The Archaeology of Rathlin Island
An overview of artefacts from Neolithic times to the Viking Period
Rathlin is rich in archaeological history going back to at least 4000BC and considerable numbers of Neolithic artefacts have been discovered on the island. There is a Viking standing stone overlooking Church Bay and Bronze Age cist burials have been uncovered in the surrounding fields. Doonmore is the site of a massive fortified outcrop and the ruins of Bruce’s Castle stand near the cave where the exiled Robert the Bruce took refuge.
The Neolithic People
Most of the earliest archaeological findings on Rathlin suggest that the island was first inhabited during the Neolithic period (the new stone age – 4000 to 2500 BC). Large numbers of flint tools and porcellanite axe heads have been recovered, indicating that the island’s natural resources were fully exploited by its first inhabitants.
An archaeological dig at Shandragh, Knockans South, in 1994 uncovered large quantities of late Neolithic and Bronze Age artefacts, including worked flint, porcellanite and pottery. Due to the large quantity of material found, it seems likely that Shandragh was the site of an industrial/production facility. The presence of pitchstone from the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde indicates that even at this early stage the island had established links with Scotland.
The photograph to the left shows a Porcellanite polished axe head fragment (centre bottom) and roughouts found at Ballynoe, Rathlin, 2001. The large roughout on the right is not porcellanite and probably did not originate on the island. Ballynoe is several miles from the source of the porcellanite, indicating that the stone was transported to other sites on the island for preparation.
Porcellanite is a very dense form of recrystallised basalt that occurs in only two places in Ireland. One is at Brockley, on Rathlin, and the other is on the mainland at Tievebulliagh, near Cushendall. Porcellanite axes were among the most effective and valued of Neolithic tools and were traded widely throughout Ireland and Great Britain.
Rathlin continues to attract significant archaeological interest and a report on the most recent excavations undertaken by a team from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster Coleraine can be found online (see External Links below).
The Bronze Age
In 1983, quarrying work in Church Bay uncovered seven stone built cist graves dating to between 2000 and 1500 BC. Some of the graves contained skeletons in a crouched position and several bowls, pots and cups were also recovered.
Two Bronze Age gold ornaments have also been found on the island. The first was discovered near Ushet around 1850 and may have been melted down in the 1920s to form a wedding ring. The second, a gold dress fastener, was found in 1941 during field harrowing in Ballynagard.
Doonmore is the remains of a massive fortified outcrop, possibly dating back to 1000BC. It is rumoured to be the site of the palace of King Donn, the father of Taise, whose beauty was such that she became the subject of a violent dispute between King Nabghdon of Norway and the Irish warrior Congal Clarineach. A full account of the story can be found in Appendix I of Wallace Clarke’s book Rathlin – Its Island Story. Glentaisie, the large mainland valley that leads down into Ballycastle, is named after the Rathlin princess.
At present no obvious trace remains of any walls or fortifications at Doonmore. However, when Henry Morris visited the site early in the 20th century he recorded the outline of a wall some 11 feet thick and evidence of a door-like opening on the west side.
The Annals of Ulster record that the first Viking raid on Ireland occurred on Rathlin in AD795.
A white standing stone overlooking Church Bay marks the position of a Viking graveyard. In 1784 the surrounding ground was excavated and a large number of occupied graves were discovered.
Each grave was formed from rough slabs and covered with large flat stones. Catherine Gage wrote in her A History of the Island of Rathlin that a large silver penannular brooch was found in the grave marked by the standing stone. The Rathlin Brooch, as it has become known, was probably made by a Viking from one of the Irish or Scottish colonies sometime in the late 9th century. The brooch is now on public display in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.
The ruins of a medieval castle stand on a cliff top promontory just south of the east lighthouse. The promontory is surrounded by water on three sides, with the landward approach protected by a large ditch. Although named after Robert the Bruce, the castle was probably built towards the end of the 13th century by the Anglo-Norman conqueror of Ireland, John de Courcy. The site was in use until the end of the 16th century.
Robert the Bruce, having been defeated twice by the forces of Edward I, is reputed to have fled to Rathlin in 1306. Hiding in a cave he observed a spider’s perseverance in spinning its web and was encouraged to return to Scotland to continue his fight against the English. In 1314 he finally defeated Edward II’s army at the battle of Bannockburn.
The actual sea cave in which Bruce is said to have taken refuge is situated at the bottom of the cliff face below the east lighthouse. It can only be accessed from the sea and cannot be seen from the cliff top.
By Jonathan Mitchell
“The Archaeology of Rathlin Island” by Brian Williams, in Archaeology Ireland (Volume 4 Number 2 Summer 1990)
“The Re-provenancing of Two Important Penannular Brooches of the Viking period” by R. Warner, in Ulster Journal of Archaeology (vols 36 & 37, 1973-4)
“The Antiquities of Rathlin” by Henry Morris, in Ulster Journal of Archaeology (Feb-Nov 1911)
"A History of the Island of Rathlin, With Illustrations and Maps", 1851 by Catharine Gage, Published by J. Margaret Dickson, 1995.