The island is separated from the mainland by a narrow neck of sand which can be crossed on foot at low water.
The castle is of great antiquity. From its summit may be seen, at seven miles, distance southward, the romantic rocks on which stands Bamborough Castle.
The abbey, an extensive and beautiful ruin, stands on the mainland at the extremity of the sandy track that leads to Holy Island.
St. Cuthbert was at one time Bishop of Lindisfarne, and a strange superstition respecting him is not even yet quite forgotten there. It is, that on dark and gloomy nights, when the waves rose high and the wind roared, the spirit of St. Cuthbert sat on a fragment of rock on the shore of Holy Island, veiled in the sea-mist, and forged beads for the faithful. The sound of his hammering was heard through the storm, and on the shore next day numbers of the beads were sure to be found. They are sometimes seen now, and are in reality the fossil remains of sea animals called crinoids - ancient dwellers in the deep. Scott tells us:
There is a story of bonnie Prince Charlie connected with Holy Island Castle. During the rising in Scotland in 1715 an adherent of the prince determined, if possible, to get possession of the stronghold for his royal master. The garrison at the time consisted only of a sergeant, a corporal, and twelve men.
Launcelot Errington, the hero of this exploit, was of a good Northumbrian family, and master of a ship then lying in the harbour.
The Jacobite was well known in the country, and visited the castle in a friendly manner, inviting the sergeant and the men not on duty to come off to his ship and sup and have some grog. The invitation was accepted, the sergeant and his men came on board, had a good supper, and so much of the excellent French brandy that they became "drunk and incapable."
The sailors secured them, and Launcelot, accompanied by his nephew, Mark Errington, went on shore, returned to the castle, knocked down and bound the unsuspecting sentinel; turned out the corporal, an old gunner, and two remaining soldiers, and shutting the gates hoisted the Stuart flag, anxiously looking for the reinforcements that had been promised him. But none came, and a party of the king's troops arriving from Berwick, the two who garrisoned the castle knew that nothing remained for them but to escape. They therefore retreated over the walls of the castle to the rocks, hoping to conceal themselves there till it was dark, and then intending to swim to the mainland. But they had not taken the sea into their account; the tide rose and they were obliged to strike out for the mainland at once. They were seen by the soldiers in the castle; one of them fired at Launcelot as he was climbing a rock and wounded him in the thigh. Thus disabled he and his nephew, who would not forsake him, were taken prisoners and conveyed to Berwick jail, where he remained till his wound healed; but during this time the resolute man had been burrowing under the foundation of the prison, depositingthe earth in a great old oven in his room. Through this burrow he and his nephew got outside the jail and made their way to Tweedside. Here they were fortunate enough to find the custom-house boat lying. They took it; rowed themselves across the river, and succeeded in working their way to Bamborough Castle. Here they were concealed for nine days in a peastack, a relation who resided in the castle bringing them food. At length, by night, and by secret paths, the adventurers reached Gateshead, near Newcastle, where they had friends, who secreted them till they could obtain for them a passage from Sunderland to France.
They remained in exile till the rebellion had been suppressed, and a general pardon was offered. Taking advantage of it they returned; and many a time, we may be sure, the uncle and nephew told their friends round the winter fire, how they two alone had taken a royal castle, and had escaped from a king's prison.
To the south-east of Holy Island lie the Ferne Islands; the largest is the Home Island. Here St. Cuthbert built himself a small cell and oratory, and raised the mound that surrounded his dwelling so high, that he could see from it nothing but the heavens; a singular mode of inspiring elevated thoughts. Here the saint passed the last two years of his life.
The coast here is very dangerous, and there are therefore lighthouses on some of the islands. One of these, on Long Stone Island, is memorable as the spot where Grace Darling perilled her life in 1838 to rescue the passengers and crew of the Forfarshire steamer.
In St. Cuthbert's Chapel on the island is a monument to Grace's memory. It consists of a cippus of stone, six feet in height, sculptured with the cross of St. Cuthbert, and bearing the following inscription:-
To the memory of
GRACE HORSLEY DARLING,
a native of Bamburgh,
and an inhabitant
of these Islands,
who died Oct. 20th, A.D. 1842,
aged 26 years.
Poor Grace died of consumption. She was a native of Bamborough, and was lodged, clothed and educated at the school in Bamborough Castle. The trustees of this property have placed a monument to the memory of their heroic pupil in Bamborough churchyard, where she is buried. It bears a recumbent figure of Grace Darling, sculptured in fine Portland stone and surmounted by a Gothic canopy. She is represented lying on a plaited straw mattress with an oar, such as is used by Northumberland boatmen.