Rathlin Island Lighthouses

Altacarry Head

There are three lighthouses on Rathlin Island, one of which is upside down!

Rathlin Island is the most northerly inhabited offshore island off the coast of Northern Ireland.  The L-shaped island is four miles wide and 2.5 miles from north to south.  There are fine views across to the Mull of Kintyre from the east of the island.

The three working lighthouses on the island are Rathlin East, Rathlin West and Rue Point Lighthouse.

Rathlin East Lighthouse

The first lighthouse established on the island was Rathlin East Lighthouse, located at Altacarry Head. Almost 25 years of discussion had taken between the Northern Lighthouse Board in Edinburgh and Ballast Board in Dublin. 

Rathlin East Lighthouse
Rathlin East Lighthouse
Photo: Patrick Tubby

Two lights were established, the main tower and a lower light at the base of the tower. The upper lighthouse displayed an occulting light, and the lower light was fixed.  A red sector light also shone from the upper tower over Carrick-a-vaan Rock.  The lights were first lit on 1st November 1856.

The two lighthouses were established to avoid confusion with other lights through the North Channel.  They were designed by George Halpin.

View from Altacarry

The lighthouse was built from stone quarried on the island. A fog signal was later established in January 1866, firing every 20 minutes in poor visibility.  An explosive fog signal replaced the fog gun in 1918, using a double tonite explosion every 5 minutes.  From September 1965, a brilliant white flash also accompanied the explosive fog signal.  The signal was discontinued in 1972 for security reasons.  Five months later, a radio beacon was established, sending out the signal AH.  The beacon was discontinued in 1999.

The Low Lighthouse was discontinued in July 1894 following improvements to the main tower.  A new optic was installed in the tower in 1912 with a paraffin vapour burner. 

Rathlin East Lighthouse

The red sector light was discontinued in 1938.

Rathlin East Lighthouse was converted to electricity in 1981.  On 31st March 1995, the lighthouse was converted to automatic operation.  Since November 1995, the light has been displayed 24 hours a day.

A new led light was installed in 2022, and the upgraded light was first exhibited in January 2023.

Bruce’s Cave is just below the East lighthouse.  Robert the Bruce hid here in 1306 following his defeat at Perth.  It was said to have been a Rathlin spider that gave him the heart and sent him back to Scotland to win the Battle of Bannockburn.

Rathlin West Lighthouse

The first mention of a second light on Rathlin was in 1901, but again it took further years before it was built. 

It was decided that a light should be built on the island’s western side.  Two headlands were considered for the western side; Bull Point and Crockantirrive. The latter was eventually selected as the most suitable site, and approval was granted in 1904.    C W Scott was the lighthouse engineer in charge. 

Rathlin West Lighthouse

There were many delays, and progress was slow. A massive amount of concrete was used to construct the lighthouse against the cliff face.  To help with the construction, an inclined railway was built at Corraghy.

Due to its elevation, the cliff was often obscured by low clouds, so the lantern was built at the bottom of the tower to prevent obstruction. The keepers’ accommodation was built into the tower, and a diaphone fog signal was placed at the top of the concrete slope.

Foghorn at Rathlin

Rathlin West Lighthouse was first exhibited on 10th March 1919, displaying a character of one red flash every five seconds.  The fog signal was established on 15th July 1925 and replaced on 17th April 1982 by an electric fog signal.  This was discontinued on 30th November 1995.

Rathlin West Lighthouse

The lighthouse was converted to electric operation from paraffin, and on 30th November 1983, it was fully automated.

Rue Point Lighthouse

In July 1914, a lighthouse at Rue Point was recommended. A six-sided tower was built around 1920 – 1921 following a temporary lighthouse built in November 1915 for the Admiralty. But, this temporary light proved expensive to run, so it was recommended that a permanent light be established, but the Board of Trade refused it.

An acetylene fog gun was installed, coming into operation in April 1917.  In November 1917, the temporary light was destroyed during a storm. The base for the fog signal remained intact, so this worked as a makeshift light until the new unwatched tower was built. The fog gun was incorporated into the roof, and an acetylene generator was housed inside the light.

Rue Point Lighthouse
Rue Point Lighthouse

Two keepers were stationed at Rue Point, living in a wooden hut while on duty.  The fog gun often broke down and was finally discontinued on 1st January 1931.  It was renovated and re-used at Barr Point near Ferris Point.

On 9th October 1965, Rue Point was converted from acetylene to electric operation, and in March 2004, a new optic was installed.

Rathlin Island can be accessed via ferry from Ballycastle, and buses operate across the island, and cycle hire is available. The West Lighthouse is one of the Great Lighthouses, and as part of the Seabird Centre, is open to visitors over the summer months.

Rathlin East (Altacarry Head) LighthouseEstablished: 1856 Discontinued: Engineer: George Halpin Snr Tower Height: 27 metres Light Character: Fl (4) W 20 s Range: 26 miles Fog Signal: Elevation: 74 metres Automated: March 1995
Rathlin West LighthouseEstablished: 1919 Discontinued: Engineer: C W Scott Tower Height: 18 metres Light Character: Fl R 5 s Range: 22 miles Fog Signal: Elevation: 62 metres Automated: 30 November 1983
Rue Point LighthouseEstablished: 1921 Discontinued: Engineer: Tower Height: 11 metres Light Character: Fl (2) W 5 s Range: 14 miles Fog Signal: Elevation: 16 metres Automated: 16 August 1930