Rathlin Island: Two Lighthouses and a Lookout (part 1)

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Following my first day-trip to Rathlin Island during my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure) I returned the next day for another memorable hike. On the previous day I had hiked out to the Visitor’s Centre at the Seabird Centre, where the West Lighthouse is located. Today I would visit the other two lighthouses on Rathlin, the Rue Lighthouse and the East Lighthouse, as well as a former Coast Guard Lookout station. This post covers the first part of my hike, to the Rue Lighthouse and back.

Once again I walked less than half a mile to the ferry dock to catch the first morning ferry across the Sea of Moyle from Ballycastle to the Church Bay harbor on Rathlin. Since it was Saturday, the first ferry was an hour and a half later than the previous day. Unlike the previous day, which had been rather grey and off-and-on rainy, this was a fine sunny day – most of the time.

The first part of my hike was down the north-south part of the island, including the Roonivoolin Trail loop.

GPS track

GPS track

Except for a short portion of the Roonivoolin Trail, this first part, 7 miles or so, was under 100 feet elevation. Even with modest elevation, there was plenty of spectacular scenery.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

From the ferry dock I first turned left and walked a couple of blocks to St Thomas Church of Ireland and back along the harbor road, passing the Manor House Guest House and other historical buildings. Next to the water there were a few small boats on trailers, including one whose name was Senior Moments. I continued along the shoreline toward Mill Bay, periodically looking back toward Church Bay and the town. St Thomas Church is just left of center in this picture.

image of Church Bay harbor and town, Rathlin Island

Church Bay harbor and town, Rathlin Island

Some of the historical buildings are really just remnants. One such building is the Kelp House, where burned kelp was stored before being shipped to Scotland to use in the manufacture of glass and other materials. Along the shoreline there were great views of mainland Northern Ireland as well as the west end of Rathlin. These views would return frequently during my hike. Past Mill Bay, about 1.3 miles into my hike, I re-encountered the main north-south road. As noted in my previous post, the few main roads outside of town are country roads, barely wide enough for one vehicle. I encountered only a Puffin Bus, a few bicycles, and several walkers.

Soon the road began a gentle climb and the countryside began to look more like upland heath. The nearby hillsides were covered with bell heather, which gives them a characteristic beautiful light purple color.

picture of bell heather-covered hillside

Bell heather-covered hillside

This part of Rathlin is called Kinkeel, and the island is narrowest here, only about ½ mile wide. Approaching 100 feet in elevation, pretty views are everywhere – including, when I turned to look behind me, the East Lighthouse, which I would visit later in the day. Also, at one point the Rathlin car ferry motored by on its way from Church Bay to Ballycastle: the 11:00 ferry was right on schedule.

I passed a couple of examples of an interesting circular structure, which I presume was related to some farming activity. The prominent hill in the background of this picture is Knocklayd, which is about 10 miles away on the mainland outside Ballycastle.

photo of ring-shaped structure, farming related?

Ring-shaped structure, farming related?

Over the course of 1 mile or so south from the bend (see GPS track), the road passes 4 loughs, or lakes; lough is pronounced like loch. They are Craigmacagan Lough, Kinkeel Lough, Ally Lough, and Ushet Lough. Each is tucked into a shallow basin. Craigmacagan Lough was a supply of drinking water for island residents prior to 2002.

Just past Ally Lough is the north trailhead for the Roonivoolin Trail. On my way south I took this loop trail. It is generally easy to follow, but the waymark posts make it clear when to cross from one side of a pasture to another, or where to climb a small stile to get over a fence. The trail is essentially an easement: permission to cross private property. It crosses several grazing pastures and passes numerous others. In general, sheep that I encountered were both curious about me and wary, and usually ran off as I approached in what I hoped was a nonthreatening manner. This sheep was paying careful attention to me as I passed below the slight knoll where it stood.

image of sheep keeping a watchful eye on me

Sheep keeping a watchful eye on me

After passing to the north of Ushet Lough the trail goes right over to the edge of the cliffs. Notably, just after passing a prominently placed sign indicating “Warning – Unprotected Cliff Edge” I had this view of the trail. Yes, the trail is outside the fence line. In fact, I happened to notice the stile taking the trail over the fence because a sheep was scratching itself on it! And yes, of course I (carefully) went closer to the edge several times to look down at the sea almost 200 feet below. In several places there were some basalt formations a bit reminiscent of those at the Giant’s Causeway.

picture of Roonivoolin Trail along the cliff edges on southern Rathlin Island

Roonivoolin Trail along the cliff edges on southern Rathlin Island

Especially along this section of the Roonivoolin Trail, the views were continuous and in all directions: now the mainland, now this, now that. Looking back the way I’d come, there was a pretty view of central Rathlin, near the right angle of the L shape of the island, with some of the flat-topped hills I’d seen the previous day and the Roonivoolin cliffs in the foreground. I think these hilltops are the highest elevation on Rathlin, about 430 feet high.

photo of hills of central Rathlin

Hills of central Rathlin

There was a lovely view looking east across Ushet Lough and the North Channel toward Scotland. This is the Kintyre peninsula, just about 15 miles away.

image of Ushet Lough and Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula

Ushet Lough and Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula

The trail continues near the cliffs, climbing to a high point of 200 feet or so, then descends gently and curves to the east to pass south of Ushet Lough. In this section I saw a Eurasian oystercatcher just off the trail, walking around and feeding. Also, there was a nice view slightly to the east of north, across Ushet Lough toward the East Lighthouse, which is at the northeast tip of Rathlin.

picture of Ushet Lough and the East Lighthouse

Ushet Lough and the East Lighthouse

The lighthouse is actually only about 2½ miles away, so I was able to zoom in and get a nice overview of the site. You can even see the light fixture inside the top of the lighthouse. I made a game of trying to time my photos to capture the light as it flashed by (and even succeeded once!).

photo of East Lighthouse from the south end of the Roonivoolin Loop Trail

East Lighthouse from the south end of the Roonivoolin Loop Trail

From the same location there was a nice view of the mainland, with Fair Head at the right and Torr Head behind. The cow seems to be gazing at the view.

image of cow gazing at the Northern Ireland mainland: Fair Head and Torr Head

Cow gazing at the Northern Ireland mainland: Fair Head and Torr Head

The Roonivoolin Loop Trail Coastal Walk is about 1.7 miles long and was certainly a highlight of the morning. After exiting the trail I continued down the road toward Ushet Point and Rue Point. The road gently descends the last 100 feet of elevation. Shortly a couple of building ruins come into view. I think the larger one is the Ushet Store, which stored grain and other imports and exports waiting for transport. The other is the Dwelling. Both buildings were built by the McDonnell family, according to a booklet about the hike to the Rue Lighthouse.

picture of Ushet Store and the Dwelling, near Ushet Port

Ushet Store and the Dwelling, near Ushet Port

When I walked around the buildings to explore Ushet Point, I could see numerous seals playing and relaxing in the water, on rocks, and on the beach.

photo of seals at Ushet Port, Rathlin

Seals at Ushet Port, Rathlin

Continuing down the road, now more like an unpaved path, I finally approached Rue Point and the Rue Lighthouse, at the southernmost tip of Rathlin. The first lighthouse here was built in 1902 but was destroyed just a few years later in a fierce storm. The current structure was built by island residents between 1914 and 1920, so it is nearly 100 years old.

image of Rue Lighthouse, Rathlin Island

Rue Lighthouse, Rathlin Island

After exploring the McDonnell buildings and the Rue Lighthouse, I began my return along the Roonivoolin road, bypassing the Roonivoolin Trail trailhead to stay on the paved road. I noticed a small bird that kindly landed on the top of a fence post and stayed more or less still for nearly a minute as I took its picture. Later I’ve made the tentative identification as a stonechat, either a female or juvenile based on the coloring.

pictuer of stonechat on a fence post along Roonivoolin Road

Stonechat on a fence post along Roonivoolin Road

About ¾ mile farther I encountered the biggest group of road users of my entire two days on Rathlin: a family of 4 on bicycles and several more walkers behind them. A few scattered houses and farm buildings can be seen in the background.

photo of Roonivoolin Road near Kinkeel Loch

Roonivoolin Road near Kinkeel Loch

About 0.9 mile after passing the north trailhead for the Roonivoolin Trail I reached the junction where my outbound path had joined the main road. About 0.3 mile after that I arrived at a junction with signage to the East Lighthouse. So far I’d hiked about 7.2 miles, including explorations. My next post covers the remainder of my day’s hike.

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2 Responses to Rathlin Island: Two Lighthouses and a Lookout (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Rathlin Island: Two Lighthouses and a Lookout (part 2) | trailhiker

  2. Pingback: Moyle Way: from Ballycastle to Breen Forest | trailhiker

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