By Marcel Krueger
"There is one difference between Rathlin and the other Irish islands" our host Alison tells us as we drive through the sparsely populated west of the island. "So far we don’t have a German living here. The local boys and the German girls volunteering in summer are working on that though." Alison is a friendly, middle-aged woman who operates a ecological cattle farm on the island, and rents out the volunteer accommodation outside the season.
It is no wonder that Rathlin is popular with German volunteers and, during summer, hundreds of day trippers arriving on the ferry from nearby Ballycastle. This rugged, L-shaped volcanic lump in the Atlantic, is only 11 miles from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, with green and brown fields and heath crowning the basalt cliffs that make up most of its coastline. It is home to thousands of seabirds: common guillemots, kittiwakes, crows, puffins, razorbills and Northern Ireland's only breeding pair of choughs. As well as the small harbour in Church Bay, the island has three lighthouses and an RSPB bird centre, popular with said day trippers and serviced by minibus in summer. It is home to a community of 130 people mostly working in agriculture and tourism, and it has one pub.
When my wife and I arrive, in the middle of January, there are no minibuses. Most shops and tourist facilities are closed, with only the small grocery shop in the 18th century mansion house and the pub catering to the locals and the handful of visitors. But as Alison drives us to our rented cottage we do not feel unwelcome. The remoteness of winter only enhances the tranquillity of the place. And yet, I think, as is so often the case with smaller islands slightly set apart from the roaring of the world, one easily associates a peaceful present with an equally uneventful past.
We all like to turn a place that is of this world into an ideal when visiting for the first time, without having time to see beneath the surface. Germans might call Rathlin a Sehnsuchtsort, a place to long for. I am not sure the islanders past and present would agree. For them Rathlin was always a place of this world, with all the tragedies, horrors and sometimes triumphs that come with it. Its stone-age inhabitants traded porcellanite axes with Islay folk; the island was the one-time abode of St. Columba; future Scottish king Robert the Bruce hid here from his enemies in 1306 and found inspiration for renewed designs by example of a spider ever-rebuilding its web, and in 1575 Sir Francis Drake and his men massacred most of the male islanders. In a somewhat fitting twist of fate, in 1917 the battle ship HMS Drake sank in Church Bay after being torpedoed by a German U-boat north of Rathlin.
The next day I walk from our cottage through the Kebble nature reserve to the western lighthouse. In summer this westernmost tip of the island is busy with walkers and cyclists, but now I have it all for myself. The green and brown hills unfold gently to the left and right of the track, crows caw overhead and there are a few cows grazing on the other side of a small inland lake. Beyond there is nothing but the calm Atlantic, crowned by grey winter clouds intermittently letting rays of sunshine glitter on the water. This almost desolate, treeless coast was however once heavily populated. In 1846, nearly half of the 1000 locals headed west in search of an easier life across that calm sea.
As I walk through the nature reserve, Kebble House, the only remaining building, creeps into view. The picturesque stone building was erected in the mid-19th century and is today used by the staff of the bird centre during the summer. Now it stands empty, the wet ground near the main gate strangely churned and trampled, as if the cows come and read the information panel when no humans are around. The house comes with its own resident ghost according to local folklore, and I do feel watched myself as I walk past - but this is a feeling that always arrives sooner or later whenever I’m out walking alone.
I follow a bend in the track and up a hill, along a fence with the crumbling cliffs appearing to my left and the centre up ahead. It is a small, modern glass-building and, unfortunately, blocking my way further down towards the light house, which remains unseen from my vantage point. And that is no wonder, for it is upside down.
The lighthouse was built into the cliff face between 1912 and 1917, with the living quarters located above the light. A special pier and inclined railway in nearby Corraghy Bay had to be built to service the lighthouse’s construction. Lightkeepers lived here until it was automated in 1983. The fog signal, dubbed the Rathlin Bull, could be heard from more than 30km away. It was removed in 1995 after 70 years’ service and the light is now exhibited during the day in times of reduced visibility.
I scramble up the hill to the left of the bird centre, where I reach a fence and a view down towards the lighthouse and along the cliffs stretching out left and right. East of here is Bull Point, where Sir Richard Branson of Virgin fame crash landed with a hot air balloon in 1987 following his record-breaking first transatlantic flight. He was fished from the water by local fishermen and later donated £25,000 to the Rathlin Island Trust which was used to help turn part of the Manor House into a community centre, named after Branson. But I do not stay long - I am afraid of heights and looking down the cliffs gives me vertigo, so I retreat towards the cottage for tea and biscuits.
In the evening I go through the many walking guides and local history books that lie around in the cottage. To the east from where I sit is the the Hill of Screaming, which gained its name when the women and children of the Catholic MacDonalds retreated there in 1642 only to witness their menfolk being butchered by Covenanter Campbell soldiers. Afterwards they were driven off the cliffs themselves.
It would be easy to see the history of Rathlin Island as an interlinked chain of slaughter and massacres and one might wonder how the islanders held on to their rock until this day. But then there is a certain ruggedness here, a resilience that underlies everything. The population is growing again: the local school now has ten pupils; and when a child is born (in the hospital on the mainland) the islanders gather at pier to welcome the newborn and its mother back to the island with balloons and banners. It seems Rathlin remains a place of this world, one looking into the future with hope.
As my wife and I return on the rocking ferry towards Ballycastle the next day, I am sure I will be back. Maybe the position of German-in-resident will still be open then.
Marcel Krueger is a writer, translator, and editor, and mainly writes non-fiction about places, their history, and the journeys in between. He also works as the book editor of the Elsewhere Journal. His articles and essays have been published in the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, Slow Travel Berlin, the Matador Network, and CNN Travel, amongst others. He has translated Wolfgang Borchert and Jörg Fauser into English, and his next book Babushka's Journey - The Dark Road to Stalin's Wartime Camps will be published by I.B. Tauris in August 2017. You can find more information on his website: www.kingofpain.org.