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.
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.
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.