We’ve come to Lindisfarne to search for Saint Cuthbert, but we’re not the only ones. The island attracts many pilgrims, also on the tracks of the saint. Holy Island has always lured visitors in pursuit of the sacred, but many of the modern pilgrims are looking at the island through a particular lens. This can be summed up in one word: Celtic. There are Celtic crystals, Celtic liturgies and Celtic crosses. The modern pilgrimage movement casts the religious past of monastery of Lindisfarne as part of the Celtic world. Academics have worked hard to dismantle the notion of a unified “Celtic” church which encompassed the diverse and varied religious traditions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, but it still casts a spell on many who come to visit Lindisfarne or who try to follow a putative Celtic path in their Christian faith. For them, the idea of a Celtic church embraces a lack of hierarchy, an inclusive approach to women, an ecumenical perspective and an ecological awareness. These are all laudable and aspirational approaches to a faith-based life or indeed a non-faith based life. Whilst, few of these qualities seem to have been actually present in the Insular church, I am not so much interested in an exegesis of the tenets of Celtic Christianity.
I’m more interested in thinking about how the movement has engaged with the heritage and archaeology of Lindisfarne itself. If we want to take a strict historical perspective, whilst the monastery was certainly founded by monks from the great Western Scottish monastery of Iona in 635, its direct affiliation with the Ionan tradition came to a pretty abrupt end in AD664 when after failing to persuade King Oswiu to maintain the Ionan tradition in Northumbria, Colmán and many monks from Lindisfarne left and returned first to Iona and then further westwards to Western Ireland. Although, the Northumbrian church continued to maintain some links with churches to the north and west, after this point it was firmly part of the mainstream of Anglo-Saxon “Roman” Christianity.
Assuming that ecclesiastical activity ended on the island in AD875 (an admittedly debateable assumption), this means that of the 240-year life of the early medieval monastery, it was under direct Ionan influence for less than 10% of its existence. Yet, it is this brief Celtic introit to the monastic history of the island that has seized peoples imagination. I suspect that the non-hierarchical “Celtic” church gets implicitly contrasted with a perceived hierarchical and authoritarian ‘Roman’ Anglo-Saxon church – the word ‘Roman’ in particular for many people is particularly redolent with the notions of Empire and repression; whilst the modern ‘Celtic’ world has often embraced nationalist movements against Anglo-Saxon (English) political control (or in the case of Brittany the centralised political dominance of Paris).
There may also be an element of ‘landscape determinism' at play. Much of the English North Sea littoral is low-lying and marshy, dominated by salt marsh, sand banks and fens. Up in North Northumberland though, the coastline is different. The presence of the rocky outcrops and crags of the whin sill on which Bamburgh, the Farne Islands and the Heugh and Castle crag on Lindisfarne itself give a very different structure to the landscape. The presence of the Farnes provide an archipelagic dimension that is more like the West of Scotland than East Anglia. The stone vernacular architecture, and even the wildlife – treelike fuschias and stone walls covered with valerian and stonecrop – combine to make a landscape that feels as much part of the Irish sea world, Pembrokeshire or Western Brittany, as part of the North Sea. Although only an hour from urban Tyneside, it is easy to imagine you are looking out into the Atlantic.
Given this sense of being in the “Celtic West” it is perhaps not surprising that the symbol most regularly deployed to evoke “Celtic” Lindisfarne is the wheel-headed Celtic cross, a design most associated with the high crosses of Ireland and Iona. Reproductions of these types of crosses can be found in souvenir shops, whilst a giant ring-headed cross looms over the statue of St Aidan that stands in the parish churchyard.
The Celtic Christian tradition has seized on a very particular, and relatively brief, period of the monastery’s history, and seemingly capitalised on the physical evocation of a western landscape in the north-east of England. The irony is that although we have a considerable body of early medieval sculpture from Holy Island, there is only one ring-headed cross amongst these stones, and this is most likely dateable to the 11th century and probably the sculpture most distant from the period of direct Irish influence. Rather than engaging with the actual archaeology and material culture of monastery of Lindisfarne itself, an external and more clearly Hiberno-Scottish ascetic has been imported to stand as a metaphor for the Celtic world that is hard to materialise directly from the physical remains on the island. In the 7th century Oswald and Aidan created Lindisfarne as a Northumbrian analogue for Iona, the 20th and 21st century pilgrims to the island seem to have done exactly the same thing.