Rathlin Island

Coordinates: 55°17′42″N 06°11′51″W / 55.29500°N 6.19750°W / 55.29500; -6.19750
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Rathlin Island
True-color ESA Sentinel-2 image of Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island is located in Northern Ireland
Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island
Location within Northern Ireland
Population141 (2021 Census)
Irish grid referenceD134518
• Belfast47 mi (76 km)
CountryNorthern Ireland
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Post townBallycastle
Postcode districtBT54
Dialling code028
PoliceNorthern Ireland
FireNorthern Ireland
AmbulanceNorthern Ireland
UK Parliament
WebsiteRathlin Development & Community Association's official website
List of places
Northern Ireland
55°17′42″N 06°11′51″W / 55.29500°N 6.19750°W / 55.29500; -6.19750

Rathlin Island (Irish: Reachlainn, pronounced [ˈɾˠaxlən̠ʲ]; Local Irish dialect: Reachraidh, Irish pronunciation: [ˈɾˠaxɾˠi]; Scots: Racherie)[2] is an island and civil parish off the coast of County Antrim (of which it is part) in Northern Ireland. It is Northern Ireland's northernmost point. As of the 2021 Census there are 141 people living on the island.[3]


Rathlin is the only inhabited offshore island of Northern Ireland, with a steadily growing population of approximately 150 people, and is the most northerly inhabited island off the coast of Northern Ireland. The reverse-L-shaped Rathlin Island is four miles (six kilometres) from east to west, and 2+12 miles (4 kilometres) from north to south.

The highest point on the island is Slieveard, 134 metres (440 feet) above sea level. Rathlin is 15+12 nautical miles (29 kilometres) from the Mull of Kintyre, the southern tip of Scotland's Kintyre peninsula. It is part of the Causeway Coast and Glens council area, and is represented by the Rathlin Development & Community Association.[4]


Rathlin is part of the traditional barony of Cary (around the town of Ballycastle), and of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council. The island constitutes a civil parish and is subdivided into 22 townlands:

Rathlin with subdivision into townlands
Townland Area
Ballycarry 298 ...
Ballyconagan 168 ...
Ballygill Middle 244 ...
Ballygill North 149 ...
Ballygill South 145 ...
Ballynagard 161 ...
Ballynoe 80 ...
Carravinally (Corravina Beg) 116 ...
Carravindoon (Corravindoon) 188 ...
Church Quarter 51 ...
Cleggan (Clagan) 202 ...
Craigmacagan (Craigmacogan) 153 ...
Demesne 67 ...
Glebe 24 ...
Kebble 269 ...
Kilpatrick 169 ...
Kinkeel 131 ...
Kinramer North 167 ...
Kinramer South (Kinramer) 173 ...
Knockans 257 ...
Mullindross (Mullindress) 46 ...
Roonivoolin 130 ...
Rathlin 3388 (1371 ha) ...


2021 Census[edit]

Rathlin Island is labelled as The_Glens_B1 Data Zone according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.[3] As of the 2021 Census it is the smallest Data Zone.[3] On Census day (21 March 2021) there were 141 people living in Rathlin Island.[3] Of these:

  • 57.5% (81) belong to or were brought up in the Catholic religion, 19.9% (28) belong to or were brought up in a 'Protestant and Other Christian (including Christian related)' religion, 17.7% (25) had no religious background and 5.0% (7) came from other religious backgrounds.[6]
  • 38.3% had an Irish national identity,[7] 39.0% had a Northern Irish national identity[8] and 22.0% indicated that they had a British national identity[9] (Respondents could select more than one nationality).

Irish language[edit]

The Irish language was originally spoken on Rathlin Island until around the 1960s and was perhaps the main community language until the early 20th century. As it is located between the Irish and Scottish mainlands, the dialect found on Rathlin shared many features of both the Irish and Scottish Gaelic languages while also being unique in structure and grammar, e.g. forming plurals with -án or -eán [aːnˠ] doing away with inflection for weak nouns and suffixes for strong ones.[10] In addition, the phonology of the dialect was quite divergent, compare íorbáll [ˈiːɾˠbˠaːl̪ˠ] with Standard Irish eireaball [ˈɛɾʲəbˠəl̪ˠ] and Scottish Gaelic earball [ˈɛɾɛpəl̪ˠ] ("tail").

As of the 2021 Census, 33.3% of the population had some ability in Irish.[11] 7.1% of the population spoke Irish at least weekly.[12]


The old Rathlin Island Ferry
Spirit of Rathlin Ferry 2019

A ferry operated by Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd connects the main port of the island, Church Bay, with the mainland at Ballycastle, six nautical miles (eleven kilometres) away. Two ferries operate on the route – the fast foot-passenger-only catamaran ferry Rathlin Express and a purpose-built larger ferry, commissioned in May 2017, Spirit of Rathlin, which carries both foot passengers and a small number of vehicles, weather permitting.[13][14] Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd won a six-year contract for the service in 2008 providing it as a subsidised "lifeline" service.[15] There is an ongoing investigation on how the transfer was handled between the Environment Minister and the new owners.[16][needs update]

Natural history[edit]

Rathlin is of prehistoric volcanic origin, having been created as part of the British Tertiary Volcanic Province.[17]

The island was owned by Rev Robert Gage who was also the island's rector. He had two daughters, Adelaide in 1832[18] and Dorothea in 1835.[19] Adelaide was a botanist who wrote a book concerning the island's flora and fauna.[18] She visited Dorothea in Germany after she married his Serene Highness Albrecht, Prince of Warbeck and Pyrmonte.[19] Adelaide was buried in Ramoan Churchyard in Ballycastle in 1920 and her book on Rathlin is now lost.[18]

Rathlin is one of 43 Special Areas of Conservation in Northern Ireland. It is home to tens of thousands of seabirds, including common guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins and razorbills – about thirty bird families in total. It is visited by birdwatchers, with a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserve that has views of Rathlin's bird colony. The RSPB has also successfully managed natural habitat to facilitate the return of the red-billed chough. Northern Ireland's only breeding pair of choughs can be seen during the summer months.

The cliffs on this relatively bare island stand 70 metres (230 ft) tall. Bruce's Cave[20] is named after Robert the Bruce, also known as Robert I of Scotland: it was here that he was said to have seen the legendary spider which is described as inspiring Bruce to continue his fight for Scottish independence.[21] The island is also the northernmost point of the Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.[22]

In 2008-09, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency of the United Kingdom and the Marine Institute Ireland undertook bathymetric survey work north of Antrim, updating Admiralty charts (Joint Irish Bathymetric Survey Project). In doing so a number of interesting submarine geological features were identified around Rathlin Island, including a submerged crater or lake on a plateau with clear evidence of water courses feeding it. This suggests the events leading to inundation – subsidence of land or rising water levels – were extremely quick.

Marine investigations in the area have also identified new species of sea anemone, rediscovered the fan mussel (the UK's largest and rarest bivalve mollusc – thought to be found only in Plymouth Sound and a few sites off the west of Scotland) and a number of shipwreck sites,[23][24] including HMS Drake,[25] which was torpedoed and sank just off the island in 1917.


Species of algae recorded from Rathlin, such as Hypoglossum hypoglossoides (Stackh.) Coll. et Harv., Apoglossum ruscifolium (Turn.) J.Ag., Radicilingua thysanorhizans (Holm.) Papenf. and Haraldiophyllum bonnemaisonii (Kylin) Zinova, were noted by Osborne Morton in 1994.[26] Maps showing the distribution of algae all around the British Isles, including Rathlin Island, are to be found in Harvey and Guiry 2003.[27]

Flowering plants[edit]

Details and notes of the flowering plants are to be found in Hackney.[28]

Panorama of Rathlin Island


Malone hoard of polished axes made from material from Tievebulliagh

The island has been settled at least as far back as the Mesolithic period.[29] A Neolithic stone axe factory featuring porcellanite stone is to be found in Brockley, a cluster of houses within the townland of Ballygill Middle.[30] It is similar to a stone axe factory found at Tievebulliagh mountain on the nearby mainland coast. The products of these two axe factories, which cannot be reliably distinguished from each other, were traded across Ireland; these were the most important Irish stone axe sources of their time.[31]

In 2006, an ancient burial was discovered when a driveway was being expanded by the island's only pub, dating back to the early Bronze Age, ca. 2000 BC. Genomic analysis of DNA from the bodies showed a strong continuity with the genetics of the modern Irish population and established that the continuity of Irish population dates back at least 1000 years longer than had previously been understood.[32][33][34]

There is also an unexcavated Viking vessel in a mound formation.[29]


Rathlin was probably known to the Romans, Pliny referring to "Reginia" and Ptolemy to "Rhicina" or "Eggarikenna". In the 7th century, Adomnán mentions "Rechru" and "Rechrea insula", which may also have been early names for Rathlin.[35] The 11th century Irish version of the Historia Brittonum states that the Fir Bolg "took possession of Man and of other islands besides – Arran, Islay and 'Racha'" – another possible early variant.[36]

Rathlin was the site of the first Viking raid on Ireland, according to the Annals of Ulster. The pillaging of the island's church and burning of its buildings took place in 795.

In 1306, Robert the Bruce sought refuge upon Rathlin, owned by the Irish Bissett family. He stayed in Rathlin Castle, originally belonging to their lordship the Glens of Antrim. The Bissetts were dispossessed of Rathlin by the English, who were in control of the Earldom of Ulster, for welcoming Bruce. In the 16th century, the island came into the possession of the MacDonnells of Antrim.

Rathlin has been the site of a number of massacres. On an expedition in 1557, Sir Henry Sidney devastated the island. In July 1575, the Earl of Essex sent Francis Drake and John Norreys to confront Scottish refugees on the island, and in the ensuing massacre, hundreds of men, women and children of Clan MacDonnell were killed.[37][38] Also in 1642, Covenanter Campbell soldiers of the Argyll's Foot were encouraged by their commanding officer Sir Duncan Campbell of Auchinbreck to kill the local Catholic MacDonalds, near relatives of their arch clan enemy in the Scottish Highlands Clan MacDonald. They threw scores of MacDonald women over cliffs to their deaths on rocks below.[39][40] The number of victims of this massacre has been put as low as 100 and as high as 3,000.[citation needed]

On 2 October 1917, the armoured cruiser HMS Drake was torpedoed off the northern Irish coast by German submarine U-79. She steamed into Church Bay on Rathlin Island, where, after her crew was taken off, she capsized and sank.[citation needed] On 27 January 1918, the RMS Andania was hit amidships by a torpedo from German submarine U-46 captained by Leo Hillebrand. The ship immediately took a list to starboard and began to sink. Attempts were made to tow the ship but it sank after a few hours. The passengers were saved, but Andania's sinking killed seven crew members. The wreck is lying at a depth of between 175 and 189 metres.[citation needed]


Rathlin Island harbour

In 1746, the island was purchased by the Reverend John Gage.[41] Rathlin was an important producer of kelp in the 18th century.[42]

A 19th-century British visitor to the island found that they had an unusual form of government where they elected a judge who sat on a "throne of turf".[43] In fact, Robert Gage was the "proprietor of the island" until his death in 1891. Gage held a master's degree from Trinity College, Dublin, but he spent his life on the island creating his book "The Birds of Rathlin Island".[44]

Tourism is now a commercial activity. The island had a population of over one thousand in the 19th century. Its current permanent population is around 125. This is swollen by visitors in the summer, with most coming to view the cliffs and their huge seabird populations. Many visitors come for the day, and the island has around 30 beds for overnight visitors. The Boathouse Visitors' Centre at Church Bay is open seven days a week from April to September, with minibus tours and bicycle hire also available. The island is also popular with scuba divers, who come to explore the many wrecked ships in the surrounding waters.

Richard Branson's hot air balloon crashed near Rathlin Island in 1987.[45]

On 29 January 2008, the RNLI Portrush lifeboat Katie Hannan grounded after a swell hit its stern on breakwater rocks just outside the harbour on Rathlin while trying to refloat an islander's RIB.[46] The lifeboat was declared beyond economical repair[47] and handed over to a salvage company.[48]


The world's first commercial wireless telegraphy link was established by employees of Guglielmo Marconi between East Lighthouse on Rathlin and Kenmara House in Ballycastle on 6 July 1898.[49]

In July 2013, BT installed a high-speed wireless broadband pilot project to a number of premises, the first deployment of its kind anywhere in the UK, 'wireless to the cabinet' (WTTC) to deliver 80 Mb/s to users.[50]

Notable people[edit]

  • Alexander Smyth (1765–1830), lawyer, soldier, and politician in Virginia
  • Catherine Gage (1815–1892), botanical and ornithological illustrator


  • Chadwick, Hector Munro (1949) Early Scotland: the Picts, the Scots & the Welsh of southern Scotland. Cambridge University Press.
  • Watson, W. J. (1994) The Celtic Place-Names of Scotland. Edinburgh; Birlinn. ISBN 1-84158-323-5. First published in Edinburgh; The Royal Celtic Society, 1926.
  • Rathlin Island and the Gaelic Language (2005) "Rathlin Island and the Gaelic Language". Rathlin Island and the Gaelic Language Archived 9 July 2021 at the Wayback Machine


  1. ^ "Beagmore Stone Circles and Alignments and Cregganconroe Court Grave" (PDF) (in Scots). NI Department of the Environment. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 October 2015. Retrieved 13 January 2023.
  2. ^ "Place Names NI – Home". placenamesni.org. Archived from the original on 8 September 2018. Retrieved 25 September 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d "The_Glens_B1". NISRA. Retrieved 24 August 2023.
  4. ^ "The official website of the Rathlin Development & Community Association". Rathlin Community. Retrieved 12 January 2012.
  5. ^ The Ire Atlas TOWNLAND DATABASE, Civil Parish: Rathlin Island
  6. ^ "Religion or religion brought up in". NISRA. Retrieved 24 August 2023.
  7. ^ "National Identity (Irish)". NISRA. Retrieved 24 August 2023.
  8. ^ "National Identity (Northern Irish)". NISRA. Retrieved 24 August 2023.
  9. ^ "National Identity (British)". NISRA. Retrieved 24 August 2023.
  10. ^ "Rathlin Island and the Gaelic Language". Culture Northern Ireland. 24 November 2005. Archived from the original on 9 July 2021. Retrieved 1 May 2020.
  11. ^ "Knowledge of Irish". NISRA. Retrieved 24 August 2023.
  12. ^ "Frequency of speaking Irish". NISRA. Retrieved 24 August 2023.
  13. ^ "Rathlin". Rathlinweather.co.uk. Retrieved 12 January 2012.
  14. ^ "Press Release" (PDF). Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd. 28 April 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 July 2011. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
  15. ^ "Improved service for Rathlin ferry will half travel time". Northern Ireland Executive. 21 April 2008. Archived from the original on 8 October 2008. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
  16. ^ "Probe into tendering contract of ferry run". News Letter (Johnston Press). 18 June 2008. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
  17. ^ "Causeway Coast and Rathlin Island Geodiversity Profile". Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Archived from the original on 7 October 2009. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
  18. ^ a b c "The Dictionary of Ulster Biography". www.newulsterbiography.co.uk. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  19. ^ a b "The Dictionary of Ulster Biography". www.newulsterbiography.co.uk. Retrieved 3 October 2022.
  20. ^ "Bruce's Cave". Bruce Rathlin 700. The Ulster-Scots Agency. Archived from the original on 21 October 2011. Retrieved 29 December 2012. Verifying Rathlin Island's connections with King Robert the Bruce
  21. ^ "The Spider Legend". Bruce Rathlin 700. The Ulster-Scots Agency. Archived from the original on 8 January 2014. Retrieved 29 December 2012. It's a famous story, but is it true?
  22. ^ "Antrim Coast and Glens AONB". Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
  23. ^ "The Joint Irish Bathymetric Survey Project". MCA. Archived from the original (Video) on 26 March 2009. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
  24. ^ "Prehistoric land under the sea". BBC News. 30 July 2008. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
  25. ^ Wilson, Ian (2011) HMS Drake. Rathlin Island Shipwreck Archived 19 November 2018 at the Wayback Machine. Rathlin Island: Rathlin Island Books. ISBN 978-0-9568942-0-5
  26. ^ Morton, Osborne (1994). Marine Algae of Northern Ireland. Ulster Museum. ISBN 978-0-900761-28-7.
  27. ^ Hardy, F. Gavin; Guiry, Michael D. (2003). A Checklist and Atlas of the Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland. London: British Phycological Society. ISBN 978-0-9527115-1-3.
  28. ^ Hackney, Paul (1992). Stewart & Corry's Flora of the North-East of Ireland: Vascular plant and charophyte sections (3rd ed.). Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast. ISBN 978-0-85389-446-9.
  29. ^ a b O'Sullivan, Aidan & Breen, Colin (2007). Maritime Ireland. An Archaeology of Coastal Communities. Stroud: Tempus. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-7524-2509-2.
  30. ^ Weir, A (1980). Early Ireland. A Field Guide. Belfast: Blackstaff Press. p. 96.
  31. ^ Wallace, Patrick F., O'Floinn, Raghnall eds., Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities, pp. 46-47, 2:4, 2002, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, ISBN 0717128296
  32. ^ Bronze Age man's burial site unearthed, BBC News, 2 February 2006.
  33. ^ Ancient DNA sheds light on Irish origins, by Paul Rincon, BBC News 28 December 2015.
  34. ^ Cassidy LM, Martiniano R, Murphy EM, et al. (2016) Neolithic and Bronze Age migration to Ireland and establishment of the insular Atlantic genome. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113:368–373.
  35. ^ Watson (1994) pp. 6, 37.
  36. ^ Chadwick (1949) p. 83
  37. ^ John Sugden, "Sir Francis Drake", Touchstone-book, published Simon+Schuster, New York, ISBN 0-671-75863-2
  38. ^ "Sir Francis Drake and Music". The Standing Stones. Archived from the original on 26 March 2010. Retrieved 2 August 2009.
  39. ^ Royle, Trevor (2004). Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638–1660. London: Abacus. ISBN 0-349-11564-8. p.143
  40. ^ "The Carolingian Era". MacDonnell Of Leinster Association. Archived from the original on 1 October 2011. Retrieved 28 August 2008.
  41. ^ Ferriter, Diarmaid (4 October 2018). On the Edge: Ireland's off-shore islands: a modern history. Profile Books. ISBN 978-1-78283-252-2.
  42. ^ O'Sullivan, Aidan & Breen, Colin (2007). Maritime Ireland. An Archaeology of Coastal Communities. Stroud: Tempus. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-7524-2509-2.
  43. ^ The Saturday Magazine. John William Parker. 1834. p. 134. Retrieved 13 June 2015.
  44. ^ "The Dictionary of Ulster Biography". newulsterbiography.co.uk.
  45. ^ Raines, Howell (4 July 1987). "2 Trans-Atlantic Balloonists Saved After Jump into Sea Off Scotland". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 19 February 2019.
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  47. ^ Burnham, Nick (18 April 2008). "Lifeboat declared beyond repair". Motor Boat & Yachting. Retrieved 4 November 2022.
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External links[edit]