On Rathlin Island by Dara McAnulty

In late-afternoon light, with wind rising from the sea, we sail on the ferry the few miles from Ballycastle on the north-east coast to Rathlin Island. Guillemots and gulls scrabble the air with screeching and cackling. My excitement is intense.


Today is my birthday, and this morning I lay awake in bed for hours before the actual birth time (11.20am) listening to a screeching fox in the distance. All week I’ve been like this, intensely excited, nervous, for reasons I may never truly understand. Perhaps it’s because I love new places and hate new places all at once. The smells, the sounds. Things that nobody else notices. The people, too. And the right and wrong of things. Small things, like how we’d line up for the ferry, or what was expected of me on Rathlin when we arrived. Though I always do the usual mop-up operation in my mind after any journey, look back and usually think how ludicrous it all was, still the anxiety floods in. Mum assures me that our time on Rathlin will be spent either outside or alone with the family. ‘It’ll all be okay,’ she says.


Eider ducks congregate at the harbour on our arrival, and as we head out to the cottage that we’ll be staying in for a few days, my usual dislike of new surroundings softens. This place has something special. It feels so calm here. The air is fresh, the landscape extra-worldly in its abundance. Lapwing circle to our right, a buzzard to our left. The windows are rolled down and the sound circulates through our limbs, stiff from the three-hour drive and ferry ride. We relax and radiate as hares abound and geese honk above. The car climbs above sea level towards the west of the island.


 When we reach our roosting place, it looks perfect in the distance: traditional stone with no other dwellings around for miles, and on arrival I jump out to walk and explore. I soon discover a lake with tufted duck and greylag geese. As I walk, hares seem to keep popping up everywhere and my eyes struggle to keep up with all the movement, my brain whirring with all the senses.


I can hear the cries of seabirds in the distance. Gannets fly on the horizon, the squeak of kittiwakes becomes louder. I stand and look out to sea and watch the waves gently swirling, and in the dusk sky a skein of white-fronted geese fly in dagger formation. Although we’ve just arrived and have a few days here, I start wondering how empty I’ll feel when it’s time to leave. I feel panic.


My childhood, although wonderful, is still confined. I’m not free. Daily life is all busy roads and lots of people. Schedules, expectations, stress. Yes, there is unfettered joy, too, but right now, standing in an extraordinary and beautiful place, so full of life, there is this terrible angst rising in my chest. I walk back to the cottage in a trance, watching shadows moving in golden fields.


After dinner, song bursts from every corner of the sky and we stop to listen in the twilight. Isolating each and every melody, I feel suddenly rooted. Skylark spirals. Blackbird harmonies. Bubbling meadow pipits. The winnowing wings of snipe. And always the sound of seabirds. We are in the other world. No cars. No people. Just wildlife and the magnificence of nature.


It’s the best birthday.A full moon beams from behind clouds as we watch Venus above the distant houses, and I stand there with numb hands and a numb nose but a bursting heart. This is the kind of place I can be happy in. I wrap my coat tightly around my chest, inhaling it all in, not wanting to go to bed, storing the moment up with all the other memories I keep cached. When I’m ambushed by the anxiety army, when it comes stomping back, I’ll be ready to fight, armed with the wild cries of Rathlin Island.




Dara McAnulty is a naturalist, activist and writer whose sixteenth birthday is on 31 March 2020. This is an extract from his first book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, which will be published on 25th May 2020, available to pre-order here.  Follow Dara on twitter.

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