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.[1] They form an archipelago, 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 on very low tides), and (somewhat separated) the Megstone; the main islands in the Outer Group are Staple Island, Brownsman, North and South Wamses, Big Harcar, and Longstone. The two groups are separated by Staple Sound. The highest point, on Inner Farne, is 62 feet (19 m) above mean sea level.

Farne Islands
Inner Farne and its lighthouse: White bird droppings stain the cliff.
Farne Islands is located in Northumberland
Farne Islands
Farne Islands
LocationNorth Sea
Coordinates55°37′19″N 1°37′41″W / 55.622°N 1.628°W / 55.622; -1.628
OS grid referenceNU235365
Total islands20
United Kingdom
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, also found in Wales, 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, 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 seventh 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 many as six. The cell was dissolved in 1536 as part of King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.[5]

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.[5] In 1894, the islands were bought by industrialist William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong.[2] The islands are currently owned by the National Trust.[5]

Remains still exist of the seventh-century anchorite cell used by Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert,[2] 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.[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, when she was aged 22, with her father 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.[6]



By the eighteenth century, picnics were being held on the Farne Islands. A picnic was held in 1778 on Pinnacle Island by Dr Kayne and his house party which consisted of ten persons and one dog. The picnic was illustrated by S.H.Grimm who made a drawing of the house party and a separate drawing of the accompanying seven servants enjoying a picnic meal. [7]



The islands have no permanent population, but National Trust rangers live on the islands for nine months of the year, maintaining the site and monitoring wildlife. They live in Prior Castell's Tower on the Inner Farne (the largest and closest inshore of the islands), Lighthouse Cottage on Inner Farne and the lighthouse cottage on the Brownsman in the outer group.[8] The pele tower was built during the early part of the 1494-1519 tenure of Thomas Castell as Prior of Durham.[9]


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

The lighthouse would not have been painted red and white in Grace Darling's day.

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[10]
  • Farne Island Lighthouse was built in 1673, but never lit; its replacement was built by Captain John Blackett in 1778,[11] itself replaced by Trinity House with the current Farne Lighthouse in 1811. A minor light, called the Low Light, was also established by Trinity House on the north-west of Farne between 1811 and 1910.[12] to aid navigation by lining this light up with the Inner Farne light
  • 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.[13] 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 similar to bird droppings; although many parts of the islands do exhibit this colouring during the breeding season only, 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


The Farne Islands are an internationally important wildlife habitat. In summer puffins, eider duck, Arctic tern, shag, guillemot, kittiwake, fulmar, razorbill, common tern and Sandwich tern all breed here, while in late autumn a large colony of grey seals pup on the islands. Summer visitors to Inner Farne are strongly advised to wear hats due to Arctic terns dive bombing to protect their chicks.

A puffin safe in its burrow on the Farne Islands

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

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.[14]

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.[15]

A longer-staying unusual visitor was "Elsie" the lesser crested tern, which visited the Farnes every summer from 1984 to 1997; during that period (paired with a male Sandwich tern) she 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; "Elsie" is thought to have taken a wrong turn at the Straits of Gibraltar on spring migration.[16]

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 over 14,000 miles (22,000 km) in just three months from fledging. This remains one of the longest known distances travelled by any bird.



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 ft (20 m) 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 slope slightly upwards to the south, giving the highest cliffs on the south and some beaches to the north.[17]

One classic view of the Farnes, very popular with photographers, is that from the harbour at Seahouses, but 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

Shipwrecks and diving


The Farne Islands are popular with bird watchers, and as scuba diving locations, with a variety of sites suitable for all levels of divers, for the seals and wrecks.

Hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the Farnes over the years, providing plenty for wreck divers to explore. Among them are:[18]

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
Children's 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 (two) 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 (refloat)
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

Dive sites and wrecks


Diving at the Farnes is generally possible, regardless of wind direction; shelter is always available somewhere. Some dive locations even provide the opportunity to combine diving and birdwatching, in particular the Pinnacles, where guillemots can be found fishing at safety-stop depth.[25]

Civil parish


Farne Islands was a civil parish, in 1951 the parish had a population of 3.[26] On 1 April 1955 the parish was abolished and merged with North Sunderland.[27]


  1. ^ e travel guide to Northumbria. Archived 31 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine "There are between 15 and 20 islands in number, depending upon the tide".
  2. ^ a b c d MONUMENT NO. 8298, English Heritage: PastScape
  3. ^ "Eiderdown: Famous Eider Colony".
  4. ^ BBC. "BBC - Radio 4 - The Living World: The Eider Duck".
  5. ^ a b c d e f ST CUTHBERTS CHAPEL, English Heritage: PastScape
  6. ^ Gives details of Grace Darling.
  7. ^ Illustration 114. Illustrated English Social History.G.M.Trevelyan. Vol.Three,Pub 1951. Longmans.
  8. ^ Graham, Hannah (26 June 2020). "You can live on the Farne Islands and here's what its like". Chronicle Live. Retrieved 27 January 2024.
  9. ^ "History of the Farne Islands' buildings". National Trust. 28 February 2023. Retrieved 27 January 2024.
  10. ^ Middleton, Penny (October 2010), "The Farne Islands" (PDF), Historic environment survey for the National Trust properties in Northumberland, Achaeo-Environment Ltd for The National Trust, p. 40, retrieved 26 February 2019
  11. ^ "Lighthouses on the Farne Islands". National Trust. Retrieved 22 February 2019.
  12. ^ "Farne Lighthouse". Trinity House. Archived from the original on 10 March 2013.
  13. ^ "Trinity House". Archived from the original on 13 December 2013. Retrieved 30 August 2012.
  14. ^ Wallis, John (1769). The Natural History and Antiquities of Northumberland, London: Printed for the author, by W. and W. Strahan. pp. 340–341.
  15. ^ Incredible Birds. Documents Aleutian Tern on Inner Farne in May 1979.
  16. ^ Confirms "Elsie" the lesser crested tern visited Farnes.
  17. ^ Archived 25 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine Gives geology details.
  18. ^ "".
  19. ^ "Farnes area Dive Site Info and Dive conditions". Archived from the original on 5 June 2017. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
  20. ^ "Wreck Tour: 32, The Christensen". Divernet - Diver Magazine Online. Retrieved 29 May 2019.
  21. ^ Data, Sue Mitchell, Spot-on. "Farnes area Dive Site Info and Dive conditions". Archived from the original on 5 June 2017. Retrieved 26 March 2018.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  22. ^ [1] Archived 5 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ "Divernet - Diver Magazine Online - SCUBA - Diving - Dive Shows - Gear Tests - Travel - News". Archived from the original on 8 July 2007.
  24. ^ Dive North East, Dave: Winfield, Barry Shaw, ISBN 978-0-946020-16-4
  25. ^ The Guardian Travel. Gives some details of scuba diving in Farnes.
  26. ^ "Population statistics Farne Islands ExP/CP through time". A Vision of Britain through Time. Retrieved 15 January 2022.
  27. ^ "Relationships and changes Farne Islands ExP/CP through time". A Vision of Britain through Time. Retrieved 15 January 2022.