Between Ireland and Scotland
Rathlin Island lies six miles (10km) off Ballycastle harbour in Northern Ireland – although only just under two miles (3km) from Fair Head – and 16 miles (25km) from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.
The island is about six miles (11km) miles long and its widest part is barely more than a mile (1.5km). Its small size belies the rugged and varied scenery, from near 500ft (150m)-high cliffs in the west to rolling lowland heath and lakes in the east.
The higher northern part of the L-shaped island is called Kinramer and the low-lying southern leg, Kinkeel. They are connected by the island’s only major road. Church Bay, the harbour and only large settlement, is in the corner of the L.
There are three lighthouses on Rathlin Island, a pointer to both its wild coast and its strategic importance at the narrowest point between Ireland and Scotland. The North Sea pours into the gap, hitting the tides of the Irish sea storming out, making a passage that is treacherous to shipping – there are at least 40 shipwrecks around the island – and spectacular to see. The mood of sea and sky changes every hour.
People have lived on Rathlin for at least 8,000 years, making it probably the first Irish island to be inhabited. Ancient axe heads (from 5,000BC), Bronze Age graves (3,000BC) and an Iron Age fort (500BC) are among the marks they have left behind. By the time of the Irish Famine in the 1840s, the population was more than 1,000 and the island is covered with reminders of life during those times. About 500 people left Rathlin Island in 1846 alone, bound for North America, on a ship financed by the Gage family.
The population of what is now Northern Ireland’s only offshore inhabited island has dropped to less than 100 people in winter, with numbers boosted in the summer – which also brings a growing number of tourists. Rathlin’s most recent famous visitor was undoubtedly Sir Richard Branson, who crashed near Bull Point in 1987 after a record-breaking Atlantic crossing by hot-air balloon. Branson and pilot Per Lindstrom were rescued from the sea by islanders and later presented the Rathlin Island Trust with £25,000.
The meaning of Rathlin
The Greek geographer Ptolemy mentioned the island of ‘Rikina’ in 150AD. An Irish form of the name, Rechru, appears in the 6th-century Life of St Columba and may mean ‘Standing before Erin’ or ‘Fort of Ireland’. Rechru becomes Reachra (‘Place of many shipwrecks’) by the 8th century with the usage Reachrainn (the genetive form of Reachra), later Reachlainn, appearing. From this, the names Raghery and Rathlin came into common usage by the 1200s. The name Raghery is still used by natives of the island.
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This site is maintained by Kieran Meeke. If you have any comments or questions, please email me: ksmeeke(at)me.com