Rathlin is Northern Ireland's only inhabited island. Sarah Barrell meets (most of) the locals

Do you wanna buy a pebble?" A pint-sized girl strides across the beach and fixes me with the kind of stare characteristic of a Marrakesh market stall holder. Bargaining is going to be hard. Our guide, Alison Hurst, introduces us. "This is Shannon, and over there is her friend, Brona," she says, indicating another girl avidly combing the beach behind us. "Now you've met almost half the island's children." Rathlin is Northern Ireland's only inhabited island; with a population of 70 (including five children) this is only just the case.

Do you wanna buy a pebble?" A pint-sized girl strides across the beach and fixes me with the kind of stare characteristic of a Marrakesh market stall holder. Bargaining is going to be hard. Our guide, Alison Hurst, introduces us. "This is Shannon, and over there is her friend, Brona," she says, indicating another girl avidly combing the beach behind us. "Now you've met almost half the island's children." Rathlin is Northern Ireland's only inhabited island; with a population of 70 (including five children) this is only just the case.

Despite its proximity to the mainland Rathlin feels remote. Just five miles from the province's northernmost tip, its basalt cliffs rise some 200 feet out of the Atlantic and are never more than one mile apart. Stand anywhere on the L-shaped island and you feel as if poised on the prow of a ship, the Atlantic rolling and lurching about you with alarming unpredictability. In clear weather the Scottish islands of Islay and Jura are visible to the north-west and just 14 miles north-east lies the Mull of Kintyre, but these may as well be mirages carved into the briny air by frantic winds. Like all the best islands Rathlin is defined by the din of the sea; land seems a defiant afterthought.

Standing in the bay, black seals flopping about in the water behind her, Shannon offers up the best of shoreline merchandise. "The children used to have their own shop selling painted shells and pebbles," explains Alison. "You have to be pretty resourceful to live here. And start very young." With so few inhabitants children enjoy something of a celebrity status on Rathlin. Shannon tells of her recent television interview with Ben Fogle (from BBC's Castaway) for a programme charting the lives of "island children". She seems unfazed; Rathlin is no stranger to broadcasting. It was from here in 1898 that Guglielmo Marconi made the world's first commercial radio transmission to report the safe arrival of ships from the Atlantic.

Given its strategic place in the history of communication you'd think Rathlin would be adept at making the world aware of its tiny presence. Strange, then, to find that even among the Northern Irish, few know its exact whereabouts and even fewer have visited. "If Victorian tourists had 'discovered' Rathlin at the same time as they did the Giant's Causeway, Rathlin would be firmly on the map," says Alison. The well-trammelled Causeway Coast is just a short boat ride across Rathlin Sound. "But perhaps it's better they didn't," she continues, "as the environmental impact of so many visitors looks pretty worrying for the Causeway." And conservation is something islanders take very seriously.

If Rathlin is sparsely populated by humans it's quite the opposite for seabirds. This is Northern Ireland's largest seabird colony, with puffins, guillemots and razorbills numbering into the thousands during summer months. And if the latest local surveys are anything to go by, it could well be the largest in Europe. We head out, across dirt tracks, to the West Lighthouse RSPB viewpoint. The scenery – vast cave-studded cliffs topped with slick maritime heath dropping away to gothic stacks of rocks and sharp tors – is breathtaking; descending the 100-odd steps to the RSPB visitor centre at the lighthouse even more so. The wind is furious, snatching words from your mouth before they're formed and the din is even more incredible during the summer, with thousands of screeching birds nesting in the rocks and sea stacks. "The smell of guano is also pretty unbelievable," says Alison.

Like most islanders, Alison holds various jobs including primary school assistant, tourist guide and RSPB officer. When asked why Rathlin isn't a twitchers' hub, her answer is simple. "This is Northern Ireland," she says. "People still don't think of it as a place to visit, despite the fact that the troubles don't affect us here." On the way back to Church Bay we pass, in quick succession, Catholic and Protestant chapels. During the potato famine some 500 people left Rathlin. "Since then, I guess the population has become predominantly Catholic," says Alison. "But it hardly matters one way or the other."

Dry stone walls and derelict cottages stand as testament to Rathlin's well-populated past. Follow National Trust trails through rough grassland pasture and these ruins only add to the desolate beauty of the place. It's hard to believe anything could survive here but in spring the island is covered in blankets of wild orchids and banks of primroses. And overlooking the blonde sand of Church Bay, new life is evident: 10 new "coast guard" cottages, built to local spec with barn doors and Redland Rathlin Blue slate roofs, prospective holiday homes for non-islanders. Today the island is full of strange urban types, though these are the kind more likely to do up a derelict cottage and write a novel about it than to buy a smart new house. A creative writing weekend is being held at the old manor house and the new cottages have been commandeered for "creative workshopping".

Rathlin is ripe with Celtic tales begging appropriation and a swanky publisher's imprint. One of the more famous features exiled Scottish monarch Robert the Bruce. Bruce was said to have come here in the 1300s and found the courage to win back his kingdom from the English, after watching a spider try and try again to build its web in a wind-blown cave (now Bruce's cave, at the north-east point). On the road above the manor house, in the converted barn/guesthouse that he runs with Alison, we meet Liam McFaul (builder, lobster fisherman and RSPB warden). Liam is wary of those who try to pin down Rathlin's oral story tradition. "There are many stories," he says. "When the time is right someone will tell one; like a good Ceilis, you can't force it. Write it down and you get it wrong."

Liam, who didn't set foot off the island until he was six (and then in a boat that makes the tiny Rathlin ferry look like a cruise ship), knew the outside world only from pictures on biscuit tins and has plenty of home-grown stories to tell. One of the more prosaic features balloon expeditioner Sir Richard Branson. In 1987, 31 hours and 41 minutes after setting off from US shores, Branson's balloon came down in the Atlantic a few miles north-west of Rathlin. According to local law, what comes within reach of Rathlin's shores belongs to the island. The coast guard went out to "assist". A £25,000 donation later, Rathlin was one renovated Manor House and a lifeboat to the better. When it comes to being resourceful it seems Rathlin's islanders beat even Branson; I wonder if they managed to sell him any stones.

The Facts

Getting there

Sarah Barrell travelled as a guest of Tourism Ireland (0800 039 7000; www.irelandholidays.com).

Easyjet (0870 6000 000; www.easyjet.com) flies to Belfast from Luton, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh from £5.40 each way. Belfast airport is around two hours' drive from Ballycastle and cars can be hired through Dan Dooley Rent-a-Car (see facts on article below). Buses for Ballycastle depart from Belfast's Europa and Laganside bus stations throughout the day, return tickets cost around £6.

Dependent on weather conditions, a passenger ferry departs for Rathlin from Ballycastle four times a day, from June to September, and twice a day at other times of year. The crossing time is 45 minutes and foot passengers pay £7.80 return (motor vehicles can cross by special permit only). Booking essential, contact Caledonian MacBrayne ticket office (028 2076 9299).

Being there

The Manor House Guesthouse (028 2076 3964) has rooms from £23 single and £42 double, including breakfast. The Manor House is one of only two places to eat on the island ­ the other being the pub. Basic lodgings (shared kitchen and bathroom) are offered at the Kinramer Cottage Camping Barn (028 2076 3948). Shared accommodation in either the bunkroom or sleeping loft costs £5 per person, per night. Bring your own sleeping bag.

Further information:

RSPB West Light Viewpoint information (012657 63948).

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