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Walk of the Week: Rathlin Island

By Linda Stewart

Enjoy spectacular views and a wealth of wildlife as you explore the route to the West Lighthouse on Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island.

You will face a steep ascent for the first mile, then elevated views across the sea to Fair Head and the Antrim coast, Donegal, the Scottish mainland and Islay.


Ferries and fast charters operate from Ballycastle, on Co Antrim’s north coast, to Rathlin Island’s harbour six miles across the Sea of Moyle where the Atlantic meets the Irish Sea.

The walk starts on arrival at Rathlin slipway. Go left, past the shop, for a steep ascent up the Church Brae by St Thomas’s Church, or take the right and meander past the Manor House and round Church Bay, before turning left at the crossroads above McCuaig’s Bar.

Follow either route to arrive at the crossroads between the school and the chapel. From here continue to climb the road that bears left and twists uphill until a small plateau is reached.

With great views down to the harbour village, across the southern arm of the island to Fair Head and eastwards to the lighthouse and the Kintyre peninsula, this spot features a memorial to all those who left the island during the Famine years.

Once this steep climb has been accomplished, the route is fairly easy going, passing along the western arm of the island to the West Lighthouse, where, in spring and summer, the RSPB Seabird Centre is open for watching puffins and thousands of other seabirds on the cliffs and offshore stacks.

A minibus service operates between the harbour and the lighthouse, so the option to ride one way (or both) is available.

the backdrop

Around the shoreline at the harbour, watch for the eider ducks and seals that make their home on Rathlin.

By the Emigration Memorial at the top of the hill, admire sweeping views: south across the traditional meadowlands of the island to Ballycastle and Fair Head on the Antrim coast, out past the distant Kintyre peninsula and closer in to the East Lighthouse, standing above the spot where Marconi’s first commercial use of radio across the water was put to the test.

Northern Ireland’s only pair of chough approved the habitat conservation work and rewarded everyone in 2007 with the first fledged young on Rathlin for 20 years.

Dramatic basalt banks are covered with rambling wild honeysuckle; hills are swathed with heather and prickly whin. Verges are filled with floral colour from the first spring primroses through carpets of pink heath, spotted orchids, burnet roses, blue scabious and fiery fuchsia.

Towards the middle of the island, in the mosses (marshes) may be herons, hen harriers or snipe.

Listen for lapwing and look for hares, especially Rathlin’s glorious golden hares. Look across to the big white house, standing in front of a grey hump of a hill; behind the house is the black entrance to the cave from which, thousands of years ago, was quarried a hard and durable stone, porcellanite.

As the road borders a scattered conifer plantation, it bends out of a dip and here in later summer, brilliant dragonflies dart and hover in the humid air.

As the trail passes through two stone pillars it enters Kinramer Area of Special Scientific Interest, designated to protect the pyramidal bugle, a small spring flower that’s very rare in Ireland, but locally abundant on Rathlin.

The road becomes a rough track across Kebble National Nature Reserve, past the lough where ducks and black headed gulls nest. It winds up the hill to reveal the most dramatic and scenic view — a crashing sea below towering black volcanic eruptions, stained white in summer from the thousands of seabirds raising their young on precipitous ledges.

further information

For further information on walking or any other outdoor activity, please contact Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN) at, tel: 028 9030 3930 or CAAN in association with Belfast Telegraph have provided this information. Every care has been taken to ensure accuracy of the information. CAAN and Belfast Telegraph, however, cannot accept responsibility for errors or omissions but where such are brought to our attention, the information for future publications will be amended accordingly.

Walk Name: Rathlin Island walk.

Area: Causeway Coast and Glens Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Nearest big town to start: Ballycastle.

Distance: 4.5 miles, linear.

Terrain: Climbing from the harbour, along paved road through meadows, maritime heath and marshes, leading to rough trail through nature reserve and culminating at clifftop Seabird Centre

Access Restrictions: While visitors’ vehicles are strictly limited by permit on the island, the route is used by local traffic and is popular with cyclists. Dogs should be kept under control at all times. Enjoy the splendour of the floral bounty on Rathlin, but leave the plants in their place. Many are protected by law.

Facilities: Refreshments and facilities are available at McCuaig’s Bar in Church Bay and at the RSPB Seabird Centre.

Publications: Walking on Rathlin by Islander Gusty McCurdy, available from the author at the Boathouse Visitor Centre; Rathlin by Bernard Davey; Step Ashore: the Trail Guide to RSPB Rathlin Island Seabird Centre.

Walk Developed By: DOE Roads Service, Sustrans, Rathlin Development and Community Association, Environment and Heritage Service, RSPB.

Map: Sheet 5 of Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Discoverer Series, from Land & Property Services Map Shop, Lincoln Buildings 27-45 Great Victoria Street Belfast BT2 7SL,

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