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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 October, 2003, 18:34 GMT
Island idyll facing change

BBC Northern Ireland's Jeremy Mitchell reports from Rathlin Island off County Antrim where experts from Scotland and North America have been visiting to look at its problems and its promise.

A large, black dog dances noiselessly at the edge of the waves.

In the near distance, a tanker lorry struggles with a full load of central heating oil as it climbs the harbour ramp from the MV Canna, Rathlin Island's only ferry link to the mainland.

Rathlin Island
The island of Rathlin is facing changes

Watching is Dr Candace Cochrane. She knows islands well.

She spends most of her time helping remote communities on Canada's Atlantic seaboard support themselves.

With a background like that, Rathlin, the beach, even the dog, make a new and interesting case study.

And that is what has been happening. Dr Cochrane together with a team of experts from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have been the guests on Rathlin of an international project called the Countryside Exchange.

That exchange has been operating for years, helping to put people with ideas together with remote or rural communities which are facing change.

Rathlin, with its single pub, single cafe, and tiny school is itself facing change.

The population is in decline. Sixty-eight people live full time on the island.

Few pupils at the island's tiny primary school
Few pupils at the island's tiny primary school
Teenagers have to board by the week across in Ballycastle, crossing some of the British Isles' strongest tidal currents, just to attend school.

Boat parties of scuba-divers frequently call at the island, and visitors whether there for a little bit of walking or to see spectacular concentrations of birds, help to address the deficit.

But Rathliners are looking for something more to help shape their island's future.

Tourism is seen a crucial, but not in the "more-means-better" bottom line which seems to underwrite tourism strategies elsewhere.

What the visiting experts have been exploring with the islanders is what makes their island special, and what they want to do about it.

One of the team visiting Rathlin is Neil Ross who works for Highlands and Islands Enterprise in Scotland.

Neil Ross: Among the team visiting Rathlin
Neil Ross: Among the team visiting Rathlin

"Communities on islands have to address this balance of development which will sustain them, but be able to maintain the way of life which does attract people to come to these places, and does provide the people on the outside world with a way to enjoy the landscape and the opportunities that are on the island.

"We're trying to give the community a little bit of focus on some of these issues."

Already a handful of new holiday homes have appeared on the island, and there have been murmurings that they are too expensive for locals too afford.

Most of the new houses remain empty. However, this does not appear to indicate the route the island is travelling.

Islanders generally agree that more accommodation for visitors is vital, but they may be looking to inns, hostels or campsites, all of which provide more local sustainable jobs than holiday homes.

Rathlin Island: Signs of neglect creeping in
Rathlin Island: Signs of neglect creeping in
Paramount, however, is the widely held view that the island is special, and that nothing must over-ride the views, the tranquillity and the wildlife which visitors find so alluring.

Already, the island has been pioneering music festivals, writers' workshops and a tiny nascent arts and craft movement which it's hoped will complement the aspirations of more visitors.

So do not be expecting theme bars, discos, apartment blocks and the sprawling caravan sites of Portrush, the main resort across in County Antrim.

Back at the island seafront, a new noise joins the unloading from the ferry.

David Hannaway, a Rathliner since birth, is trimming the grass for the local council. Like all the islanders he is both proud and protective.

"It's beautiful, it's virtually unspoilt..if you go and start putting in all the things you think tourists want you're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg."

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