Rathlin Island: History, Landscape, Legend Meet

Rathlin looking towas slieveard, Northern Ireland, by rossographer

A spider story, a clan massacre, the chanting of monks, Viking raids, legends that go back into time and archaeology that does too, a place in the history of technology and in the story of emigration and in the understanding of nature, music that bridges cultures… for all that it is just a few miles long and even fewer wide, Rathlin Island holds all these things, and a sense of solitude and a vibrant present day community, as well. That, and a connection with Santa Claus.
spiderweb looking out to sea

Do you remember the story about the spider and Robert the Bruce? Defeated by English forces, this leader of the Scots had retreated to a cave on Rathlin Island. Mulling over his future, he watched a spider, as it tried and tried again to connect the strands to form its web. That image of perseverance became his guide as he traveled back to Scotland and defeated the English at Bannockburn — and it became a legend passed down through history.

That took place early in the fourteenth century. People began living on this small island off the coast of Antrim near Ballycastle in Northern Ireland about four thousand years before Christ, though, and by 2500 BC craftspeople were making axes and flints prized in trade far away from Rathlin. With the coming of Christianity, monks were drawn to the peaceful aspects of this windswept, sea bound island. Vikings came too, some to raid and some, artifacts and graves suggest, to settle, at least for a while.

cairn lighthouse rathlin island northern ireland
Work on the waters has long been part of the lives of people on Rathlin, as it continues to be today. Water has its place in the legends of the place, too — ancient stories say that when the children of King Lir were turned into swans, they spent the three hundred years it took to break that curse in the Sea of Moyle off Rathin.

Maybe so. Swans are not so often seen these days, but birds draw many people to visit. Especially in the spring and summer months, visitors come for the chance of seeing puffins, fulmar, kittywakes, gannets, auks, maybe even the rare clough, the occasional golden eagle, and other birds. Rathlin is Northern Ireland’s largest seabird sanctuary and is watched over by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, RSPB for short, which offers programs (and binoculars) for visitors at the West Light Seabird Centre.

sea stacks, bird sanctuary, rathlin island, northern ireland
Programs there run from Easter to September. Birds and other wildlife are around all year though. Spotting wading birds on the rocks on the island’s shores and looking for seals are likely things to do in autumn months.

Community has persisted on Rathlin, often in the face of what might seem reasons for people to leave entirely. There were those Viking raids, and in the sixteenth century when people were fleeing clan warfare in in Scotland (which is just under sixteen miles away; you can see the Mull of Kintyre across the water from the island) it didn’t work out so well for them, as their enemies found them out and killed them all.

The Great Hunger of the mid nineteenth century found its way to Rathlin as well. More than half the population emigrated during that time. Musician Cathie Ryan thought about how it would have felt for those who stayed behind to watch half the people who made up their lives leave, and wrote a song about that.

She went back to sing her song for the islanders before adding it to her repertoire and putting it on record. “I had to do that,” she says.

emigration stone rathlin island northern ireland
One of the lines in Ryan’s song is “The welcome’s warm here on the island…” The hundred or so people who live on Rathlin these days do offer warm welcome. They ask you to keep in mind the Rathlin Code, which basically means that you treat the people, their property, and the natural and historical elements of the island with respect.

More than one hundred years ago, the first wireless telegraphy message ever sent went between Ballycastle on the mainland and Rathlin. These days internet is well established. Though two of the long time lodgings, the Manor House and Soernog View Hostel, are closed temporarily, there are several bed and breakfasts and a recently opened year around hostel to welcome you should you choose to stay. It’s also possible to visit the island as a day trip (by ferry; water is the only way to reach the island, however long your stay) from Ballycastle. The tourist office in Ballycastle has information on Rathlin and on the island, so does The Boathouse, which also has artifacts and displays on island history (The Boathouse is often open only by appointment outwith summer months). There are several places to eat, a post office, a small store and McQuaig’s, a pub which, as good pubs will, tends to serve as a community center and a good place to have a toastie or a cup of tea as well as a pint.

road, rathlin island, northern ireland

Rathlin is still rural Ireland, and a place with connections to Scotland across the water as well. Singer Mary Black’s father came from the island, and brought his Scottish influenced fiddle playing along. “I think it’s one of the reasons I have been drawn to Scottish songs like Anachie Gordon, ” Black says. “Growing up in Dublin, in the midst of a city, it was great to come in summer to this really rural place. It was a different way of life and I am so glad I have that in my background.” It is a family connection to place she and her sister and brothers, all of whom work professionally in music, have carried on to their children.

…and speaking of Santa Claus: if you happen to be anywhere on the island of Ireland on Christmas Eve, keep your ear and eye out — and newscasters and weather reporters will be doing that for you too. The very first place in Ireland Santa Claus will set foot, the story goes, is Rathlin Island.

Photographs by and courtesy of Niklas Rhose,
Rossographer, Eric Jones, and Paul McIlroy

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