History of Rathlin

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.

Rathlin was probably the first Irish island to be inhabited, perhaps as early as 7,000BC. Human remains dating back almost 4,000 years were discovered in 2006, near McCuaig’s bar. A man’s body was found curled in a foetal position, with a food vessel, typical of a Bronze Age burial of 2,000BC. By 2,500BC Rathlin had a thriving export business in porcellanite axes, based on a quarry in the west of the island. The axe factory is closed to visitors but you can see samples at the Boathouse Visitor Centre.



The first recorded raid by Vikings in Ireland was on Rathlin in 795, when the church was burned. Outside Dublin, Rathlin is also the only known site in Ireland of a Viking cemetery. Among the items discovered in the graves are a sword, a bronze ladle and a magnificent 9th-century silver brooch, made by a Norse craftsman in Irish style (right). It is now in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. A hoard of Hiberno-Norse coins dating to the 1040s has also been found.

Loscad Rechrainne o geinntib, ‘the burning of Rechru by heathens’


Robert Bruce
Local legend has it that a cave on the north coast was where Robert The Bruce hid out after being defeated at the Battle of Perth in 1306, during his fight against the English for the crown of Scotland. During his lonely exile 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. Bruce’s Cave can only be reached by boat but a ruin above, called Bruce’s Castle, may help you relive the legend – which owes much to writer Sir Walter Scott.

Bruce and Rathlin
BBC: The spider legend
Searching for Bruce’s cave
Caves of Rathlin


Rathlin Island Guide 1888
From George Henry Bassett’s The Book of Antrim, 1888

THE Island of Rathlin, at its nearest point, is over 7 miles from the mainland. It is about this distance north of Ballycastle, with which it has a connection Tuesdays and Fridays weekly by sail boat for the transit of mails and passengers. In winter, however, the sea is often so rough that the bravest boatmen are not able to make regular passages. During the summer season there are frequent trips from shore to shore. Rathlin is one of the show places which tourists should not fail to visit. Many writers have found names for this island, but it will be sufficient to quote that of Hamilton. He calls it Raghery, from Ragh Erin, the fort of Erin. The natives are known along the Antrim coast northwest of Ballycastle as Ragherymen. Rathlin is the name given to it by Ware, the t only being added.

According to the Ordnance Survey it contains 3,398 3/4 statute acres, 30 1/2 of which are under two lakes, one at Ushet Point, and the other less than a mile from Bull Point. The island is about 7 miles in length, and at the centre about 2 miles in breadth. Rocks and stony pasture make up fully three-fourths, and the rest of the land is of medium quality. Mr. Robert Gage, J.P., is the present owner. He resides all the year round in a prettily-situated house on the verge of Church Bay, and farms a considerable portion of the island himself.

The population in 1831 was 1,039. Of this number the greater part belong to the Roman Catholic faith, the remainder to the Church of Ireland. With the exception of some families in the Church Bay quarter, most of the people speak Irish and English. They live by farming and fishing, and are peaceful and inoffensive in their habits. Their amusements are few and simple, chief among them being that of dancing. The crops grown are beans, barley, and potatoes. Rents run at from ten shillings to twenty-five shillings per acre, and each tenant receives a certain portion of rocky land for nothing.

An industry of the islanders, at one time exceedingly profitable, was the burning of kelp. It is still maintained, though the prices realized are very much smaller. It is said that the tenants are able to get enough out of it yet to pay their rents. There are 8 draft nets used for fishing, each one being owned by 12 men. Pollock is the principal fish caught.

St Comgall visited Rathlin for the purpose of founding a church, but was driven away by a band of soldiers. St Columb in the 6th century succeeded in founding a monastery, which he gave over to the charge of St Colman. There is, however, some doubt as to the person who really did build the monastery.

In 790 the Danes, in their first descent on the Irish coast, destroyed it and ravaged the island. The monastery was repaired, but in 973, on the second visit of the Danes, it was again destroyed and the abbot, St Feradach, murdered.

In the 13th century King John made a grant of the island to Alan of Galway. Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, during the civil war in his own country, took refuge at Rathlin, and built a castle on a cliff, at the east side, facing the Mull of Cantyre, distant about 14 miles. He built and fortified a castle, of which there are small remains. The island was in possession of Scotch settlers, in 1558. Lord Deputy Sussex in that year drove them out, with great slaughter, and toward the end of the l6th century, it is said to have been uninhabited. Excavations in the centre of the island resulted in the discovery of brazen swords, spear heads, and a golden fibula of large size. Nearly the entire island has a substratum of basalt and white limestone.

On the western side, the rocks rise to a considerable height, and on the eastern the basalt appears in various forms, including the columnar. Chalk predominates in the cliffs of the southern coast, producing charming effects in the view from Ballycastle. There is good duck and wigeon shooting.

Church of I.–Rev, David Kennedy
Grocers–J. Hunter, Jas. M’Cuaig
Light Keepers–Ptk. Keenan, Aw. M’Gonigle and Edw. Kennedy: Jno. M’Keighton, gunner
Post Master–Aw. Harbison
R.C.–Rev. J. O’Boyle, P.P.
Schl., Nat.–Mrs. B. Anderson
Spirit Retailer–Ml. McCuaig

Anderson, Alex., Craigmacagan
Anderson, John, Knockans
Black, John, Ballygill S.
Craig, Neal, Ballygill N.
Curry, Alex., Ballyconaghan
Curry, John, Churchquarter
Gage, Robt. (J.P.), Churchquarter
M’Cuaig, Jas., Ballycarry
M’Cuaig, Jas., Ballynoe
M’Cuaig, Jno., Roonivoolin
M’Cuaig, Ml., Demesne
M’Cuaig, Rt., Kinkeel
M’Curdy, Alex., Ballygill N.
M’Curdy, Jos., Ballygill S.
M’Curdy, Neil, Kinramer N.
M’Fall, Neal, Kinramer S.
M’Kay, Jno., Ballyconaghan
Morrison, Arch., Ballygill N.
Spears, Hugh, Knockans
Thompson, Mrs., Craigmacagan
Weir, Alex., Carrivandoon

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