A short distance to the east of Lindisfarne Castle, close to the end of Castle Point, are the Holy Island Lime Kilns. They are some of the largest and best preserved in England and, like the castle itself, are in the care of the National Trust. And, again like the castle itself, they are well worth a visit.
Most visitors reach the lime kilns by following the track that descends from the east end of the castle. This brings you to the top of the kilns, and to a fence and a sign that directs you to descend via steps that lead to the foot of the kilns on their eastern side. From here you can enter the kilns at their lower level and explore the interior. The kilns at Castle Point were constructed as a block of six, in two banks of three, and there were access and service tunnels between them, which would have had rails for the horse drawn or man pushed tubs which carried away the lime after it had been raked out through the "eyes", of which there were three or four per kiln.
Limestone is abundant on the north side of Holy Island, and it appears to have been quarried for many centuries. Local limestone was used in the building of Lindisfarne Priory, while burnt lime or quicklime was the basis for making lime mortar for use in buildings. Quicklime was also used to destroy the bodies of infected livestock (or people), while slaked lime was useful in agriculture for neutralising acid soils and lightening clay soils; as a disinfectant; to make caustic soda and soap; to bleach paper; and (perhaps most remarkably) to make sugar whiter. Truly the wonder material of the pre-industrial (and early industrial) age.
The main limestone quarries were at Nessend in the north of Holy Island, and the Castle Point lime kilns were built by William Nicholl of Dundee in 1860 to replace earlier kilns in the north west of the island. Limestone was transported to the kilns along a horse drawn wagonway, and the process involved layering five units of limestone to one of coal until the kiln was full. It was then ignited, and once burning, more limestone and coal would be poured in at the top.
As already noted, the end product would be raked out from the bottom of each kiln, before being transported along a second horse drawn wagonway that went around the north side of Lindisfarne Castle to reach the shore near where the castle gate can now be found. The remains of two jetties can still be seen here, and these were used by William Nicholl's fleet of six ships to transport the quicklime to Scotland. The same ships were used to bring in the smaller quantities of coal required by the process.
The 1861 census showed 35 men working at the lime kilns and at the quarries, many living in a new village which had developed around the latter. William Nicholl seems to have found himself at a commercial disadvantage, however, compared with competitors who could service their lime kilns by railway rather than by sea, and by 1871 the business was already in decline, with 11 men employed at the quarries and 9 at the kilns. It is possible that the venture here was never profitable, and the last of Nicholl's ships to carry quicklime away from Holy Island left in 1883. The lime kilns seem to have been in occasional use, mainly by local farmers, until 1900, but have been silent and cold ever since. The new village around the quarries is said to have been reclaimed by the sand dunes.
It is perhaps no bad thing that the industry was so short lived. This must have been a hellish place, and the working conditions at the top of the kilns and, especially, down in the tunnels beneath and between them, must have been appalling. The heat and constant smoke would have been one factor: another was the corrosive and dangerous nature of the quicklime itself. It certainly seems open to question whether Edward Hudson would have been so attracted to the location of nearby Lindisfarne Castle that he subsequently turned it into an Edwardian Country Mansion if the lime kilns had still been in operation when he visited in 1901.