The Farne Islands

Megstone, Longstone, Elbow, Fang

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.

Farne Islands
The Farne Islands viewed from the dunes near Seahouses © 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 Farne Islands are formed by the most seaward outcrops of the volcanic intrusion called the Great Whin Sill. This sill can be traced from Upper Teesdale in County Durham where it forms, amongst other features, the High Force waterfall. It can then be traced across other areas of western Durham, reemerging in spectacular fashion in Northumberland, creating the impressive crags that provide the setting for the most visually stunning sections of Hadrian’s Wall.

On the north Northumberland coast a continuation of the same intrusion creates 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 which is roughly rectangular in shape, gives its name to the whole group.

Inner Farne from Bamburgh beach.
The island of Inner Farne pictured from Bamburgh beach © David Simpson

For many years Inner Farne was the home to 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, it is appropriate that one suggested meaning for the name of the Farne Islands is that it derives from ‘Farena Ealande’ the ‘Island of the Pilgrims’.

Painting by William Bell Scott at Wallington Hall depicts   Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria visiting St Cuthbert on Farne Island to persuade him to become a bishop : National Trust
Painting by William Bell Scott at Wallington Hall depicts Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria visiting St Cuthbert on Farne Island to persuade him to become a bishop : National Trust

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 AD.

It may be hard to appreciate the often reclusive lifestyle of St Cuthbert today, but it is clear that he was a much loved 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 naivety 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.

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 indigenous ancient people 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 (St Cuthbert’s resting place) 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.

Inner Farne
Inner Farne showing Prior Castell’s tower and the Inner Farne lighthouse © David Simpson

Prior Castell’s Tower

It is probable that the cell on Inner Farne in which St Cuthbert lived and died was on the site of the present St Cuthbert’s church on the island. This small chapel was part of a Benedictine cell affiliated to Durham Cathedral. It was built in 1370 and restored in the 1840s. A second chapel, dedicated to St Mary was once located just to its north and also formed part of the cell.

Just to the west of St Cuthbert’s chapel is Prior Castell’s Tower which dates from about 1500. It is a defensive pele tower and was built for Thomas Castell who was the 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 in the 1530s. In the 1560s it became the home of a garrison and repairs were undertaken as it was recognised that if it was taken by enemies it could easily be used as a base from which to harass the shipping and ports of Berwick, Bamburgh and Holy Island.

In the 1670s Castell’s tower was used as a beacon light for the guidance of ships and a light house was added to the tower top around the 1770s. The lighthouse was superseded by the present white lighthouse on the opposite side of the island in 1809. The island continued to belong to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral until 1925 when it was acquired by the National Trust who use Prior Castell’s Tower as their island base.

Grace Darling

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 Farne Islands
The Farne Islands, showing the white lighthouse of Inner Farne and the red and white lighthouse of Longstone in the distance © David Simpson

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.

Painting by William Bell Scott at Wallington Hall depicting the Grace Darling rescue : National Trust
Painting by William Bell Scott at Wallington Hall depicting the Grace Darling rescue : National Trust

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.

Bamburgh Lindisfarne 

Alnwick Berwick Wooler and Chillingham

Milfield, Ford, Etal and Norham

Warkworth, Amble and Druridge Bay

Alnmouth, Boulmer, Craster and Dunstanburgh

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


North East England History and Culture