Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Rathlin Island - Part 1


Rathlin Island Map 1861


The Isle of Rathlin is situated off the northern coast of the County of Antrim, in north latitude 55° 15′. Its nearest point to the mainland lies about three miles from the promontory of Fairhead, but from Ballycastle, the usual landing-place, it is seven. Its form has been compared by Sir William Petty to “an Irish stockin, the toe of which pointeth to the main lande; the heel, where Bruce’s Castle is situated, lies opposite Cantire and the top of the Great Western Ocean.” Its length from the Bull Point to Ushet is seven miles; its greatest breadth is a mile and a quarter, and the narrowest part measures half-a-mile. With regard to its name, Dr. Hamilton justly remarks, that it has suffered so many variations in its orthography as to render it now very difficult to determine what may be the most proper. It is called Ricnia, by Pliny; Ricina, by Ptolemy; Riduna, by Antoninus; Raclinda, by Buchanan, the Scotch historian, who classes it among the Ebridæ, or Western Isles of Scotland; Raghline, by Sir James Ware; and Rathlin, by Sir William Petty and others of modern times. It has also been called Recraind, Rachlaind, Rachra, Rachrine, and Ruecrain, and in the “Ancient Topography of Ireland” it is stated that all these names are derived from Rach, Ridh, and Reuda, a tribe, or habitation; and ean or lean, water; whence, “the habitation in the water,”—the present isle of Rathlin.

Colgau, writing in the middle of the seventeenth century, says: “This is the island of Rachrea, between Ireland and Scotland, but belonging, as it always did, to Ireland, from which it is separated by a very narrow channel. It is now (A.D. 1647) the property of Reginald, Earl of Antrim, who valiantly ‘labours to maintain the rights and faith of his ancestors against the enemies of the faith.

The church continued to flourish under its bishops and abbots until the year 973, when the Danes, who were infesting the Irish and Scottish coasts made a descent upon the “Isle of Rachran.” They pillaged and ransacked the church, and burned and destroyed what they could not remove, so that, as a contemporary author writes, “this and other islands had not so much as an anchorite on them.” St. Feradach, the abbot, also was, at this time, crowned with martyrdom by the Danes, and we hear of no further attempt to restore the church nor any mention made of Rathlin until the year 1210, when King John, being at Carrickfergus with some of his nobles, bestowed the northern portion of the county of Antrim together with the Isle of Rathlin (cum Insula de Rachrun), on his friend and ally the Scottish Earl Galloway, who on that occasion took the additional title of Earl of Ulster.

In 1279 it was found by inquisition that John Bisset held of Richard, Earl of Ulster, “Insulam de Racry,” which was valued at 4l. 8s. 5½d.; a property, it must be acknowledged, worth owning. Such as it was, however, it was held by the Bissets until that family forfeited all their possessions by joining the Scots, who, under Edward Bruce, had invaded Ireland, but were defeated, and their leader slain by an English nobleman, the Lord of Athy, or Atheury, who in return was created by the king (Edward II.) Earl of Louth, and put in possession of all the lands which had belonged to Hugh Bisset, and which he had forfeited by his rebellious conduct. Among these, it is stated that the lands in the island of Raghline were, in 1319, granted by King Edward II. to John de Athy, whose ancestors, as well as himself had been remarkable for their zeal in the English cause. Robert Bruce had a few years before (1306) spent the winter and spring in Rathlin as an exile, having been compelled to fly from Scotland on account of the murder of Comyn; and here it is stated by some writers that the incident of the spider occurred, which had the effect of raising his hopes and instigating him to new exertions which every reader of history knows proved successful. The castle in which he resided during his brief sojourn on the island, is said to have been one of those fortresses built by King John along the north-coast of Ireland for the purpose of defending it against the attacks of pirates who were very numerous at this period, and were not unfrequently joined by the Scotch islanders in their expeditions. There was a rival claimant to the sovereignty of Rathlin at this time. The Lord of the Isles, who was a warm friend and advocate of Bruce, and the same who is designated by Scott, in “The Lord of the Isles,” as Lord Ronald, although his name in reality was Angus Macdonnell, a less interesting appellative, it must be admitted, than that chosen by the poet, but whether or not Angus succeeded in making good his claim, it is somewhat remarkable that the next possessor of Rathlin whom we hear of was a descendant of this same Lord of the Isles, Randal, Earl of Antrim, whose father had come over into Ireland as an adventurer, and the son happening to render good service to King James I., in assisting to put down the rebel Earl of Tyrone was by that monarch endowed with a large territory in the county of Antrim, including the “entire Island of Raghlius,” and this property continued to be held by his successors till the year 1740, when the island was purchased by the grandfather of the present proprietor.

Rathlin appears to have been in a very neglected state during this period. There was no church nor any means of instruction for the people, as will appear by the following entry in the Ulster visitatation: “The Isle of Raghline, possest by the Earl of Antrym, has noe vicar nor curate, it not being able to maynteyne one, neither can the people come to be served ellswhere, it being remote, and a island in the sea.”

Basalt at Doon Point - H G Hine.png

Curved Basaltic Pillar at Doon Point, Rathlin Island.

Matters continued in this state until 1721, when a “state of the case of Raghlin” was published by Dr. Hutchinson, bishop of Down and Connor. It was then annexed to the parish of Ballintoy, on the opposite coast, but it was formed afterwards into a separate parish, and subscriptions having been raised, a church was built on the ruins of an old one (probably the remains of the monastery), and a clergyman was appointed to take cure of the island, since which time there has been a succession of rectors, if not bishops and abbots to attend to the spiritual wants of the inhabitants. The people were at this period in a very primitive state,—there were no roads nor enclosures of any kind, and very little land was under cultivation. They had no mill for grinding their corn, but they were in the habit of using the small querns or hand-mills which were common in the highlands of Scotland. This practice continued for many years, till, on the erection of a mill, it gradually fell into disuse. Their boats were composed of wattles or light frames of wood covered with hides, such as is still used sometimes by the fishermen on the west coast of Ireland. From the unfrequency of their intercourse with the main land, they made but little progress in civilisation, and were easily imposed upon by those who were more knowing. On one occasion Lord Antrim had directed his huntsman to transport a couple of foxes into the island, that the species might be propagated and afford future amusement. The islanders were terrified at the prospect of having such enemies to their lambs and poultry, and they agreed to offer the huntsman a bribe of a quantity of yarn from each house if he would consent to destroy the foxes. This was accordingly done, and the man departed well laden with yarn, but he took care to return annually with a fresh supply of foxes, the sight of which renewed the fears of the people, and the tribute was willingly paid to secure another year’s respite from the threatened danger. The population at that time numbered about 1100. It is now reduced to less than one-half, chiefly from emigration, the people having discovered that they can live more comfortably on larger farms, so that the younger branches of families in place of being content to settle down on a small potato field, seek their fortunes in other countries as tradesmen and emigrants.

Rathlin is in general a healthy spot, and many of the people have attained to a good old age. When they are attacked with rheumatism, which is rather a common ailment, they have recourse to a remedy of very long standing, which, from its proved efficacy, has continued in use up to the present time.

In several parts of the island small buildings, called “sweat houses” (in more refined language they would be Turkish baths), are constructed of stones and turf, the roof being formed of the same materials, and put together with great precision. They are built in the shape of a bee-hive, and have a small hole in the roof, with another aperture below sufficiently large to admit one person on his hands and knees. When required for use a large fire of turf is lighted on the floor in the centre of the house, and allowed to burn out, the entrance having been carefully closed. When the house has become thoroughly heated, the ashes are swept away, and the patient goes in, having taken off all his clothes with the exception of his shirt, which he then throws outside and is ready for his bath. The hole in the roof is then covered with a flat stone, and the entrance is also completely closed up in such a manner that the heated air within can have its full effect on the patient who remains there until he begins to perspire copiously, when he comes out, and if young and strong plunges immediately into the sea, but the aged or weak retire to bed for a few hours.

This primitive vapour-bath has frequently been successful in removing pains of long standing, besides other ailments, and strangers have sometimes come for the express purpose of trying its efficacy. It is not, however, applied exclusively to the cure of disease, as the young women frequently resort to it as a means of clearing their complexions after having been exposed to the heat of the sun in their out-door work, and especially if a fair or market should be near at hand, which they generally contrive to attend. In other respects their habits and customs do not differ at all from those of other parts of Ireland or Scotland, with both of which countries they hold constant intercourse, and which has no doubt been the means of effacing many of the peculiarities and superstitions of former times.

Basalt at Runascariff - H G Hine.png

Arrangement of Basalt at Runascariff, Rathlin Island.

The geological structure of Rathlin corresponds with the adjacent coast of Ireland, the principal strata in both being limestone and basalt. On the range of cliffs running westward, and forming the northern boundary of Church Bay, the limestone rises abruptly from the ocean, overlaid by basalt, forming, as Dr. Hamilton enthusiastically remarks, “a line of coast fantastically beautiful.” The limestone appears alternately raised and depressed, till at the north side of the island it almost entirely gives way to the basalt, which rises in cliffs of great height and varied form. From Bruce’s Castle to the Ushet point, the limestone entirely disappears; and it is on this part of the coast that the most perfect columnar formations occur. Doon Point and Runascariff are the most remarkable, although the same appearance, in a ruder form, may be traced wherever the basalt predominates. Our map will show the situation of these strata with regard to each other, where the alternate elevation and depression of the limestone may be distinctly traced all round the island.

Sandstone, coal, iron ore, &c., the substances which form the eastern side of Ballycastle Bay, and which appear different from the common mineral productions of the country, may also be traced directly opposite, running under Rathlin, which, in connection with other circumstances, would tend to confirm the opinion entertained by some geologists of their being a continuation of the same general strata. The limestone traverses the island from west to east. This chalk, or white limestone, when crossed by a basaltic dyke, often undergoes a remarkable alteration near the point of contact, the limestone becoming granular marble, highly phosphorescent when subjected to heat. On the western side of Church Bay the chalk is intersected by these basaltic dykes, and has been converted, in each instance, into granular marble. Dr. Hamilton, from the sandy texture of this marble, calls it calcareous sandstone, which he remarks occurs near Lame, on the opposite coast, but in point of phosphorescent qualities that found in Rathlin is much superior.

A mineral resembling the puozzalana of Italy has been found chiefly on the east side of the island, in connection with the basalt. Dr. Hamilton describes it as being of the character of a basaltic cinder broken down. Specimens had been forwarded for experiment, as it was supposed it might serve the same important purposes as those volcanic products found at Naples and in the Canary Islands, but on examination it did not appear likely to answer general expectation.