Rathlin West Lighthouse – Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland - Atlas Obscura

Rathlin West Lighthouse

Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland

A beloved upside-down beacon off the coast of Northern Ireland. 


Three lighthouses guide boats along Rathlin, the only developed island off the coast of Northern Ireland, but Rathlin West Lighthouse is the sole inverted beacon in all of the Emerald Isle. Built directly into the cliff face starting in 1912 and officially implemented in 1919, Rathlin West Lighthouse is one of the most intriguing attractions on the island, which also boasts medieval history and one of the largest seabird colonies in the United Kingdom.

The red paraffin light, which sits at the base of the lighthouse rather than atop it to radiate through the low-lying fog that hugs the island, was staffed by on-site lighthouse keepers until 1983, after which it became automated. Today, the electric light remains in use at night and during the day when visibility is poor.

The lighthouse was also once complete with a diaphone fog signal affectionately known as the Rathlin Bull, which resounded across 18 miles. The signal was instituted in 1925, and designed to blast four 1.5-second horns at 60-second intervals. After 70 years of service, the foghorn was decommissioned in 1995. 

But Rathlin West Lighthouse, which celebrated its centenary in the spring of 2019, isn’t the only reason to visit this Arcadian island. Rathlin is also home to more than 250,000 seabirds, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, and puffins among them, all of which flock to breed on-site. Thus the lighthouse doubles as the Rathlin West Light Seabird Centre, a maritime museum that hosts educational exhibitions about the island’s spectacular avian populations. The center is operated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Located just 11 miles from the tip of the Kintyre Peninsula on Scotland’s southwestern coast, Rathlin was also a site of refuge for Scotland’s famous king, Robert the Bruce. Exiled after losing a battle to the English in 1306, Robert the Bruce hid out in a small cave on Rathlin to deliberate his next move. The war-weary king toyed with giving up the fight for Scottish independence until he noticed a small spider toiling to weave a web. Legend has it that the Scottish king watched the spider try and fail to anchor its web to a nearby rock six times—the same number of Robert the Bruce’s failed attempts at Scottish victory. The king made a deal with himself: if the spider failed a seventh time, he too would give up the fight. Needless to say, the spider found success on its seventh try, and King Robert returned home to fight—and win—the pivotal Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, by which Scotland was granted independence in 1328.

Know Before You Go

The Rathlin West Lighthouse open from 11am through 4pm in April, 10am until 5pm from May through August, and 11am until 4pm in September. After September 15th, the lighthouse closes for the winter months. Visitors can purchase tickets up until one hour before closing time. Admission is £5 for adults, £2.50 for children, and free for RSPB members.

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