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The Farne Islands (also referred to less formally as the Farnes) are a group of islands off the coast of Northumberlandmarker, Englandmarker. There are between 15 and 20 or more islands depending on the state of the tide. They are scattered about 2.5–7.5 km (1 1/2–4 3/4 miles) distant from the mainland, divided into two groups, the Inner Group and the Outer Group. The main islands in the Inner Group are Inner Farne, Knoxes Reef and the East and West Wideopens (all joined together on very low tides) and (somewhat separated) the Megstone; the main islands in the Outer Group are Staple Islandmarker, the Brownsman, North and South Wamses, Big Harcar and the Longstone. The two groups are separated by Staple Sound. The highest point, on Inner Farne, is 19 metres (62 feet) above mean sea level.


The earliest recorded inhabitants of the Farne Islands were various Culdees, some connected with Lindisfarnemarker. This followed the old Celtic tradition of island hermitages, found in Englandmarker, Irelandmarker, and Scotlandmarker.

The first visitor recorded by name was Saint Aidan followed by Saint Cuthbert. The latter 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, Saint 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.

The islands have no permanent population, the only residents being National Trust bird wardens during part of the year: they live in the old pele tower on the Inner Farne, the largest and closest inshore of the islands, and the lighthouse cottage on the Brownsman in the outer group. The pele tower was built by or for Thomas Castell, Prior of Durham about 1500. There is also a chapel set up on the site of St Cuthbert's oratory 600 years ago. It was restored in recent times with old material from Durham Cathedral.

All the lighthouses on the Farnes are now automatic and have no resident keepers, although in former years they did. Ruins of older lighthouses may be seen, for example on the Brownsman where there are two. Before the lighthouses there were beacons on several of the islands. The prominent white streak on the cliff facing the mainland (see photo) is often thought by visitors to be bird droppings: although many parts of the islands do exhibit this colouring, 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.

A map of Farne Islands in 1947

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

Grace Darling

One of the great attractions of the Farne Islands is the story of Grace Darlingmarker and the wreck of the Forfarshire. Grace Darling was the daughter of Longstone lighthouse-keeper, William Darling, and on September 7, 1838, at the age of 22 years, she and her father rescued nine people in a strong gale and thick fog from the wreck of the Forfarshire, which had run aground on Harker rock. The story of the rescue attracted extraordinary attention throughout Britain and made Grace Darling a heroine who has gone down in British folklore.

Ecology and natural history

In the warmer months the Farnes, an important wildlife habitat, are much visited by boat trips from Seahousesmarker. Local boats are licensed to land passengers on Inner Farne, Staple Island and the Longstone; landing on other islands is prohibited to protect the wildlife. At the right time of year many Puffins can be seen and these are very popular with visitors; on the Inner Farne, the Arctic Terns nest close to the path and will attack visitors who come too close (visitors are strongly advised to wear hats). Some of the islands also support a population of Rabbits, which were introduced as a source of meat and have since gone wild. The Rabbit and Puffin populations use the same burrows at different times, the Puffins being strong enough (with a vicious bite) to evict the Rabbits from the burrows during the nesting season. The islands also hold a notable colony of about 6,000 Grey Seals, with several hundred pups born every year in September-November.

Breeding birds on the Farnes (as of 2005) include:

A total of 290 bird species have been recorded on the Farnes, including in the 1760s, an example of the now extinct Great Auk.

On 28–29 May 1979, an Aleutian Tern, a rare tern from the Aleutian Islandsmarker in the North Pacific Oceanmarker, visited the Farnes. It was the first, and still the only, member of its species ever seen anywhere in Europe. It remains a complete mystery how it arrived here.

A longer-staying unusual visitor was "Elsie" the Lesser Crested Tern, who visited the Farnes every summer from 1984 to 1997; during that period, she (paired with a male Sandwich Tern) 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 Libyamarker and migrate to West Africa for the winter; it is thought that "Elsie" took a wrong "tern" at the Straits of Gibraltarmarker on spring migration.

An Arctic Tern from the Farnes, ringed as a chick not yet old enough to fly in summer 1982, reached Melbournemarker, Australia in October 1982, a sea journey of over 22,000 km (14,000 miles) in just three months from fledging. This remains one of the longest distances travelled by any bird.

One classic view of the Farnes, very popular with photographers, is that from the harbour at Seahouses. However, they are closer to the mainland further up the road northwards towards Bamburghmarker and excellent views may be seen from here, in the vicinity of the Monks House Rocks, as well as from Bamburgh Castlemarker and beach.


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 20 metres (66 feet) in height. 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 slopes slightly upwards to the south, giving the highest cliffs on the south and some beaches to the north.


As well as being popular with bird watchers, the Farne Islands are a popular scuba diving location. The islands appeal to divers for these reasons: there are seals, wrecks and a variety sites suitable for all levels of diver.

The grey seal colony at the Farnes which numbers about 5,000 are curious and will often look in on divers in the water; in addition to this they are impressive to watch underwater.

Hundreds of ships have been wrecked on the Farnes over the years, providing plenty for wreck divers to look at. Among them are the:
  • Chris Christenson, a Danish Steamer that sank on 16 February 1915. She lies close into the reef off the south tip of Longstone, Outer Farnes in about 30-35m at ( ).
  • SS Abessiniamarker was a 453ft German steamship that drove onto Knifestone, Outer Farnes, on 3 September 1921. She lies in about 9-20m at ( ).
  • The Brittania was a 740t, 210ft British cargo/passenger steamship that struck the Callers, Outer Farnes, in thick fog on 25 September 1915. The wreckage lies between about 8m-30m at ( ).
  • St Andre was a 1120t French steamship carrying pig iron. On 28 October 1908 she hit the Crumstone and floated off to sink finally at Staple island. She lies in about 17m-25m at ( ).

It is generally possible to dive at the Farnes regardless of wind direction. There is always shelter somewhere. Some dive locations even provide the opportunity to combine diving and bird watching, in particular the Pinacles, where Guillemots can be found fishing at safety stop depth.

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