Go Walk: Rathlin Island, Co Antrim


If Noddy and Big Ears had boarded the Puffin Bus in Toy Town nobody would have batted an eye. It is quite another matter to discover the Puffin Bus up in Rathlin Island off the coast of Antrim. Given the traditional hardships of island life you don’t expect something that sounds quite so “jolly”. But there it is – waiting at the harbour as the ferry docks to take you to the Seabird Centre at the western most end of the island.

If you can’t wait to see the birds hop on the bus but, if you are up for a bit of exercise, head in the opposite direction – go right or east if you prefer and follow the signs for the bicycle hire shop and get yourself a mount. Now you are free to explore at your own pace.

A good start would be to cycle about a mile heading south and lock the bikes at the start of the cliff walk. This is an easy four-mile walk initially across grassy ground and then out to the edge of the cliffs. You pass a couple of little lakes, a breeding area for wild ducks, Canadian geese and other water fowl, a lighthouse and, if you double back a bit, some good views back to the mainland and the ubiquitous sheep. Nothing too exciting but pleasant enough.

Having retrieved your bicycle you could then pedal back towards the harbour but this time head uphill towards the East Lighthouse. Close to the entrance to this building a momentous event occurred 113 years ago. Lloyds of London, having presumably heard of a new invention called radio, realised that it could be used commercially. The company, always anxious to track the whereabouts of its cargoes coming across the Atlantic, commissioned Guglielmo Marconi and his assistants Kemp and Glanville to set up the world’s first commercial radio transmission across the water from Rathlin to Ballycastle on the mainland. The world had changed forever.

From the lighthouse you can take another boreen back to the harbour. It is unlikely that you will want a second walk at this stage, particularly if you plan to cycle all the way over to the Seabird Centre. However if you were planning to stay overnight you might take a detour and do the little walk on way marked trails through a wooded area. This leads out to an old coast guard station from where you could admire the never ending views of sea and sky.

Although there is evidence of human habitation on the island dating back 6,000 years it is not man-made structures which are the attraction on this offshore island. By far and away the most interesting feature is the bird sanctuary.

Getting there on a bicycle is great fun but quite strenuous as there are some pretty steep hills. However, the views as you reach the top each time make it all worthwhile and you can always get off and walk if the sound of your heart is blocking out your companion’s chatter. As there are very few motorised vehicles on the tiny roads cycling is a real pleasure.

Out at the Seabird Centre there are ornithologists on hand to answer your questions and generally make your visit really worthwhile. Telescopes and binoculars are available but it is the stationery nature of the powerful telescopes bolted to the ground, which bring the drama out on the sea stacks to life.

The guillemots, quite small birds in comparison with the seagulls, are standing around trying to protect their young. The gulls – the enemy – are biding their time. Big, bold, brazen they land close to the family circle. The adults shuffle closer to the babies. The gulls wait, distract and wait. Suddenly a quick dart and the gull is in the air, something tiny and black dangling from its beak. A gasp from the watchers up on the cliffs. Expletives unprintable in The Irish Times. The cruelty of nature. Oh the poor guillemots, why don’t they attack back, bullies, bloody gulls, etc.

Then someone spots a puffin peeking out from its burrow hundreds of feet below, its clown like face looking semi puzzled. What a funny little bird. A real Toy Town character and spirits soar again. Another face appears and then another. Hundreds of puffins are nesting on the cliff side in what looks like an upmarket avian apartment block, complete with sea views.

For ornithologists this island is a true paradise for, apart form the aforementioned birds, it is possible to watch buzzards, peregrines, ravens, kittiwakes and many others including fulmars which are members of the albatross family.

Like most places in Ireland Rathlin has a summer festival. This takes place in mid-July and amateur dramatics, which have been thriving on the island since the 1900s, forms a central part of the festival.

Nowadays most of the plays are performed in the local hall but at one time they used what was called the Kelp Store. This old stone building was traditionally used to store seaweed which was an industry on the island from as early as the 17th until the middle of the last century. The kelp industry provided both soda and iodine and the income therefrom was vital to people along the coast struggling to survive.

Like millions of others on the mainland, the unfortunate islanders were forced to pay rent to a landowner. Imagine having to pay rent to live on a tiny island where you subsisted on potatoes and were probably warned off snaring a hare or a rabbit because it did not belong to you.

Wouldn’t you think that a few lads up to their eyeballs in poitín would have grabbed said landlord and sent him off in a boat with no oars in the direction of America.

I DIGRESS. THIS kelp industry earned the inhabitants some money with which they were able to pay the rent. It was mostly women and children who had the unenviable task of picking up this seaweed and hauling it to the Kelp Store. One can only imagine the cold as they waded into the sea in the depths of winter.

It is possible to find accommodation on the island varying from campsites up to a two-star guest house. There is a hostel, which is just a very ordinary house, where bicycles can be hired, but don’t bank on them being prepared to open their shed in March to hand out a few bikes. It seems that they make enough money in the summer so do not need one’s custom in spring time.

Getting across is easy. The ferry goes from Ballycastle a few times each day. If you are lucky you might be followed by dolphins as we were and you will certainly see plenty of seals draped over the rocks looking decidedly content with their lot.

A trip to Rathlin would fit in nicely with a tour of the north Antrim coast.