Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland
At the tip of Northern Ireland, as far as you can go north, is a small island. Rathlin Island. It’s the only inhabited island in the country – but don’t imagine a large British town. There are less than 150 people who live on this rock surrounded by sea.
To the north and the east is Scotland. If you went directly west, you would hit the top of Ireland. And just south, is the Northern Ireland mainland, the town of Ballycastle to be exact.
It’s from Ballycastle that you can get the ferry for the 10 kilometre ride across the water the water to Rathlin Island. There are two ferries – a passenger boat that takes about 20 minutes and a vehicle boat that takes about 45 minutes. I go with the faster passenger option.
Why am I going to the island? In fact, why does anyone?
It might seem a little odd to make the effort to go to an isolated community with so few people. But that’s part of the charm of Rathlin Island. This is a little peace of tranquility with some wonderful natural delights.
I arrive in Church Bay, where all the ferries arrive and survey the town. It doesn’t take long and doesn’t involve moving much. Most of the town is visible from any point, tracing the shoreline around the bay. It has everything you might expect from a town in this region – two churches (Catholic and Anglican), a pub, a corner store and a post office. Just a few houses sit on one side of the street, facing towards the water.
What dominates the view is green. Green fields in one direction, green mountains in another. This is one of the reasons visitors come here. You can walk in either direction to the tips of Rathlin Island and see some pretty spectacular scenery. Although, for many, it’s the wildlife that’s the main justification for the walking.
The island is great for birdwatching because so many birds use the island as a breeding colony. During the season, the seabird colony has about 80,000 guillemots, 20,000 kittiwakes, 10,000 razorbills, and 1,000 fulmars. There are even about 700 puffins.
I’m a bit disappointed it’s not the right time of the year when I visit. I would love to see a puffin – they look so cute from the photos. So maybe I’ll need a return trip sometime. Instead I head towards Mill Bay where I’ve been assured there will be some seals.
Indeed there are. They’re big fat slug-like seals that are just sunning themselves on the rocks and occasionally jumping into the sea to check the area. They look at me as I take perch on a rock and pull out my camera. But they’re not fussed. So I manage to get some nice photos of them.
I then head off towards the very south of Rathlin Island, past ruins of old buildings. There’s a lighthouse at the end here, photogenic, surrounded by rocks with the mainland in sight across the water.
There’s not much development out here on a walk. A lot of the land is privately-owned and used for farming but there are plenty of public tracks to go along and discover different things.
When I get back to town, there’s enough time for fish and ships from one of the few food options. I meet David, who introduces himself as the Community Development Officer for Rathlin Island. I wonder what kind of development you do when the community is only about 120 people. Dermott, another resident I meet, has a job that makes more sense. He builds dry walls and there’s a need for lots of them here.
Finally, on the way back to the ferry, I meet the two ladies who run The Manor House, the largest accommodation on the island. They take a break from making scones and show me around briefly. It would be a lovely place to stay for a night or two. However, in my head, I start imagining stay here for weeks or months.
That’s the thing about Rathlin Island. It’s been a day trip for me but I love the isolation and the silence. The mainland is close enough if you ever need to leave but there’s so much opportunity to relax into the nature and the slow pace of small community life. Maybe this is where I’ll come when I decide to write a book one day. I just hope David hasn’t developed the community into anything much busier than this!
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Tourism Ireland but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.