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.
Continue reading


Lights of Rathlin

East Light

The oldest of Rathlin’s lighthouses sits high above Bruce’s Cave at Altacarry Head. It has been flashing a warning to shipping since 1856 and is a vital component of the traffic separation scheme in the North Channel.


West Light
This upside-down light was a major feat of engineering when it was built, between 1912 and 1917. The top of Kebble Point was too high for the light to be effective, so it had to be placed some way down the cliff. The works needed a cable tramway and a pier, as well as the road across Kebble. The work cost £400,000 in 1912, equivalent to an amazing £17million today.


Rue Point

Sitting at the southern tip of Rathlin, only 2.5 miles from Fair Head, this light has been operating since 1921. Only 35 feet above sea level, it is now fully automated and has a 14 nautical mile range.

Rathlin Lighthouses

Memories of a Rathlin lighthouse keeper

Sponges, kelp & seals

Seal at Rue Point


Rathlin Island is one of the most important areas in Europe for sponges. In 2007, a team of scientists discovered 28 new species in the seas around the island during a six-week expedition, and three species which had never before been seen in the British Isles. Project director Bernard Picton, curator of marine invertebrates at the Ulster Museum’s department of zoology, said the findings confirmed the significance of the area for these small marine animals.

Sponges feed by filtering particles from the water and play a key role in the marine environment. There are about 15,000 species in the world yet only 400 of these have so far been found in the waters around Britain and Ireland.

Divers from the same team, from the Environment and Heritage Service and Ulster Museum, made another discovery in June 2007. A specimen of the rare Fan Mussel (atrina fragilis), Britain’s largest and rarest bivalve mollusc, thought extinct in Irish waters, was found off Rathlin. The mollusc is extremely vulnerable to pollution, trawling and dredging and this is a significant find, especially if a larger population exists.

Rathlin seabed fly-by

Old Kelp Store at Church Bay


A prominent feature of the waterfront of Rathlin’s Church Bay is the old kelp store (left). Until the 1930s, when artificial methods replaced it, kelp was a rich source of iodine and soda for glass and soap manufacture and the islanders made an income by gathering it. Once dry, the kelp was burned and the sites of 83 kilns have been found on the island – though 150 were recorded in the mid-19th century. Kelp production ended in Rathlin in 1938 – 25 years after the Antrim mainland.

Kelp on Rathlin

Parliamentary Debate, Dublin, 1938

Uses of kelp

Seal at Rue Point


A colony of about 100 seals can be found at Rue Point on the east of Rathlin. They are easy to approach but care should be taken not to disturb them, particularly in the breeding season. A boat trip is the best way to see the colony, as they will investigate the boats in their home environment,




Rathlin has been selected as a Special Area of Conservation:

SAC website

The threat of plastic

Rathlin’s first flight

A Westland Wallace

Used with permission from: Belfast International Airport – Aviation at Aldergrove since 1918, 
by Guy Warner

The Met Flight also distinguished itself in 1938, when torrential rain and persistent gale force winds resulted in the inhabitants of Rathlin Island being cut off for three weeks from re-supply by boat from Ballycastle. The islanders radioed for help. A Met Flight Gauntlet K5283, flown by Denys Gillam responded to the government’s plea for assistance.

A Gloster Gauntlet

He flew a reconnaissance of the most likely landing field, which was only 250 yards long. While he was in the air SD Bell & Co. of Ann Street, Belfast, had prepared a consignment of flour, oatmeal, butter, tea, sugar, lard, paraffin oil, candles, matches, cigarettes and newspapers, which was conveyed by express van to Aldergrove. This was then loaded into a Westland Wallace K5073 and Denys Gillam took off again.

In the meantime a message had been wired to the local priests: ‘An attempt will be made to land food from an aeroplane at about 2.30 pm this afternoon. Please light a fire to make smoke for the guidance of the aeroplane.’

The Belfast Telegraph described the first landing by an aircraft on Rathlin as follows: ‘To make the landing the plane had to descend very low and hurdle over the roof of a house. The field selected for landing was the best available but it was small and exceptionally bumpy and definitely hazardous for a medium sized bomber.’ The feat was repeated the next day in another Wallace K5074.

Denys Gillam was later awarded the Air Force Cross for his work with the Met. Flight and for his airmanship and bravery in undertaking the relief flights. Subsequently, he served with great distinction throughout the war, becoming a Group Captain and adding a DSO and two bars, as well as the DFC and bar to his medal tally. SD Bell did not miss their opportunity either, as an advert appeared in the newspapers headed ‘Rathlin Island – supplied at a moment’s notice – we can supply your requirements with the same dispatch and satisfaction.’



Do you have any memories of aviation on Rathlin? If so, please send a note to Guy Warner at this address: gwarner06@aol.com



Bruce's Castle

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. Continue reading

Rathlin Wrecks

Drake wreck

HMS Drake

Rathlin is surrounded by some 40 wrecks, the most famous of which is HMS Drake in Church Bay. Capable of a top speed of 23 knots, she was one of the fastest and heaviest cruisers of her time and was escorting a transatlantic convoy.

She was hit in Rathlin Sound by a torpedo from German U-Boat U-79 early on October 2, 1917, killing 19 of her crew. Her Captain, SH Radcliffe brought her into Church Bay but she was too heavily damaged to be saved and soon sank.

The SS Lugano and HMS Brisk were sunk during the same attack – probably by mines laid by U79 and the wrecks lie in Rathlin Sound just over a mile from each other. The technically challenging dive to the SS Lugano is considered one of the best in the British Isles. There was no loss of life on the Lugano but 31 crew died on HMS Brisk. Although her bow section sank, the stern section of the ship was towed into dock in Londonderry.

In 1962, the wreck of HMS Drake was hit by the Fleetwood trawler Ella Hewitt, which soon joined the cruiser on the seabed in the middle of Church Bay.

List of Rathlin wrecks

SS Tuscania, first US troopship to be torpedoed in WWI

The story of HMS Drake

Diving Rathlin’s North Wall

Sponges on Rathlin’s North Wall (video)

Diving on the SS Loughgarry (1min video)

Diving on the SS Loughgarry (excellent 5min video)