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The strange story of the Farne Island devils

4 min read

The island that Saint Aidan (born around 590 and died in 651), an Irish monk that restored Christianity to Northumberland, (and later St Cuthbert) chose for his retreat was the largest and closest to shore of the Farne Islands, a volcanic archipelago off the coast of Northumberland, England.
It is known as Farne Island (Farena Ealande), which may mean literally “Island of the Pilgrims”, and sometimes as Inner Farne.

In summer, artic terns nest in the island’s carpet of sea campion and over-protective parents divebomb the heads of visitors treading the boardwalk paths but, in any case, It is possible to walk within a few feet of puffins, eiders, shags, guillemots and kittiwakes nesting on the rocky ledges.
In winter, on the other hand, the island must have been a bleak place. Sloping down from high cliffs to the south and west, it was described by Bede – an English Benedictine monk who wrote scientific, historical and theological works – not only as “utterly lacking in water, corn, and trees” and “ill suited for human habitation”, but also “frequented by evil spirits”. (Ecclesiastical History, IV. 28)
These supernatural creatures are described also in other sources as a pack of pigmy, goat-riding devils, with their hideous faces said to be the inspiration for the sanctuary knocker of Durham Cathedral.
The legend is found in Bede’s “Life of Saint Cuthbert”, where he reports that no one could live there in peace until the saint drove them away them from the island.

However, it is in the “Life of Bartholomew”, a hermit who lived here in the late twelfth century, that we find the most detailed description of these strange assailants who would appear suddenly and without warning: “… clad in cowls and riding upon goats, black in complexion, short in stature, their countenances most hideous, their heads long, the appearance of the whole troop horrible. Like soldiers they brandished in their hands lances, which they darted after the fashion of war.”
Following their banishment, these supposedly devils retreated no further than the neighbouring islands of Wideopens and were kept at bay by means of a fence of straw, showing how even a weak thing could be made strong with the sign of the cross.

These creatures are sometimes rationalised as the descendants of early settlers or aborigines cut off from the mainland, and insular dwarfism is indeed a recognised phenomenon.
Moreover, the remains of an extinct humanoid, standing in life less than 120 cm, were discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2004 and nicknamed the “hobbit”!
Scientific and supernatural explanations aside, it is not difficult to see how the legend developed: the shrieking of the wind in the rocks, the thunder of the surf in the gullies and the plaintive calls of seabirds may well have added to the impression of these islands as haunted places, particularly to the over-wrought minds of monks at the time, deprived of food, heat and sleep.
Not by chance, Saints’ lives are full of stories of holy hermits hounded by demons, not simply metaphors for the spiritual temptations they faced, but as real physical presences capable of inflicting actual bodily harm. Monks on Mount Athos, the world centre of Orthodox monasticism, for istance, have reported being punched and kicked by “demons”, frustrated at their inability to find a chink in their spiritual armour.

In any case, during one of the popular day trips out to the Farne Islands, the visitor is faced with sights and sounds identical to those experienced by Aidan himself from the bow of a curragh: the shrieking pandemonium of seabirds making use of every shelf and ledge, the streaked Pinnacles of Staple Island, perhaps from the Old English “stapol”, literally “a pillar of stone”. But he would have seen, too, the seals lounging on their beds of seaweed with alert expressions.
Did the architectural quality of these black volcanic structures (spewed forth from the internal molten core of the earth in ancient times) peopled by squawking seabirds inspire legends that some of its demonic inhabitants had made a second home here?

I don’t have a single decent photo and so Images from web – Google Research

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