Sunday, 28 September 2014

Rathlin Island

Loading the Ferry
From the part of the Antrim coast where we stayed in Northern Ireland we could look across the sea to the long and thin looking Rathlin Island. As was the case during our week in Scotland the urge to visit was irresistible and our guide book suggested that walking on the island was a delight so we needed no second bidding when we got up and discovered a beautiful sunny morning greeting us.
Lolling About

The island is reached by ferry from Ballycastle and there are two choices – a fast ferry (25 mins) or a slow one.  We took the slow ferry across from Ballycastle - the four mile journey took about 45 minutes to complete but it was a delightful crossing. The boat is no more than a converted trawler and although billed as a car ferry the reality was that with three vehicles aboard when we went over it was full! Two of the three vehicles belonged to contractors, sent over to help with one of the 50 or so households on the island. One of the contractors clearly wasn't much of a sailor, for he was fairly green most of the way across.

Seabird Coast
When we arrived at the other end we were greeted by a bus driver in a fairly dilapidated looking bus who was offering tours of the island. To be honest it isn't possible to go that far for the island is only about 6 1/2 miles long. However, we did want to take a look at the lighthouse that we were able to see from the mainland and I had thought that walking there and back might be a bit much for the girls so we hopped on. I cheekily asked if we could take a look at the south of the island first for I knew that was the part that we were unlikely to look at otherwise.

Puddle Track
Eventually the chap managed to drum up enough support to make the trip viable and off we headed along the very narrow road down towards the southernmost section of the L shaped island. On the way the driver told us about the most famous visitors to the island, all with very different stories. Robert the Bruce is said to have come to the island after a bad defeat to the English in one of the many battles that took place between the two countries back in the Middle Ages. After watching a spider weave and reweave a web several times he eventually took inspiration from the spider never giving up and headed back to Scotland where he beat the English famously at the Battle of Bannockburn. More recently Marconi used Rathlin to make the first radio message back to Ballycastle a little over 100 years ago - how technology has moved on since! The reason for choosing this unlikely spot is that Rathlin Island stands in the middle of a hugely busy shipping lane.  Currents are strong due to the narrowness of the channel and this led to the loss of shipping and lives.  It was thought that radio would help save lives by dealing with distress calls that much more quickly.  The most famous recent visitor was Richard Branson who crash landed his balloon here when making the first ever crossing of the Atlantic.

Being left Behind
After our rather bumpy ride down to the south headland we had a few minutes out of the bus to take a look around. I headed down to the water to find a whole load of seals sunbathing, which was rather more exciting for me than them. They barely moved a muscle as they lazed on the rocks, briefly looking up to make sure we weren’t a threat before returning to their daytime slumbers.  At this end of the island was a ruined building, possibly a kelp station.  Kelp was routinely harvested in these parts for agricultural uses.  Away in the distance was the stripy tower of the south lighthouse, a rather squat looking beacon warning ships to steer clear of this treacherous headland.

Kebble Lough
There wasn't long to enjoy the sights though - we were soon back on board for the lively ride to the other end of the island. The road was extremely narrow but we were at least confident that we were very unlikely to meet anyone coming the other way for there are few vehicles on the island. It was a good job for as we got closer to the western end we ran out of tarmac and our onward trip was along what could only be described as a farm track.

Another Bus Tour
At the farthest end of Rathlin Island we finally reached the RSPB nature reserve, which is largely a sea cliff and a visitor centre.  Sadly for us the visitor centre was closed and isn’t due to reopen until 2015 after some major refurbishment.  It also meant that the viewing platform down by the West Lighthouse was also out of bounds and so we had to make do with peering over the fence.  We got out of the bus to hear the cacophony of sea birds and far below us on the cliffs were puffins, guillemots and various types of gull all vying for the loudest cry. It was at this point that we decided to part company with the bus and we started the four mile walk back along the road to the harbour.

Kebble Cottage
The walk was relatively easy going (more so than I thought) as we merely followed the road.  There were stunning views all the way from the off, especially south to the mainland but also to Scotland much further distant.  All along the sides of the road was a profusion of wildflowers, with heather and gorse both out to make a magnificent moorland carpet.  Initially our route took us through Kebble Nature Reserve where the road was unsurfaced and unfenced.  Down in a hollow in the moor was a surprisingly large lake, Kebble Lough, which reflected the puffy white clouds in the sky perfectly.

At the far end of the nature reserve we passed by the small Kebble Cottage, the most westerly house on the island.  Outside was a small picnic table but we concluded that it was a little early for lunch and so wandered on.  We crossed a cattle grid (designed to keep livestock out of the nature reserve) and then on to the tarmac road, which was to be our companion all the way back into Rathlin Harbour.

Endless Road
We climbed the hill at Kinramer, passing by a large group of cyclists going the other way.  With so few cars on the island it really is a great place to walk and cycle without any road safety worries.  At the top of the hill we got the most magnificent view across the whole of the east of the island and its L shape could really be appreciated.  Just in the dip below the hill was the hamlet of Cleggan with some of the houses at least being unoccupied albeit furnished.  Perhaps they were holiday cottages?  You would really have to enjoy the outdoors and a simple holiday to enjoy staying here for other than its immediate charm there is little else to do on the island except explore and socialise.

Picnic View
We also passed by Kinramer Wood where there is a short walk through the only largish tract of trees on the island.  Above us were buzzards wheeling around looking for lunch opportunities – they obviously rule the skies in this part of the island for there were no signs of any other seagulls.  At a much lower level it was an insect’s paradise – perhaps not surprising with so many wild flowers growing.

Catholic Church
Off to the left near Cleggan is a rare outcrop of rock apparently, called porcellanite.  This was discovered by Stone Age people who exploited this hard rock to fashion tools and weapons.  The rock is a crystalline volcanic rock, hence its hardness.  The route now became more obvious as it stretched out ahead.  This part of the island was characterised by scattered houses on small plots of land and turnings to the left and right were largely just access roads to the odd house in the distance.
Rathlin Church

Sadly the good weather that we had enjoyed to this point didn't last. Inevitably about half way back the rain started coming down quite heavily although luckily it was a shower that didn't last too long. When the rain relented we managed to find a small picnic site that I had clocked on the way out with a magnificent view across the whole island. We lingered for a little while eating our lunch before heading down the hill into Rathlin village.
Rathlin Harbour

On the way down the steep hill into the village we headed past the catholic church and the school where only eight pupils attend.  We thought briefly about heading over to the east lighthouse but concluded that we may not have enough time to do it justice and opted instead for the descent down into the Harbour.   We passed by the proud looking St Thomas's Church, built in 1812 and commanding a great view of the harbour just beyond.  By now the weather had significantly improved once again and touring around the small settlement was a joy.  I whiled away some time in the visitor centre chatting to the locals while the girls while away the remaining time by drawing and painting. It was rather a pleasant end to the day for all of us :)

Rathlin Ferry
Eventually we got the ferry back and this time we had opted for the quicker passenger only ferry. That turned out to be quite a lively affair as about half way across to Ballycastle we ran into a very powerful squally shower, which made us all duck for cover inside. Despite the rather unpleasant end it was a thoroughly enjoyable day.


  1. I always like visting islands and this look a good one. I've not been to any of Northern Ireland. I must go there soon, especially the Antrim coast.

  2. Sounds like a good place to visit for a days walking Paul. As you mentioned there doesn't seem much else to do. Like Jon above I am a big fan of islands, especially the Scottish ones.


  3. Thanks chaps - Rathlin is definitely worth a visit. We loved it! I think more islands might be on the cards in 2015 :)