I’ve done a few posts of my trips to the Farne Islands, as regular readers may remember, having visited there in 2015 & 2016. My original ‘history bit’ was pretty sparse (lazy me!) so I’m expanding on that this time around.
The History Bit
The Farne Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Northumberland, England. There are between 15 and 20 islands depending on the state of the tide. They are scattered about 1 1⁄2 to 4 3⁄4 miles from the mainland, divided into two groups, the Inner Group and the Outer Group. The main islands in the Inner Group are Inner Farne, Knoxes Reef and the East and West Wideopens (all joined together on very low tides) and (somewhat separated) the Megstone; the main islands in the Outer Group are Staple Island, the Brownsman, North and South Wamses, Big Harcar and the Longstone. The two groups are separated by Staple Sound. The highest point, on Inner Farne, is 62 feet (19 m) above mean sea level.
That’s the geography covered, now onto the good bits.
Firstly though y’all will need to know what a Culdee is so let’s get that out of the way. Culdee literally means ‘a companion of god’ and Culdees were members of ascetic Christian monastic and eremitical communities of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England in the Middle Ages. They were separated from the mass of the faithful, and their lives were devoted to religion. Your basic hermits and monks really.
There was a shed load of Culdees from all over the place on the Farne Islands, following the old celtic Christian tradition of Island hermitages.
The most ‘famous’ Culdee to reside on the Farne Islands, specifically Inner Farne, was a chap called Saint Cuthbert. Of course he wasn’t a saint to start with, he was a monk, bishop and hermit, associated with the monasteries of Melrose and Lindisfarne in what might loosely be termed the Kingdom of Northumbria in the North East England and the South East of Scotland. After his death he became one of the most important medieval saints of Northern England, with a cult centred on his tomb at Durham Cathedral. Cuthbert is regarded as the patron saint of Northern England, so there’s loads of Saint Cuthbert related roads, cul-de-sacs, squares, courts and schools up here, you can’t move without seeing a reference to him somewhere!
The most interesting bit of his history (at least to me) is what happened to him after he died. He died on 20 March 687 on Inner Farne, and was immediately buried on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. According to Bede’s life of the saint, when Cuthbert’s sarcophagus was opened eleven years after his death, his body was found to have been perfectly preserved! This apparent miracle led to the steady growth of Cuthbert’s posthumous cult, and numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession and to intercessory prayer near his remains.
In 875 as the Danes (Vikings) attacked and took over the monastery at Lindisfarne, the monks quickly hightailed it out of there carrying with them St Cuthbert’s body and travelling around all over the shop. I guess a bit like the movie ‘A weekend at Bernies’ except it lasted a lot longer. Seven years in fact, after which the wandering the monks found a resting-place for Cuthbert at the still existing St Cuthbert’s church in Chester-le-Street until 995, when another Danish invasion led to its removal to Ripon. Somehow Cuthbert didn’t let the fact that he was dead get in the way of letting his porter-monks know that he would really prefer to be buried at Durham, so a new stone church—the so-called “White Church”—was built there, the predecessor of the present grand Durham Cathedral, where his remains still rest.
In 1104 Cuthbert’s tomb was opened again and his relics moved to a new shrine behind the altar of the recently completed Cathedral. When the casket was opened, a small book of the Gospel of John, measuring only 5.4 × 3.6 inches was found. Now known as the St Cuthbert Gospel it is the oldest Western book to keep its original bookbinding, in finely decorated leather.
For anyone interested in books, this one is considered one of the most important in Western history, and details and pictures of it can be found HERE
Also recovered much later were a set of vestments of 909-916, made of Byzantine silk with a “Nature Goddess” pattern, with a stole and decoration in extremely rare Anglo-Saxon embroidery or opus anglicanum, which had been deposited in his tomb by King Æthelstan (r. 927-939) whilst on a pilgrimage to Cuthbert’s shrine when he was at Chester-le-Street. Cuthbert’s shrine was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but, unusually, his relics survived and are still interred at the site, although they were also disinterred in the 19th century, when his wooden coffin and various relics were removed. St Cuthbert’s coffin (actually one of a series of several) remains at the cathedral and is an important rare survival of Anglo-Saxon carving on wood. When the coffin was last inspected on 17 May 1827, a Saxon square cross of gold, embellished with garnets, in the characteristic splayed shape, used later as the heraldic emblem of St Cuthbert in the arms of Durham and Newcastle universities, was found. It was the coffin that kept on giving!
The islands were used by other hermits intermittently from the seventh century. Saint Bartholomew of Farne was a Benedictine hermit. Born Tostig, to parents of Scandinavian origin, in Whitby, Northumbria, he changed his name to William while still a child. He then travelled through Europe, possibly to escape marriage. A bit drastic but whatever works I suppose. He returned to England to enter the Benedictine monastery at Durham. It was here that he received a vision of St Cuthbert, and then decided to inhabit Cuthbert’s old cell on the island of Farne. There he remained for the remaining 42 years of his life. The last hermit was Thomas De Melsonby, who died on the islands in 1246.
After the Dissolution, the Islands passed through various owners, and ended up being owned by the National Trust.
The other famous person connected to the Farne Islands, was a young lady called Grace Darling. Grace was the daughter of Longstone lighthouse-keeper (one of the islands’ lighthouses), William Darling, and on 7 September 1838, at the age of 22 years, she and her father rescued nine people from the wreck of the ‘Forfarshire’ in a strong gale and thick fog, the vessel having run aground on Harcar Rock. The story of the rescue attracted extraordinary attention throughout Britain and made Grace Darling a heroine who has gone down in British folklore. Following the rescue she was given a large financial reward, William Wordsworth wrote a poem about her and a number of fictionalised depictions propagated the Grace Darling legend. I would give you the poem but it’s far too long, a bit OTT and you can google it anyway. She didn’t really like being a celebrity and sadly she died of tuberculosis 4 years later.
There are no human residents on the Islands now, except for a few National Trust workers for part of the year when the seabirds come to have their chicks, and that’s when Sophie and I get the call of the wild and go off to Seahouses where we get on a boat and go see the puffins.
Normally Sophie and I go on Billy Sheils boats to the Farne Islands, but this time Sophie booked us a catamaran which was much more stable for photographing, and also had less people on it. Phil and Sophies bloke Mentat (I know, but he’s Spanish) also came with us this time. You only get an hour on the Island as they manage the number of visitors each day. But first we had our sandwhiches whilst sitting on the side at the harbour, waiting for our ship to come in. The starlings there are quite nebby
and you can’t help giving them a few crumbs. This one had a few bites and then had a lie down in front of me!
I love the colours in their feathers.
Onto the boat and these are some of our travelling companions
The rocks sticking up in the water are always full of nesting birds
And the Islands have their own seal colony
There were lots of proud Mum’s with new chicks squished on tiny ledges in the rocks
and some Mums giving swimming lessons to recalcitrent chicks
Stay tooned for our next Puffinfestical episode!