A life on the rocks


It may be home to a hugely popular rock music festival as well as a vast range of sea life, but Rathlin is a working island, not a day-trippers' theme park, the residents tell Mary Russell

The list of some 40 wrecks surrounding the rocky promontories of Rathlin - Northern Ireland's only inhabited island - reads like a catalogue of seafaring history. In 1794, the Thomas, sailing from Cork to St Kitts in the Caribbean, hit the rocks. In 1815, the Cumberland, bringing rum, coffee and pimento from Jamaica to Greenock, came a cropper. Fifty years on, a vessel taking sugar to Newfoundland sank, and during the two world wars, numerous boats carrying cargo, munitions and troops were torpedoed.

But perhaps the most famous of the recent casualties was Richard Branson, whose transatlantic journey, by balloon, ended unexpectedly in the sea off Rathlin, in 1987. In gratitude, he gave £25,000 to the islanders for rescuing him.

Part of the money went toward restoring the striking Georgian Manor House which the islanders planned on turning into a much-needed 12-bed guest house. The plan foundered and the Northern Ireland National Trust stepped in, bought the property, paid off the outstanding debt and now, 10 years on, is set to hand over to the new leaseholders.

The reopening of the Manor House is good news, though not, by a long chalk, the only good thing that has happened on Rathlin. The National Trust has also leased out workshops at the back of the Manor House which provide training for islanders in ceramics and silversmithing. Irish language classes are on offer, as is internet access.

A writing group has recently formed, the film club is well attended, the phenomenally successful Jigs and Reels music festival is now in its fourth year. The Ballycastle Writers Group makes the 45-minute crossing from the mainland every September to host its annual weekend on Rathlin. Not bad for an island whose population, since the Famine, has fallen from 1,200 to the current 80.

I was last on Rathlin a few years ago, during a fuschia-heavy heatwave, but this time the little ferry rocks and bucks its way through the waves, with the rain driving in from the Atlantic in regular squalls.

Ten minutes after arriving, I am sitting by a blazing fire in Margaret McQuilkin's B&B drinking tea and chatting to Loughie, her 82-year-old father. Loughie, who retired 15 years ago from his job as a coastguard, recalls going to school in his bare feet, collecting firewood for the schoolroom fire, loading kelp onto boats headed for Glasgow (there to be made into iodine and soap), as well as helping with the 12 horses that used to be on the island. (The first tractor, a Ford Ferguson, arrived in 1946.)

The McQuilkin B&B is one of only two on Rathlin, and there is a lot of talk about how many visitors an island nine miles long and one wide can accommodate.

"This is a working island, not a day- trippers' theme park," says Alison McFaul, "and our aim is to maintain a good quality of life both for residents and for visitors, as well as maintaining the island environment."

McFaul is a representative of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) on Rathlin and, together with her husband Liam - RSPB warden and the only man on the island still making a living from fishing - runs the Camping Barn, a reconstructed traditional dwelling house with bunk beds, a communal kitchen and camping space for tents nearby.

Rathlin is home to one of the most extensive ranges of sea life in this part of Europe, with birds, dolphins and seals dropping in regularly. Every summer, RSPB volunteers pitch up at the Camping Barn with binoculars and telescopes, ready to help visitors recognise the huge numbers of kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins who leave their watery, mid-ocean homes to nest on Rathlin's cliffs by the West Lighthouse where they give birth to their young.

The views from the cliffs are awesome. Look one way and you see Donegal, the other the peninsula of Kintyre.

"We support the island because of its unique heritage," says John Baird, one of the National Trust's regional officers for Northern Ireland. As well as porcellinite axes dating from 2000 BC which were found on the island, there are standing stones, Robert the Bruce's Castle, famine dwellings and three nature trails. "The way forward lies in environmental tourism," says Baird.

Though many look on this as a time of regeneration for the sturdy island, all is not plain sailing. There is no recycling bank on the island - a major problem, especially during the summer months when up to 250 visitors may arrive on one day. A writer's chair, donated by the Ballycastle Writers Group - made of polished granite and inscribed with a quote from Seamus Heaney - has caused mystification among some islanders, who would like to have had an input into its design. And no one now wants to talk about the era, 10 years ago, when there were two educational establishments - a Catholic school and a non-denominational educational unit, both serving four pupils each.

That divisive situation was finally resolved and now there is just one - St Mary's primary school - catering for the three children of primary-school age on the island.

Brian McCaughan is the head teacher, travelling over from Ballycastle every day (his wife and their five children live there), arriving by high-speed sea taxi but returning by the less expensive ferry. The three scholars - Shannon Cecil (10) and Connor (nine) and Owen (five) McCurdy - have their own school uniform and an extensive array of educational websites to source their projects. This summer Shannon moves on, and though one new child will enrol, hopes of building up the school population are low: it is one of the social problems of Rathlin that there is no affordable housing on the island which young couples can buy or rent - the reason many have had to leave.

"We've got some new houses but they cost £100,000 and that's way beyond my means," says Jonathan Mitchell, father of a small baby, who left the madness of mainland city life to set up his own computer business on Rathlin. He's an enthusiastic member of the Rathlin Island Co-op, pointing up in particular, the annual weekend rock festival so popular - big names headline for free - that the performance date is only publicised a few days in advance.

"People have come from as far away as Poland and of course from all over Northern Ireland, most of them setting up tent by the Camping Barn. We have every sort of music - rock, traditional, garage - sited well away from where people live and with a special area set aside for families."

With only one small shop on the island whose opening hours are kept to a minimum, punters have to bring their own supply of sustenance. "You could call us the Glastonbury of Northern Ireland," says Mitchell, and if the 2,000 or so people who catch the ferry over from Ballycastle for the free gig are anything to go by, he's not far off.

• Ballycastle is an hour's drive from Belfast and two hours by bus. Caledonian Macbrayne (048-20766299) ferry operates twice a day and three times in summer. Day return: £8.40. Children half price, toddlers free. McQuilkins B&B 048-20763983. Camping Barn and birdwatching: 048-20763948