Rathlin, an island in Ireland

Daniel Scott
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Irish Sea was angry. This was probably one of the four times daily when over one billion tons of it are squeezed between a rock — the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland — and a hard place — the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, 18 kilometres away. And there we were, on the Rathlin Island ferry, right in the middle of it all, plunging into a hollow one moment, lunging onto a swell the next.

At times like this you need a reassuring presence and I found one from remarkably close to home: Richard Green, ferryman, formerly of Hobart, Tasmania, and now one of only 100 inhabitants of Rathlin Island. With my two fellow passengers greenly studying their feet, he was telling me what to expect of the boomerang-shaped island he calls home. "Rathlin's a place you'll either love or hate. I came here for three months 32 years ago and fell in love with it."

This was my third visit to Northern Ireland. I'd toured much of it at the height of the troubles in the 1980s (of which there'd been only the occasional sign — an armoured car here, a pavement painted with a British or Irish flag there). But while I'd been besotted with its luxuriant landscape and welcoming people, back then I'd never even heard of Rathlin Island.

Now I was back and heading to the island, with peace in Northern Ireland finally a reality. Not that it made much difference to Rathlin. As Richard told me, "The island's always been an oasis of calm."

It took only three days to get a taste of that calm. By then my lungs were flushed with fresh salty air from walking to each of Rathlin's reachable points, my mind full of the 100,000 seabirds breeding on the island's steep cliffs, my ears buzzing with stories from a long afternoon in Rathlin's only pub and my stomach bulging with Guinness and with Kay McCurdy's hearty guesthouse cooking.

The first thing I realised when stepping gratefully onto Rathlin's shores is that if you're staying there for any length of time, you're going to meet most of its population at least once. I found my way to Liam McFaul, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) warden, by asking a string of his relatives how to get to his house. "Just keep walking that way," pointed one of his young nephews. "Past the white stone cottage," said another. After about 90 minutes walk toward the West Lighthouse, I found his place. Liam was expecting me, he'd been tipped off.

He took me, with another nephew and a small dog with an unnerving gift for edge-of-cliff walking, to the RSPB reserve to see the third biggest colony of seabirds in the British Isles. On the cliffs and the rock stacks off the coast, every ledge and cranny was crammed with nesting birds, around 40,000 guillemots alone, as well as razorbills, kittiwakes, black-headed gulls and those clown princes of the seabird world, puffins.

Come spring and summer, come the birds to Rathlin, from as far away as Africa, and come the ornithologists, sometimes from even further. Nor is it just for the seabirds. With plenty of smaller birds and rabbits to prey on, all around the island kestrels hover, buzzards glide and peregrine falcons swoop.

Divers and archaeologists flock to the island too, although on Rathlin, especially in the off season, the arrival of 20 visitors in a week would constitute an invasion. The diving off Rathlin is among the best in Ireland, with sheer underwater cliffs, excellent marine life and a number of yet to be discovered wrecks. It might look cold and uninviting out there, but there is history just waiting to be uncovered.

On land, archaeologists are still unearthing Rathlin's past. Remains from the Neolithic period (from 4000 to 2500 BC) fleck the island and a Bronze Age cemetery (with its skeletons still intact) was found near Church Bay. Occasionally, locals, like the woodcarvers Paddy Burns and his Kiwi partner Penny Sewell, make their own discoveries. Digging the foundations of a new home behind their rudimentary stone cottage, they began finding bits of old pottery. Within weeks their backyard had become an archaeological site — the fragments identified as at least 4000 years old.

Unsurprisingly for an island midway between the British mainland and Ireland, Rathlin has a bloody history, with stories of massacres and counter-massacres punctuating its past. Scottish warrior Robert the Bruce reputedly sheltered in a cave here after defeat by the English, garnering inspiration to fight again from a persistent spider spinning a web. He returned to Scotland to triumph at Bannockburn in 1314.

Rathlin remains a place to gather your thoughts, an island with an inimitable Irish/Scottish flavour which can seem wild and isolated even in summer. Hiking around its virtually treeless landscape, my cheeks were buffed pink by the wind. You can easily find yourself alone if you want to be, but you'll never be lonely. Sooner or later a McFaul or a McCurdy'll be along saying Richard or Paddy is looking for you in the pub…