The Farne Islands: Once holy, and the home of Grace Darling, now a famous nature sanctuary

June 24, 2022
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AFTER Alnwick, I headed north along the A1 and turned off to Bamburgh, to catch a boat to the offshore Farne Islands and finally see some puffins!

‘Puffin (Fratercula arctica) on the cliff above The Wick (Y Wig) on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales. Approaching its burrow with a mouth full of lesser sand eels (Ammodytes tobianus)’. Photo by Charles J. Sharp of Sharp Photography, 20 June 2021, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Farne Islands are a notable bird sanctuary these days, operated by England’s National Trust. In earlier times, they were also a refuge of monks and saints, very much like the Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, just to their northwest.

The location of the Farne Islands in relation to Alnwick, at bottom. The distance from Alnwick to Bamburgh is about 30 km or 20 miles, approximately, by road. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top in this map and the maps below.

Bamburgh has an impressive castle, but it is slightly inland. You don’t catch the boat from here.

Bamburgh Castle

Instead, you carry on for another three miles or five kilometres southward over local roads to a small fishing port called Seahouses.

The harbour at Seahouses. Photo by Simon Cobb, 26 May 2021. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Seahouses is where the practice of kippering herrings is supposed to have originated. A shop called the Northumbrian Hamper specialises in local delicacies for foodie tourists.

Seahouses. The Northumbrian Hamper is on the left in this view.

These days, Seahouses is also the place from which boat tours of the Farne Islands and other parts of the Northumbrian coast set sail. So, the place has a bit of a tourist trade.

Here is a closer map of the Farne Islands. The archipelago is about four and a half kilometres long.

The Farne Islands in relation to Bamburgh. Map data ©2022 Google.

According to the website of one of the local operators, Serenity Farne Islands Boat Tours,

The largest, innermost and most historic of the Farne Islands is Inner Farne. For many years Inner Farne was the home of St Cuthbert who lived in solitude. St Cuthbert had a reputed gift of healing which brought pilgrims from all over the Kingdom of Northumbria. Island of the Pilgrims, or ‘Farena Ealande’ is the source of the islands name.

Here is an even closer map showing Inner Farne Island.

Inner Farne Island showing the route of the island tour and a couple of the main attractions, along with the wildlife. Inner Farne is actually made up of the two larger islands shown in this view, as they are joined at low tide. Map data ©2022 Google.

I heard about the Farne Islands from people in Alnwick. I was determined to see puffins, and this was my chance!

A Farne Islands information panel in Seahouses

Another panel describing wildlife research

Tour booking desk

The Farne Islands, or islands of the pilgrims as the name means in old Norse or Northumbrian, have many curious names, recorded in this information panel.

However, I was only going to land on Inner Farne, which rises out of the sea with black cliffs stained white with bird guano.

‘Inner Farne of the Farne Islands showing its lighthouse’. Photo by Pontificalibus, 15 April 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My photo of the same scene, from closer in

Along with wide-ranging seabirds that have a worldwide distribution, many British seabirds belong to an exclusive northern hemisphere family called the auks, which includes puffins.

In the following painting by a famous naturalist of bygone days, the extinct, flightless great auk is shown in the middle of the painting, while the species of puffin that lives in the British Isles is on the rock at the top right. At the left, just above the great auk, is the great auk’s closest surviving relative, the razorbill.

Different auk species, painted by Archibald Thorburn, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

As you can see, some of the auks look a bit like penguins, which only live in the southern hemisphere and for the most part in the cooler areas. (One species of penguin dwells as far north as the Galápagos Islands, which straddle the equator, and thus makes it into the north by one degree or so, but basically, penguins are a southern hemisphere bird).

The auk is the northern hemisphere equivalent of the penguin, and catches fish in a similar fashion, by flying underwater. However, all auks apart from the extinct great auk have retained the ability to fly in the air, sometimes not very well, but enough to get them up high cliffs on remote islands.

My ferry left from Seahouses at twelve-thirty. It was only quite a little boat, the Golden Gate. It was operated by the keeper of the two lighthouses on the Farne Islands who is allowed access, as the operator of Golden Gate Farne Island Boat Trips, to more parts of the Farne Islands than other operators.

The Golden Gate

It was about thirty pounds for the boat, plus twelve pounds for the National Trust.

Along with the birds, and other marine wildlife such as seals, there are two conspicuous building complexes on Inner Farne.

One is the lighthouse and its associated buildings, which dates back to 1809 though there were lighthouses before that. Though it is more than two hundred years old, this lighthouse is still working, though its means of illumination have been greatly upgraded and automated.

The lighthouse on Inner Farne, and its compound

A nice relaxing seat outside the lighthouse compound

There is another working lighthouse on one of the outer Farne islands, called the Longstone Lighthouse, on the Longstone Rock, which only Golden Gate tours can visit.

There is also an old ruined lighthouse tower from the earliest days, and its keeper’s cottage, on a third island called Brownsman Island.

There is a long history of lighthouses and lights on rocks in the archipelago generally, which has long presented a massive hazard to coastal shipping. There is a National Trust webpage about this history and the present lighthouses.

I came across some materials about Grace Darling, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper on the Farne Islands in the 1830s, who helped her father to rescue nine people from the wreck of the Forfarshire in 1838 when she was only twenty-two.

Grace Darling helping to rescue some the passengers and crew of the Forfarshire. Painting by Thomas Musgrave Joy (1812–1866), public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly, Grace Darling died just a few years later, in 1842. But she remained a household name throughout the Victorian era. There is a Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh, near Alnwick, where she was born. And another stained-glass window in her honour in St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh.

Grace Darling is also commemorated on the stained-glass east window of the other building complex on the island, St Cuthbert’s Chapel, which otherwise dates back to the 1300s in its present stone form and is also extensively described on a National Trust webpage.

St Cuthbert’s Chapel from the east

Another side of St Cuthbert’s Chapel

The origins of the chapel lie with three saints. The first was Saint Aidan, who was born in Ireland around the year 590, was recruited by Oswald, the Christian king of Northumbria later venerated as Saint Oswald, to convert his people back to Christianity.

The Kingdom of Northumbria extended roughly from Edinburgh to the south of York for three hundred years, from 654 to 954, before being split up with most of its northern part, Bernicia, going to Scotland and the rest going to England.

‘Map of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria around 700 AD’. Map by Hogweard, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I think what killed off Northumbria was that it was eventually conquered by the Vikings, who transformed much of its territory into an occupation zone known as the Danelaw, the place where the laws of the Danes (i.e. Vikings) applied.

In the days of King Oswald, Christianity was in retreat in Britain, since the Anglo-Saxons who began colonising the part that later became England, after the Romans left, mostly practiced a polytheistic religion like that of the later Vikings.

St Aidan died in 651 and was succeeded, as the chief missionary of Northumbria, by the locally born St Cuthbert; who was in turn succeeded by St Æthelwold, who was in life the Bishop of Lindisfarne. Confusingly, there was also a St Æthelwold of Farne who lived on Inner Farne as a hermit in those days, but they were not the same two individuals.

One of the disputes that Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northumberland, got into was a quarrel between supporters of the so-called Celtic branch of Christendom brought over from Ireland by Aidan and the Roman branch, which drew its authority directly from the Pope and later became Roman Catholicism. The distinction between the two was more a matter of local customs than anything else.

Perhaps the most important difference was that Celtic-tradition monasteries were involved in the life of the community and that you did not have to be a full-time monk or nun: you could come and go, and lead a normal life in between.

This enlightened practice has since come to be known as ‘permeable monasticism’. It made the monasteries function more like modern-day universities than places where people shut themselves off from the world.

Having said that, the Celtic tradition was also very big on going off to get inspiration from wild places. For that reason, Aidan, Cuthbert, and Aethelwold made the Farne Islands, and Lindisfarne further up the coast, their spiritual base, communing with the wind and the seabirds.

These offshore (but permeable) island monasteries were the first part of Northumbria to be assaulted by the Vikings when they started coming, from 793 onwards. Everything you see on Farne and Lindisfarne, I believe, was rebuilt after that time.

The interior decorative woodwork of St Cuthbert’s Chapel, which was thus never used by St Cuthbert in its present form, dates back to the 1600s and was installed at Durham Cathedral for nearly 200 years before being brought to St Cuthbert’s Chapel in 1848.

The stained-glass window, made in 1844, commemorates, I believe, the three saints most strongly associated with the island and the founding of its chapel, namely St Aidan, St Cuthbert, and St Aethelwold of Lindisfarne. As I’ve noted there was also the other St Aethelwold of Farne and at least one other saint, Bartholemew of Farne, also a hermit, as well.

The east window with three saints, starting at the left with St Aidan, and with the commemoration of Grace Darling below St Aidan at the left.

Clearly, Farne and Lindisfarne were very holy places, with somewhat Camelot-like connotations as well, since together they formed the central spiritual hub of a now-vanished kingdom.

The Victorian improvements to the chapel happened during the time of Archdeacon Thorp, who also helped to establish the wildlife sanctuary, and who is commemorated in an information panel along with Grace Darling and the early saints. I must say while the three founders were all fairly practical, as were Grace Darling and Archdeacon Thorp closer to our time, the hermit saint Bartholemew seems to have been an unworldly chap!

Information panel about famous people on the Farne Islands

The chapel stands next to Prior Castell’s Tower, a slightly newer fortification built in the late 1490s and the beginning of the 1500s.

Prior Castell’s Tower

There is a good National Trust page on the whole history of the Farne Islands, here. And so, onto the wildlife.

A meadow of herbs near the lighthouse complex

A sign describing the arctic tern and razorbill, next to a boardwalk

Another sign describing the shag, kittiwake, guillemot and fulmar

I saw a loving pair of razorbills ‘billing and cooing’, or billing and squawking perhaps. My photos were a little blurry at that distance, so here is a Wikimedia one.

‘Razorbill (Alca torda) courting on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales’. Photo by Charles J Sharp of Sharp Photography, 20 June 2021, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here is another photo that shows how penguin-like the razorbill is.

‘Razorbill (Alca torda) on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales’. Photo by Charles J Sharp of Sharp Photography, 20 June 2021, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the birds nest on the cliffs.

‘Rocky Outcrop’. Photo taken on Inner Farne Island by Christine Westerback, 26 May 2012, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Shag with three eggs … and some kittiwakes and a razorbill’. Photo taken on Inner Farne Island by Barbara Carr, 21 May 2013, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The kittiwake is a type of small seagull. There are several species of kittiwake and when the numbers of each species are added up, kittiwakes are the most numerous seagulls in the world,

Kittiwakes only ever nest on cliffs where their conspicuous white chicks are safe. Incidentally, you can see once more how penguin-like the razorbill is when side by side with a kittiwake, in that photo just above.

Other birds nest on the sandy area on top of the Inner Farne Island (and maybe the other islands too). This area favours birds that like to nest on top of sand such as the arctic terns, and burrowing species like the puffins. You can see that these bird-burrows are everywhere.

Cliff-nesting birds and nesting burrows

I asked the local ranger, who lived on the islands, whether the numbers of the birds had increased or decreased on the islands, and she didn’t know. But she did say that the numbers of seabirds were decreasing in general.

They were putting more sand down, and installing decoy birds as well, to encourage the sand-nesters. So, they are doing some quite amazing things there.

A selfie by the burrows

I managed to get some video, including a couple of scenes of a puffin, which disappears back into its hobbit-hole in the second one.

Here is a photo I took of an eider, a duck that lives in the sea. The duck in the photograph would probably be a female, or perhaps a juvenile, since, as with many other sorts of ducks, the male of each the three species of eider is highly conspicuous while the female is brown and camouflaged.


We went to the outer islands as well, and saw seals.

‘Grey Seal — Farne Is — FJ0A3780’. Photo by Francesco Veronesi, 2 July 2017, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My next post will be about Lindisfarne, just up the coast.


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