Holy Island

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland, Northumbria, England

Lindisfarne also called Holy Island (variant spelling, Lindesfarne), is a tidal island off the north-east coast of England, which is connected to the mainland of Northumberland by a causeway and is cut off twice a day by tides — something well 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.
According to the 2001 census it had a usual population of 162.

History
The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded by Irish born Saint Aidan, who had been sent from Iona off the west coast of Scotland to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald around AD 635. It became the base for Christian evangelising in the North of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the community of Iona settled on the island. Northumberland’s patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was a monk and later Abbot of the monastery, and his miracles and life are recorded by the Venerable Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. At some point in the early 700s the famous illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illustrated Latin copy of the Gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew and John, was probably made at Lindisfarne. Sometime in the second half of the tenth century a monk named Aldfrith added an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) gloss to the Latin text, producing the earliest surviving Old English copies of the Gospels. The Gospels were illustrated in an insular style containing a fusion of Celtic, Germanic and Roman elements; they were probably originally covered with a fine metal case made by a hermit called Billfrith. In 793 a Viking raid on Lindisfarne caused much consternation throughout the Christian west, and is now often taken as the beginning of the age of Viking raids. A very famous passage in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reads:

“In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria. There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and on January 8th of the same year, the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindesfarne.”

Eventually the monks fled the island (taking with them the body of St Cuthbert, which is now buried at the Cathedral in Durham). The bishopric was transferred to Durham in AD 1000. The Lindisfarne Gospels now reside in the British Library in London, somewhat to the annoyance of some Northumbrians. The priory was re-established in Norman times as a Benedictine house and continued until its suppression in 1536 under Henry VIII. It is now a ruin in the care of English Heritage, who also run a museum/visitor centre nearby. The neighbouring parish church (see below) is still in use.

Lindisfarne also has the small Lindisfarne Castle, based on a Tudor fort, which was refurbished in the Arts and Crafts style by Sir Edwin Lutyens (who also designed the island’s Celtic-cross war-memorial on the Heugh) and has a garden created by Gertrude Jekyll. The castle, garden and nearby limekilns are in the care of the National Trust and open to visitors.

Turner, Thomas Girtin and Charles Rennie Mackintosh all painted on Holy Island.

Lindisfarne had a large lime burning industry and the kilns are among the most complex in Northumberland. There are still some traces of the jetties by which the coal was imported and the lime exported close by at the foot of the crags. Lime was quarried on the Island and the remains of the wagon way between the quarries and the kilns makes for a pleasant and easy walk. This quarrying flourished in the mid-19th century during the Industrial Revolution when over 100 men were thus employed.

Local government.

Holy Island was considered part of the Islandshire unit along with several mainland parishes. This came under the jurisdiction of the County Palatine of Durham until the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844.

On film
Lindisfarne (particularly the castle) is the setting of the Roman Polanski film Cul-de-Sac (1966) with Donald Pleasence and Lionel Stander, shot entirely on location there. The island is semi-fictionalised into “Lindisfarne Island” and the castle is “Rob Roy”. There is no village. The tide rises round a car which is stuck on the causeway; also featured are the characteristic sheds made from cobles (local fishing boats), inverted and cut in half. These may still be seen on the island.

Visitors wishing to walk across are urged to keep to the marked path, check tides and weather carefully, and seek local advice if in doubt. Visitors driving should pay close attention to the timetables prominently displayed at both ends of the causeway and where the Holy Island road leaves the A1 Great North Road at Beal. The causeway is generally open from about 3 hours after high tide until 2 hours before the next high tide, but there is no substitute for checking the timetables for a specific date.

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