Rathlin Island (In Irish Reachlainn) is an island historically part of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Those counties have been abolished so it's now part of Causeway Coast and Glens District; it's Northern Ireland's only inhabited island with a population in 2011 of 154.
Rathlin was created by the same outpouring of lava that formed Giant's Causeway, and its sea cliffs and bird life are its main attractions. It's poor land for farming, and its outlying position made it vulnerable to raids by Vikings and others. Outcasts such as Robert the Bruce of Scotland have occasionally taken refuge here, only to bring down murderous reprisals upon the entire population. In the 18th century it was briefly industrial thanks to kelp, then morphed in Victorian times into a tourist resort.
In 2021 a five year project was launched to rid the island of its rats and ferrets, to protect the ground-nesting birds.
Rathlin Island Ferries sail from Ballycastle to Rathlin Island four or five times daily, taking 30 min. (This is the winter timetable, but in 2021 it continues ufn.) There are two vessels: Rathlin Express (RE on timetables) is for foot passengers, Spirit of Rathlin (SOR) also carries vehicles. Visitors may not bring vehicles (see Ballycastle for long stay car parks) but passengers with restricted mobility should use the car ferry. Both vessels take bicycles (which must be booked), and dogs on leads are welcome. Return fares are adult £12, child £6, bicycle £3.30.
1 Church Bay is the ferry pier and only settlement on the island. A draughty perspex bus shelter is the only semblance of a "passenger terminal", and there are no toilets.
Kilmeer is the hilly west arm of the island, five miles long. In the middle is the settlement of Church Bay, then Kinkeel is the low-lying south arm, three miles long. A tarmac lane runs the length of the island, single track with passing places. You can hike it all, and bicycles can be hired from Soerneog View Hostel.
In summer Bert's Puffin Bus meets the ferry and charges £10 for a "tour", meaning he drives you to the RSPB centre at the west tip, and may or may not bother to drive you back.
- 1 Rathlin Boathouse Visitor Centre, Church Bay BT54 6RT. Apr-Sept daily 09:30-17:00. Small visitor centre with historical exhibition. Free.
- There's a standing stone and a burial cist in the fields by McCuaig's Bar.
- Kelp House is the ruin at the south end of the bay, built circa 1750. Until 1820, kelp was valuable as its ash contained sodium carbonate for making soap and glass, though you needed over 400 tons of seaweed to get one ton of sodium carbonate. The price crashed when the Leblanc Process created it much more cheaply; kelp was still needed as a source of iodine but many remote coastal communities lost their livelihood.
- St Thomas' Church, 3 Churchquarter BT54 6RT, ☏ . This C of I church dates from 1812 and is named for St Thomas Lindsay of Armagh. The first church here was founded in 580 AD, with a monastic settlement that was raided and eventually destroyed by the Vikings. The graveyard is for all denominations; here lies Rev John Gage, who bought the island in 1746. War graves hold the crew of HMS Viknor, lost in Jan 1915 probably sunk by a mine, and HMS Racoon, which hit the rocks in Jan 1918. Church services are held every Sunday in July and August at 11:00, and monthly Sept-June.
- Church of the Immaculate Conception (St Mary's), BT54 6SB, ☏ . Mass Su 12:00. The original RC church here had been a mill and threshing barn until 1812. It was replaced by the present building in 1864, which used washed-up timbers.
- 2 RSPB Seabird Centre, BT54 6BT, ☏ . Apr-Aug daily 10:00-16:00. Viewpoint and 4 mile clifftop nature trail. Seabirds include puffin, guillemot, kittiwake, razorbill and fulmar, and there's also chough and corncrake. You may not bring dogs into the area, and there's no place to tie them up while you explore. The centre has toilets and a drinks vending machine. Adult £5, child £2.50, RSPB free.
- Rathlin West Lighthouse next to the RSPB Centre was lit in 1919.
- 3 Rathlin East Lighthouse, first lit in 1856, is on the cliffs of Altacarry Head. Just south is Rathlin (or Bruce's) Castle, destroyed in a quarrel of 1575, when the island's garrison and inhabitants were massacred.
- 4 Rue Point Lighthouse at the south tip was lit in 1921. The nearby Roonivoolin Lough is an RSPB reserve but free to access.
- Rathlin Trail is a four mile walk from the harbour to the West Lighthouse and RSPB Seabird Viewpoint (no dogs here). It's mostly on the lane, but there's very little traffic. Think about the four miles to get back to your return ferry.
- The Co-op by the ferry pier is open M-Sa 11:00-16:00. The Post Office is within.
- Island Treasures, Church Bay BT54 6RT. Oct-Mar M-F 10:00-14:00, Apr-Jun Sept Su-F 11:00-15:00, Sa 12:00-16:00, Jul Aug daily 11:00-17:00. Gift shop.
- ATM: the only ATM is within McCuaig's Bar, so it's only accessible within pub hours, and it charges for transactions.
- Water Shed Cafe next to the ferry pier was closed through 2020 and early 2021.
- The Manor House is the main eating place, see Sleep. It has Lighthouse Cafe open daily 12:00-15:00 and Island Restaurant daily 18:30-21:00; booking for both essential.
- McCuaig's Bar, Church Bay BT54 6RT, ☏ . Daily 11:00-23:00. The island pub, good place for a meal and a drink after a hike around the island.
- Accommodation is limited so book early. The late afternoon ferries from Ballycastle won't take you unless you've something booked, so they've obviously had too many visitors get stranded and become carrion for the gulls.
- Manor House, Church Bay BT54 6RT, ☏ , email@example.com. Smart hotel in Georgian mansion a few steps from the ferry pier, with 11 rooms and restaurant.
- Arkell House B & B, Church Bay BT54 6SA, ☏ . It's the three story white building overlooking the harbour, comfy welcoming B&B.
- 1 Coolnagrock B&B, Ballynoe BT54 6RT, ☏ . This will remain closed throughout 2021.
- Rathlin Glamping Pods remain closed in 2021.
- Soerneog View Hostel, BT54 6RS. 6-bed hostel, normally open Apr-Sept but closed throughout 2021.
- Kinramer Cottage is self-catering, away at the west end of the island towards the RSPB reserve. It's open all year.
As of March 2021, there is no mobile signal from any UK carrier on the island. That's not a problem, is it?
- Back to Ballycastle it must be.
- From there either track east along the mainland coast to the big attractions of Carrick-a-Rede Bridge, Giant's Causeway and Bushmills, or southeast to the Antrim Glens.
- The Copeland islands were inhabited until 1996 when the lighthouse was automated. Reach them by boat trip from Donaghadee near Bangor, County Down.