The Farne Islands

The Wonderful Farne Islands

Six miles along the coast from Dunstanburgh, to the north of Embleton and Beadnell Bays, is the fishing village and popular tourist magnet of Seahouses, (formerly called North Sunderland Seahouses), where boat trips can be taken out to the famous Farne Islands. The Farnes consist of almost thirty islands which are visible at high tide and many others visible at low tide.

Inner Farne Island
Inne Farne Island, the Farne Islands Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Some of the islands have wonderful names like Megstone, Elbow, Wideopens, Goldstone, The Bush, Glororum Shad, Gun Rock, Staple Island, Brownsman, Callers, Crumstone, Fang, North and South Wamses, Roddam and Green, Big and Little Harcar, Nameless Rock, Blue Caps, Longstone and furthest out at four and half miles from the shore, Knivestone.

The Farnes are formed by the most seaward outcrops of the volcanic intrusion called the Great Whin Sill. The sill can be traced from Upper Teesdale in Durham where it forms the High Force waterfall, all the way up to the north Northumberland coast where it makes the Farne Islands and the rocks upon which sit the castles of Lindisfarne, Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh. The rock gives the Farne Islands their distinctive blackened appearance.

Inner Farne and St. Cuthbert

Largest innermost and most historic of the Farne islands is Inner Farne, which is also known as House Island, or quite simply Farne Island. Only a mile and a half from the mainland, this island gives its name to the whole group. For many years Inner Farne was the home of St Cuthbert who lived here in solitude. St Cuthbert’s life here was not always one of peace and seclusion, as his reputed gift of healing brought pilgrims to the island from all over the Kingdom of Northumbria. Indeed one suggested meaning for the name of the Farne Islands is that it derives from `Farena Ealande’ ; `Island of the Pilgrims’.

St Cuthbert left his favourite island, for some time when he was called upon to become a Bishop on Lindisfarne. but the saint later returned to the island, where he died in the year 687 A.D. He was eventually buried at Durham. It may be hard to appreciate the often reclusive lifestyle of St Cuthbert today, but it is clear that he was a well liked and respected man with a caring and peaceful nature, in what was often a violent period of history. Cuthbert, a healthy and athletic man was also known to have a great love of nature and especially of birds and seals, who were often his only companions on the lonely island. Indeed he is claimed by some to be one of the first ever nature conservationists.

Today the Farne Islands are still an important reserve for wildlife and are the home to many species of sea bird, including Puffins, Eiders, Razorbills and Cormorants. There is also a large colony of Grey Seals. Many legends and miracles are associated with St Cuthbert both before and after his death. Some of these legends are hard to believe and can be put down to the ignorance of the people of the time, while others such as the belief that St Cuthbert disliked women have no foundation at all. This rumour was probably started by the Benedictine order of monks of later times, who would not let women join their order.

Inner Farne and Longstone
Inner Farne with Longstone in distance Photo © 2015 David Simpson

St Cuthbert and the Farne Devils

Before St Cuthbert could come to live on Inner Farne, there is a record that he had to banish certain `demons’ or `devils’ from the island to the nearby isle of Wideopens. Later inhabitants of Inner Farne, long after Cuthbert’s death occasionally caught sight of these strange `demons’ who were described as follows;

“…..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.”

It is thought that these demons were in fact the descendants of early settlers or `aborigines’ who had been cut off from the mainland. Perhaps it was their ancestors who were responsible for the mysterious `Cup and Ring Markings’ that litter the remoter parts of the Northumberland countryside. The wonderfully hideous looking sanctuary knocker, on the main doorway of Durham cathedral is said to have been modelled on these intriguing little `Farne Demons’. In medieval times this bronze carving granted refuge to `evil doers’, seeking asylum at the great cathedral of St Cuthbert.

Longstone Photo © 2015 David Simpson

The Grace Darling rescue

The Farne Islands can be broken into two main groups, the first is dominated by Inner Farne, the second a mile away across the Staple Sound includes Staple Island, Brownsman, the Wamses and Longstone. The last of these will be forever associated with the story of Northumbria’s greatest heroine; Grace Darling. Born on the 24th November 1815, Grace was the daughter of the lighthouse keeper on the island of Brownsman, but at the age of eleven she and her family moved to Longstone, when her father was appointed the lighthouse keeper there. Grace was only 22 when in the early hours of the morning of 7th September 1838 a steamer named the `Forfashire’ struck the Harcar Rock in view of the lighthouse while on route from Hull to Dundee.

The steamer was severely wrecked and most of its passengers were drowned, but from her bedroom window in the lighthouse, Grace caught sight of a number of survivors desperately clinging to a reef for their lives. Shortly after 7 o’ clock that morning Grace and her father William Darling, bravely launched their small rowing boat (a coble) and in two trips succeeded in rescuing the nine survivors, who were taken to the lighthouse for shelter.

‘Twas on the Longstone lighthouse,
There dwelt an English maid:
Pure as the air around her,
Of danger ne’er afraid
One morning just at day break,
A storm toss’d wreck she spied;
And tho’ to try seemed madness
“I’ll save the crew” she cried.

From the `Grace Darling Song’

Grace Darling became a heroine overnight, poets like William Wordsworth were inspired to write of her courage, portraits were painted, proposals of marriage were made and Grace was even requested to appear nightly at the Adelphi Theatre, in London at a stage production of her story. This was an offer that Grace declined. Grace was in fact a shy and modest girl and her newly found fame came as a great shock to her.

Sadly this most reluctant of celebrities died of consumption on the 20th October 1842, at the age of only twenty six. Grace Darling is buried in the churchyard of the village of Bamburgh, on the mainland, where there is an ornate memorial to her honour. Bamburgh village also has a Grace Darling Museum, dedicated to the life of the heroine, it includes the coble boat used by Grace in her famous rescue.

North East Regional Hub and Portal