The Medieval History of Rathlin Island (400-1400)

The island changed hands many times during the Middle Ages

From the fifth to the eighth century Rathlin was part of the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada, which bridged north east Ireland and south west Scotland. Dalriada was established in AD470 by King Fergus MacArt and his three brothers, who were princes of the original Dalriada in Co Antrim.

Saint Comgall, Abbot of Bangor, established Rathlin’s first church in 580, and another church was founded by Sigenius in 630. In 795, Vikings arrived on the island and raided the monasteries for their gold. However, most of the invaders eventually converted to Christianity.

By 1100, the island was under the rule of the Somerled of Argyll, a great chieftain from whom the MacDonnells of Antrim would eventually descend. However, in 1156 the Norwegians fought and gained ownership of Rathlin, most of the islands to the west of Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

In 1169, King Henry II of England granted the island to John de Courcy. De Courcy erected several castles on the island, including reputedly Bruce’s Castle, which changed hands repeatedly during the next turbulent decades.

In 1242, the Bysset family arrived from Scotland and bought Rathlin and the Glens of Antrim from the De Burgo family. According to legend, Hugh Bysset let Robert the Bruce hide on Rathlin in the autumn of 130,  following his defeat by the English. Bruce is then said to have drawn fresh inspiration from watching a spider finally succeed in climbing to the roof of what is now locally known as Bruce's Cave.

© Andy Keogh