Lindisfarne - Before the first monastery

“The Holy Island of Lindisfarne”

(Words and pictures by Lancelot Robson)

An unusual view of the main part of the Island at high tide. The modern village is on the left side. At mid right is the parish church. On the right of the modern white building, the Priory ruins and the Rainbow arch can just be seen behind the Heugh


Geologically, Lindisfarne has a limestone base, with a Dolerite intrusion caused by the Whin Sill, a volcanic eruption in a diagonal line stretching from Cumbria through South West Northumberland to North East Northumberland. The eruption left a number of volcanic outcrops across the county which proved invaluable for the building of defensive positions, e.g. parts of the Roman Wall, Bamburgh, and the little Tudor fort on what is now Lindisfarne Castle. The area became an island about 4,000 years ago. The southerly sea current in the area has led to coastal accretion due to sand being deposited against the harder volcanic rock at the South end of the Island. The two main features are the Heugh (pronounced “Hyuff” or “Hyoo” locally), next to the Norman Priory, and Beblowe Crag, on which the castle now sits. A large area between the island and the mainland has silted up to a depth of a few feet below mean sea level, creating a shallow semi-circular lagoon around the island which floods for approximately 5 hours in each 12 hour tidal cycle. A stream, once known as the Lindis, now known as the South Low, meets the sand near the north end of the tidal area, and flows south along the bay between the island and the mainland. It reaches the mean low water level around the south end of the island, thus it is an another obstacle, even at low tide.

View of the causeway just as it opens, with Island in the distance. The Lindis flows under the road bridge.

The earliest artefact found on the island is a worked flint which dates from about 10,000 to 2,000 years ago, made in either the Middle or New Stone Ages, or possibly the early Bronze Age. The earliest known building is marked by a number of postholes found under a road in the village, dated to 3,685 – 3,365 years ago. A polished Neolithic axe was found below Beblowe Crag. A bronze age spear head with a fragment of its ash handle was found on the shoreline below the Heugh, but there are no Iron Age or Roman artefacts at all, although some have been found at Bamburgh.

In the Iron Age the island lay within the territory of the tribe named by the Romans as the Votadini, who occupied the coastal strip from the Tees to near Edinburgh. The kingdom of Bryneich (Bede called it Bernicia) occupied a similar, but apparently smaller territory with its capital at Bamburgh. This was the one taken over by Ida, the first Anglian king of Northumbria in 547AD.

The earliest known name, Metcaud (occasionally “Medcaut”), comes from Nennius, a cleric writing in Wales in the 9th century, about 830AD. It means “Island of Winds”. Current residents would agree. Several other translations for that name have been proposed, but this writer finds them unconvincing. The most likely translation of Lindisfarne means the “faran” island next to the Lindis, but “the farne of the people of Lindsey” (positing Ida’s most recent Anglian origins) or even the “shield island” (Linden being a desirable wood for shields) have been suggested.

Nennius described the next significant event in the island’s history. In about 570AD the Anglian king of Bryneich (probably Theoderic) was cornered on the Island for three days and nights with his sons by a large British force led by the charismatic British leader, Urien. Things looked grim for the Anglians until the night before the last battle. Urien was assassinated by someone on his own side. The army then dispersed without finishing the Anglians off.

In 635AD Aidan arrived from Iona at the invitation of King Oswald. The King allowed him to choose where to build his church and set up his community. He chose Lindisfarne, a skilful choice. It was within sight of the King’s capital at Bamburgh, but sufficiently detached from the mainland for religious contemplation. The first church, and the second were built of wood. Later it was rebuilt in stone, but little, if any, of that Saxon church survives. The Priory ruins and the iconic Rainbow Arch date from 1122 - 1150AD. The Normans gave the Island its present rather grand name.

The Island from across the Lindis, tide subsiding. The Heugh is clearly visible, high left. St Cuthbert's Island is high right. The grey smudge just to the left of St Cuthbert's Island is Bamburgh Castle.