Bamburgh and the Farne Islands


Six miles along the coast from Dunstanburgh, to the north of Embleton and Beadnell Bays, is the village of Seahouses, (formerly 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.

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.

Farne Islands website

Farne Island

Inner Farne photographed by David Simpson


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.


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.


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.


The village of Bamburgh is dominated by its great sandstone castle which stands on a massive whin sill outcrop, overlooking the Farne Islands. When viewed from the golf course near the Harkess Rocks to the north of the village, the castle in its lofty coastal location looks to good to be true. The building is well described in William Tomlinson's Guide to Northumberland;

"A more impregnable stronghold could not be imagined, for rugged strength and barbaric grandeur it is the king of Northumbrian castles. From nearly every point of the compass its majestic outlines are visible. To the mariner plying between the Tyne and the Elbe it is the most conspicuous landmark on the North East coast."

In pre Anglo-Saxon times Bamburgh was called Din Guyardi, and was a tribal stronghold of an ancient British tribe called the Votadini. The old name has lead some to believe that Bamburgh was in fact the legendary `Joyous Guard', the castle of Sir Lancelot and Sir Gallahad in the time of King Arthur.

Bamburgh Castle

Bamburgh Castle photographed by David Simpson


Bamburgh's recorded history begins in 547 A.D when King Ida the Flamebearer established the royal city and capital of Bernicia at Bamburgh. Bernicia was an expanding kingdom centred upon the Rivers Tyne and Wear. King Ida's people were Angles, a fierce piratical race originating from a region now in southern Denmark near the border with Germany. As Bernicia expanded it conquered the ancient Celtic speaking tribes of the region including the kingdom of Catraeth (centred on the River Tees) and the kingdom of Rheged, in what is now Cumbria.

The rise of Bernicia reached a climax in A.D 603 when King Aethelfrith of Bernicia (Grandson of Ida), seized control of the neighbouring Angle kingdom of Deira (now the Yorkshire Wolds). This resulted in the formation of a new powerful kingdom called Northumbria, stretching from the River Humber northwards. Northumbria, occupying almost a third of the whole British mainland became, at the height of its influence, one of the strongest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain and was ruled from two capitals at York and Bamburgh. Although for a time the supremacy of the Northumbrian kings, was challenged by the great midland kingdom of Mercia, and the later Viking kingdom of York, Northumbria remained a fiercely independent Anglo-Saxon province, right up until the time of the Norman Conquest.


The name Bamburgh originates from the time of Aethelfrith, the first King of Northumbria, who named the fortress or `burgh' after his wife and queen called Bebba. Over the years the name Bebba's Burgh was simplified to Bamburgh. Before Aethelfrith's time Bamburgh had continued to be known by its Celtic-British name Din Guyardi. Over the centuries Bamburgh Castle has been greatly restored, most notably by the Victorian industrialist William, Lord Armstrong (1810-1900) and the oldest remaining part of the building, is now the twelfth century keep. Today the modern visitor to the castle is more likely to be reminded of the Victorian age of Armstrong than of Bamburgh's Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and medieval history. Nevertheless when viewed from afar, the castle still retains a romantic historical appearance.


One curious though little known event in Bamburgh's history took place long after Northumbria's `Golden age', at the time of the Wars of the Roses, when the castle was a staunchly Lancastrian stronghold. It was to here in 1464, that King Henry VI and his wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou fled, following a defeat by the Yorkists in a Battle at Hexham. For a short time the disheartened monarch held court at Bamburgh during which time, the great building encompassed the total extent of his kingdom. Eventually Henry was defeated when Bamburgh came under siege from the artillery of Edward IV. It was the first castle in England to come under fire from cannons.

Bamburgh Castle website


Bamburgh is the setting for one of the curious `worm' legends, which seem to be a regular feature of North Eastern folklore. The story is that in ancient times the jealous step mother of a Bamburgh princess turned the young maiden into a laidley (or loathsome) `worm', who began to terrorise the neighbourhood of Bamburgh and Budle Bay.

For seven miles east and seven miles west,
And seven miles north and south,
No blade of grass or corn would grow,
So deadly was her mouth.
The milk of seven streakit cows,
It was their cost to keep;
They brought her daily which she drank
Before she went to sleep.
At this day might be seen the cave
Where she lay faulded up,
And the trough o' stone the very same
Out of which she supped.

The princess's brother hearing of the activities of this terrible beast, returned to England from business abroad (in the expected tradition) to deal with the serpent. The creature greeted the prince's ship at Budle Bay near Bamburgh with the following well chosen verses.

O' quit thy sword, unbend thy brow,
And give me kisses three;
For though I am a poisonous worm,
No hurt I'll do to thee.
O' quit thy sword, unbend thy brow,
And give me kisses three;
If I'm not won here the sun goes down,
Won shall I never be.
So, He quitted his sword and smoothed his brow,
And gave her kisses three;
She crept into the hole a worm,
And came out a fayre lady.

When the prince confronted the stepmother, to whose magic powers he was immune, she desperately pleaded for his forgiveness. Showing no mercy the prince responded with revengeful anger and turned his stepmother into a loathsome toad. The ballad concludes;

And on the land's near Ida's towers,
A loathsome toad she crawls;
And venom spits on everything
which cometh to the walls.

The Ballad of the `Laidley Worm' has similarities with the Lambton and Sockburn Worm legends of County Durham, but is probably not of their antiquity. It is said to have been written by a Cheviot mountain bard in the thirteenth century, but evidence suggests that the true author was a vicar of Norham on Tweed, many centuries later.


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