For one week this June this small island off the Antrim coast was a constant presence. The cottage we had rented stood high on a hill a couple of miles outside the resort of Ballycastle and the view to the north was an uninterrupted panorama of sea, sky and the long, low profile of Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island. The view depended on the weather, of course, which was something that changed constantly and wavered between overcast and mixed spells of sunshine and showers.
The L-shaped island that hugged the northern horizon was always visible, although in less clement weather it was sometimes little more than a hazy grey outline, a vague smudge that sat on the water. Sun or shine, two of the island’s three lighthouses were always in view, winking at intervals to alert shipping – the waters around Rathlin Island have a long history of shipwrecks and the remains of many unsuspecting vessels lie gathering barnacles at the bottom of the Atlantic close to its shore.
On sunnier days, more detail became evident and the island’s magpie cliffs of basalt and chalk could be clearly discerned, as could the houses and church of the village by the harbour. It was on these brighter days that other landforms also took shape on the horizon. Most days we could make out the southern end of the Scottish peninsula that is the Mull of Kintyre but now and then, far beyond the island, more distant places came into view – the hills of Islay and the unmistakable rise of the Paps of Jura.
From our perspective the island appeared to be at the edge of things. The most northerly point in Northern Ireland, it was the place where the island of Ireland gave way to the Atlantic. A small island that lay off the coast of another larger island, it seemed to be more an outlier than a stepping stone to anywhere else. But it was a place that had not always been so peripheral: long before today’s national divisions had come into play Rathlin had been central to the ancient Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riada, a political entity that included the coast of Argyll in western Scotland as well as part of what is now County Antrim in Northern Ireland.
Some days we could make out the ferry, Spirit of Rathlin, plying its way between Ballycastle and the island. On a day that promised to be calmer and sunnier than most we made the journey ourselves. As we drew closer to the harbour at Rathlin an increasing number of seabirds could be seen bobbing about on the water – a taste of what we would soon be seeing on the island itself. These were mostly guillemots but there were also small parties of gannets flying low over the waves, identifiable even at distance with their butter-coloured necks and long ink-dipped wings.
At Rathlin harbour, a bus – the ‘Puffin Express’ – was waiting to drive passengers across the island to the RSPB bird reserve at its western point. Here, steps led down to a viewing platform opposite the cliffs and stacks where the seabirds nested. The malodorous smell of guano grew increasingly strong as we descended – observing seabirds up close is undoubtedly one of the least glamorous aspects of bird watching. From the viewing platform vast numbers of seabirds could be seen at their nests opposite on the rocks – as closely packed as an urban high-rise but with distinctly separate enclaves of guillemot and razorbill, kittiwake and puffin. Closer to the viewing platform, a few fulmars, contemptuous of the excitable human presence and unperturbed by the relentless glint of expensive optics, had made their nests in the grass just beyond the barrier.
Driving back to the village, past fields of sheep and grazing cattle, our driver stopped the bus briefly to point out a cave to our left. It was the entrance, he said, to the stone axe mine that had existed on the island in Neolithic times.
In Belfast, a few days earlier, I had gone to see the so-called Malone Hoard at the Ulster Museum. The hoard was a collection of 19 beautifully polished stone axes that had been discovered on Malone Road close to the museum. The axes were around 6,000 years old and clearly ceremonial objects of some kind: not only were they too large to be of practical use for chopping trees but when they were discovered some of the stones had been found aligned vertically in the ground. Even behind glass, they were undeniably beautiful objects and had a curvy heft about them that seemed to invite handling. Given the understandable restrictions imposed by museums, this, of course, was not possible.
The axes had been identified as being made from a rock called porcellanite, a hard, dense impure variety of chert so-named because of its physical similarity to unglazed porcelain. Unlike flint, porcellanite does not flake easily and has a texture that accepts a fine polish and keen edge. There were only two possible sources of this scarce rock in Northern Ireland. Both were in Antrim. One was at Tievebulliagh, a 402-metre mountain in the Glens of Antrim; the other was on Rathlin Island. Both sources yielded rock of exactly the same physical and chemical makeup so it was impossible to tell which had been used for the Malone Road axes. For reasons of romance rather than anything more scientific, I preferred to think that these precious objects had originated here on the island.
Back off the bus, we sat on the beach at Mill Bay listening to the piping of oystercatchers and watching grey seals as they made forays through the rafts of seaweed that lay just offshore. Seaweed was once a profitable business here. A little further on towards the harbour, an abandoned kelp barn stood roofless next to the shore. It was built of blocks of the same Cretaceous chalk that make up the white cliffs we could see from our rental cottage on the mainland.
After an unproductive listen for corncrakes in a field we had been told about by an RSPB warden we made our way to the jetty to wait for the ferry back to Ballycastle. Notwithstanding the lack of corncrakes, it had been a satisfying few hours. We were by now brim-full with all the wonders that Rathlin Island had to offer: the seabirds – the smell, the noise, the frantic flying about; the wider natural history of the place – the seals, the kelp, the garden flowers that had gone feral and colonised the island’s dry stone walls. Then there was the geology – the Cretaceous chalk and Tertiary basalt of the cliffs, the flints on the beach, the cave with its supply of elusive porcellanite. It would have been nice to have taken a peek inside the cave where the stone axe mine had been but it did not really matter. Prehistory, myth and memory are all intertwined and we make our own emotional truths. Whatever the true archaeological facts of it, in my mind at least the Malone Hoard axes would always be associated with this place on the edge of things.