The island of Rathlin, or Rachlin, or Raughlinds, or Raghery, or Rachery,for in all those different ways is its name written,is the largest of the islands which lie near the north coast of Ireland, and are considered as a part of it. All the others are small and insignificant, with the exception of Tory or Robber island, which is of some importance, and is inhabited. There are other ways of writing the name of this island, as Recarn, Recraiu, Raghlin, Rachri, Raclinda. Pliny calls it Ricnia, and Ptolemy Ricinia. I cannot conceive whence all these names have arisen, since the inhabitants themselves, and the neighbours round, call it plainly Rachri, or Rachrin, in which they agree with Hamilton at the close of the last century, and M'Kenzie still earlier. It is thought that this name is compounded of Ragh Eri (Erin's Fort), which is not improbable, as the Irish have given to several of the islands on their coast names signifying their situation with respect to the mainland; for instance, they call the little island near Dublin, Ireland's Eye; and the insular promontory in Connaught, Erin's Head, (Errishead.) Rathlin consists of two tracts of land, united at a right angle. One of those arms, which runs parallel with the coast of Ireland, is something more than five miles long, and the other about three. In the middle, where the legs of the angle meet, is a bay, at the head of which stand the church of the island, and the seat of the Rector and owner of the island; whence it is called Church Bay. The entire island, as it stands, is the product of a volcanic eruption; the same, no doubt, which formed the opposite coast of Ireland, for the structure of both exactly corresponds. The basis is a white chalky limestone, on which rests a mass of black basalt, which shows itself in Rathlin, as on the coast of Ireland, regularly in a large handsome columnar formation.
The tides and currents, which run near the island, and between it and the mainland, are particularly remarkable. This northern point of Ireland is, in this respect, as remarkable as the south-west
p.373point, near Wexford, already mentioned, where, as I have said, some extraordinary phenomena in the motion of the sea take place. As near Wexford, and its promontory Carnsore Point, the tidewave flowing in from the Atlantic ocean, from the west, turns and rushes northwards into the Irish Sea, (according to Boate, the tide of flood runs as far as Dublin, along the coast northwards, and the ebb returns in a southerly direction,) so at the north, near Rathlin, it turns southwards between Ireland and Scotland, and rushes in this direction into the middle of the Irish Sea, while the ebb returns from the south towards the north. The tides thus rushing into the Irish Sea in two different directions, meet in the middle, and, as Boate says precisely enough, come to a stand-still at the harbour of Carlingford, north of Dublin. In this harbour it always flows in from different directions on both sides, and ebbs from it in like manner. As Rathlin, therefore, lies exactly at the vertex of the tidal currents, where the tide rising in the west is first broken and turned southwards, a contest of streams and tides take place here which shows itself in a great eddy, that streams along the whole north coast of Antrim, Derry, and Donegal, as far as Malin Head; so that while the great movement of the principal mass of waters advances from the west to the east, at the same time a stream runs from east to west for some miles along the coast, providing Lough Foyle and the other bays with water. Both streams, the great tide from the west, and the eddy tide from the east, are at the strongest in the narrow strait between the island of Rathlin and Ireland. Beyond Rathlin, the turning point, this eddy ceases; and after turning entirely, the tides, both the principal one and the coast currents, rush in one stream from north to south. From this eddy arise, as Hamilton remarks, many irregularities in the movements of the tides, which he does not seek further to explain, and neither can I, but which agree with those that we have remarked at the south turning-point, near Wexford. Here, as at Wexford, are parts of the coast where it does not flow for six hours, and ebb for six, as it ought; and where the flood and ebb are so irregularly divided, that the one often lasts nine hours and the other but three.
The sailors who navigate round Ireland must always attend to these tides and eddies. A person sailing from Dublin could, if the wind were favourable, arrive at Carlingford, near the county of Down, with the tide coming in from the south; thence he could continue his voyage northwards, with the tide retreating in that direction; and, at the time when the ebb again changes to flood, could arrive at Rathlin, give himself up to the eddy along the coast, and with it sail against the tide westward as far as
p.374Malin Head, where the ebb would carry him out into the Atlantic ocean.
The waters between Rathlin and the shore are violently agitated twice a day, even in the calmest weather; that is, at each return of the flood or ebb; and this agitation lasts until the currents have acquired an equal strength, when they rush peacefully by one another, until the setting in of the next change again produces the agitation. So it is in calm weather. But when a storm comes on, the sea is scarcely navigable; and it is not only impossible for the small coasting vessels to make this little voyage, as we have already seen, but even large ships avoid the passage between the island and the mainland. The prevailing winds and waves come, of course, from the open Atlantic ocean, from the west; and therefore the west coast of Rathlin is the scene of immense waves, breaking almost incessantly. In winter, the inhabitants are often, for an entire month, surrounded by furious storms, waves, and tides, isolated from the rest of mankind, and shut out from all intercourse with the mainland.
Such an island was well adapted to afford secure winter quarters to a flying king and his companions. Robert Bruce, king of Scotland, therefore availed himself of all these circumstances when he was compelled, a short time after his coronation, to leave his kingdom in the lurch. In the autumn of the year 1306, he came to Rathlin, with three hundred armed men, and settled himself between the basaltic rocks of the island, behind the breakers, tides, and storms, safe from his persecutors, and remained there through the winter. Crossing over to Scotland in the spring, with increased numbers, he began that varied and eventful war which at last ended with the glorious battle of Bannockburn, in the year 1314, in which Scotland established her freedom, and Bruce secured his kingdom by a victory over the English.
When Bruce landed here, the island was then, as now, inhabited by solitary islanders, tending sheep, catching fish, and cultivating patches of oats. At first they fled before the mail-clad knight to the other side of the island; but when they saw that the iron lord treated them mildly and kindly, they came forward, promised to provide him and his men daily with provisions, fish, mutton, and oat-cakes; and at last, choosing him their lord and king, they appointed themselves his fishers, shepherds, and oat-cake makers, and delivered up to him a castle that had stood from ancient times on their island, and is called Bruce's Castle to this day, while a cavern near it is still called Bruce's Cave. The castle stands on a high promontory, on the east side of the island, within sight of Scotland; and the rock on which it is built
p.375rises perpendicularly from the water; but at the present day its ruins consist of nothing but a few walls. On those rocks lived Robert Bruce, with his trusty companions, amongst whom were Sir Robert Boyd, Sir James Douglas, and Angus M'Donnell, the sixth King of the Isles, that is, of the islands in the west of Scotland, which formed a separate kingdom dependent upon Scotland, and which bear the same geographical and historical relation to Scotland, that the Ionian islands bear to Greece.
The present successor to Robert Bruce in the government of the island, is a Mr. Gage, who being the spiritual head, the rector, as well as the chief magistrate and the owner of the soil, thus rules his subjects in more relations and by more titles than many a king his kingdom, though he has neither the parade and splendour of sovereignty, nor a prince's crown. This reverend gentleman is a vassal of the Antrim family, from whom his progenitors have held the island, since the year 1740, by lease for ever. King Charles I., as I have already stated, made a grant of it to the Antrim family. The head of the Antrim family is still called the Chief of Rathlin. The Antrim family holds the Chiefry or Chiefdom, the people say; but Mr. Gage is called the proprietor; and although he still pays a trifling head-rent to his chieftain, yet the latter has nothing whatever to do with the internal management of the island. The rector's tenants are all only at will; i. e. they can immediately, and without more ado, be deprived by him of their farms and land, and driven from the island.
Mr. Gage might, if he chose, change his residence to Dublin, or some other place, and give up the entire income of his hereditary island to some other person, who would pay him a rent and take the trouble of its management. Such a man would be called by the Irish a middleman. This middleman, to whom the whole island might be leased, would have it in his power to let separate parts of it to under-middlemen, who would then be the immediate landlords of the tenants: thus we should have, from the king to the tenant, a succession of possessors, or at least persons having a title to the soil, one over another, as really happens in an extraordinary number of cases in Ireland. In the first place, there would be the head ruler of all the land, the Queen, to whom all the possessions of the Antrim family would revert under certain circumstances, for instance, should the family become extinct, or should they fail to pay the proper number of falcons due to the Viceroy of Ireland, on the feast of St. John the Baptist. Next, the Antrim family, who reckon the island of Rathlin as part of their earldom, and would take possession of it
p.376again, should their vassal not duly pay the chief-rent. Then, the so-called proprietor, Mr. Gage, who lords it here, regulates, rules, and governs, just as he pleases. Then the head-middleman, who might farm the island, under the conditions and articles imposed on him by the proprietor. After him, the under-middlemen, who are connected with the first middleman, and hold their lots from him, as he holds the whole from the proprietor. Of course, under those first middlemen, there may be again a second class; and this is the case on very extensive estates. Lastly, the poor tenants themselves, who are in the end obliged to bear, like a foundation, the entire great feudal structure piled up on them, and whose pence and shillings, scraped up and added together, form the pounds which enable the under-middlemen to satisfy the middleman, and to put something in their own pockets besides; who, moreover, enable the middleman to pay the proprietor, and also to lay by something for himself; who, furthermore, give the proprietor the means of living free from care and in happiness; who increase the splendour of the earl's family; and, in the end, even lend some brilliancy to the jewels of the English crown. If one looks, from the splendour accumulated on the summit, down on the lowly tenants, he may form an idea of their misery and melancholy state of destitution.
The population of the island amounts to about 1100. This number was first accurately determined in the year 1758, when the spiritual chief, and governor of the island, imposed a tax of a shilling on every head, in order with the proceeds to build a new Mass-house, as they term here what in other places people would call a Catholic church. The numbering was accomplished with great trouble; for the islanders opposed it, believing that, out of every numbered family, one individual would surely die. This island also lies under the great injustice which extends all over Ireland, in the relative positions of the Protestants who rule, and the Catholics who are ruled. The rector and owner of the island, who resides here throughout the year with his family, has a good income, and lives in the enjoyment of all imaginable comforts, is a Protestant; but his poor tenants and vassals, from whom he draws this income, and who, in order to be able to pay it, fish, cultivate oats, navigate the stormy sea, and eat seaweed, are poor taxed Catholics, while only sixty or eighty of them are said to be Protestants. For the Catholics, the Protestant rector keeps a Catholic priest, and also, as has been said, keeps a Mass-house in good repair for them. An Irish Protestant, who praised the management of the present rector, thus expressed himself: he keeps them (the Catholics) in very good order. In winter, of
p.377course, he lives somewhat solitary, and separated from the rest of the world; but in summer, as he is of a hospitable disposition, he receives many visits from his friends and relations in Ireland and Scotland. His eldest son will succeed him as rector and owner of the island; and his younger son he will find means, by his influence, of advancing to some other benefice in the church. Such is the way in which things are managed in the established Episcopal church of Ireland.
The sheep of Rathlin are much praised: the rocky meadows of the island afford them excellent pasture, and in the north of Ireland they are known by the name of Rachries; a name also given to the islanders themselves, when they cross over to the mainland, where, on account of their rude habits, they appear sometimes to afford considerable merriment to the continentalists of Ireland,for Ireland naturally stands to Rathlin in the relation of a continent, and all continentalists are accustomed to make themselves merry with the peculiarities of islanders. All these islanders, with the exception perhaps of the Protestants, are said still to speak the ancient Irish language, which is preserved in all the little islands about Ireland, like the Scottish Gaelic, which is even still spoken in greater purity in the kingdom of the Isles than in the rest of Scotland.
The horses of the island are small, being mere ponies, as the people in Ballycastle told me. This is also the case with the horses of the Scottish islands. In the Baltic sea, too, the horses of the island of Gothland are well known and sought after on account of their small size. What can be the cause of the diminutive proportions of island horses? A large horse was once carried over from Ireland to Rathlin, and, as the Ballycastle people say, the islanders took it for a monster, thought it would eat them, and ran away from it.
The only four-footed wild animals belonging to the island, are, according to Hamilton, the rat and the mouse. It is said to contain neither foxes, hares, rabbits, nor badgers, though they are plentiful both in the neighbouring parts of Scotland, and on the coast of Ireland. Foxes are said to have been once introduced into the island by command of a Lord Antrim, and a party of his huntsmen were sent there to form a new hunting-ground; but the islanders, who have a great dislike to this animal, bribed the huntsmen, and induced them to disobey their orders. Lord Antrim, who afterwards became acquainted with this, took occasion therefrom to impose on them a new annual tax, for their immunity from foxes. I believe the people here are very much afraid of those animals; for I happened to hear a woman, whose
p.378house I entered the other day, call to her crying child, Be silent, or the fox shall catch you. This might appear comical to African mothers, who probably threaten their children with lions; but the fox is the only beast of prey in England which can conquer a child. In Rachery island, they have nothing but rats for this purpose. In Germany, they generally frighten children with the wolf; in some parts of Russia, where the wolf is too common, they use the bear. Thus from rats, or at least from foxes to lions, there is in this respect a curious ascending scale.
The islanders, as I have already said, cultivate some barley and oats; but besides this, one of their principal sources of gain consists in the preparation of kelp from seaweed, which is the occupation of the women and children. Hamilton thus describes their mode of proceeding:They gather the seaweed from the shore after a storm, or cut it from the rocks on which it grows, and spread it out in the sunshine to dry. In the evening they gather it into little heaps, which are again spread out to dry next day. When the weeds are dry, they make a hole in the ground, line it with stones, and in this extempore oven burn the weeds slowly and carefully to ashes. The vegetable salts melt, and, falling to the bottom of the hole, form a solid mass, in which state it is exported, as they do not understand how to purify the soda from the common salt and other matters mixed with it. This preparation of kelp, as the English call it, is carried on through the entire north-west coast of Ireland, and in a similar manner on the south-western coasts of Scotland, and it forms a not inconsiderable article of trade with England.
What was told me of the manners of the simple inhabitants of this island, brought to my recollection the inhabitants of some of the islands in the Baltic. Thus it is remarkable, that the same trait is related of the Racheries as of the people of Runoe, in the Gulf of Riga, that the greatest punishment that can be inflicted on them is banishment from their island, which they love exceedingly, regarding Ireland as an altogether foreign country.
We have two accounts, by learned men, of the nature of the island of Raghery: one by Dr. W. Hamilton, in his description of the County of Antrim; and one by Dr. J. Drummond, in the xvii. vol. of the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy. From the first account I take a few remarks that may perhaps be acceptable to most of my German readers, who may not have the book itself at their command. Small as the island is, two races of very different characters may be discovered among its 1100 inhabitants. The island, as I have already said, consists of two points of land, joined at a right angle. The west, or longer end, is called
p.379Kenramer, or, in correct Irish, Ceanramber, i. e. the long end; the other point is called Ushet. Kenramer is rocky and hilly: the little hollows and valleys in it are fertile and well cultivated; but its coast is without a harbour. Ushet, on the other hand, is barren, but more open and accessible, and well supplied with good little havens. The Ushet people are therefore the fishers, sailors, and merchants of the island, who keep up the connexion with the mainland, by a lively traffic with the neighbouring market towns of Scotland and Ireland. These Ushet men also generally speak English, and have lost many of their ancient insular peculiarities. The Kenramer men, on the other hand, live independent and shut out on their end of the island, till their fields, and are active climbers of the cliffs. On the north side of their wing, where the rocks rise out at the sea to a height of 750 feet, a great number of sea-fowls build their nests, the robbing of which is their principal employment. A Kenramer man often goes quite alone, provided merely with a rope, on those bird-catching and egg-collecting expeditions. He makes the rope fast at the edge of the cliff, and lets himself down or draws himself up without assistance, as circumstances may require. As they have less communication with strangers, they have preserved their old customs, and the Irish language, more unaltered than the Ushet men. The difference between these two island races is so evident, and they know it so well themselves, that in hard tasks, where the rock-climbers of Kenramer and the seamen of Ushet are employed together, they point out to each other that post for which he is most fitted as an east or west islander.
As the Isle of Man was formerly an apple of discord between England and Scotland, so was Rathlin between Scotland and Ireland. It often served the Scottish and Irish chieftains as the place of meeting and the sallying point of their expeditions. There are therefore many of those tumuli, such as are found in Ireland and Scotland, on a little plain in the centre of the island, which was probably more than once a blood-soaked battle-field. In the centre of one of these tombs, a stone coffin containing bones has been found, while all round were strewn many other human bones, being probably those of a hero, and the common soldiers he commanded. Bronze swords and lance-heads, likewise dug up in this plain, are irrefutable testimonies of the bloody dramas which were performed here. The recollection of the atrocities perpetrated here on one occasion, by the clan of the Campbells, remained so long in the memory of the island population, that so lately as at the end of the last century, no Scotchman of that name was permitted to settle on the island, and this law is probably in force at
p.380the present moment. Even in the earliest periods of Irish history, Rathlin is mentioned as an inhabited island; and in the fifth century the Irish and Scotch apostle, St. Columba, founded a monastery here, which, like so many other pious foundations of the kind in Ireland, flourished for three hundred years, till, at the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth century, the barbarians of the north rushed down and spread themselves over England, Scotland, and Ireland, burying every thing, as in some parts also of France and Germany, and even Italy, in wild destruction, and even swept across the little Rathlin, and laid its pious edifice in ruins.