It was a relaxing end to the day as we enjoyed a sunset cruise around the Farne Islands. We departed from Seahouses Village, after very good dinner at Lewis’s Fish Restaurant in the town centre. We were staying nearby, at the White Swan Inn, in Belford, around eight kilometres from Bamburgh Castle. The hotel features sparkle clean facilities and nice, little added extras, and fabulous food in the pub area downsatirs. That evening, the weather was really promising for amazing sunset views, though some clouds were stubbornly wandering in the blue sky.
The Farne Islands and Lindisfarne
The Farne Islands lie off the coast of Northumbland in north-east England. To the north of the Farne Islands and the tidal estuary-like mud flats of Budle Bay lies the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Though the Holy Island of Lindisfarne lies just to the north of the Farne group of islands, it is argued not to belong to the Archipelago as this is not a true island; it is connected to the mainland for about twelve hours a day by a causeway that is covered and uncovered by the tides.
The modern causeway is about 1.6 kilometres long and reaches the Holy Island at a point called the snook, at the western tip of a long sandy peninsula. Visitors to Lindisfarne should always check the crossing time table to avoid being trapped in a car by the incoming tide. To the south of the causeway used usually by drivers, a series of wooden poles marked out the ancient Pilgrim’s Way across the shifting sand and mud. Modernday pilgrims can still follow it, crossing the way to the Holy Island on foot. It was used in ancient times by contemporary visitors to the religious centre of Lindisfarne. Like the causeway, it can be used only at low tide, as described by Sir Walter Scott:
For with the flow and ebb, its styleSir Walter Scott, 1888, ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flooded Field’, in Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne: Less civilised times’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry shod o’er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandelled feet the trace.
Great Whin Sill Formations
The Farne lsalnds are formed from the rocks of the Whin Sill Complex (or the Great Whin Sill, a tabular layer of the igneous rock dolerite in County Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria in the northeast of England). It also creates the outcrops of rock, which gave the foundations for Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh Castles, and for parts of Hadrian’s Wall. The other outcrop of the Whin Sill Complex on Holy Island is also topped by Lindisfarne Castle. The Farne Islands are an archipelago of between 15 and 20 islands (depending on the height of the tide) lying approximately 8 kilometres north-east of the village of Seahouses.
They form an archipelago, divided into the Inner Group and the Outer Group.If Lindisfarne is excluded, the island of Inner Farne, also known as House Island, is then the largest at 16 acres and is the closest to the mainland. Lindisfarne itself measures almost 5 kilometres west-east and 3 kilometres north-south.
The Heroine from the Farnes
The Farne Islands are associated with the story of Grace Darling and the wreck of the Forfarshire. I saw a plaque commemorating her name and history in the harbor at Seahouses. Grace Darling was the daughter of Longstone lighthouse-keeper, William Darling. On September 7, 1838, when she was 22 years old, she rescued together with her father nine people from the wreck of the Forfarshire, which struck the Harcar Rock in a strong gale and thick fog.
The story of the rescue spread from the Northumberland coast and attracted extraordinary attention throughout Britain, making Grace Darling a heroine who is remembered in British folklore. Grace Darling died of consumption four years later, in 1842, and is buried in the churchyard of the village of Bamburgh, which also houses the Grace Darling Museum; it includes even the coble boat used by Grace in her famous rescue.
Less Heroic Attitudes
There is, however, another account from the seventeenth century, which gives an insight into attitudes of the Islanders, quite different from Grace Darling’s :
“The common people there do pray for ships which they see in danger. They all sit down upon their knees and hold up their hands and say very devotedly, ‘Lord send her to us, God send her to us.’ You seeing them upon their knees, and their hands joined, do think that they are praying for your safety; but their minds are far from that. They pray, not to God to save you, or send you to port, but to send you to them by shipwreck, that they may get the spoil of her. And to show that this is their meaning if the ship come well to port, they get up in anger crying `the Devil stick her, she is away from us.’“Captain Robin Rugg, the seventeenth century governor of Holy Island, in Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne: Less civilised times’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.
Paradise for Wreck Divers
The Farne Islands extend for over 8 kilometres out into the North Sea and have always been a danger to ships. For this reason, many lighthouses have been built on the islands over the years and two are still in use today. All the operational lighthouses on the Farnes are now automatic and have no resident keepers, although in former years, they did.
Ruins of some of the older lighthouses may be seen, for example on the Brownsman, which used to have two. One of them has its base remains attached to the keeper’s cottage. Earlier, beacons were on several of the islands and a light was once shone from the tower. Despite that, hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the Farnes over the years, providing plenty for wreck divers to explore.
Culdees and Benedictines
The earliest recorded inhabitants of the Farne Islands were various Culdees, some connected with Lindisfarne. This followed the old Celtic Christian tradition of island hermitages, also found in Wales, Cornwall, and Hiberno-Scotland. The islands were used by hermits intermittently from the seventh century. These included Saint Bartholomew of Farne. The last hermit was Thomas De Melsonby, who died on the islands in 1246. Hermits were replaced as elsewhere in Europe by Benedictine monks and a formal monastic cell of Benedictine monks was established on the islands around 1255.
The cell was dependent on Durham Abbey, then changed to Durham Cathedral. A very small cell was usually home to only two monks, although on occasion this rose to as many as six. The cell was dissolved in 1536 as part of King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. In the course of their turbulent history, the islands had belonged to County Durham till 1844, when they became the part of Northumberland County and are currently owned by the National Trust.
Saints of Northumbria and their Hermitage
The islands are first recorded in 651, when they became home to Saint Aidan, followed by Saint Cuthbert. Despite Saint Cuthbert’s reclusive lifestyle, so characteristic of the Celtic Church that he initially followed, the saint was comonly loved and respected as a caring and peaceful man, existing yet in a violent period of history.
Cuthbert isolated himself on the islands until he was called to the bishopric of Lindisfarne, but after two years, he returned to the solitude of the Inner Farne and died there in 687 but his body was moved back to Lindisfarne. He spent there 9 years, leaving like an eremit on Inner Farne. Saint Cuthbert’s life on Inner Farne was not always one of seclusion, as his reputed gift of healing brought pilgrims to the island from all over the Kingdom of Northumbria. Hence, a suggested meaning for the name of the Farne Islands, ‘Islands of the Pilgrims’, which may have derived from ‘Farena Ealande’. The first structures built by the monks Aidan and Cuthbert on Inner Farne are no longer visible. In Life of St Cuthbert, medieval scholar and monk, Bede the Venerable, gives some clues about these early buildings. After moving to Inner Farne, Saint Cuthbert erected, or rather restored, a hermitage together with a construction of a guesthouse or hospitium, which an answer to crowds of pilgrims. Cuthbert’s cell, first built by Aidan, was made of stone and turf and was – according to Bede – ‘higher than a man’. Another larger structure, a guesthouse or ‘hospitum’, probably stood where the Fishe House is sited today. It is also possible that the cell on Inner Farne in which St Cuthbert lived and died existed on the site occupied now by Saint Cuthbert’s Church (or Chapel).
Documents show that work on a larger structure began in 1369 and the older remains have been incorporated into this later building. By these means, the small chapel was part of a Benedictine cell affiliated to Durham Abbey, then Durham Cathedral. The monks of the House of Farne were wealthy enough to build such structures – they cultivated crops and kept livestock on some of the other islands. Accordingly, the today visited Chapel on Inner Farne was once part of a larger monastic complex, which included another chapel dedicated to Saint Mary, once located just to the north, and surrounding courtyards. Known as Saint Cuthbert’s Chapel, it is described as a “single-cell building of four bays”. The holy community continued to use the chapel until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Just to the west of Saint Cuthbert’s chapel stands Prior Castell’s Tower which dates from about 1500. It is a defensive pele tower (a small fortified keep), typical of the Northumberland coast, which was built for the contemporary Prior of Durham Cathedral monastery from 1494 to 1519. The tower initially served as an accommodation for the monks of the Benedictine cell but this was closed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
All Real Saints once Faced Some Demons
A legend goes that before Saint Cuthbert inhabited Inner Farne, he banished some ‘demons’ from the island to the nearby isle of Wideopens. Those evils spirits apparently still haunted later inhabitants of Inner Farne, long after Saint Cuthbert’s death. David Simpson provides a record of the demons’ description:
“…..clad in cowls, and riding upon goats, black in complexion, short in stature, their countenances most hideous, their heads long – the appearance of the whole group horrible. Like soldiers they brandished in their hands lances, which they darted after in the fashion of war. At first the sight of the cross was sufficient to repel their attacks, but the only protection in the end was the circumvaliation of straws, signed with the cross, and fixed in the sands, around which the devils galloped for a while, and then retired, leaving the brethren to enjoy victory and repose.”In Simpson, D., ‘The Farne Islands: St Cuthbert and the Farne Devils’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.
It is thought that these demons were really the spirits of indigenous ancient people who had been once cut off from the mainland.
Another Hermitage Island
Apart from Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, there is also one more tiny island related to Saint Cuthbert’s legendary hagiography. Just offshore from Holy Island Village, is the small Island of Hobthrush, or St Cuthbert’s Isle, where the saint was said to have crafted the legendary beads, known as Saint Cuthbert’s or ‘Cuddy’s Beads’. Sometimes, they can be noticed by more arrentive visitors washed up on the shores of Holy Island.
But fain St Hilda’s nuns would learnSir Walter Scott, 1888, ‘Marmion: A Tale of Flooded Field’, in Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne: Hobthrush and St Cuthbert’s beads‘, in England’s North East, 1991-2022.
If on a rock by Lindisfarne
St Cuthbert sits and toils to frame
The sea borne beads that bear his name.
Such tales had Whitby’s fishers told,
And said they might his shape behold,
And here his anvil sound:
A deadened clang – a huge dim form
Seen but and heart when gathering storm
And night were closing round.
But this, a tale of idle fame,
The nuns of Lindisfarne disclaim.
Cuddy’s beads are in fact the fossilized remains of tiny sea creatures, which inhabited the ocean depths in prehistoric times. As their surface is marked with the shape of the cross, they may have been once used as Rosary beads.
Cuddy’s Eider Ducks and Other Animal-Brothers
Today the Farne Islands are still an important nature reserve for wildlife and are the home to many species of sea birds, including Puffins, Eider Ducks, Razorbills, Guillemots, Terns, Kittiwakes, Shags and Cormorants. During the breeding season from May to the end of July there are thousands of nesting birds at the Farne Islands. For these reasons, summer visitors to Inner Farne are strongly advised to wear hats due to Arctic terns dive bombing to protect their chicks. There are also an estimated 3 to 4 thousand Grey Seals at the Farne Islands and large numbers can be counted basking on the rocks, especially at low water when more of the Islands are exposed. Saint Cuthbert was also known to have had a great love of nature and especially of birds and seals, who were often his only companions in his lonelines on Inner Farne. Saint Cuthbert had, like Hiberno-Scottish monks, and much later Franciscan monks, friendly attitude to animals, whom he treated like his brothers. Thus, he is claimed by some to be one of the first ever nature conservationists. Among other acts, Cuthbert introduced special laws in 676 protecting the eider ducks, and other seabirds nesting on the islands; these are thought to be the earliest bird-protection laws anywhere in the world. And to commemorate Saint Cuthbert’s care for birds, the eider ducks have become known as St. Cuthbert’s ducks or Cuddy’s ducks
Following your cruise around the Farne Islands, we continue to sail along our beautiful coastline to enjoy scenic sunset views as the sun was setting behind the magnificent Bamburgh Castle, with the occasional visit from local dolphins. The Farne Islands are popular with bird watchers, and as scuba diving locations, with a variety of sites suitable for all levels of divers, for the seals and wrecks.
Featured image: Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands at sunset. Photo by Felippe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
Hannaford, L., ‘The Farne Islands and Holy Island, Northumberland’, in British Geological Survey, 2023. (https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discovering-geology/maps-and-resources/office-geology/the-farne-islands-and-holy-island-northumberland/#:~:text=To%20the%20north%20of%20the,and%20uncovered%20by%20the%20tides; accessed 2nd September, 2023).
Lewis, N., [No Date], ‘History of the Farne Islands’ buildings’, in Collections & House Officer, National Trust. (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/north-east/farne-islands/history-of-the-farne-islands-buildings; accessed 2nd September, 2023).
Simpson, D., ‘Lindisfarne’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022. (https://englandsnortheast.co.uk/lindisfarne-holy-island/,2022; accessed 31st August, 2023).
Simpson, D., ‘The Farne Islands’, in England’s North East, 1991-2022. (https://englandsnortheast.co.uk/the-farne-islands/,2022; accessed 31st August, 2023).