This post is a continuation of my second day’s hike on Rathlin Island during my eachtra aisling Éireannach (Irish dream adventure). In the previous post I described the first part of my hike, from Church Bay to the Rue Lighthouse at Rue Point, at the southern tip of Rathlin, and almost back to Church Bay. This post describes the remainder of the hike, to the East Lighthouse and a former Coast Guard Lookout station on the north coast of the island.
On the GPS track this part of the hike is north of the carat, which designates the ferry dock at Church Bay. The East Lighthouse is at the northeast tip of Rathlin Island. The return trip was on a different road in order to access the Ballyconagan Trail network leading to the former Coast Guard station. After visiting the Coast Guard station I returned to Church Bay and the ferry.
This post starts at approximately mile 7.2. The East Lighthouse is at approximately 175 feet elevation while the Coast Guard Lookout is at approximately 380 feet elevation, the highest point of the hike.
I walked to the East Lighthouse via the more southerly of the two roads that go out that way, northeast from town. The roads are not signed with road names. This road goes over a hill and descends before climbing again. Note that, although the day was generally sunny and dry, there had been a shower at least locally. This seemed quite typical of the weather pattern.
Shortly before the road angles northwest to connect with the more northerly road out to the lighthouse, I saw a small bird in a tree and took some pictures for later identification. It turns out that it was a European robin, which is actually quite common although it was my first sighting. It is worth noting that this is a very different species from the robins we have in the United States: American robins are in the thrush family, while European robins are flycatchers. The common characteristic of these two species is the red breast.
As I approached the East Lighthouse, only about 1¼ miles along in this hike segment, I turned to my right to look along the coastline past an area called Inannanooan, where there are caves and a castle ruin. In the background is the Northern Ireland mainland including Knocklayd, which is near Ballycastle.
One of the caves, known as Bruce’s Cave, was a hiding place for Robert the Bruce in 1306 after a military defeat. According to legend, a patient spider gave him the inspiration to return to another battle in Scotland, which he won. This legend is also supposed to be the origin of the phrase “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. The castle ruin is also associated with Robert the Bruce during his time on Rathlin.
On Altacorry Head, at the northeast tip of Rathlin, is the East Lighthouse. I had had several sightings of it during the first part of my hike, so it was neat to finally arrive here.
This location was famous in wireless telegraph communication history. In 1898 Marchese Marconi and his assistant George Kemp successfully established wireless communication between Ballycastle and the location of the East Lighthouse. This was the first commercial wireless telegraph communication, and allowed Lloyds of London to monitor the safe passage of ships through the North Channel, which is between Rathlin and Scotland connecting the Irish Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. Inside the wall there are apparently three cement blocks imprinted with Lloyds, though I did not figure out the right place to try to look over the wall.
The lighthouse operation has been fully automated, and signage at the entrance gate advises that security cameras continuously record all activity and trespassing is not allowed. I decided not to test the security measures. Instead I walked around where I could, outside the gate, and enjoyed numerous wildflowers and the views. I saw a couple of magpies walking around in the grass and an area covered with pretty bell heather and birds foot trefoil.
There was an exceptionally nice view along a small inlet between the cliffs, across the North Channel toward Islay Island, which is about 20 miles away and is part of Scotland.
When I was ready to continue, I returned along the road to the junction and continued straight, along the more northerly of the two roads out to the lighthouse. A short distance past the junction there was another nice view across southern Rathlin Island, with the Antrim Coast of mainland Northern Ireland in the background. Knocklayd again is a prominent feature on the skyline.
This section of road passes below some pretty mini-cliffs, some covered with heather. About 0.5 mile past the intersection there is a small road to the right and signage indicating a walking trail. This is the entrance to the Ballyconagan Trail network. About 0.1 mile up the small road there is a kissing gate to pass through to access the trail, which goes to a former Coast Guard lookout station on the coast line. I followed the waymark posts to follow the trail, which climbs gently and passes below more heather-covered mini-cliffs. After about ¼ mile I came across these ruins, presumably of a former homestead; it looks like at last 2 buildings were previously here.
The trail goes roughly north until it reaches the cliffs at the edge of the North Channel. The elevation has now reached about 250 feet, and there are wonderful views along the coast back toward the East Lighthouse. The trail follows the cliffs roughly northwest and continues to climb. Here is a lovely view of the spectacular coastline and the East Lighthouse shortly after I’d passed a small waterfall tumbling down the cliff. The lighthouse is about 125 feet lower elevation than where I was standing.
As it turns out, right about here I must have missed a waymark indicating a turn in the path. I continued straight, but soon realized that I was no longer at the top of the cliff but rather part way down the hill toward the sea. Later I could see that I was actually seaward of the Coast Guard lookout. In any case I turned around and found the correct trail. It was not clear from any of the materials I had with me that the trail actually appears to veer away from the sea in order to get up to the slightly higher location of the lookout. I did find my way, however, and arrived at the Coast Guard lookout.
The lookout station itself may not have seemed worth the effort to get there, since it’s quite a modest building. However, the views across the North Channel were great. There are a couple of informational signs that describe the panoramic view. Besides the Mull of Kintyre, perhaps 15 miles away almost due east, the more distant Scottish islands of Islay and Jura were visible, though not well photographed, to the north. To the west the scalloped, grass- and heather-covered coastline continues, sloping to lower elevation. Clearly the Coast Guard station had been constructed at the highest point along the north Rathlin coast, at about 380 feet elevation.
I took a short detour along the coastline to the west to enjoy the views before returning to complete the Ballyconagan Loop, passing more of the heather-covered mini-cliffs and a couple of small ponds before going through the kissing gate at the end of the loop. From there it was only about ¼ mile to the Church of the Immaculate Conception, at the north edge of the town area. I walked down the street that parallels the bay front, passing buildings such as the primary school. Of the island’s 100 residents, the children attend primary school on Rathlin but older students attend high school on the mainland, typically in Ballycastle, returning home for weekends and school holidays.
After passing the road I had walked out to the East Lighthouse, I continued down the hill into town. Here is a view of part of town, with Church Bay on the right, Mill Bay and southern Rathlin behind it, and Knocklayd in the background.
Church Bay harbor was very pretty in the afternoon sun.
Before going to the dock area I realized I had time to get something to eat, so I continued to Emma’s Chip Ahoy, which specializes in fresh locally-caught fish, to get some real Irish fish and chips. They were delicious! I had plenty of time to eat before the final ferry of the day to Ballycastle, a car ferry, arrived for the 5:30pm passage. Car ferries bring supplies as well as vehicles and passengers, and it was interesting to observe the activity associated with this particular arrival and see how island life is dependent on the car ferries. Several island residents were waiting for their turn to drive up the ramp to pick up their supplies. One was driving a small tractor, which he backed up the ramp for loading.
After supplies were off-loaded and vehicles going to Ballycastle were loaded, chairs were re-arranged for passenger seating, passengers embarked, and we set off for Ballycastle. As the ferry motored past the north-south arm of Rathlin I had one last view of the Rue Lighthouse, with Fair Head behind.
After the fine sunny weather of most of the day, once again there were rain clouds passing by not too far away to the east. At some point I noticed that part of a rainbow was visible. As the ferry of course continued, this developed into a double rainbow and the rainbow appeared to travel across the surface of the Sea of Moyle. Here it is just starting to climb up Fair Head.
I was kind of fascinated to watch the rainbow move along the coastline as we motored into port in Ballycastle. The clouds and late afternoon lighting added to the dramatic view.
All in all, my two days of hiking on Rathlin Island were certainly memorable, with almost continuous beautiful coast scenery. And where else can you hike to three lighthouses, all different, within such short distances? The next day I would hike inland from Ballycastle, having different adventures while exploring part of the Moyle Way.