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The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Off the northeast coast of Britain, close to the border of Scotland, lies a small island, measuring three miles east-west and 1.5 miles north-south.

It encompasses nearly 1,000 acres at high tide, and its most striking feature is a large upthrust of volcanic rock (basalt) situated on its south east tip, known today as Beblowe Craig, upon which sits a castle built during the time of Henry VIII. This outcropping of rock mirrors a similar, larger, one found further south where Bamburgh Castle if found today.

This is the island of Lindisfarne, and I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last few years reading about it, peering down upon it via Google Earth, looking at countless YouTube videos and other media about it, and wishing I could visit it, as it is one of the major settings of my historical fantasy trilogy.

Unfortunately the costs of  flying to England means that I have had to make do with researching the best I can.

You may wonder why this tiny little island could possibly be of interest to anyone. Well,  it may not look like much now, but in 642 AD (the time period of my books) it, along with nearby Bamburgh, was one of the most important places in Britain.

That’s because Bamburgh (also called Din Guardi, Inis Metcaut, or Bebbanburgh, in the early medieval period) was the seat of the kings of Northumberland, and Lindisfarne the home to one of the most influential monasteries of the time.

The island is a tidal island, which means that it is technically only an island twice a day, at high tide, when the encroaching sea cuts it off from the mainland. This made  it a perfect place for Aidan, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne, to situate his monastery. He and his monks could be “in the world but not of it”, in a physical and spiritual sense.

The weather there can be challenging. Battered by winds and rain, it likely was an uncomfortable place at times to live back in the Dark Ages. Of course the monks embraced the difficulties of living there – it was a fine whetstone upon which to hone their rugged, aesthetic faith.

Aidan was there at the invitation of Oswald, King of Bernicia and eventually Bretwalda,or High King, of all of northern Britain. There is a fascinating story of how this came to be, but that might the subject of another blog post. Suffice it to say, I can imagine when he and Oswald were determining where the new monastery would be situated, it didn’t take them very long to realize that Lindisfarne would be perfect. Approximately 17 miles away from Bamburgh, it was close enough to allow for the king’s protection and for easy communication between the two, yet far enough (around 1-2 hours travel by horseback, or 4 hours by foot) that Aidan could untangle himself from the King’s concerns and retreat there for spiritual nourishment. The fact that Aidan could legitimately be “out of touch” due to the barrier of the ocean during high tide was an added bonus, I’m sure.

Under 200 people still live in the small village on the island today, which is now also called Holy Island. Alas, all traces of the monastery that Aidan and his monks built are gone as the buildings were made of wood. However, a monastery continued on the island until the time of Henry VIII, who destroyed much of Britain’s religious heritage during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The ruins of the priory seen on Lindisfarne today date from that time. There is still a thriving church on Lindisfarne, however; it is an important center for the Celtic Christian movement, as it was all those centuries ago.

I wonder what Aidan would think of it now? In many ways it has not changed since his time, but of course in other ways it would be unrecognizable to him.

One of the delights in writing my book was to discover this marvellous place, saturated with the ghosts of Bishops and Kings, a thin place if there ever was one. I will go there someday, and I hope to find it much as I have imagined it.

Photo credit: CC image courtesy of David Newman on Flickr


Have you ever been to Lindisfarne? If so, tell me about it!! Please!! Or if not, does it sound like a place you would want to go?