Saints, sinners and some bloke called Shakespeare: a Halloween tale

Personally, I blame Henry VIII for why it’s so damned expensive to get into ancient monuments in England these days. For a Scot, of course, that’s kind of the least thing on the big guy’s charge sheet, compared with killing our most charismatic, talented king of the time, James IV, at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513 (to be fair, James did do the invading on this occasion, spurred on by the French).

That’s a whole other story. What I’m talking about here is Henry’s decision to invent his own religion, meaning deserted abbeys and monasteries became the responsibility of the State. So while getting into the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, in the northwest of Spain, is free whether you’re a pilgrim or an infidel, getting into Lindisfarne Priory, owned by English Heritage, costs 30 of your English pounds. Whereas if Henry had minded his p’s and q’s and found another way of getting a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the Vatican Bank might well have still been picking up the tab for repairs. Just saying, Henry.

Anyhoo. Regular readers of this blog will know I’m not really much of a one for organised religion – to paraphrase Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t join one that would have me as a member – but that’s not to say I’m not drawn to spiritual places, especially the ones with photogenic ruins. And so, last weekend, on our way back from two nights in Northumberland, we found ourselves on a kind of reverse pilgrimage (I’ll explain that concept in a future blog, relating to my plans for revisiting the Camino de Santiago next September).

In this context, it meant our first stop was at the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Short version of its history for those not in the know: in AD 635 St Aidan journeyed from Iona and decided to found his monastery here. All went well, with the monks producing beautiful illuminated copies of the Gospels to while away the cold nights, until the Vikings turned up in 793, did what Vikings used to do, and went off with their holy treasure. This became a fairly regular occurrence in religious establishments on the UK’s east coast over the centuries that followed, with the monks’ only revenge being writing up spiteful reviews of the Vikings as house guests on Airbnb.

The net result of all this history is, of course, some very pretty ruins, along with the still-existing Priory I mentioned before, which is the only bit you have to pay to get into. You get to the island, by the way, by means of a causeway, so you have to check time and tides to make sure you can get there and back in the time available. There’s a car park you’re directed to which means you walk into the village, which aside from the ruins is a jolly little collection of houses, coffee shops and pubs.

Unlike Iona, which we’ve been to before, Lindisfarne doesn’t tend to feel all that spiritual: but then, we visited during the day, amongst the crowds, and were too tight to go into the Priory. I reckon if you stayed the night on the island and went a walk either at sunrise or sunset, you’d get a much better picture of what it would have been like to be a monk, peering out to sea and hoping that sail on the horizon wasn’t Danish.

Leaving Lindisfarne, we headed north  and recrossed the border (the site of the Flodden battle not far away) and headed to North Berwick, partly to see the place in general (neither of us could ever remember having gone there) and partly because of my interest in some other religious difficulties there.

What I didn’t know was that we were retracing the footsteps of St Cuthbert, and St Aidan, who generally wandered about northern England and southern Scotland way back when, and are now the inspiration for lots of ‘pilgrim ways,’ springing up all over the place. North Berwick was the jumping off point to get to Fife, and particular St Andrews, for example.

An old kirk. Just not the right one

Before we found the ruined kirk I had in mind, we found another one, which it turned out had been its replacement and then been left in its turn to become a picturesque ruin in Victorian times. The original Old Kirk of North Berwick, we learned, was now mostly reduced to a few bits of wall, on the site of the Scottish Sealife Centre down at the harbour.

Back in the day, it had been quite the place to go for a spot of serious religioning. It’s just not all of it was the Christian religion.

We know all this thanks to the (church appointed) torturers of a young girl, Geilis Duncan, in 1590 who, under what even the folks of the time considered considerable duress, told an amazing story of gatherings of witches at the Old Kirk trying to conjure up a storm to sink the vessel carrying King James VI and his new queen, Anne of Denmark, back to Scotland. In the end over a hundred women and men were implicated in the witch trials, including Agnes Sampson, a well respected elderly woman from the village of Humbie, and Dr John Fian, described as a schoolmaster and ‘scholar’ in Prestonpans.

Many of the people accused of witchcraft suffered horrible fates: Geilis Duncan, Agnes Sampson and John Fian were all executed by being strangled and then burnt at the stake. There’s a campaign now led by Clare Mitchell QC to get justice for those convicted under the Witchcraft Act.

And the Shakespeare connection? James, another of our most learned Scottish kings, took a close interest in the trials, and included an account of them in his 1597 book Daemonologie. When he became James VI of Scotland and I of the United Kingdom in 1603, he moved down to London, and by 1605 a certain ambitious playwright, keen to curry favour with his new royal patron, had got up a thing about his ancestors and some witches. Some say that some of the dialogue in Macbeth is from an actual Black Mass.

These days North Berwick comes across as a fairly douce kind of burgh where one certainly wouldn’t expect any of that sort of thing to go on. It’s the kind of place Edinburgh bankers retire to for the golf.

Standing at the Sealife Centre, looking out to the Forth, your eye is drawn to the Bass Rock, these days renowned for its seabird colonies. Apparently a St Baldred lived there as a hermit around AD 600: presumably he just couldn’t be doing with all these other missionaries stravaiging about the countryside converting people and just wanted a bit of peace.

Periodically occupied as a military outpost, in the 17th century it was used as a prison for Covenanters, who were the Scottish hard line Presbyterians of the day, persecuted by the ‘official’ Protestants then in charge by being locked up on a remote rock, with no fresh water of its own, half way into the North Sea.

Did I say I’m not a fan of organised religion?


(Picture credit: the better ones are probably Alison’s).






  1. An excellent trip. It’s good to get away. As for Shakespeare: I’m continually amazed by how often his plays are produced, even though he’s been gone for 400 years. What do you think accounts for this, beside the fact that he was a genius?

    • I’m not sure, Neil. The language – which is the same as the King James Bible, of course – is sufficiently far away to sound poetic, whilst still being just about understandable. I do think it’s a bit of a self-perpetuating thing though.

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