The existence of the Farne Islands is due to a geological feature called the Whin Sill, the term deriving from what regional quarrymen called flat sections of dark rock. This is hard, volcanic material that erodes much more slowly than other rocks in the region and so gives rise to the high ground where Dunstanborough, Lindisfarne and Bamburgh Castles were built as well as the section of Hadrian’s Wall at Crag Lough. The Farnes are part of it too; a scattering of hard black rocks off the Northumbrian coast, although until the mid 19th Century they were technically part of County Durham because they were owned by Durham Cathedral.
The islands have supported few human inhabitants over the years, the first recorded being St Aidan in 651 and succeeded by St Cuthbert each of whom lived in solitude in a dug out cell on Inner Farne. Though the island is now dominated by a bright white lighthouse, a small chapel stands on the site of that cell, together with a defensive Pele Tower that was added in 1500 when border reivers rendered the area lawless. No more than a handful of monks were ever resident here, but when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the monks from Lindisfarne were disbanded too and Durham Cathedral took ownership.
There’s not much to live on. The number of the islands varies from 28 when tides are at their lowest to 15 when the North Sea reclaims its share. Most of those that remain above the water are barren rock, or thinly covered in seaweed, but Inner Farne and three of the other larger islands have a layer of soil averaging a metre in depth, soil enriched by generations of bird droppings, so that the monks and then the lighthouse keepers who lived here could at least do some gardening.
The lighthouse keepers were essential with all those hidden rocks here and hundreds of ships have fallen victim to them, making the area popular with divers as well as naturalists. On the day I visited the was a slight swell and the weather was fine. If things deteriorate the tourist boats don’t sail and nor does anyone else with any sense.
Aside from the monks’ chapel and tower all the other structures on the islands are lighthouses and watchtowers or what is left of them. There is a cottage on Brownsman alongside one of these towers (where fires could be lit to warn shipping) but adjoining the cottage is a low round structure that is all that remains of a lighthouse that was blown down in the 19th Century. It’s replacement was built on Longstone, another island in the group and was the sole reason for my journey that day.
On the morning of 7th September 1838 the lighthouse keeper’s daughter Grace looked out of her window (uppermost in the white section) and through the storm spotted an emergency that would make her a national heroine. A coastal passenger steamer travelling from Dundee to Hull mistook the Longstone light for that on Inner Farne, and as a consequence it ran aground in thick fog and gale force winds on Harcar Rock. The vessel was the Forfarshire, and local fisherman now refer to the rock as Forfar Rock as a result. There were 39 deaths from the impact, and nine managed to get into the ship’s lifeboats to escape, but that left 11 stranded on the rock where hypothermia or drowning seemed the only likely outcomes.
Grace and her father rowed out in those heavy seas to rescue those on the rock, and though two had died before they reached them, in two trips they were able to get the rest to Longstone. Grace died only 4 years later from tuberculosis.
Conditions were thankfully much better when we moored on Longstone. The light is automated now so there are no resident keepers carrying Grace’s baton.
With only 20 minutes available to us on the island I had a choice to make – be given a brief tour of the lighthouse or go hunting for the right place to compose an image. No contest really – I can come back and do the tour another time! Now there was only one thing left to decide… portrait or landscape? Which do you prefer?