I look down at the swirling water below me where the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea meet, the waves smashing themselves onto the dark rocks and hurling white spray into the air. Thousands of seabirds fly in all directions. Even though it is just too late in the season for the puffins and razorbills – the last puffin was seen only four days earlier, apparently – the numbers of kittiwakes and fulmars make up for them. A flock of gannets gracefully skim the waves, their black wingtips barely touching the water and their yellow heads adding a splash of colour to an otherwise grey sea.
We are at the RSPB Seabird Centre at the western end of Rathlin Island. The evening before we had left Ballycastle with the aim of crossing the Slough-na-More, the treacherous stretch of water between Rathlin and the mainland, at slack water. What we had not counted on, however, was that even though the main channel was slack, there was a nasty little back-eddy still circulating. Just over halfway across, we suddenly found ourselves being carried back into the mainstream again. We increased the engine revs to the maximum and managed to make one knot headway against it. It seemed like an age and at one point we despaired of making it, but eventually we reached the calmer waters of Church Bay and from there through the breakwater into the small harbour. It had been a close run thing. If we had got swept back into the main channel again, by that time the tide would have turned against us and we would have been swept south-eastwards back into the Irish Sea.
Rathlin Island is shaped a bit like a back-to-front letter L with the harbour and the village at the crook. Reflecting the dangerous waters around the island, there are lighthouses at each of the points – western, eastern and southern. The western lighthouse is integrated with a RSPB Seabird Centre that provides a stunning platform to see puffins, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and other seabirds, which we were keen to see the following morning. A Puffin Bus takes visitors from the harbour to the Centre, but we had decided to walk the four miles to experience the island to the full. On the way, we had passed a poignant memorial to 500 inhabitants of the island who had emigrated to England and America during the Great Famine, and wondered if such a thing could ever happen again. Civilisation is fragile so perhaps it could.
One of the RSPB wardens comes over and talks to me. He was born and bred on the island – his father was one of the last lighthouse keepers before it was automated. He shows me the huge ruby-coloured light that flashes every five seconds to warn sailors of the dangers.
The lighthouse is unusual in that it is ‘upside-down’ – the light is at the bottom of the tower so that it is below the cloud layer and visible out to sea. I think of the Old Lighthouse on Lundy Island that was never used because it was too high. They must have learnt their lesson for this one.
I retrace my footsteps back up the narrow stairs of the tower where each floor has a recreation of the keepers quarters, until I reach the new RSPB building at the top. The First Mate is waiting for me there.
“Quick, the bus is just about to go and we could get a lift back if they have space”, she says.
The Puffin Bus gives priority to returning passengers who are doing the round trip by bus and will only take others if there is room. We rush over and breathlessly ask the driver if there is any chance of a lift back. Fortunately there are two spaces left, and he says that we can have them, nodding at the front seat just opposite him. We gratefully clamber on board, he puts it in gear, and we are off.
“Bla … barooom … skrrrrr … prehistoric … errrrrrm”, he says to us about halfway along the route back to the harbour. The noise of the engine, the frequent gear shifts, and his voice merge together, making it difficult to understand what he is saying. The fact that we are sitting behind him doesn’t help either.
“Pardon?”, I say.
“Skkkrrrrr … errrmmm … axehead … barroooommm”, he continues, passing the First Mate a lump of stone from the dashboard.
“It’s a prehistoric axe-head”, she says, “and he is giving it to us to have a look at it.”
“I didn’t know you spoke Irish”, I say.
“I don’t”, she says condescendingly. “He is speaking English.”
“Oh”, I say. I take the stone and examine it. One of the edges seems to have been sharpened. I think of the people who made it perhaps 5000 years ago, and wonder what they thought about.
“Errrr … rrrrmmmm … flint mine … skrrrrr”, says the driver, pointing out to the left and steering with his knee. The Puffin bus starts to veer to the other side of the road. The knee skilfully corrects it. Luckily nothing is coming.
“There is a quarry out that way where prehistoric people used to mine flint for axe-heads”, translates the First Mate. I make a mental note to improve my Rathlinese and not to engage Puffin bus drivers in conversation. At least, not when they are driving.
We reach the harbour in one piece and disembark. There is still time, so we decide to walk down to the southern lighthouse at Rue Point. On the way, we pass Richard and Maryanne, our marina neighbours in Ballycastle, who had also come over the day before, earlier than we had. At the point, the light is beautiful and we sit next to the ruins of a cottage and look out across Rathlin Sound to Fair Head on the other side. A tall ship with square-rigged sails passes gracefully by, heading north-eastwards. Below us, in a small bay, seals sunbathe on the rocks, looking like bananas with their heads and tails curved, while goosander ducks cluck fussily and dive for their dinner. It could be the land that time forgot.
After some time, we decide to take the coastal path back to see the stunning cliff views. Eventually it peters out.
“We must have missed the turning somewhere”, says the First Mate. “Look here, this looks like a path. This’ll be it.”
We take a sheep track along the side of a hill and down into a valley. Before long, it too peters out into a swamp. It looks impassable without getting wet, but we follow an old fence line through brambles and manage to reach some higher ground where there is a farm track.
An aggressive-looking goat bars the way. It reminds me of a story I used to read when I was a child about some trolls trying to cross a bridge blocked by a fierce Billy Goat Gruff. Or was it the other way round? In any case, I manage to convince the goat that the beautiful maiden behind me will be much tastier than me. He lets me pass. The First Mate approaches, following my tracks. The goat nonchalantly looks the other way, and starts grazing.
“How did you do that?”, I ask.
“Do what?”, says the First Mate.
“Stop him from accosting you”, I say. “According to the story, you are then supposed to butt him with your head and he will run off.”
She looks at me pityingly.
We reach the village, and decide to eat in McCuaig’s Bar. It is a bit chilly to sit outside, so we find a table inside. The décor is dated, but tolerable. Unfortunately, it is the one night of the week when there is no live music. The First Mate orders Cullen skink and squid, and I have the lasagne and chips. Good basic pub food, no frills, but plenty of it. Too much, in fact. We waddle back to the boat, hoping that the ducks in the harbour don’t think we are one of them.