Cuthbert’s Holy Island
Our pilgrimage reaches its end on Lindisfarne, possibly the holiest site in Britain. Like Cuthbert, we have crossed the hills of the Scottish Borders, and reached the island where Aidan and his Celtic brethren from Iona settled.
The ancient monastery that Cuthbert would have known was fairly insignificant. Like Melrose Abbey, the ruins of the monastery that one finds on the island dates from the high medieval period. After the Viking danger had faded, monks from Durham recolonized Lindisfarne, building a monastery and a large priory church. This monastery became a prize during the border wars between Scotland and England, and ultimately, the monks constructed a fortified wall around the compound, enclosing land to the south of the church and the monastery buildings. The wall still stands.
This is the final installment of an eight part travel series. If you missed the earlier episodes, you might want to click here to start at the beginning.
Like many monastic foundations in England, the church and monastery fell into disrepair and ruin after the Reformation took hold in Britain. The king suppressed the monasteries and expelled the monks. In the 1800s, the church tower collapsed, and today an isolated stone arch frames the sky, linking the weather-worn remains of two medieval columns.
The abbot of Melrose Abbey had sent St Cuthbert to assume the post of Prior at Lindisfarne. Part of his responsibilities included reforming the life and customs of the monks in his charge, bringing their practices into conformity with the Roman practices that were displacing the indigenous Celtic ideas. Cuthbert’s reforms were not universally embraced; some of his new charges resisted Mediterranean innovations. Ultimately, Cuthbert found that the job of wrestling fractious monks was too much for him. He sought permission to step down from his position and he left the community to live as a hermit. His first hermitage was constructed on a small island that floats right off the Lindisfarne beach. Known as St Cuthbert’s Island, one can still wade out to this minute stone circle at low tide. Just as Lindisfarne is cut off from the mainland twice a day, so too would Cuthbert have been free of contact with the monks when the water raced across the marshes.
That isolation proved insufficient, and Cuthbert sailed east to one of the Farne Islands. This group of shattered stones, flung down in a group off the Northumbrian coast, ensured privacy. Cuthbert lived in splendid isolation on the rocks, surrounded by sea birds and demons, until King Egfrid appointed him the next Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685. Messages announcing the good news were sent to the island. Cuthbert failed to respond. Finally, the king himself was forced to take boat and employ his royal presence to pry Cuthbert, like a limpet, off his spray-soaked rocks.
Cuthbert reluctantly assumed the post of Bishop of Lindisfarne, and spent the final two years of his life in pastoral duties. Having received warning that his end was approaching, he boarded a boat for his beloved hermitage on Farne Island. According to Bede, one of the monks asked him when next they would see Cuthbert, and the aged bishop replied, “When you bring my body back here.” Two months later, that unhappy day arrived, and the monks returned Cuthbert’s corpse to Lindisfarne, where it was interred beside the altar in the church. As we saw in an earlier installment of this series, his body did not remain long on Lindisfarne. Today it resides in Durham Cathedral.
The other significant landmark on the island stands seaward of the monastery ruins. Lindisfarne Castle was built in the sixteenth century to serve as a defensive fortification against the Scots. Many of the stones that make up its walls were taken from the defunct monastery. In 1901, the castle was acquired by Edward Hudson, and he employed Sir Edwin Lutyens to refurbish it. In addition to rehabilitating the castle, Lutyens also had the idea to invert some old herring fishing boats, and convert them into sheds, which remain to this day.
St Cuthbert’s Way is a fine walk through dazzling country. I am not certain, however, that it ever really felt like more than an arduous hike for me. Other than Lindisfarne, and possibly St Cuthbert’s Cave, there is no real connection between the trail and St Cuthbert’s life. Even the point of origin, Melrose Abbey, was not in existence when Cuthbert began his march.
Most of what we know about Cuthbert has been filtered through the myth-making of the Venerable Bede, and then further obscured by the passage of centuries. Older pilgrimage routes, like the Camino de Santiago de Compostella, have a history that reinforces their significance. The Spanish path follows a well-worn route that has been sanctified by the footsteps of millions of pilgrims over more than a thousand years. Each town, every church and monastery, has a history, a place in an overarching story. I think that is what was missing on St Cuthbert’s Way. It is new, ahistorical, a route that has very little real connection with the life of Cuthbert.
On the other hand, it was a lovely hike, a fine way to spend four days in the British countryside.
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