RSPB colony, West Light


Rathlin is home during the spring and summer to some 100,000 seabirds of seven different species, an amazing sight and a deafening sound. They breed in the RSPB sanctuary near the West Light. Towards the end of July, the birds start to leave the island.

Although it’s still midsummer, it’s the first sign that the weather is starting to turn. It’s a thrilling sight to see puffins ‘beaking’ before they fly off. The couples hit each other’s beaks repeatedly before they part until the next spring, when they return to raise a new brood.

June 2007 saw the only breeding pair of choughs in Ulster hatch three chicks, the first on Rathlin since 1989. The species, at risk of extinction, is a member of the crow family, with red bill and legs.

Other birds you will see in their thousands include guillemots and kittiwakes, as well as razorbills and fulmars. These massive colonies also attract predators such as kestrels, peregrine falcons and buzzards.
You’ll hear – and hopefully see – dozens of other species on Rathlin’s shores, fields and lakes, many rare elsewhere, ranging from chaffinches and corncrakes, through eiders and linnets, to skylarks and wrens.

In recent years, perhaps due to climate change causing lack of food at sea, there has been a vast decrease in some types of sea birds. Puffin, razorbill and fulmar numbers fell by half between 2000 and 2007 and guillemot numbers fell by 15 per cent.

The RSPB’s West Light Viewpoint is open during the breeding season from April to August. The best time to visit is between May and June. You can contact the warden on: +44(0)28 2076 3948.

RSPB website

Laying the cable, 2007



In 1992, three wind turbines were installed by Northern Ireland Electricity on Rathlin. Called Conn, Aedh and Fiachra, after three of the sons of Lir, who were turned into swans by their evil stepmother to roam the water around Rathlin, the turbines are no longer operational. The island relied on oil-fired generators until a cable was laid to connect to the mainland supply. Power was officially switched on on June 26, 2008.



In 1987, following his record-breaking first transatlantic flight, Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson and his pilot Per Lindstrom crashed their hot-air balloon into the sea off Rathlin. They were fished from the water off Bull Point by boatman Tommy Cecil. (Sadly, Tommy died in a diving accident in Church Bay a few years later.) Branson donated £25,000 to the Rathlin Island Trust which was used to help turn part of the Manor House into a community centre.

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: