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 wrecks

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)

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

Andy McInroy: Caves of Rathlin

Oweynagolman Cave - Uaigh na gColman

Photographer Andy McInroy has created some impressive images of sea caves on the Antrim coastline (as part of a larger portfolio of landscapes in Ireland, Scotland and Wales). Rathlin Island merits its own pages on his website with atmospheric shots of cave interiors. He also relates many fascinating tales, with plenty of legends and a few good ghost stories.

Andy McInroy


What inspired you to visit Rathlin?
I had seen some beautiful photographs of the Rathlin shoreline and, when I was getting into my Antrim sea caves project, it seemed like a logical place to finish my story. What really interests me is to be able to tie a cave photograph to a story, legend or old etching. The caves of Rathlin have these in abundance. Bruce’s cave in particular interested me very much, although Oweynagolman cave (above), which lies closer to the castle, may be a more likely place for Bruce to have visited.


Which was the most interesting cave?

Oweynagolman is a fascinating place – not only because of its possible connection with Bruce but also to an old story told on Rathlin which refers to it as Avaragh, the cave of the Children of Lir. The physical description of the cave matches my photograph with its obvious protective bar across the mouth. This bar is said to have been put there by a wise woman of Rathlin.

Oweynagolman is a perfect example of a classic basalt cave: it’s cavernous, beautifully shaped and it is a proper active sea cave, requiring a deep wade to enter. It has a real atmosphere about it.


Brackens (Brecain's) Cave


Some caves are quite dangerous to get to. Did you have any close calls?

Some are, yes, and I would not encourage people to enter the caves in my project without doing their homework. I took no chances on Rathlin, as I appreciate the remote nature of the cliffs and caves there. What we did at Dunkerry Cave on the Runkerry headland on the mainland was certainly risky.

We entered that massive cavern armed with a toy dinghy bought in Lidl supermarket for £40. However, on that adventure I was guided by an experienced sea-stack climber from Orkney who has a string of epic first ascents to his name both in Scotland and on the sea stacks of Donegal.

Dunkerry was a frightening undertaking, but we managed the risk as much as we could and everything went exactly to plan. Riding down the swells of the channel into Dunkerry in the dinghy is an experience I will never forget.

Andy wading into Oweynagolman Cave


Have you explored all of the caves?

When I started this project I thought that there might be five caves in all of Antrim that might make a good photograph. How wrong I was. The more I dig, the more of these amazing places I find. There are probably enough caves on Rathlin alone to keep me busy for a lifetime.

Many of the caves of Antrim are not marked on the maps, most are rarely visited by anyone other than the odd inquisitive kayaker. My ‘to do’ list is actually bigger now than it was at the start of the project.

All photos on this page copyright of Andy McInroy

Angela Ginn: Rathlin landscapes

Rathlin Landscape Series, 2008

Angela Ginn graduated from Goldsmiths College, London, returning to Belfast in 1990. Her oil paintings of the Northern Irish landscape have been exhibited regularly in Ireland and Europe. She was Artist in Residence for Belfast City Hospital for three years and part of a three-year residency with Kids’ Own, in the Multimedia Maps project. Here, she tells us about the inspiration she found on Rathlin…

Angela Ginn


When did you first visit Rathlin?

In 1996, with my niece Stacey, who was around seven years old at the time. We were staying at Whitepark Bay for the week and took a day trip over.


What were your first impressions?
It felt very special to me to be crossing the sea to get there. The  crew on the ferry all seemed very exotic and ‘island looking’. My niece is not at all outdoorsy and she soon wanted to leave but the trip whet my appetite to return.


Tell us about the residency on Rathlin…

I have spent the last seven summers on Rathlin, from 2001 – 2008. My residency came about because Ann Henderson and myself were working on an art project together in Sligo and she knew that I had rented an Irish Landmark Trust  cottage in Randalstown every year  in which to paint. When Alison and Liam McFaul restored their outback barn, beside the Camping Barn, they were open to the possibility of an artist using it as a studio. Ann invited me over to the island and introduced me to Alison, who showed me the barn. I loved it and booked it for two weeks later that summer. I stayed for five weeks that year and for two to four months in the following years.


How was the weather?

The weather varied from year to year, day to day and hour to hour! I never minded what the weather was like as I was always so happy to be there, it wasn’t important to me. Although if it was warm and sunny, of course, the island was especially wonderful. I thrived in the physical space, the beauty of the landscape, the surrounding sea and all those skies were just magical. I never ever became complacent about the pleasure of opening my door in the morning onto a field and the marvel of the expanse beyond it.

Landscape Series


Was four months long enough? Were you glad to leave or would you like to have stayed longer?

Four months was a great length of time for me. It gave me plenty of time to paint, rest, socialise, dander about and just ‘be’. I always found it hard to go, to end my summer adventure and to say goodbye to my dear friends. My awkward departure technique is usually to take a notion in my last week and make a speedy and quiet exit. I do love my  artist in residency work back over the water and, on my return to Belfast, I always enjoy getting back to work with the children and the groups  again. I also always needed to earn some money again by that stage.

What was the best thing about Rathlin?

The stunning beauty of the island itself. The colours and the light. The physical space, the skies and being surrounded by the sea. I also enjoyed being part of the summer island community and spending time with friends there and attending the daily/nightly events and gatherings. I am particularly partial to a ceili and to ‘Shoeing the Donkey’ with Loughie Mc Q.

Aqua VII


What did you miss most?

Nothing. Once I got settled in my barn, I was always loath to leave. I only ever left to attend to business or something important. Most of my friends and family became regular annual visitors and looked forward to visiting me there too.


Is there a piece of music that reminds you of Rathlin?

That has to be ‘Fear A’ Bhata’. All Teresa’s beautiful renditions – and also those of the Black family – will always take me there.

Kids Own project

Alison and Liam McFaul’s
Kinramer Camping Barn

Ann Henderson