Click here to hear David Simpson talk about Lindisfarne and the Vikings on an Australian ABC radio station recorded June, 2010.

Holy Island - Lindisfarne


Beyond Bamburgh and the tidal estuary-like mud flats of Budle Bay, is Holy Island, still often known by its more ancient name of Lindisfarne. It is only accesible from the mainland at low tide by means of a causeway, which can be reached from the village of Beal.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 shood 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 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 .


Lindisfarne Priory and Lindisfarne Castle in distance photographed by David Simpson


Lindisfarne's Norman priory stands on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery founded by St Aidan in A.D 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, a Scots-Celtic monk from the isle of Iona, travelled widely throughout Northumbria and with the help of King Oswald as interpreter, began the conversion of the pagan Northumbrians to Chrisatianity. The conversion of the Northumbrians to Christianity by Aidan and Oswald, cannot have been an easy task.

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 A.D, 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).

In 654 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 A.D but exchanged the see for Lindisfarne, to become the fifth successor to Bishop Aidan.When Cuthbert died in 687 A.D, he was burried 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.


In 793 A.D Lindisfarne was to witness the first Viking raid on the coast of Britain, which was recorded with much drama by an informative book 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. "

The Anglo-Saxon chroniclers were largely responsible for giving the Vikings the `bad press' they still have today. The chroniclers fail to mention that the Anglo-Saxons had invaded Britain in much the same way, two and a half centuries earlier.Nevertheless Viking raids on Lindisfarne's wealthy coastal monastery did continue throughout the following century and in 875 A.D the monks of Lindisfarne fled their Holy Island with the body of Cuthbert, remembering the dying wishes of their saint;- "....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, until they eventually settled at Durham in 995 A.D where St Cuthbert's body lies to this day.


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.


Although in Norman times Holy Island priory became a cell of Durham Cathedral little is known of the island's history or people in the centuries following the Norman Conquest. 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.


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. The 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. A small but superbly rugged looking building, it has been a National Trust property since 1944.


Search England's North East



Ancestry Giftpack


Marriott Deals