Holy Island, Northumberland Family History Guide

Castle on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) from the westward Finden, William (1840)

Holy Island is an Ancient Parish in the county of Northumberland.

Other places in the parish include: Goswick, Fenham, Berringtonlaw, and Berrington Law.

Alternative names: Lindisfarne

Parish church: St. John the Evangelist

Parish registers begin:

  • Parish registers: 1578
  • Bishop’s Transcripts: 1765

Nonconformists include: Presbyterian, Primitive Methodist, Roman Catholic, and Wesleyan Methodist.

Adjacent Parishes

Parish History

The Imperial Gazetteer of England & Wales 1870

HOLY ISLAND, or LINDISFARNE, a village, an island, and a parish in Berwick district, Northumberland. The village stands on the SW shore of the island, 4 miles ESE of Beal r. station, and 11 SE of Berwick-upon-Tweed; has about 500 inhabitants, but was formerly much larger than now; consists chiefly of thatched and white washed cottages; is much visited by artists and tourists; possesses a fine bathing beach and other advantages which might fit it well to be a summer watering place; has a post office under Beal, Northumberland, and two tolerable inns; and carries on a very considerable herring fishery. Its port, or landing place, is a little cove, engirt by yellow rocks; is enlivened, during the fishing season, by the presence of many French herring boats; and displays, in the autumn, a busy scene of sorting and packing herrings for exportation. The passage from the mainland to the island, and therefore to the village, is dry sands at low water, and about 1¾ mile in length. The sands are firm enough to be traversed by horses and carriages; and posts are placed on them, in the proper route, with directions affixed for the guidance of strangers. Yet pedestrians are in danger of being overtaken by the tide and drowned; and both they and equestrians are in risk of encountering quicksands; so that all strangers who intend to cross the sands ought to acquaint themselves well, at Beal r. station or Beal village, with the proper time and manner of crossing. The passage across the sands was used in the olden times as well as now; and hence, says Sir Walter Scott, in his “Marmion”- “The tide did now its flood mark gain, And girdled in the saint’s domain; For with the flow and ebb its style Varies from continent to isle. Dryshod, o’er sands twice every day The pilgrims to the shrine find way; Twice every day the waves efface Of staves and sandled feet the trace” The island measures 2¼ miles from E to W, and 1½ from N to S; and comprises 1, 000 acres. Its name of Lindisfarne was taken from the rivulet Lindis or Lind, which enters the sea from the opposite shore, and from the Celtic word Fahren, which signifies “ a recess; ‘’ and its name of Holy Island was of later origin, and arose from the presence on it of a famous ancient religions establishment, and from a long continued resort to it of multitudes of pilgrims. The original religions establishment on it was founded before the middle of the 7th century. Oswald, king of Northumbria, who then bore sway from the Forth to the Humber, had become a convert to Christianity while living in exile among the Culdean Picts and Scots; and he invited a body of missionaries from Iona, and gave them a settlement in Lindisfarne, with the view of diffusing the Christian faith through his kingdom. They amounted to twelve or thirteen; and they appear to have laboured zealously, both on the spot and by distant journeys, to fulfil their mission. Aidan, the president of them, is said to have baptized 15, 000 converts in seven days. Eata, one of them, evangelized the tribes of Tweedside and Tweeddale, and founded the original ecclesiastical establishment of Melrose; and others are believed to have made missionary tours, and sown the seeds of churches, throughout great part of England. Their successors also prolonged their zeal. Cuthbert, the fifth president or bishop after Aidan, excelled Aidan himself in success and celebrity, and has left traces of his name to this day from end to end of ancient Northumbria, and far beyond it. But at length the spirit of Culdeeism died away, and was absorbed or superseded by Romanism; and the Holy Island shrank into little else than a seat of Romish monasticism, a resort of pilgrims, and the historical source of the see of Durham. So long as it remained Culdeean, it shone on the Saxon land much as Iona shone on the land of Caledonia, and might be called, like that island, “a luminary whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion.” “Isle of Columba’s cell ! Where Christian piety’s soul cheering spark, Kindled from heaven between the light and dark Of time, shone like the morning star.” The island, or as much of it as belonged to its monks, was given, at the Reformation, to the Dean and Chapter of Durham; but the greater part of it belongs now to the families of Selby and Askew; while the ruins on it belong to the Crown. About one-half of it is under cultivation, producing more than enough of grain for the consumption of its inhabitants; and the rest is sandy waste, partly occupied by rabbit burrows. The entire surface is bleak; looks almost desert, as seen from the mainland; and has scarcely a single tree or stump. A lake on it covers about 6 acres; a rocky elevation, called the Heugh, is near the village; a large tract, called the Links, heaves with rounded sand hill s; and a part of the coast is rocky cliff, pierced with several caves. Limestone and ironstone occur; and coal has been found. A valuable oyster bed, belonging to the Earl of Tankerville, lies between it and the Fern Isles; and, in one winter was so laid bare by unusual lowness of the tide as to be destroyed by frost; but was replanted, in the following year, by oysters from the Forth. A small fort, called the castle, crowns a curious, conical, trap rock hill near the village port; is accessible only by a narrow winding pass; was built, about 1500, by Prior Castell, for defence of the island; was garrisoned, in 1646, by the Parliament, who considered it “a place of consequence to the northern parts;” and was the scene of a small military affair in the civil war of 1715; but presents now no feature of real interest, and is used as a coast guard station. A fine view is obtained from its platform, over the island, to St. Abb’s Head, Bambrough Castle, and the Cheviots. A famous stone cross of the Culdeean times, at the village, was early removed to Durham; and a copy of it, on the original pedestal, was erected by the late D. Selby, Esq.. The pedestal is called “the Pelting Stone;” and, according to a popular superstition, requires to be over stridden by every newly married woman in order to secure the happiness of her married state. The parish church is mainly early English; underwent restoration in 1861-2; was then cleared of centuries of white wash, and found to possess architectural features of rare excellence and beauty; shows in some parts an alternation of white and red stones; and has circular columns on the N side of its nave, octagonal ones on the S side, while the arches on the two sides respectively differ also in construction, size, and feature. The original Culdeean church was probably a plain wooden structure; a succeeding church, or cathedral, was a stone edifice, and was pillaged and damaged, at two different periods, by the Danes; and the eventual priory or abbeychurch, connected with a Benedictine monastery, was a reconstruction of the cathedral in 1093, modified by subsequent alterations. Some ruins of the monastery, including a huge kitchen chimney, still exist. The church stood perfect till the Reformation; wants now its roof, its tower, and one side of its nave; is cruciform, and not quite 140 feet long; and may, as to architectural character, be pronounced a beautiful and perfect model of Durham cathedral. The following description of it, by Sir Walter Scott, is not quite correct, yet is near enough the truth to convey a good idea of it to the mind:- “In Saxon strength that abbey frown’d, With massive arches broad and round, That rose alternate, row and row, On ponderous columns, short and low; Built ere the art was known, By pointed aisle, and shafted stalk, The arcades of an alley’d walk, To emulate in stoneOn the deep walls, the heathen Dane Had pour’d his impious rage in vain: And needful was such strength to these, Exposed to the tempestuous seas, Scourged by the wind’s eternal sway, Open to rovers fierce as they, which could twelve hundred years withstand Winds, waves, and northern pirates’ handNot but that portions of the pile, Rebuilded in a later style, Show’d where the spoil er’s hand had been; Not but the wasting sea breeze keen Had worn the pillar’s carving quaint, And moulder’d in his niche the saint, And rounded with consuming power The pointed angles of each tower.” The parish includes also the Fern Isles, and the mainland hamlets of Fenham and Goswick. Acres, 8, 296; of which 4, 976 are water. Real property, £6, 996; of which £730 are in fisheries, and £20 in quarries. Pop., 935. Houses, 168. The living is a vicarage in the diocese of Durham. Value, £183. Patrons, the Dean and Chapter of Durham.

Source: The Imperial Gazetteer of England & Wales [Wilson, John M]. A. Fullarton & Co. N. d. c. [1870-72].

A Topographical Dictionary of England 1848

HOLY-ISLAND, anciently Lindisfarn (St. John the Evangelist), a parish, in the union of Berwick, in Islandshire, N. division of Northumberland, 5½ miles (N. by E.) from Belford, and 10 (S. E.) from Berwick; containing 1209 inhabitants. The Island, forming the chief part of the parish, is situated in the North Sea, a mile and a half from the Northumbrian coast, and derives its name from an abbey founded by Oswald, King of Northumbria. This abbey became the seat of a see; but after a succession of fourteen prelates, of whom St. Cuthbert was one, the cathedral was destroyed by the Danes, in 893, and the bishopric was removed to Chester-le-Street, and subsequently to Durham. The island was invaded and plundered by Malcolm I., King of Scotland, in 941. After the Norman Conquest, a Benedictine priory was established (as a cell to that of Durham), the revenue of which at the Dissolution was £60. 5.: its foundations may be traced over a space of nearly four acres, but the only considerable remains are those of the church, a noble cruciform structure, displaying in the nave, choir, and part of the central tower, the Norman and early English styles of architecture. In the great civil war the isle was the station of a parliamentary garrison; and in 1715 it was seized by the adherents of the Pretender, who were, however, soon dislodged by a detachment from the king’s troops at Berwick.

Besides the principal island, the parish comprises the Farn Islands, and the hamlets of Fenham and Goswick on the main land. At the south-western angle of Holy Island is situated the village, distinguished for the ruins of the monastery; it is a place of considerable resort for sea-bathing, and there are several fishing-boats belonging to it, with about 70 men, employed in catching cod, ling, haddock, and lobsters, which are sent in large quantities to the London market. There is also a curing and smoking house for herrings, which are taken in great numbers along the coast. The south-eastern extremity of the island rises in a conical peak, sixty feet in height, on the summit of which is a castellated fort, built during the reign of Elizabeth, and still occupied by the crown. The north side abounds with limestone; and there are also a small seam of coal, and a stratum of slate, the latter containing a considerable quantity of iron-ore, with which are found the entrochi, or fossils popularly termed St. Cuthbert’s beads. The living is a perpetual curacy; net income, £207; patrons, the Dean and Chapter of Durham: the impropriation belongs to the crown and others. The church is a small neat edifice.

Source: A Topographical Dictionary of England by Samuel Lewis 1848


  • County: Northumberland
  • Civil Registration District: Berwick
  • Probate Court: Court of the Bishop of Durham (Episcopal Consistory)
  • Diocese: Durham
  • Rural Deanery: Norham
  • Poor Law Union: Berwick
  • Hundred: Islandshire
  • Province: York