Why is it with islands that small is always more beautiful? The comfort of being able to hear the sea humming from every angle sends us southwards across the world in search of islands of the palm fringed variety or northwards in search of the something more rugged and seabird-songed.
Fortunately we don’t have to go far. Ireland and Scotland have some of the most beautiful small islands in the world.
The L-shaped Rathlin sits between Scotland and Ireland almost unsure in which of two of the beautiful seascapes it wishes to participate.
In the end it opts for a little bit of both and a little contribution of is own. Rugged beauty with shrubbery.
For a wind-and-sea battered island, Rathlin does great foliage.
As you wander the roads the sea peeps, laughs and twinkles at you through gaps in the trees. Around another turn there is a shimmering lake, surrounded by baby lakes. A loud and boisterous brook cacophanates down behind the school house.
The bits of this landscape which don’t have foliage give way instead to heather. There is one section where you walk along a ridge of colour-bending bracken, sea to the right and left of you, the most spectacular view of the Mull of Kintyre and Antrim’s Fair head ahead of you and the sound of sea and seagulls in your ears.
You reach Rathlin by ferry from Ballycastle. Twice daily in summer in once in winter the ferry plies its trade, carrying trailer loads of topsoil and red post vans to and from. Just collect your map at Ballycastle ferry port, pay your GBP9/u13.50 for a return ticket and off you go.
Leave the car behind. Visitors are not supposed to bring cars, (you need a permit for a car on the island) and there has been an ongoing problem with the dumping of mainland vehicles.
Rathlin figures on the very first maps of Ireland but evidence of the stories history is sparse. Bruce’s castle (if it was built by him at all) is just a pile of stones. The Vikings loved Rathlin so much they chose it for the very first of their tourist visits in 795. Francis Drake also came by for a massacre, of Sorley Boy McDonnell’s supporters in 1575, screams still recalled in folklore.
Marconi, or at least his assistant, created a gentler sound when sent the world’s first wireless message here from Ballycastle in 1891 and a century later the sound was of gas exhaling from Richard Branson’s balloon when he arrived unexpectedly.
Branson has given his name to the local hostel, which seems appropriate. The 18th century manor house has been restored as a B&B and there is another guesthouse in Church Bay.
Most people come for day trips, which probably does not do the island justice.
Lighthouses dominate the seascape. Three of them are positioned at strategic places to prevent shipping mishaps, and form ideal destination points for walks along the narrow roads.
Walking and bird watching are the main attractions. There is a bird observation post near the West Lighthouse which is open between April and August, and they come to watch guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, Manx shearwaters, razorbills and puffins.
A World War II wreck at the mouth of the bay is a starting point for a large number of divers who come by. Colonies of grey and common seal can be seen at Mill Bay at the walk to the south lighthouse.
The island is four miles by three miles long, is never wider than a mile, 3,500 acres and a succession of small lakes.
The angle of the L faces towards Antrim, and it is here the 100 or so inhabitants, all catholic with one protestant family, are huddled around the single pub, two churches, two shops, school and craft shop with a small selection of Rathlin-made handicrafts.
Church bay, as it is known, is just a staging point for three walks into some of the most beautiful heather-lined walkways you will find anywhere and the lighthouses where you can share the landscape of Rathlin’s high end, jugged 450-feet cliffs facing Scotland from where Robbie Bruce famously came to shelter in a sea cave and met a determined spider.
The spider didn’t give in and Bruce decided he wouldn’t either, so he went back for a rematch with the English at Bannockburn.
You can’t get into the cave from land. Which sort of makes sense when you think of it. Every visitor to Rathlin comes home more determined.
There are three main routes on the roads of the island – one to each of the three lighthouses. There are also off-road walking trails at Ballyconagan. Distances and times are for one direction only and times are for walkers and cyclists of average ability. The roads form part of the National Cycle Network. (www.nationalcyclenetwork.org.uk)
To West Lighthouse 4.5m/7km 100 mins walking 45 mins cycling
This route offers spectacular views over Church Bay and the north coast of the mainland from Ballycastle to Innishowen. The route passes through many important areas of natural beauty before reaching the impressive sea bird viewpoint where, between May and August, you can see up to 250,000 sea birds, including puffins. The signed route takes the longer, but less hilly option. Turn right from the harbour (here), around Church Bay and turn inland at the first road on the left. The roads are good as far as Kebble Cottage where the road turns rougher. Cyclists should consider parking up and walking the last mile. Parts of this route are quite hilly.
To East lighthouse 1.75m/3km 45 mins walking 15 mins cycling
This route offers good views of Church Bay and ends with dramatic views across the ocean to Scotland and back to Fair Head, near Ballycastle. Near the lighthouse is the site where Marconi and his assistants set up the world’s first commercial radio station and in the distance you can see the remains of Bruce’s Castle. On the return journey the route passes the start of the Ballyconagan walking trails and then takes the steep road down to the harbour.
To South Lighthouse 2.75m/4.5km 70 mins walking 30 mins cycling
This route heading south to Rue Point and the South Lighthouse, is very peaceful and passes beside the waters of Mill Bay and Ushet Lough. It ends with dramatic views looking south to Fair Head near Ballycastle. Leaving Church Bay take the coastal road around the harbour to Mill Bay where seals bask on the rocks just off the shore. Further south you pass five loughs, the largest of which is Ushet where the islanders race their model yachts. The route is quite level and suitable for less experienced cyclists except for the last 200m to Rue Point. Pay attention at the South Lighthouse where the sea can be dangerous at high tide.
Ballyconagan Walking Trails
0.8m/1.3 km 30 mins walking
Three waymarked trails cross heathland and grassland at times covered in a breath-taking array of wild flowers, and always home to numerous Irish hares. Superb views of Scotland and the Western Isles await those reaching the old coastguard hut, on the northern cliffs at Ballyconagan.
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