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Portfolio > North East England 2 > Farne Islands, Northumberland 1                                           Click on an image below to reveal enlarged version

Farne Islands, Northumberland, England, UK


The Farne Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Northumberland, England. The group has between 15 and 20 islands depending on the level of the tide. They are scattered about 1+1⁄2 to 4+3⁄4 miles (2.4–7.6 km) from the mainland, divided into the Inner Group and the Outer Group. The main islands in the Inner Group are Inner Farne, Knoxes Reef, the East and West Wideopens (all joined together on very low tides), and (somewhat separated) the Megstone; the main islands in the Outer Group are Staple Island, the Brownsman, the North and South Wamses, Big Harcar, and the Longstone. The two groups are separated by Staple Sound. The highest point, on Inner Farne, is 62 feet (19 m) above mean sea level.  


The earliest recorded inhabitants of the Farne Islands were various Culdees, some connected with Lindisfarne. This followed the old Celtic Christian tradition of island hermitages, also found in WalesIreland, and Scotland. The islands are first recorded in 651, when they became home to Saint Aidan, followed by Saint Cuthbert. Cuthbert isolated himself on the islands until he was called to the bishopric of Lindisfarne, but after two years, he returned to the solitude of the Inner Farne and died there in 687, when Saint Aethelwold took up residence, instead. Among other acts, Cuthbert introduced special laws in 676 protecting the eider ducks, and other seabirds nesting on the islands; these are thought to be the earliest bird-protection laws anywhere in the world. The islands were used by hermits intermittently from the seventh century. These included Saint Bartholomew of Farne. The last hermit was Thomas De Melsonby, who died on the islands in 1246. A formal monastic cell of Benedictine monks was established on the islands circa 1255. The cell was dependent on Durham Abbey, now Durham Cathedral. A very small cell, it was usually home to only two monks, although on occasion this rose to as many as six. The cell was dissolved in 1536 as part of King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.


St Cuthbert's Chapel

Following the dissolution of the monastic cell on the islands, they became the property of the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, who leased them to various tenants. The islands remained a detached part of County Durham until 1844, when the Counties (Detached Parts) Act transferred them to Northumberland. In 1861, the islands were sold to Charles Thorp, who was at the time Archdeacon of Durham. In 1894, the islands were bought by industrialist William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong. The islands are currently owned by the National Trust.

Remains still exist of the seventh-century anchorite cell used by Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert, as do the remains of a 14th-century chapel associated with the cell. Known as St Cuthbert's Chapel, it is described as a "single-cell building of four bays". The remains of a second chapel have been incorporated into a later building. 

Grace Darling

The Farne Islands are associated with the story of Grace Darling and the wreck of the Forfarshire. Grace Darling was the daughter of Longstone lighthouse-keeper (one of the islands' lighthouses), William Darling, and on 7 September 1838, at the age of 22 years, her father and she rescued nine people from the wreck of the Forfarshire in a strong gale and thick fog, the vessel having run aground on Harcar Rock. The story of the rescue attracted extraordinary attention throughout Britain, and made Grace Darling a heroine who has gone down in British folklore. The islands have no permanent population, the only residents being National Trust assistant rangers during part of the year; they live in the old pele tower on the Inner Farne (the largest and closest inshore of the islands), and the lighthouse cottage on the Brownsman in the outer group. The pele tower was built around 1500, by or for Thomas Castell, Prior of Durham.


Longstone lighthouse in the Farnes from where Grace Darling and her father launched their rescue.

The first lighthouse was built on the islands in 1773;[5] prior to that, a beacon may have been installed on Prior Castell's Tower, permission having first been given for a light on Inner Farne in 1669.

Currently, two lighthouses are operated by Trinity House on the Farne Islands:

Former lighthouses on the islands include:


Ruined base of the lighthouse on Staple Island...

  • Farne Island Lighthouse was built in 1673, but never lit; its replacement was built by Captain John Blackett in 1778, itself replaced by Trinity House with the current Farne Lighthouse in 1811. A minor light was also established by Trinity House on the north west of Farne between 1811 and 1910.

  • Staple Island Lighthouse was built by Captain Blackett in 1778 and blown down in the Great Storm of 1784; a replacement, built either in the same place or on Brownsman Island, was knocked down by heavy seas in 1800.

  • Brownsman Lighthouse, built in 1800, was replaced by Trinity House with a new tower in 1811 and closed in 1826 when Longstone Lighthouse was established.


Site of the former lighthouse on Brownsman Island (1811–26): Its base remains attached to the right of the keeper's cottage. Earlier, a light was once shone from the tower on the left.

All the operational lighthouses on the Farnes are now automatic and have no resident keepers, although in former years, they did. The lighthouse is now maintained by Trinity House via its local lighthouse attendant, George Shiel, who provides guided tours inside the lighthouse.[10] Ruins of some of the older lighthouses may be seen, for example on the Brownsman, which has two. Before the lighthouses, beacons were on several of the islands. The prominent white streak on the cliff facing the mainland (see photo) is often thought by visitors to be bird droppings; although many parts of the islands do exhibit this colouring, in this case it is the result of chalk deposits from the many years of spent calcium carbide from the lighthouse being thrown down the cliff; this calcium carbide was used to generate acetylene, which was used as fuel for the light before electricity came.

Ecology & Natural History

In the warmer months, the Farnes, an important wildlife habitat, are much-visited by boat trips from Seahouses. Local boats are licensed to land passengers on Inner Farne, Staple Island, and the Longstone; landing on other islands is prohibited to protect the wildlife. At the right time of year, many puffins can be seen, and these are very popular with visitors; on the Inner Farne, Arctic terns nest close to the path and will attack visitors who come too close (visitors are strongly advised to wear hats). Some of the islands also support a population of rabbits, which were introduced as a source of meat and have since gone wild. The rabbit and puffin populations use the same burrows at different times, the puffins being strong enough (with a vicious bite) to evict the rabbits from the burrows during the nesting season. The islands also hold a notable colony of about 6,000 grey seals, with several hundred pups born every year in September–November.


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