A Year in the Life
Islander Gusty McCurdy explains why Rathlin is 'a place apart'
What is life like on Rathlin? is a question I am often asked by visitors.
I was born on the island and lived there until my early teens when I went to live with my grandparents in Belfast. Having lived since then in various cities, I eventually returned to Rathlin with my wife Judy in 1986.
Rathlin is a place apart, in some respects like a small country. It has its own individual character. This is partly the people and traditions and partly the landscape and marine environment. Life on the island is much easier today than it was 50 years ago.
We have a regular daily ferry service. This allows islanders to bring in heavy supplies such as coal, oil or building materials. For some people from outside of the island, the lack of shops would be a drawback.
However, the compensation is that we can save our money and then a visit to a town like Coleraine or Ballymena, every once in a while, becomes a day out, an enjoyable experience rather than a chore to be endured. Of course the Ballycastle shops and the Rathlin shop cater for our everyday needs.
The island can be a magical place at any season of the year. In the springtime, the wildflowers bloom in profusion. Primroses start to appear in sheltered places as early as mid-January, but really come into their own through late April, May and June when they grow in clumps along the roadside. These are followed by bluebells, wood anemones and many other species, including swathes of wild orchids and some rare varieties of flowers.
It is also the time when the birds return in large numbers. The seabirds, including puffins and guillemots, arrive on the cliffs at Bull Point. Many land birds also return, although some such as buzzards and blackbirds and a few others are resident all the year round. Perhaps the most noticeable one is the black-headed gull which nests in the marshlands. They announce their arrival with a great deal of fuss and noise and squabbling. When I hear them I know that spring is really under way.
As the year moves on towards late May, we come into a period of almost continuous daylight, which lasts until mid-July. The sun sets around 10pm and rises around 3.30 a.m. The period in between is a continuous twilight, the glow of the sun can be seen below the horizon from setting until rising.
The summer is when large numbers of visitors arrive on the island, to see the spectacular sight of many thousands of seabirds crowding together on every ledge at Bull Point, as they defend a tiny piece of rock as a nesting site. The views from Rathlin cliffs and hills are unrivalled. On a clear day looking northwards 50 miles to the islands and mountains of Scotland, or westwards to the hills of Donegal, and the brilliant sunsets.
There is plenty here to occupy an artist with seascapes and landscapes!
For those looking for peace and quiet, there is nowhere better than Rathlin. Sometimes, I like to go and sit at the cliffs near to where I live. There, the only sounds are the bees in the heather or the grasshopper, and sometimes a buzzard calling as it circles on the thermals, and the sea lapping on the stones of the beach below. The sea is a brilliant blue stretching to the horizon, with the occasional yacht coming into Rathlin, or heading in the direction of Scotland. Sometimes a ship coming in off the Atlantic, or outward bound to America. In the evening the glow of the setting sun turns the basalt cliffs almost pink, bringing out the fire of the molten lava from which the basalt is formed.
The year moves on into autumn, when there is often a spell of fine weather before the Autumnal Equinox on September 21. This is when the tilt of the earth means that the sun is now south of the equator, where it stays until the vernal equinox on March 21. This was the traditional time of harvest on the island, when the corn and barley crops were cut and saved. Today there is no arable farming, just the grazing of cattle and a few sheep. The changes in European farming policy may eventually make even this activity obsolete.
The days are getting shorter. We are now into the time of bright moonlit nights, and silver pathways across the sea. The hills are covered in purple and gold of the heather and native whin (gorse). It is time for gathering blackberries to make jam or wine, also a great time for wild mushrooms.
Autumn is when the creative urge comes to the surface. In Rathlin, we have craft classes in pottery, silversmithing, spinning and weaving, as well as drawing and painting. There are Irish language classes and the women’s quilt- making group. Halloween marks the end of the Autumn period, as the days continue to shorten into winter and brilliant starry nights, when the heavens are almost three dimensional. December 21 marks the shortest day of the year, a time for sitting around the fire and enjoying Christmas.
Rathlin, for me, means continuity and large spans of time, the black and white cliffs of limestone and basalt, represent a slice of time 150 million years long. In the part of the island where I live, I look out on a scene that has changed little in five thousand years. The rockface where the Neolithic people made stone axes is still there. Rathlin is a place where all of the past generations have left their still visible marks.
By Augustine (Gusty) McCurdy