Farne Islands

Coordinates: 55°37′19″N 1°37′41″W / 55.622°N 1.628°W / 55.622; -1.628

Farne Islands

See caption

Inner Farne and its lighthouse. There are white bird droppings on the cliff.
Farne Islands
Farne Islands shown within Northumberland
OS grid reference NU235365
List of places

The Farne Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Northumberland, England. There are between 15 and 20 islands depending on the state of the tide.[1] They are scattered about 1½–4¾ miles (2.5–7.5 km) from the mainland, divided into two groups, the Inner Group and the Outer Group. The main islands in the Inner Group are Inner Farne, Knoxes Reef and 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, 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 metres) above mean sea level.

A map of Farne Islands in 1947


Monks and hermits

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, found in England, Ireland and Scotland.

The islands are first recorded in 651, when they became home to Saint Aidan, followed by Saint Cuthbert.[2] 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, Saint 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.[3][4]

The islands were used by hermits intermittently from the 7th century. These included Saint Bartholomew of Farne.[5] The last hermit was Thomas De Melsonby, who died on the islands in 1246.[2]

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 high as six. The cell was dissolved in 1536 as part of King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.[5]

Following the dissolution of the monastic cell on the islands, the islands 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 wereched sold to Charles Thorp, who was at the time Archdeacon of Durham.[5] In 1894 the islands were bought by the industrialist William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong.[2] The islands are currently owned by the National Trust.[5]

Remains still exist of the 7th century anchorite cell used by Saint Aiden and Saint Cuthbert,[2] as do the remains of a 14th-century chapel associated with the cell. Known as St Cuthbert's Chapel, the chapel is described as a "single-cell building of 4 bays". The remains of a second chapel have been incorporated into a later building.[5]

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, she and her father 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.[6]


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 c.1500, by or for Thomas Castell, Prior of Durham.


The lighthouse's curved brick foundation supports the stout conical red-and-white-striped tower and adjacent building.
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] There are currently two lighthouses operated by Trinity House on the Farne Islands:

Built in 1811 and originally named Inner Farne Lighthouse

Built in 1826 and originally named Outer Farne Lighthouse.

Former lighthouses on the islands include:

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 used to be shown 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.[8] Ruins of some of the older lighthouses may be seen: for example on the Brownsman, where there are two. Before the lighthouses there were beacons 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 and 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, the 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.

See description
A puffin safe in its burrow on the Farne Islands

Breeding birds on the Farnes (as of 2012) include:

A bird sits on a large square stone, while others sit upon nests with hatchlings
Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) at nest on Staple Island

A total of 290 bird species have been recorded on the Farnes, including in the 1760s, an example of the now extinct great auk.[9]

On 28–29 May 1979, an Aleutian tern, a rare tern from the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific Ocean, visited the Farnes. It was the first, and still the only, member of its species ever seen anywhere in Europe. It remains a complete mystery how it arrived here.[10]

A longer-staying unusual visitor was "Elsie" the lesser crested tern, who visited the Farnes every summer from 1984 to 1997; during that period she (paired with a male Sandwich tern), raised several hybrid chicks and attracted several thousand birders keen to see this species in Britain. Lesser crested terns normally nest on islands off the coast of Libya and migrate to West Africa for the winter; it is thought that "Elsie" took a wrong "tern" at the Straits of Gibraltar on spring migration.[11]

An Arctic tern from the Farnes, ringed as a chick not yet old enough to fly in summer 1982, reached Melbourne, Australia in October 1982, a sea journey of over 22,000 km (14,000 mi) in just three months from fledging. This remains one of the longest distances travelled by any bird.

One classic view of the Farnes, very popular with photographers, is that from the harbour at Seahouses. However, they are closer to the mainland further up the road northwards towards Bamburgh and excellent views may be seen from here, in the vicinity of the Monks House Rocks, as well as from Bamburgh Castle and beach.


The Farnes are resistant igneous Dolerite outcrops. These would originally have been connected to the mainland and surrounded by areas of less resistant limestone. Through a combination of erosion of the weaker surrounding rock, and sea level rise following the last ice age, the Farnes were left as islands. Because of the way the rock is fissured, Dolerite forms strong columns. This gives the islands their steep, in places vertical cliffs, and the sea around the islands is scattered with stacks up to 66 feet (20 metres) high. Many of the small islands are bare rock, but the larger islands have a layer of clay subsoil and peat soil supporting vegetation. The rock strata slopes slightly upwards to the south, giving the highest cliffs on the south and some beaches to the north.[12]

Ship wrecks and diving

As well as being popular with bird watchers, the Farne Islands are a popular scuba diving location, with a variety of sites suitable for all levels of diver. The islands appeal to divers for the seals and wrecks. The grey seal colony at the Farnes numbers about 5,000. They are curious and will often look in on divers in the water and are impressive to watch underwater.

Hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the Farnes over the years, providing plenty for wreck divers to look at. Among them are:[13]

Name Year
Abessinia 1921
Acantha 1915
Adelina 1862
Advance 1891
Aepos 1920
African Prince 1931
Aid 1853
Alert 1918
Alexander 1845
Alexander 1947
Arab 1849
Arbutus 1890
Ardincaple 1833
Armed Dutch Vessel 1650–1715
Arms 1825
Ascot (HMS) 1918
Assuan 1943
Athelduke 1945
Attwood 1876
Auckland Castle 1918
Augusta 1823
Autumn 1834
Baltanglia 1940
Bonaventure 1559
Bowling 1939
Brave of Inverness 1850
Breeze 1852
Britannia 1795
Britannia III 1875
Britannia IIII 1915
Britannia PSS 1849
Byron 1851
Cairnduna 1875
Calcium 1876
Caledonia 1917
Caledonia of Montrose 1802
Caroline 1955
Cherokee (1818)
Cheviot 1853
Childrens Friend 1993
Chris Christensen 1915
Christa 1976
City of Aberdeen (1816)
Constance 1972
Coryton 1941
Countess of Mar 1847
Courier 1875
Cresswell 1869
Cydonia 1916
Danio 2013 (Refloat)
Doore 1855
Dublin 1805
Dunelm 1949 (Refloat)
Earne 1859
Eclipse 1851
Elizabeth Fawcett (1846)
Elliott 1852
Emerald 1865
Emily Reaich 1924
Emma 1914
Empire Ford 1943 (Refloat)
Enterprise 1876
Est 1871
Euphemia 1848
Everene (1940)
Excel 1939 (Refloat)
Expedit 1917
Faith (1847)
Falcon 1851
Fame 1833
Fifeshire 1852
Flora (1882)
Florence Dombey 1933
Florence Nightingale 1860
Flower of Ross, 1890
Forfarshire 1838
Formica 1894
French Caravels (x2) 1462
Friends (1857)
Friendship 1795
G.R. Grey 1918
Garent 1842
Gebruder 1916
Generous Mind (1809)
Geir 1908
George & Mary 1823
Glasgow Packet 1806
Glen (1909)
Glenorm (1906)
Glenorca 1913 (Refloat)
Good Cheer 2000
Gowan 1917
Graciana 1920 (Refloat)
Grade 1955 (Refloat)
Grosvenor 1935
Gudveig 1940
Gustav Vigeland 1916
Gwendoline 1893
Harmony 1857
Hazard 1815
Helen 1853
Helmsdale 1939
Hero 1817
Hetos 1940
Hibernia 1876
Holmrook 1892
Holy Island Coble 1895
Holy Island Yawl 1875
Hope (Smack) 1819
Horley 1922
Humber Packet 1812
Igor 1918
Ilala 1876
Inatje Baaf 1894
Industry 1774
Isbul & Margarit 1849
Isabella Fowlie 1941
Isorna 1941
Ivanhoe 1857
Jægersborg 1916
Jack Tar 1854
James B Graham 1922
James Harris 1881
Jan Ryswyck 1924
Jane and Margaret 1867
Janet Johnson 1853
Jean and Jessie 1856
Jemima 1851
Jeremiah 1806
Jessie 1847
Joan 1845
Johns (1841)
Johns (1845)
John 1849
John & Isabella 1808
John G. Watson 1930
Juno 1819
Kestrel 1917
Kincardine 1818
Kopanes 1941
Lady Duff (1853) (Refloat)
Lady of the Lake 1866
Lady Panmure 1851
Lady Ross 1847
Lancaster 1854
Leda 1886
Liberty 1849
Liddle 1774
Lilly Miles 1899
Loch Leven 1902
Lord Strathmore, 1917 (Refloated)
Lucerne 1915 (Refloat)
Luiste Josephine 1851
Lunesdale 1929
Maggie Lauder 1804
Maid of Aln 1863
Manchant 1852
Manly 1852
Martha 1827
May 1894
Maystone 1949
Medora 1865
Mermaid 1823
Merwede 1918
Mistley 1951
Monkwearmouth 1823
Mormilion Frederick 1800
Myrtle (Brig) 1864
Nellie 1849
Neptune (1819)
Nisus 1853
Ocean Bridge 1873
Orca 1982
Otago 1915
Otto M'Combie 1895
Paciline Defecamp 1850
Pallas 1901
Paragon 1821
Paragon 1842
Paragon 1895
Patia 1941
Peace and Plenty 1860
Pearle 1740
Peggy 1774
Plough 1850
Pluto 1940
Prosperous 1854
Queenstown 1916
Rececca 1899
Resolute 1886
River Leven 1953
Ryoll of Stockton 1801
Saint Evelyn Joyce 1922
Saint Louis 1924 (Refloat)
San Bernado 1916
Sarah 1815
Scottish Prince 1913
Sedulous 2 1975
Shadwan 1888
Sisters 1832
Skovdal 1917
Sloop no 28 (1806)
Snowdonia 1881
Somali 1941
Sootica 1985
Smilax (1851)
Sphynx 1919
Spica 1916
St Abbs Head 1949
St Andre 1908
St Fergus 1885
St. Salvator 1472
Stamfordham 1916
Storfors 1940
Strive 1856
Success 1774
Success 1853
Thistle 1883
Thomas 1837
Thomas Jackson 1825
Tioga 1943
Tredegar Hall 1916 (Refloat)
Trio 1860
Two Brothers 1841
U-1274 1945
Urdate 1823
Vaagan 1916
Valhal 1890
Volunteer 1846 (Refloat)
Waren Packet 1830
Werner Kunstmann 1914
William Thorpe 1852
William (Schooner) 1864
Yagen 1916
Yewglen 1960

It is generally possible to dive at the Farnes regardless of wind direction. There is always shelter somewhere. Some dive locations even provide the opportunity to combine diving and bird watching, in particular the Pinnacles, where guillemots can be found fishing at safety stop depth.[20]


  1. e travel guide to Northumbria. "There are between 15 and 20 islands in number, depending upon the tide".
  2. 1 2 3 4 MONUMENT NO. 8298, English Heritage: PastScape
  3. Famous Eider colony
  4. BBC – Radio 4 – The Living World: Cuddy's Duck
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 ST CUTHBERTS CHAPEL, English Heritage: PastScape
  6. www.bamburgh.org.uk. Gives details of Grace Darling.
  7. "Farne Lighthouse". Trinity House.
  8. http://www.discoverthefarneislands.co.uk/page12.html
  9. Wallis, John (1769). The Natural History and Antiquities of Northumberland, London: Printed for the author, by W. and W. Strahan. pp. 340–1.
  10. Incredible Birds. Documents Aleutian Tern on Inner Farne in May 1979.
  11. www.towhee.net. Confirms "Elsie" the lesser crested tern visited Farnes.
  12. www.seahouses.org. Gives geology details.
  13. http://www.farne.co.uk/ship-wrecks.html
  14. "Farnes area Dive Site Info and Dive conditions". Divesiteinfo.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-07-07.
  15. Divernet Wreck Tour
  16. Dive Site Information
  17. Archived July 5, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  18. DiverNet Wreck Tour
  19. Dive North East, Dave: Winfield, Barry Shaw, ISBN 978-0-946020-16-4
  20. The Guardian Travel. Gives some details of scuba diving in Farnes.

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