Considering its small size, Rathlin has a particularly long, interesting and, at times, very bloody History. This is a fairly long page so I’ve split it into manageable sections, just click on the underlined links to go to that area:

Ancient History (6000 BC – 400 AD)
Medieval History (400 AD – 1400 AD)
Recent History (1400 AD – Date)
Legends and Folklore

Ancient History

Evidence has recently been found to suggests that man first reached Rathlin in the Mesolithic period as early as 6000 BC. These people were probably brave seafaring folk who used the Island as a stopping off point during longer voyages. By 5000 BC the Island is known to have been inhabited. Archaeologists have found various Tools, Axes and Arrowheads dating from 5000 – 2000 BC.

By 2500 BC Rathlin had become an important commercial centre founded upon the considerable wealth gained from production and export of strong axes made from a rare blueish stone, Porcellanite, found only in two places worldwide, both in Ireland. Further evidence indicates that there was frequent trade between Egypt, Crete and Rathlin with movement of people in all directions.

Human inventiveness does not stand still and by 1800 BC enterprising Spaniards had flooded the market with Copper implements and the Stone Axe trade dried up plunging the Island into obscurity for a few hundred years.

About 1500 BC the island was taken over by a Spanish tribe called the Firbolgs (literally translated as Bag Men perhaps because they wore trousers). Their hold on the island was fairly short lived, in 1200 BC they were driven off the island by the bronze swords of the Tuatha Dé Danann and Milesians whose reign would last nearly 800 years until they were Ironed out of the picture by the Celts who arrived with their superior ferrous weapons in 400 BC. The fortress of Doonmore was built about 3000 years ago to defend the island against invasion.

In the first century B.C. Rathlin was ruled by King Donn from the fortress of Doonmore. For nearly 1200 years the Celtic influence shaped the island, fearless in battle they also exercised a vast amount of artistic muscle.

During this period, 150 AD, the Greek geographer and scientist, Ptolemy, identified the island as “Rikina”. A chronicler of St. Columba’s life, Adomnan, used the Irish version Rechru in the 7th century (some say Rechru is Lambay island off Dublin). Reachlinn and Rathlin are both found as early as 1213. The name Raghery (which is still used by some islanders) appears in 1278.

In the 4th century Ireland was inhabited by the Scoti people, under the leadership of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was said to have been based on Rathlin, the Scoti carried on extensive sea-raids on the fading Roman Empire in Britain. Among these captives was a sixteen year old son of a lesser Roman dignitary who was born in Wales. After escaping his captors and studying in Gaul he returned in 432 AD to spread the word of Christianity throughout Ireland and later became St. Patrick.

Back to top of page

Medieval History

From the fifth to the eighth century Rathlin was part of the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada which bridged north-east Ireland and south-west Scotland. Dalriada was established in 470 A.D. by King Fergus MacArt and his three brothers, who were Princes of the original Dalriada in County Antrim, Ireland.

In 521 A.D. an Irish prince was born who was later known as St. Columba. He was a descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages. In 563 St. Columba left Derry with his followers and founded a monastery on the Hebridean island of Iona. This became the centre of a great revival of the Church in the Western World for two hundred years.

In 580 the first church was established on Rathlin by St. Comgall, Abbot of Bangor. Another church was founded by Sigenius in 630. On the site of one of these ancient churches is the present day parish church of St. Thomas (Church of Ireland).

795 AD saw the arrival of the Vikings who raided the monasteries for their gold. Eventually most of the heathen invaders converted to Christianity.

In 1100 AD the island came under the rule of the Somerled of Argyll, a great chieftain from whom the notorious MacDonnells of Antrim would eventually descend. 1156AD the Norwegians fought and gained ownership of Rathlin, amongst others, including most of the Western Isles and the Isle of Man.

The next few decades were to prove quite turbulent in Rathlin’s history when in 1169 Henry II King of England gave land grants over the island to John De’Courcy whom it is believed built the castle known as ‘Bruces’, he had built several such buildings in the immediate area during his stay. The island then fell into the hands of Hugh De’Lacy in 1205 when he turned King John against De’Courcy, but this didn’t last long as he grew too greedy and De’Courcy returned with King John’s consent to expel De’Lacy. After King John had finished his purge of Ulster he granted land rights to Duncan of Carrick who in turn granted it to his kinsman, Alan, Earl of Galloway. This only lasted for three years until 1216 when King John intervened again to grant ownership to the De’Lacy family yet again only for it to be inherited by the De’Burgos by marriage.

In 1242 the Byssets arrived from Scotland and bought Rathlin and the Glens from the De’Burgos. It was during this period that it is claimed that Sir Hugh Bysset let Robert the Bruce hide in the autumn of 1306 after defeat by the English. During his stay on the island the Bruce is said to have drawn new inspiration after watching a spider finally succeed after several attempts to climb to the roof inside what is now locally known as Bruce’s cave.

Back to top of page


Recent History

In the 15th century the island changed ownership by the marriage of Margery Bysset to John Mor McDonnell and would remain in the McDonnell family name until 1490 when Angus McDonnell was assassinated and in 1493 King James IV forfeited the title ‘Lord of the Isles’ and ruled the island. After this date details are scarce as the McDonnells were not akin to keeping records. The McQuillans are said to have had influence over the island during this period although there is no proof.

It wasn’t until 1551 that Rathlin once more got into the thick of it. Captain Cuffe and Sir Ralph Bagenal tried to land near Bruce’s cave to defeat Colla and James McDonnell, but the ship was thrown ashore by the unpredictable swell and both were captured and later released in exchange for the release of Sorley Boy.

The island suffered a massacre in 1557 at the hands of Sir Henry Sydney when he captured corn and cattle. Turlough Luineach O’Neill married Lady Agnes Campbell (James McDonnell’s widow) with fourteen days of story-tellers, jugglers and jesters.

The next big massacre was by Sir John Norris and Francis Drake when the MacDonnell women and children, taking refuge on Rathlin, were slaughtered. Revenge was swift, Sorley Boy then captured the castle at Carrickfergus where he killed over a hundred. The English didn’t think the island was worth holding so Sorley Boy reclaimed it and used it as a base for raids on the mainland against the English.

In 1585 Henry Bagenal and Captain Thorton recaptured the island after some sharp fighting by Sorley Boy and his men near Dunmore before they beat a hasty retreat to Kintyre. Sorley Boy then captured Dunluce castle and swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth in return for land rights he rightly deserved. This drew to an end the long conflict between the Scots and the English in the area.

After Elizabeth’s death the Stuart monarchy granted a knighthood to Sorley Boy’s son Randal and the grants of Rathlin and The Glynns. For a while the island was peaceful although the issue of whether the island belonged to Ireland or Scotland came into focus when the right of ownership was disputed by Crawford of Lisnorris. Luckily for Randal the court ruled in his favour and Rathlin was proclaimed an Irish island. (I personally prefer the version that a poisonous adder was taken onto the Island, if it survived the land was Scottish. The snake died.)

The mid 1600’s saw an influx of Scottish folk landing in Ireland to avoid religious persecution (or worse). Many of these families made their home on Rathlin. Their contentment was fairly short lived and the subsequent emigration to America precipitated by further persecution in Ireland.

After William of Orange became King William III, a Protestant, along with his wife Mary, also a Protestant, (daughter of James II – a Catholic) as Joint Monarchs the people expected that there would be freedom to practise whatever religious faith they adhered to. James had planned to make the whole of the British Isles into a wholly Catholic State. (England then had a Episcopalian majority with many dissenters and relatively few Catholics; Scotland had much lesser Episcopalian populace but was strong in Dissenters and Catholics; Ireland was already largely Catholic)

For a time the expectation of the people in the aftermath of 1688-91 was realised and the three main branches of Christianity; Protestant, Roman Catholic and Dissenter, enjoyed a goodly measure of freedom of worship.

Queen Mary died in mid 1690s and in 1702 William III died, being succeeded by Anne, Mary’s sister, who was also a Protestant. Anne was secretly scheming to arrange that her half-brother, ‘The Old Pretender’, a Catholic, would succeed to the throne on her death. There was a rebellion in 1715 started in Scotland led by ‘The Old Pretender’ but this was put down. The Protestant (Episcopalian) Church attempted to regain the dominance it had enjoyed from the reformation until 1685 when James II came to the throne.

When Anne died in 1714 she was succeeded by George I, a Hanoverian, who could not speak English. The Protestant Episcopalian Church, early in Anne’s reign, had gradually encouraged the Parliament to introduce laws to keep the Dissenters, and particularly the Catholics, ‘in their place’ to ensure that the Protestant religion and the Institutions of the country would not be threatened by further rebellion and overthrow. The Dissenters, Presbyterians, who did not recognise Church rule by Bishops, were a very independent group of people and so naturally were regarded as a thorn in the flesh of the Establishment.

The laws introduced, later known as ‘The Penal Laws’ included denial of Government Office to Dissenters and Catholics; payment of tithes by everyone to the Established Episcopalian Church; Presbyterian ministers were generally precluded from performing marriages (Catholics were not so heavily penalised in this respect but were denied entry to the professions if they refused to give allegiance to the monarch); constraint on property ownership and several other controlling measures.

In Ireland, by the end of Anne’s reign, the Catholics were virtually subdued but the Dissenters of Ulster remained recalcitrant. The Episcopalian Church feared this growing strength of the Dissenters in Ulster so the Penal laws were applied with increased vigour against them. These dissenters were, in the main, tenant farmers who held land from landlords who were generally of the Established Church. Rents were increased and the tenant farmers saw themselves as virtually powerless in their own country. Many decided to emigrate and of course North America, a developing country with religious freedom, endless land for the winning and with no landlords, was an attractive choice. So began a great wave of emigration of Presbyterians from Ulster to North America. This continued for many many years, waxing and waning depending on conditions in Ulster. Relatively few Catholics went to America at that time – The Catholic emigration did not really take off until the late 1840s.

That, was the main spur to emigration from Ulster in the early 1700s.

The next wave of migration was during the Potato Famine. IN ONE DAY in the 1840s nearly 500 people reportedly left the island in search of an easier life across the Atlantic, when the potato famine threatened the very existence of many rural communities throughout Ireland. A commemorative stone has been erected to their memory high above Church Bay.

In more recent times, Rathlin’s shores have been dotted with wrecks, thrown onto the rocks during storms. One of the most famous was HMS Drake, the flagship of the British Navy during World War One, which was torpedoed, and sank in Church Bay. In extraordinary feats of engineering, several spectacular lighthouses were built amongst the rocky cliffs of the island, and the history of their construction is explained in detail at the Boathouse Visitor Centre on the Island. The particularly impressive West Light was built between 1912 and 1917 and also required the building of a provisional pier, a steep cable tramway from the pier to the cliff top and the road across Kebble. The East Light, high above Bruce’s Cave at Altacarry Head, has been flashing a warning to mariners since 1856, and the light at Rue Point has operated since 1921.

Rathlin has attracted some famous visitors in recent times, notably Guglielmo Marconi who was contracted by Lloyd’s Insurers to install a wireless link which would allow swift announcements of successful trans-Atlantic crossings by Lloyd’s ships. On July 6th 1898 Marconi and his associates successfully transmitted the first commercial radio signals across water from Rathlin’s East Lighthouse to Ballycastle on the Northern Irish mainland, opening up the communications world which continues to develop at a rapid pace today.

Rathlin’s most recent famous visitor was Richard Branson, whose hot-air balloon crashed into the sea off Rathlin in 1987 after its record-breaking cross Atlantic flight from Maine, USA. (Coincidentally Maine was the destination of the majority of Islanders who migrated in the 1840’s) Richard Branson and Per Lindstrom were rescued from the sea a few miles northwest of Bull Point, Rathlin, where they were taken to safety. Richard Branson later returned to Rathlin and presented the Rathlin Island Trust with £25,000 towards the renovation of the Manor House.

Back to top of page


Legends and Folklore

The Strange Guests

A COMPANY of strangers came one day to Rathlin island and the people distrusted them, but pretended to be friendly, and invited them to a feast, meaning to put an end to them all when they came unarmed to the festival, and the drink flowed freely. So the strangers came, but each man as he sat down drew his knife and stuck it in the table before him ere he began to eat. When the islanders saw their guests so well prepared, they were afraid; and the feast passed off quietly.

The next morning early, the strangers sailed away before any one was aware on the island; but on time table where each guest had sat, a piece of silver was found, covering the hole made by the knife. So the islanders rejoiced, and determined never again to plot evil against the wayfaring guests; but to be kind and hospitable to all wanderers for the sake of the Holy Mother, who had sent them to the island to bring good luck to the people. But they never saw the strangers more.

The Story of Breccan

The story of Breccan is related in Cormac’s Glossary. He was a merchant who traded between Ireland and Scotland with fifty coracles. Now there was a great whirlpool at Rathlin Island caused by the meeting of the seas, and they formed a caldron vast enough to swallow all Ireland. And it happened on a time that Breccan and all his coracles were lost and engulfed in this caldron. Not a man was left to tell the tale of how or where they had perished. Thus it was that the skull of a small animal being discovered on the beach, it was brought to the blind poet, who laying his staff on it obtained the inner vision by which he revealed the fate of Breccan and his fifty coracles.

Back to top of page