A FIFTY year love affair may feature in many tales, but a well known Northern Irish ecologist and writer is putting the island of Rathlin at the heart of his affections in a newly published book charting five decades of visits to its shores.
Philip Watson is a naturalist who has worked on several continents, but it is the lure of life on Rathlin island, just off the north Antrim shoreline, that has called him to explore the island’s mythical history, sealife, birds and wondrous natural terrain in ‘Rathlin: Nature and Folklore’.
Since his first glimpse in 1960 of her white chalk cliffs and dark basalts glinting in the sun, as a 16 year old birdwatcher studying golden eagles on the mainland, he has since spent many visits to the island for work and for pleasure, charting its changes - and sometimes beautiful lack of changes - in this new book, published by Stone Country Press Scotland.
Rathlin is Northern Ireland’s only permanently inhabited offshore island, sitting like a stepping stone in the narrow and turbulent Sea of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland, straddling cultures, habitats and peoples.
It is a busy, vibrant and beautiful place with a resident population of around 100 islanders who look to the future with confidence but can also hark back to a past of massacres, famine and emigration.
The tale, which can be as useful an island guide as a prosaic read, starts with Philip’s first work stint as he joins a small group of enthusiasts to set up a Bird Observatory to study migration, followed by other bird surveys on the island throughout the 1960s.
In the period 1970-75, his job as a fisheries biologist took him back to the island regularly for extended periods studying lobsters and crabs with the island fishermen, which accounts for several chapters in the book on Rathlin’s bountiful sea life.
In 1975 while working for the RSPB, Philip returned to Rathlin to negotiate purchase of large stretches of the northern and western cliffs for the RSPB, to become bird reserve areas.
It is over these two decades he built up friendships with fishermen and islanders that have lasted the course, and many have helped him piece together the island’s mythical and natural history in several chapters of the book.
In the 1980s Philip recounts how he became involved for a couple of years with Richard Branson’s UK 2000 environmental project; helping set up NI 2000, which took him again to Rathlin for community projects such as the restoration of the 18C Manor House.
Branson made a rare celebrity appearance on the island, when in 1988 he presented the islanders with a new fast lifeboat, in thanks for help when he crashed his trans-Atlantic record-breaking balloon just off its shores on 3 July 1987.
Working as North Coast warden and then countryside manager with the National Trust between 1984-88 and 1990-1999 took Philip much more frequently to Rathlin, as the Trust purchased some buildings and land for conservation and became involved with island life.
In the course of all these years on and around Rathlin, Philip gradually became aware of much more than its land, sea and birdlife - the island’s rich heritage of folklore. Tales were told to him of seals and mermaids that took human form, of the old woman who changed into a hare and back again, of legendary magical horses, ghosts and hairy fairies, of a whiskey-laden shipwreck and much more.
The footloose ecologist has returned frequently to the island in the 2000s doing seabird surveys – bouncing about in small island boats and scrambling about the cliffs and in the latter half of the decade he decided to make the golden anniversary of his first trip the subject of a book.
“I never need an excuse to go to Rathlin, it calls me. Now I visit regularly for the sheer pleasure of being on this magical island, to see old friends, to renew acquaintances with tens of thousands of seabirds, a hundred or so seals, the island’s rare golden hares (only 2 known there) and to revel in that unique feeling of being on an island – one that retains its integrity and beauty while coping with a fast changing world,” said Philip.
‘Rathlin: Nature and Folklore’ is on sale now for £9.99 RRP at independent book shops across Northern Ireland or online at www.stonecountry.co.uk - see website for stockists. Philip will be signing his book at Waterstones Coleraine store on Saturday 11th June between 2-5 pm.