Rathlin Island: Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island

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Most people have not heard of Rathlin Island. Most locals have not visited it. Yet this first Irish island found tantalizingly close and, at the same time, remote, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island.

We decided to visit one sunny May day with friends from Larne at the prompting of an artist, a painter who knows how to appreciate the beauty of a serene landscape.

Alas, it was a public holiday, probably the only time when traffic to the island gets busy.

Exploring the Natural Beauty of Rathlin Island

White Sandy Beach Near Chruch Bay on Rathlin Island – Image by @joemcneillphotography

Rathlin Island is a remote and beautiful destination with stunning scenery and fascinating heritage. This article provides a comprehensive guide to the island, from its history and geography to its outdoor activities and cultural events. Whether you’re an adventure enthusiast or a culture buff, there’s plenty to discover on Rathlin Island.

A Brief Introduction to Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island is a small, isolated island off the northern Irish coast. The island covers an area of just 5.2 square miles or 3300 acres and is home to a small community of around 150 people. Despite its size, Rathlin Island has great natural beauty, with a rugged coastline, verdant forests, and unique wildlife.

History and Geography of Rathlin Island

The OLd Abandoned Fishery – Image By ninatory_

Rathlin Island has a rich and fascinating history that dates back over 5,000 years. The island was inhabited by various cultures, from the early Celtic tribes to the Vikings and Norman conquerors. The island’s unique geography results from its location on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean between Scotland and Ireland, with its rugged coastline and towering sea cliffs offering breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. The island’s central peak, which rises to 450 feet or 135 meters, provides a challenging hike for those up for the adventure. The dense grasslands covering much of the island are home to various flora and fauna, including rare bird species like the red-billed chough, peregrine falcon and recently, several white-tailed sea eagles..

Things to Do on Rathlin Island

Glamping Pods on Rathlin Island – Image by ninatory_

Despite its small size, Rathlin Island offers a range of activities for visitors to enjoy. The crystal-clear waters surrounding the island are ideal for scuba diving, with various marine life and wrecks to discover. For those who prefer to stay on land, the island’s rugged terrain is perfect for hiking and cycling, with numerous trails to explore. Visitors can also tour the island’s historic sites, including the lighthouses, Rathlin community and homesteads that dot the landscape.

Accommodations and Dining on Rathlin Island

The Manor House Rathlin Island – Image by Manorhouse

Rathlin Island offers a range of accommodations for visitors, from cosy bed and breakfasts to self-catering cottages. Many of the island’s accommodations offer stunning views of the surrounding landscape, and some even have their own private beaches. Visitors can also enjoy a range of dining options on the island, from traditional Irish pubs serving locally sourced seafood and other delicacies.

Stunning Landscapes and Scenery

Stunning Views of Houses in Rathlin Island Looking towards Fairhead – Image By hillwalktours

The natural beauty of Rathlin Island is truly breathtaking. From its rugged island coastal scenery to its undulating grasslands, the island offers an unparalleled opportunity to get in touch with nature.

As you explore the island, you’ll be treated to various stunning landscapes that will take your breath away. From the rolling hills and lush valleys to the rocky cliffs and pristine beaches, Rathlin Island is a feast for the senses.

How to get there – Rathlin Island Ferry

Getting to Rathlin Island can be challenging, but it’s well worth the effort. The ferry to Rathlin Island from Ballycastle to Church Bay is the most popular way to reach the island, with several sailings a day during the peak season.

Rathlin Island Car & Passenger Ferry – Image by kimmawhinney

By Car

It is possible to take your car across the Rathlin Island ferry from the Antrim coast; however, several restrictions exist. It is best to contact the ferry company to ensure that the correct ferry is running and they can take your car.

From Ballycastle, a busy Antrim coast town and resort with excellent views and some of Ireland’s best fish and chips.

On Foot

Walking or Cycling is the best way to get around Rathlin Island – IMage by shazzamci31

The foot passenger ferry was booked up on the day we last visited. However, we asked around, and in the town marina, we found a speedboat boat that made the trip in half the time for double the price.

It was worth it! We donned our orange life jackets and raincoats and prepared for the 25-minute sail.

Raincoats? Why raincoats? We were soon to find out. A north-easterly wind was blowing, and the boat was flying over the waves, spraying water over the passengers.

The children loved it – all of them, the young, the not so young and the old.

Sailing on that boat, we all became children. Twenty-five minutes later, we landed on Rathlin’s quaint little harbour at Church Bay, going past the west lighthouse. No wind here. The landmass of the island was blocking the flow of the wind. We got the Rathlin Island ferry on the way back.

Visitors can also hire a private boat or helicopter ride to the island for a unique experience. Once on Rathlin Island, visitors can explore the enchanted island on foot, by bike, or by hiring a local guide to show them around or go on an amazing nature walk.

Overall, Rathlin Island is a hidden gem that offers visitors a chance to experience Ireland’s natural beauty and rich history in a unique and unforgettable way. Whether you’re looking for adventure, relaxation, or both, Rathlin Island has something for everyone.

On Rathlin Island

Church Bay, Rathlin Island – Image by @fergalflanneryphotography

Scattered next to the harbour are two dozen little houses, some inhabited, others holiday cottages in the townland of Church Bay. Though the boats were full, the small island life looked surprisingly serene.

If you are looking for a place to spend a quiet weekend or week, this is as quiet as it gets.

We take the road to the east and south of the island. On the right-hand side, the Boathouse Visitor Centre, run by the Rathlin community association with its tourist office and museum. Small, but well worth fifteen minutes of your time.

We continue on a sharp left turn past a canteen that sells hamburgers and… crab sandwiches.

Rathlin Island Seal Habitat

Seals Enjoying The Sun on Rathlin Island – IMage by relandonabudget

We find what we have been looking for five hundred meters down the road.

Mill Bay is a seal habitat, and before us, we see about half a dozen enjoying the sunshine on the rocky beach.

The cameras come out. We try to approach. The seals follow our movements, and when we reach within thirty meters, they slowly enter the water.

The children had hoped to pet them, but even at thirty meters, they were a sight worth seeing.

Bird watching at West Lighthouse

Bird Watching From Rathlin Islands West Lighthouse – by foxlouise

Back in the village, we wait for the bus to take us to the island’s western edge. The driver is an extremely friendly local who knows every square meter of the island.

As we drove along, he stopped the bus to give us a taste of local folklore dosed with a lot of humour. Here is the house of a famous singer. There is the old school.

We reach the end of the island, a high cliff with beautiful vistas of the ocean and the Antrim coast in the distance.

We disembark from the bus and begin to descend down a steep flight of stairs. About 200 steps down but still high above the ocean is an observatory. Observe what?

Observe the tens of thousands of birds, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, ravens and peregrines that come there every May and June to nest in their natural habitat. Awesome. Awesome. They are the reason we timed our visit for the end of May. In some places, you can barely see the rock for the number of birds.

Rathlin Island Seabird Centre

We spend about an hour and a half there. Friendly RSPB volunteers are on hand to explain the birds’ nesting habits, lend you a pair of binoculars, or take pictures of you as you bask in the joy of your discovery. The RSPB Seabird Centre is, without doubt, the highlight of a visit to Rathlin…

Walking back

It is already afternoon, and we begin the road back.

Mothers and children take the bus. We hardy men decide to walk. The sun is shining, there is now a pleasant breeze and the countryside is so utterly peaceful. The walk back takes about an hour, but we enjoy it.

We are now at the village, and as we wait for the boat to take us back, we enjoy a packed lunch by the seaside. We sail back into the car and back home.

Rathlin island truly is one of the the Must-do if you visit Northern Ireland.

Fast Facts

Rathlin Geography

L-shaped, three miles long on one side, four miles long on the other, one mile wide.

Distance from Mainland

Six miles from Ballycastle and sixteen miles from the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland.


circa 70 precious and brave souls.

How to get there: Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd departs from Ballycastle. Or check for local transport once there.

The ferry takes approximately 40 minutes to cross from Ballycastle over to Rathlin Island.

The bus from the harbour to the RSPB Seabird Centre takes approximately 20 minutes.

Are you visiting with children? There is a playground near the harbour of Rathlin Island. Heh, everyone is happy if a playground is nearby, that’s my conclusion!

Claim to Fame I: On July 6, 1898, wireless communication took place between the East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island and Ballycastle. The culprit was Guglielmo Marconi, or rather, his assistant George Kemp since Marconi could not go to Rathlin himself. George Kemp worked together with Edward Glanville, a graduate from Trinity College, Dublin. This was actually the third attempt to establish a signal, the first successful in a long process of developing reliable communications for the people at sea.

The first unsuccessful attempt happened when Kemp and Glanville erecting an eighty-foot high aerial at the east lighthouse on Rathlin Island and used as a receiving station a point near the pier in Ballycastle.

Kemp realised they needed a taller receiving station, so he asked for permission from Rev. Father Conway to use the spire of St. Patrick’s church. Success was elusive, however.

It was only when Kemp and Glanville built an aerial up to 104 feet tall from the “White House” in Ballycastle, which used to be where the ferry terminal carpark is nowadays, that the experiment was successful.

Kemp and Glanville, together with a local man, Mr John Cecil (whose ancestors still live on the island today), continued to work on the island and Ballycastle.

But not for long… On a Sunday, 21st July 1898, Edward Glanville stumbled and fell to his death over the cliff on Rathlin Island.

Marconi came for the funeral. He stayed in Ballycastle for a few days, visited Rathlin Island to check the equipment and eventually left for London, taking the equipment with him.

Marconi’s ties with the Emerald Island were not limited to Rathlin Island. His mother was from Wexford, Ireland, while his father was Italian.

It was in Dun Laoghaire that he received extensive coverage for his invention when he transmitted signals from a boat named “The Flying Huntress” to a land station at Kingstown during the Dublin regatta on the 20th and 21st July 1898.

Short Bio of Guglielmo Marconi: Born in Bologna, Italy on April 25th 1874, died in 1937. In 1909, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Claim to Fame II: Richard Branson, on his record-breaking 1987 transatlantic crossing of the Atlantic on a hot air balloon crash-landed off the Rathlin coast. He later returned to Rathlin and, in gratitude, gave £25,000 to the Rathlin Island Trust for the renovation of the Manor House.

Bruce’s cave.

Located under the East lighthouse, it is the place where supposedly Robert the Bruce (King of Scots1274 – 1329) found refuge when defeated by the English in 1306. Bruce saw a spider repeatedly trying to climb to the cave’s roof, succeeding only after several failed attempts. He rightly concluded that success comes to those who don’t give up trying.

A Blue Plaque adorns the visitor’s centre, commemorating the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s ‘exile’ on Rathlin Island. The ceremony was performed by Lord Bruce, son of the Earl of Elgin, the 37th Chief of the Bruce family, on June, 23 2007.

RSPB Seabird Centre

Rathlin Island Seabird Centre on West Lighthouse – BY pep_p_er

The beginning of the summer of 2008 saw a newly refurbished Seabird Centre on Rathlin Island. It has certainly come a long way from the early days of 1978 when only a part-time warden received just over 500 visitors. Nowadays, it boasts two full-time and three part-time knowledgeable staff that help over 11,000 visitors come closer to nature a year.

Perched in Westlight, halfway up a 600 ft cliff, it offers unique views of the birds and their nests. It is a true observatory with spectacular views as the birds fight for space as they defend their nesting territory.

The centre has worked hard to create a habitat for choughs, and they are happy to see them coming to Rathlin island to breed after a 20-year absence.

Children’s binoculars are available for hire, and a telescope is just for children, too!

Opening times: 11 am-3 pm daily from April to mid-September.

Entrance is free, but donations are gratefully accepted.

Telephone: 028207 60062


When you are planning your visit, note the following:

Book your boat trip in advance. Weekends and public holidays from May onwards can be busy. Book in advance to avoid disappointment.

Allow plenty of time. Take the first boat out and the last boat in. Time goes quicker than you think. Better still, book a cottage or take your tent and stay overnight. This way, you can see the island without having to rush.

Wear good walking shoes. While there is a bus that can take you from one side of the island to the other, you will want to walk. The landscape is so peaceful that a visit would be incomplete without a walk down its quiet lanes.

To make the most of your visit join Paul Quinn’s famous walking tours. You will see the sights and hear live commentary from one who knows the island like the back of his hand.

When is the best time to see the Puffins at Rathlin Island?

A Puffin on Rathlin Island – Image BY the_camera_dude88
  • The best time is from Easter to the beginning of August. The RSPB holds the Summer Seabird Spectacle during that time.
  • Puffins are expected to go back to the sea after the end of July so don’t miss the Highlight weekend to say goodbye to Puffins July 25/26 ish
  • For more information, contact Alison McFaul on 028 207 60062 or 028 904 91547.
  • Photo Credits: Photo no.4, courtesy of Ulster History Circle. Photo no.5 Ilan Kelman
About the author

Originally from Scotland, Colin now resides near the beautiful seaside town of Portstewart on the Causeway Coastal Route. By day he works in IT and by day off he spends much of his time travelling around the Island with his young family, writing about his experiences for many sites both locally and nationally.