well-known for its seals, puffins, oystercatchers, hares and other birdlife. I managed to capture a few of these on my walks.
On my first evening I came across a large group of seals. At first I accidentally scared them but they settled again and allowed me to get this shot.
On my walk back from Rue Point, I kept coming across this Irish hare. He was so fast near Ushet Lough but eventually I caught him sitting still on a hill over Doon Bay.
In terms of puffins, I visited too early as the colony returns in April/May. However, it's a good excuse for a return trip!
In fact, puffins or not, I will be returning to Rathlin Island. I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable trips anywhere in the world that I've been. The people were friendly, the landscapes beautiful and the weather, (in this case) very kind! It was peaceful and remote, the island was full of interesting characters and they served a good Ulster Fry and a pint.
Rathlin is most definitely my kind of place.