The next chapter in my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure) was a day trip to Rathlin Island, a boomerang-shaped island just a short ferry ride north of Ballycastle across the Sea of Moyle. The major goal was to walk to the Visitor’s Centre at the Seabird Centre and hopefully see some of the famous puffins that nest there seasonally. My hike was both memorable and enjoyable, though I did not know at the time whether or not I’d seen any puffins, and there was a bit more rain than I was hoping for.
To begin this trip from my Ballycastle home base, I walked less than half a mile to catch the first ferry of the morning to Rathlin. There are two ferries: a larger, slower car ferry and a smaller, faster passengers-only ferry. The faster ferry only takes 25 minutes to make the 6-mile crossing to the Church Bay harbor, near the lower right on the GPS track.
Rathlin Island is roughly boomerang-shaped, about 4.5 miles east-to-west, 3 miles north-to-south, with a maximum width of a little over 1 mile. The highest elevation is about 440 feet, and the steepest places are probably the seaside cliffs all along the shoreline. Most of my hike was between 200 and 300 feet elevation.
From the dock I turned right to walk through town for a few blocks, then I turned left on another street to start up the hillside toward the Church of the Immaculate Conception. It is worth noting that the entire population of Rathlin is just over 100, and most residents live in the town at Church Bay. Vehicles are essentially prohibited except for residents’ vehicles. There are only a few roads, and outside town they are quintessential country roads: single lane with no shoulders or white or yellow lines. It’s really a “share the road” situation – if you encounter a vehicle at all! The heaviest traffic on the island seems to occur when the car ferry arrives, and typically several residents arrive at the dock to receive delivery of various supplies. The Rathlin Trail, which goes to the Seabird Centre, simply uses the main east-west road.
The church is about 0.6 mile from the dock, and about ½ mile farther is Knockans Viewpoint. From the viewpoint there is a panoramic view of the mainland, from Fair Head to Benbane Head, where I had walked the previous day. Signage at the viewpoint, courtesy of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) notes that local residents’ sheep and cattle graze year-round and keep the grass at an optimal height for the re-introduction of the chough, a member of the crow family that has become almost extinct on the mainland.
About 1.7 miles from the start I noticed 4 donkeys grazing in a small field. They seemed curious, and two came up to the fence to check me out as I paused to take pictures. According to an informational booklet I’d purchased, the field is known as Tailors Field. The booklet seems to have a story behind almost every building on the island: which family built it, lived or farmed there, who their neighbors were, and what were their special interests or expertise.
Just after the sharp bend in the road, near the center of the GPS track, a large house and a few other buildings could be seen off to the right, next to a row of 3 flat-topped hills.
About 3 miles from the start I passed the east trailhead for the Kinramer South Permissive Path. Not far away I noticed a rabbit that crossed the road and stopped in the grass on the other side. Although there are golden hares on Rathlin, regular rabbits are more common and I presume that’s what I saw.
As mentioned earlier, from various places along Rathlin Trail there were nice views of the mainland. Here is an impressive view of Fair Head, at the right, with the southern part of Rathlin just to the left in the foreground. The Rue Lighthouse, where I was planning to hike the next day, is at the very tip of Rathlin. I think Torr Head is what’s in the background, farther southeast along the dramatic Antrim Coastline.
Approaching the Visitor’s Centre the trail enters the Kebble National Nature Reserve, curves to the right, and passes next to Kebble Lough (lake). This pretty view is looking back after nearly passing the lough. In the background is the mainland, including Knocklayd, the prominent round-topped hill not far from Ballycastle.
The cliffs and sea stacks are dramatic and have interesting names: I think the two larger stacks may be Stackaboy (foreground) and Stacknacally (background).
If you don’t want to walk the 4½ miles to the Visitor’s Centre, you can take the Puffin Bus. Its schedule is basically to meet each ferry and bring anyone who is interested to the Visitor’s Centre. This bus passed me as I was walking past Kebble Lough and was waiting outside the Visitor’s Center while most of the passengers walked around briefly.
The Visitor’s Centre was actually closed during the summer of 2014 for renovations, so it wasn’t possible to go inside, visit the lighthouse, or get the best views of the nearby seabird colony. However, the driver of this bus was kind enough to point out to me the best places to approach the cliff edge for seabird viewing. I walked in the direction indicated, along one fence to another at the cliff edge, some 400 feet above the sea. I had a great view of the mainland including Sheep Island, with the town of Ballintoy in the background.
To the right I could see distinctive Benbane Head, not far from the Giant’s Causeway. It was a great perspective on the previous day’s hike.
At the fence near the cliff edge, I could look down to see the West Lighthouse part way down the cliff side. This lighthouse has an unusual design, perhaps partly because of the location: the approach and control room are at the top of the lighthouse, and the actual light is at the bottom, though not in view in the picture.
Next I turned my attention to the sea stacks almost directly below me, where I was hoping to see seabirds. The stacks themselves are quite dramatic. They provide safe nesting places for seabirds, in part because predators have to be able to fly in. I think the larger stack is Stacknavarlea and the smaller one is Stacknaderginan.
Upon closer inspection, I saw that nearly every horizontal surface was covered with seabirds, as were many small ledges on the vertical surfaces. The most common seabirds here are guillemots and kittiwakes. Razorbills look similar to guillemots (from a distance) but are usually present only until July. I spent about 30 minutes taking pictures (almost 100 in all!) and, upon later inspection of my pictures, decided that the black-and-white birds were probably all guillemots, based on their bills. Here is a group of guillemots on a ledge. There are a few kittiwakes at the right.
I had come all the way here to view the seabirds, so I was happy to take my time just looking, shooting pictures, and walking around. I had learned that the puffins, like the razorbills, were probably already gone for the year. Puffins nest in burrows at the bottom of the stacks, rather than on ledges higher up on the stacks. I couldn’t even see very well what was in each picture, since the detail and contrast weren’t great and I was contending with almost constant drizzle and trying to keep my camera dry and the lens raindrop-free. But I think that, in the end, I did actually get a picture with a couple of puffins! I didn’t make this determination until after I got back to the US and could view my numerous pictures on my computer. The picture is very grainy due to the distance and necessary magnification. But the color pattern and orange feet are characteristic of puffins – and nothing else that was likely to be there.
As I’ve hinted, the rain came and went throughout the day, though it wasn’t heavy. After I thought I’d taken enough pictures of the seabirds, I started to make my way back toward Church Bay, pausing to check out the sea stacks near the Kebble Cliffs. As I was passing Kebble Lough, I noticed that a rain cloud seemed to be headed my way. I kept checking on it, and took this picture of it through a small gap between hills.
Because of how open the terrain is in this part of Northern Ireland, I learned that I could often see a rain cloud as it was approaching, and get my poncho out and deployed before I got wet.
On the return part of my hike I attempted to explore several walking paths that branch off from the Rathlin Trail: the Kebble South Trail, the Kinramer North Trail, and the Kinramer (South) Permissive Path. In each case I turned around before I got very far. I had not yet figured out the waymarking methodology, and due to the rainy weather I was not looking ahead far enough to see the waymarks that were there, showing the intended way in the absence of a “real” path or trail. So this exploration was just that: getting an idea of what the paths might be like. And, I admit, I was still figuring out how to stay dry in the rain and was beginning to look forward to getting indoors and truly dry!
While on the Kinramer Permissive Path I saw several pretty wildflowers that were new for me. Here are a few of them. The white flower in the center picture may be meadowsweet, and the one on the right may be knapweed. I have not been able to identify the one on the left.
By the way, I think that a permissive path is somewhat like a trail easement in the United States. Trail users are permitted to cross private property as long as they stay on the intended trail and do not wander off-trail or bother local livestock.
While the wet weather and my inexperience with Irish trail way-finding curtailed my explorations of unpaved trails, when I got back to the street intersection at the Church of the Immaculate Conception I turned left to explore the first part of one of the routes I hoped to hike the next day, toward the East Lighthouse. I went up about ½ mile before turning around to return to the dock in time to embark on the ferry I had selected for my return to Ballycastle. I was looking forward to return the next day, hopefully with drier weather.