The history of Rathlin

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.


© National Museum of Ireland

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.
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Remains of Bruce’s Castle, overlooking Scotland

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’.

The 1575 Massacre

Sorley Boy MacDonnell

Marconi’s wireless transmission


East Light


Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna, Italy, in 1874 to an Italian father and an Irish mother, Annie Jameson, of the Irish whisky distillery family. Inspired by the work of Heinrich Hertz on the properties of electromagnetic waves, Marconi filed the patent for ‘wireless technology’ in 1896.


Kemp & Glanville

In May 1898, Lloyds Insurance of London financed an experimental wireless link to test signal reception at Ballycastle from Rathlin. Marconi made a preliminary survey but the work was given to his right-hand man, George Kemp, who hired Edward Glanville, a Trinity College Dublin graduate, to assist him. They in turn hired islander Johnny Cecil as a labourer.

Marconi music project

Lloyds, Rathlin and Marconi


Rathlin-Ballycastle transmission

Kemp and Granville strung a 25m aerial from the top of Rathlin’s East lighthouse (an aerial was also stretched from the spire of the Roman Catholic church). In Ballycastle, after failures at various other sites, a 50m receiving aerial was hung along the cliffs at a house called Kenmara – now a B&B.

On July 6, 1898, Kemp received the first Morse signal from Glanville on Rathlin. The transmission was a repeated letter V. Improving reception, the pair were soon able to report the passage of ships through Rathlin Sound, following their transatlantic crossing, the result Lloyds had been paying for and the world’s first commercial wireless signal.

On August 21, 1898, Glanville (a keen amateur geologist and bird-watcher who was often seen chipping away at rocks along the coastline) fell to his death from the cliffs at Rathlin. Johnny Cecil recovered his body which was shipped to Ballycastle where the young man’s father met it to take it home to Dublin. Marconi attended the funeral service in Dublin, then came to Ballycastle for four days when he made a brief visit to Rathlin (paying his respects at the site of Glanville’s fall).

Marconi left Ballycastle, after the Oul Lammas Fair, on September 2, 1898, with Kemp packing up all the equipment and leaving two days later.

Kemp and Marconi had stayed at the Antrim Arms Hotel in Ballycastle. One of its staff was Mary McCormick, who later married Johnny Cecil.

Marconi Radio Group

History of radio


(Note: Many thanks to Lynne Nelson for clarifying the date of Edward Glanville’s death.)


Rathlin writings

Tommy Cecil RIP

The Call

The call came he was there
The challenge was great but would he dare
To cast aside all hesitations
To take his chance, no reservations

To seize and forge the dream he sought
Indifference around he fought and fought
To make his world a better place
To live content with God’s great grace

A man who faced all-conquering seas
Yet rose again to fortune seize
The battles fought his liberation
The prize achieved his jubilation

With mediocrity all around
A man like this can still astound
We grieve and remember him
And his almighty heart within

Mary Cecil

Obituary of Tommy Cecil


The Harsh Winds of Rathlin: Stories of Rathlin Shipwrecks by Tommy Cecil. ISBN 0-948154-65-9

Rathlin’s Rugged Story: from an Islander’s Perspective by Augustine McCurdy. ISBN 0-948154-54-6. Rathlinman’s books

A History of the Island of Rathlin by Mrs Gage. ISBN 0-948154-87-X

Flora of Rathlin Island by Margaret J Dickson

Rathlin: Its Island Story by Wallace Clark. ISBN 0-948154-76-4

Birds of Rathlin by Gerry Bond

Rathlin Island: As I Knew It by Alex Morrison. ISBN 0-948154-33-11-11

Rathlin Island and the Modern World (ebook) by W Forsythe


The Friends of Rathlin Island by Stewart Dalby. ISBN 0-9780954423391

Turbulent Priests by Colin Bateman. ISBN: 0-9780006498018

Rathlin Writers Festival

The Manor House

The Manor House at Rathlin harbour

The Manor House

The large Georgian house which dominates Rathlin’s harbour was built in the 1870s for the Gage family, who bought the island in 1746 from Lord Antrim for £1,750. The main house also incorporated work-rooms for weavers built in the 1760s and some former cottages. The Gages also built the island’s walled garden (it is said that the soil for it was shipped from Scotland), corn mill, a boat-house and kelp store.

The last member of the family to live at the Manor House was Brigadier Rex Gage, CBE, MC, who died in 1973. It lay derelict for a while before it was taken over by the National Trust and then re-opened in 1998 as a 12-room hotel.


A Rathlin countess

One of the more remarkable members of the Gages was Dorothea. On a visit to Baden Baden in 1864, she attracted the attention of Prince Albrecht of Warbeck and Pyrmonte. He pursued her to Rathlin and they married in Dublin Castle the same year. She was made Countess von Roden in 1867 and died in Germany in 1883 at the age of 48.
Antrim biographies