The legend of the spider on Rathlin Island

Spiders don’t often get a mention in legends. There are plenty of dogs, horses, boars and even swans in everything from the Cú Chulainn sagas and the Children of Lir.

However, nothing for the humble arachnid. That was until one dangled on his web in a cave on Rathlin Island in the early 14th century.

Watching the spider fall down again and again only to keep getting back up, was the exiled king of Scotland, Robert the Bruce on the run from the English army and attempting to foment an Irish rebellion.

The creature’s determination inspired Bruce, so the story goes. Having spent three months in the cave, he returned to Scotland, galvanised his men, and later defeated the English army under Edward II in the Battle of Bannockburn.

The story of the spider is as legendary as they come and other locations claim to be the site of the cave in question. Rathlin gets the nod as it has a second cave which also may have been the one where Bruce sought shelter.

Rathlin is an L-shaped island off Co Antrim and is by far the largest in the area. The Co Donegal island of Inishtrahull is about 50km to the west and is the northernmost island in the Republic of Ireland. However, Rathlin’s nearest neighbouring islands are in Scotland and any seafaring influence, purely by dint of nearness, is with our Celtic cousins.

The lighthouse at Mull of Kintyre, at the end of the peninsula of Kintyre, of Paul McCartney repute, is just 25km away across the North Channel.

Rathlin, sadly, in keeping with several other Irish islands, endured an appalling massacre in 1575 when the Earl of Essex, attempting to exterminate his foes, commissioned John Norris who in turn hired a certain Francis Drake in the hunt for Sorley Boy MacDonnell.

Upwards of 600 men women and children of the Sorley Boy clan were massacred and the good earl was duly congratulated by Queen Elizabeth I for a “well-devised enterpryce”.

The tone of this series is geographic and apolitical, and thus must include Rathlin whose name alludes to its origins: Reachlainn, though the etymology is obscure, is thought to refer to rugged island.

However, while many northern islands, around Strangford Lough, for instance, are neutral in appearance, Rathlin is decidedly British in character.

This point is drilled home by the red telephone box just along the pier. With a pub selling John Smith’s ale you could just as easily be in Manchester. Unsurprisingly, McCuaig’s Bar is the focal point for the island’s 150 residents.

Rathlin is a slightly hilly island with a number of small lakes. On the southern side there is the ruin of a building which was the nervecentre of the kelp industry where many islanders worked harvesting the kelp. In the 1780s the island was exporting 100 tons per annum at a coast of £5 5s per ton. The industry vanished for a time, but in recent times has been revived.

The McFaul family spotted a gap in the market after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 contaminated the seas and now export a variety of products to Japan.

Walking westwards from the pier there is an abundance of heather as the walker nears the upsidedown lighthouse guarding the sea between the island and Fair Head.

As the description suggests, the living quarters are at the top of the structure and the lightbeam is at the bottom. No-one lives there now, though, as an automated signal has been in operation since 1995.

Rathlin lighthouse is one of 11 lighthouses around the country that form the Great Lighthouses of Ireland circuit — a fabulous themed exploration of the country.

This a significant nature reserve and from the outstanding seabird centre large colonies of kittiwake, guillemot, razorbill, storm petrel, Manx shearwater and several species of gull can be heard squawking their hearts out.

  • How to get there: North of Belfast the M2 and then the A44 lead to the town of
    Ballycastle from where ferries depart year-round for Rathlin.www.rathlinballycastleferry.com or www.rathlin-island.co.uk
  • Other: www.greatlighthouses.com www.rspb.org.uk www.walkni.com
    islanderseafood.com

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