Keys to the Past

Local History

Holy Island (Northumberland)

Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island. Photo by Northumberland County Council, 1993.
Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island. Photo by Northumberland County Council, 1993.

Holy Island, or Lindisfarne as it is also known, is a tidal island located about one mile off the north Northumberland coast. Access to the island is across a causeway, first built in 1954. This causeway is only accessible at low tide, the times of which can be obtained from the Northumberland County Council web site (www.northumberland.gov.uk). This beautiful coastline is designated as a Heritage Coast and is also an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Much of the island is designated as a Conservation Area and the village itself is located on the south side of the island. It is close to this village that Holy Island's most famous sites can be found ' Lindisfarne Castle and Lindisfarne Priory. However, the archaeology of Holy Island starts thousands of years before either monument was built.

The earliest known archaeology of Holy Island dates to Mesolithic times. It was about this time that the ice melted from the Cheviots as temperatures increased and the sea levels rose, submerging much of the coastal plain and leaving an area of high ground as a tidal island. No Mesolithic settlements have been found on the island, but evidence that people did occupy the island has been found at Ness End. Here, a quarry has produced in excess of 2500 flints of Mesolithic, or later date. Some prehistoric finds were also uncovered in a midden close to Jenny Bell's Well and further along the coast below the Fort on the Heugh (also known as Osbourne's Fort and Steel End Fort). Excavations at Marygate in advance of a modern development also produced a number of features, not yet fully understood, but which have been provisionally dated to Neolithic times by radiocarbon dating. A solitary stone axe dating to Neolithic times was also found in 1926 near St Cuthbert's Square. We cannot be certain that it was originally from Holy Island (it may have been found elsewhere and lost again), but the presence of other finds from this date, suggests that there was a prehistoric presence on the island. More recently, a late Neolithic carved rock was found during excavations at The Palace, also near St Cuthbert's Square, although it is not clear what date the surrounding archaeology was.

The Roman period appears to have passed Holy Island by with virtually no Roman archaeology being found. However, it was in the post-Roman period that Holy Island began to flourish.

St Aidan founded a monastery on the island in AD635. The land had been given to him by Oswald, king of Northumbria, who had a residence at Bamburgh. The original monastery would have been a small community living and worshipping in humble buildings. The leadership of this small community later passed to Cuthbert, who was to become one of England's most famous saints. Cuthbert sought sanctuary from the outer world by living as a hermit for some time on St Cuthbert's Island, a tiny rocky outcrop close to the monastery. He later sought the greater isolation on the island of Farne where he died in 687. The monastery became increasingly wealthy during the later part of the seventh century and, Lindisfarne in particular, became the springboard for what became known as the Golden Age of Northumbria. Lindisfarne became renowned for the quality of its illuminated manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, many of which were made for the overseas market.

This Golden Age came to a violent end with the first Viking invasion in 793. The monks eventually fled the island in 875. We do not yet fully understand who lived on Holy Island after the monks fled, but archaeological evidence suggests that for many people life continued. The settlement at Green Shiel was occupied during the ninth century, but its end may well have been violent. Beneath the ground at the Fort on the Heugh, evidence of carbonised processed rye cereal was found. Rye was particularly abundant in southern Scandinavia and tends to be associated, in this country, with Viking occupation. Some of the architectural features of St Mary's Church are Anglo-Saxon in date which suggests that either the church survived the Viking raids, or that it was rebuilt. Assorted cross fragments from the area all date to the period after the Viking invasions, suggesting a continuing Christian presence after the monastic community fled.

The monastery was founded again in 1093 and it is the buildings of this monastery, with later additions, that we can see on Holy Island today.

The island had considerable strategic importance during the unrest that existed between Scotland and England from the 13th century until the 17th century. A sheltered harbour and close proximity to the Scottish border made it an obvious choice to station a garrison and a military supply base. Bulwarks were built to defend the island in 1542 and later, in 1549, an artillery fort was constructed on Beblowe Crag, on the site now known as Lindisfarne Castle. The soldiers had to be fed and The Palace, located close to the harbour, is the fragmentary remains of the military supply base used from 1548. Following the Act of Union in 1603, the risk of attack from Scotland was removed, but in its place there was a perceived threat from Dutch Privateers on the east coast. To help combat this, a fort was constructed in 1671 on The Heugh, overlooking the harbour.

Fishing was of course the main industry on the island, indeed 14th century accounts of the priory show that it was one of the commercial interests of the monks. Today the remains of upturned herring boats dating to the 19th century can still be seen at the harbour. One of the other main industries on Holy Island was lime production. Lime was used in a variety of processes, from the production of mortar for building, to land improvement for agriculture. The remains on Holy Island relate mostly to the 18th and 19th century production of lime for agricultural improvements. The Kennedy Limeworks mark the earliest intensive production of lime on the island, starting in 1840. The limestone came via waggonways from the quarries at Nessend and Snipe Point and was transported from a jetty at Tripping Chare. Three new kilns slightly to the south replaced the original lime kilns and these in turn were superseded by the lime kilns at Castle Point.

The main industry on the island today is tourism and the village still consists of a number of attractive stone cottages many of which are listed buildings. Sally's Gift Shop is a 17th century building, originally a house and the Old Post Office dates to the 17th or early 18th century. Glen House appears to be 18th century, but the discovery of medieval pottery to the rear, suggests that the site was occupied much earlier. Other attractive houses dating to the 19th century include Farne House and Links View.

Reference number:N13755

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Please note that this information has been compiled from a number of different sources. Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council can accept no responsibility for any inaccuracy contained therein. If you wish to use/copy any of the images, please ensure that you read the Copyright information provided.