Island and causeway

Lindisfarne, the ‘Holy Island’ lies to the north of Bamburgh and the tidal estuary-like mud flats of Budle Bay. The island is a magical place and though Holy Island is the usual name it is still also known by its more ancient name of Lindisfarne. It is only accessible from the mainland at low tide by means of a causeway, which can be reached from the village of Beal.

Lindisfarne Priory
Lindisfarne Priory with Lindisfarne castle in the distance © David Simpson

To the south of the more modern road-surface causeway, a series of stakes mark the old route across to the island called the ‘Pilgrims Way’ which was used in ancient times by visitors to the great Christian centre of Lindisfarne. Again this could be crossed only at low tide, a situation perfectly described by Sir Walter Scott:

For with the flow and ebb, its style
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.

The modern causeway is about a mile long and reaches the island at a point called the snook, at the western tip of a long sandy peninsula, which leads the road to the attractive Holy Island village and the nearby ruins of a Norman priory. The island itself is about 3 miles wide from west to east about half of which encompasses the narrow snook but the main part of the island is about one and a half miles from north to south.

Holy Island of Lindisfarne looking across the island to Lindisfarne Castle
Holy Island of Lindisfarne looking across the island to Lindisfarne Castle © David Simpson

Around 180 people live on the island but the number of people present on the island at any time increases significantly during the summer season especially at those times when the tide is out.

Tourists and Lindisfarne Castle
Tourists and Lindisfarne Castle © David Simpson

The island is one of the most magical places on Britain’s coast, enhanced by its views across to Bamburgh on the neighbouring shore and the wonderful Lindisfarne Castle which rises from the island’s most prominent landmark rock.

Bamburgh Castle pictured from Lindisfarne
Bamburgh Castle pictured from Lindisfarne © David Simpson

Anciently the island was known to the native Britons in late Celtic times as Medcaut or in Latin as Insula Medicata. The old name is thought to derive from the Latin meaning ‘healing island’, perhaps from medicinal herbs that grew there or maybe from an allusion to the healing nature of the receding tide which bridges the gap with the mainland. The Welsh name Medcaut (or Medgoet in Irish) was older than the name Lindisfarne and may have come into use due to Roman influence.

Holy Island village
Holy Island village © David Simpson

Although suggestions have linked the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Lindisfarne’ to some kind of stream, historians and place-name experts consider that the name is in some way linked to a people called the Lindissi of Lincolnshire. When the Angles (from the German/Danish/Frisian coast) invaded Britain in the sixth century the area around the River Humber was a major area for their earliest settlement. The people who settled on both sides of the estuary were known as the Humbresnes and a tribal group on the south side in Lincolnshire were called the Lindisfarona.

Lindisfarne Castle from the island churchyard
Lindisfarne Castle from the island churchyard © David Simpson

It is possible that the new invaders from that region also moved north along the coast and colonised the island of Medcaut as it would have provided an ideal landing base for an invasion of the Celtic mainland. It is known for sure that an Angle chief, Ida seized the nearby Celtic stronghold of Bamburgh in 547 AD and that later, Ida’s son Theodoric (whose name means king-king) was attacked in a siege upon the island. The three-day siege was led by Urien the Celtic Prince of the Cumbrian-based Kingdom of Rheged. Urien was the principal leader in the defence of the Celtic north against the Angles.

In the end the Angles would be successful in their invasion and colonisation of the north establishing a kingdom called Bernicia in this part of the region based on an earlier Celtic kingdom of a similar name. The Pagan Angles along with the Saxons who colonised the south of England would eventually convert to Christianity. In the north the Angle Kingdom of Northumbria developed and became a major centre of Christianity and Lindisfarne was a major focus for the new belief.

St Aidan sculpture, Lindisfarne.
St Aidan sculpture, Lindisfarne © David Simpson

Cradle of Christianity

The ruins of Lindisfarne’s Norman priory stand on or near the site of the Anglo-Saxon monastery founded by St Aidan in AD 635, on land granted by Oswald, King and Saint of Northumbria. Aidan is believed to have chosen the island site because of its isolation and proximity to the Northumbrian capital at Bamburgh.

Aidan, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne, an Irish-Celtic monk from the Scottish isle of Iona, travelled widely throughout Northumbria and with the help of King Oswald as interpreter, began the conversion of the pagan Northumbrians to Christianity. The conversion of the Northumbrians to Christianity by Aidan and Oswald, cannot have been an easy task.

The island of Hobthrush, just off Lindisfarne is known as St Cuthbert's Isle
The island of Hobthrush, just off Lindisfarne is known as St Cuthbert’s Isle © David Simpson

The Northumbrians were the descendants of a heathen race of people who were in many ways no more civilised than the Scandinavian Vikings, who invaded Britain centuries later. St Aidan’s death in 651 AD, is said to have been related in a vision to a young shepherd boy called Cuthbert who lived in the hills somewhere near the River Tweed.

The vision convinced Cuthbert that he should take up the life of a monk and at the age of sixteen, he entered the Northumbrian monastery of Melrose in Tweeddale (now in the southern borders of Scotland).

The Norman architecture of Lindisfarne Priory
The Norman architecture of Lindisfarne Priory © David Simpson

In 654 AD Cuthbert came to Lindisfarne, where his reputed gift of healing and legendary ability to work miracles, achieved far reaching fame for the island. Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Hexham in 684 AD but exchanged the see for Lindisfarne, to become the fifth successor to Bishop Aidan.

When Cuthbert died in 687 AD, he was buried in accordance with his wishes on the island of Lindisfarne, but eleven years after his death, his body was found to be in an incorrupt state by the astonished monks of the island. The monks were now convinced that Cuthbert was a saint and pilgrims continued to flock to Lindisfarne in numbers as great as during Cuthbert’s lifetime.

Ruins of the Norman priory, Lindisfarne
Ruins of the Norman priory, Lindisfarne © David Simpson

Viking raids on Lindisfarne

In 793 AD Lindisfarne was to witness the first Viking raid on the coast of Britain, which was recalled with much drama by an informative record of the period called the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

” 793. In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, which sorely affrighted the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air. A great famine followed hard upon these signs; and a little later in that same year, on the 8th June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church by rapine and slaughter. “

It was a horrific and devastating moment for Northumbria but the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers were largely responsible for giving the Vikings the ‘bad press’ that they still have today. The chroniclers did not mention that the Anglo-Saxons had invaded Britain in much the same way, two and a half centuries earlier.

Holy Island village © David Simpson

Viking raids on Lindisfarne’s wealthy coastal monastery continued throughout the following century and in 875 AD the monks of Lindisfarne fled their Holy Island with the body of Cuthbert, remembering the dying wishes of their saint which was later recorded in a rather wordy way:

“….if necessity compels you to chose between one of two evils, I would much rather you take my bones from their tomb and carry them away with you to whatever place of rest God may decree, rather than consent to iniquity and put your necks under the yokes of schismatics”

For many years the monks wandered the north of England, with the coffin of St Cuthbert, and after settling for just over a hundred years in the old Roman fort at Chester-le-Street they moved on to Durham in 995 AD where St Cuthbert’s body lies to this day in Durham Cathedral that was built for his shrine.

Hobthrush or St Cuthbert's Isle
Hobthrush or St Cuthbert’s Isle viewed from Lindisfarne © David Simpson

Hobthrush and St Cuthbert’s beads

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 described by Sir Walter Scott in Marmion.

But fain St Hilda’s nuns would learn
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.

Cuthbert’s or ‘Cuddy’s Beads’ can still sometimes be seen washed up on the shores of Holy Island. They are in fact the fossilized remains of tiny sea creatures of the Crinoid type, which inhabited the ocean depths in prehistoric times. Suposedly resembling the shape of the cross, they were once used as Rosary beads.

Holy Island village
Holy Island village © David Simpson

Lindisfarne Gospels

Lindisfarne was of course the place where the famous Lindisfarne Gospels were produced around 715 AD by the monk Eadfrith, who was the Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 AD until his death in 721 AD. The beautiful illustrated gospels were created in a unique artistic style that incorporated Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Mediterranean elements, with coloured inks sourced from natural products across the western world. Thought to have been dedicated to the memory of St. Cuthbert, the Lindisfarne Gospels have long been considered one of the most precious artefacts of the region and a symbol of Northumbria’s Golden Age.

Lindisfarne Priory
Lindisfarne Priory © David Simpson

They survived the Viking raids and were carried with St Cuthbert’s coffin when the monks who guarded the saint’s remains departed from the island. During their time at Chester-le-Street, an Anglo-Saxon gloss or translation of the Latin text was added to the margins – the first translation of the Gospels into English.

Holy Island village
Holy Island village © David Simpson

Later St Cuthbert’s remains and the Lindisfarne Gospels were moved to Durham and they were seemingly taken from Durham Cathedral following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s and ended up in the hands of private collectors. In the eighteenth century they passed to the British Museum in London and subsequently to the British Library. A facsimilie copy may be seen on Lindisfarne but there have been regular campaigns to return them to the region.

Holy Island Village
Holy Island Village © David Simpson

Less civilised times

In Norman times a new monastery was built on Lindisfarne and around this time ‘Holy Island’ became an alternative name for Lindisfarne. The Norman priory served as a cell for Durham Cathedral.

In the thirteenth  century, the present parish church for the island was built to the west of the priory. Dedicated to St Mary the Virgin it is perhaps sometimes overlooked in favour of the better known landmarks of the priory and castle. It has an extensive churchyard which adds much to the island’s visual character.

Church of St Mary the Virgin, Holy Island
Church of St Mary the Virgin, Holy Island © David Simpson

Little is known of the island’s history or people in the centuries following the Norman Conquest, it being a distant outpost of the Durham County Palatine, forming part of a district of Durham called ‘Islandshire’.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle © David Simpson

There is, however one account which gives us an amusing insight into the attitudes of the island people in later centuries. The account is an observation by Captain Robin Rugg, the seventeenth century governor of Holy Island:

“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.’ “

Not exactly what we would expect from a ‘Holy’ Island, it seems that the islanders had inherited the rough ways of the border folk, so typical of Northumberland in those days gone by.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle © David Simpson

Lindisfarne Castle

Today the only feature of Holy island that suggests any involvement with the violent border history of Northumberland is Lindisfarne Catle. First built in 1550, it sits romantically on the highest point of the island, a whin stone hill called Beblowe and rises from the rock in such a beautiful way that the castle almost seems to be a part of the rock itself. A small but superbly rugged looking building, it has been a National Trust property since 1944.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle © David Simpson

Lindisfarne Castle has never witnessed any major battle or Border siege although it was occupied by some Northumbrian Jacobites at the time of the 1715 Rising. Lindisfarne Castle was converted into a private residence by the well known British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1903. Inside, the building has great character where the architect has made incredible use of the confined space. Externally the castle is bordered by a garden created by the famed landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll in 1911.

Modern day pilgrims heading for Lindisfarne Castle
Modern day pilgrims heading for Lindisfarne Castle © David Simpson

Bamburgh Farne Islands

Durham Cathedral

Warkworth, Amble and Druridge Bay

Alnmouth, Boulmer, Craster and Dunstanburgh

Seaton Delaval, Seaton Sluice and Cramlington

Blyth and Bedlingtonshire

Ashington, Newbiggin and Lynemouth

Alnwick Berwick Wooler

Milfield, Ford, Etal and Norham

Morpeth Area | Rothbury and Coquetdale

Hexham Corbridge South Tynedale | Allendale

Hadrian’s Wall | Hadrian’s Wall Country

Kielder North Tynedale | Redesdale

Newcastle upon Tyne | North Tyneside | Whitley Bay


Viking Age Northumbria 866 to 1066AD. Poster Print (A2 only).


North East England History and Culture