The entire population of Rathlin has been wiped out twice by invaders, the most notorious incident being in 1575 when 600 men, women and children were butchered. Sir Francis Drake is often blamed for his role – he was in charge of the English fleet that transported the troops of Colonel John Norris to the island and provided a blockade against Scottish help arriving.
Norris had been sent from Carrickfergus by Lord Essex, the English Deputy, who had landed in Antrim to attack Sorley Boy MacDonnell. Rathlin, long associated with Saint Columba, had a reputation as a sanctuary and Sorley Boy and the other Scottish chiefs had sent their women, elderly and infirm there for safety.
After a brief fight, the small Scottish garrison of about 50 men surrendered their stronghold, Bruce’s Castle (see left). Against the rules of siege warfare of the time (see Deuteronomy 20), they were executed, along with about 150 others, mainly women. Another 400 were found hiding in caves – ‘hunted out as if they had been seals or otters’ – and also killed.
Essex wrote to Queen Elizabeth I, saying Sorley Boy had stood on the mainland of the Glens of Antrim ‘and saw the taking of the island, and was likely to have run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself and saying that he there lost all that he ever had’.
The Queen replied, asking Essex to tell John Norris, ‘the executioner of his well designed enterprise, that she would not be unmindful of his services’.