When you are on our Giant’s Causeway tour, you may just catch a glimpse of a small island off the north coast of Ireland. Located approximately two and a half miles from the Northern Irish coastline, this island appears to try and bridge the gap between Scotland and Northern Ireland. In fact, it is only a mere eleven miles off the shores of the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland!
But what is this island, and why is it significant?
Rathlin Island has a rich and varied history, ranging from ancient times right up to the modern day. It features gruesome, bloody tales of violence, ownership disputes, island politics and mythological folklore influences. For such a small island (barely spanning seven miles in length) it has certainly seen more than its fair share of excitement!
It is widely believed that Rathlin was the first inhabited Irish island, largely due to its close proximity to the Scottish coast. Although we don’t know the exact dates, it’s estimated that the first settlers arrived on the island somewhere between 6000-5000 BC.
By 2500 BC, the settlers had established a strong trade exporting porcellanite axes (a raw material naturally occurring on the island) which proved highly beneficial for many years. This set up worked well until the Spanish began to export their own, superior, copper axes in approximately 1800 BC.
Arguably the island’s most famous visitor was Robert the Bruce, who escaped to a cave on Rathlin Island to hide after he was defeated by the English in 1306. As the story goes, he drew inspiration from a spider in the cave which later spurred him on to take the Scottish crown.
Although it had clear benefits, the island’s nearness to Scotland also came with a downside – ownership claims and disputes. Over the years, Scotland and Ireland have had many a heated dispute over who owns Rathlin Island, until 1617, when a bizarre test finally ended the debate once and for all.
In a manner like that which laid to rest similar ownership disputes regarding the Isle of Man, a snake was let loose on the island. Put simply, if the snake survived, Rathlin was part of Scotland. If it died, the island belonged to the Irish. Unfortunately for the snake, Ireland was eventually acknowledged as the rightful owner of Rathlin Island.
No stranger to tragedy, Rathlin was not able to escape the devastating effects of the Irish Potato Famine. In 1846, approximately 500 islanders left Rathlin for America, signalling the beginning of the end for the island’s population. Many ships have also met their doom on the island’s treacherous rocks – perhaps the most notable of which was HMS Drake, the British Navy’s WW1 flagship, which was sunk by a torpedo just off the island’s coast. Nowadays, several lighthouses dot Rathlin’s coast to warn passing sea traffic about the hidden dangers lurking beneath the waves.
Rathlin is also known for being the location of the transmission of the first ever commercial radio signal, which was sent from the island to Ballycastle on the Irish mainland by renowned inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi.
Folklore and mythology are a key part of Irish culture, and Rathlin Island is certainly no different.
As well as Rathlin, the island itself also goes by another name – the Enchanted Island. As legend has it, the island will appear from the sea once every seven years. Apparently, if you throw a pebble onto the island, it will never be claimed by the sea again.
Rathlin Island may be small, but it certainly has plenty of tales to tell! The Northern Irish coast is undeniably rich in history and can boast a whole range of exciting attractions, places to visit and sights to see. Why not book your place on our Giant’s Causeway tour and see some of these sights for yourself?