Isles of Scilly

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West Cornwall with the Isles of Scilly

The Isles of Scilly are a cluster of islands forming part of Cornwall, lying in the Atlantic Ocean 28 miles off the southwestern tip of the mainland of Great Britain.

The adjective "Scillonian" is sometimes used for people or things related to the archipelago. The Isles of Scilly also form part of the Duchy of Cornwall.

In 2002, the plant conservation charity Plantlife chose thrift (Armeria maritima) as the islands' flower.[1][2]


An aerial photo of the Isles of Scilly

The islands which may be distinguished from mere rocks number about 40, and the group has a total area of 4,041 acres, but only five islands are inhabited St Mary's, Tresco, St Martin's, St Agnes and Bryher. Samson was inhabited until 1855.

The chief islands are:

Island Population (2001) Area Main village
St Mary's 1,666 1,554 acres Hugh Town
Tresco 180 434 acres New Grimsby
St Martin's (with White Island) 142 586 acres Higher Town
St Agnes (with Gugh) 73 366 acres Saint Agnes
Bryher (with Gweal) 92 326 acres Bryher
Samson - 94 acres  
Annet  – 52 acres  
St Helen's  – 49 acres  
Teän  – 50 acres  
Great Ganilly  – 32 acres  
remaining 45 islets  – 124 acres  
Isles of Scilly 2,153 3,961 acres Hugh Town

In 1975, the whole group of islands was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including all of the uninhabited islands and rocks. It is nevertheless the smallest such area in the United Kingdom. The islands of Annet and Samson have large terneries and the islands are well populated by seals. The Isles of Scilly are the only British haunt of the Lesser White-toothed Shrew (Crocidura suaveolens).

The islands are famous amongst birdwatchers, especially twitchers for their ability to attract rare birds from all corners of the globe. The peak time of year for this is generally in October when it is not unusual for several of the rarest birds in Europe to share this archipelago. One reason for the success of these islands in producing rarities is the extensive coverage these islands get from birdwatchers, but archipelagos are often favoured by rare birds which like to make landfall and eat there before continuing their journeys and often arrive on far flung islands first.


The Isles of Scilly form an archipelago of five inhabited islands and numerous other small rocky islets (around 140 in total) 28 miles off Land's End. They are all composed of granite of early Permian age, an exposed part of the Cornubian batholith believed to be a single immense rock, which surfaces as the Isles of Scilly, the Penwith peninsula, Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor.

The islands' position produces a place of great contrast: the warming effect of the sea means they rarely have frost or snow, which allows local farmers to grow flowers well ahead of those in mainland Britain. The chief agricultural export is cut flowers, mostly daffodils. However exposure to Atlantic winds means that spectacular winter gales lash the islands from time to time. This is reflected in the landscape, most clearly seen on Tresco where the lush sub-tropical Abbey Gardens on the sheltered southern end of the island contrast with the low heather and bare rock sculpted by the wind on the exposed northern end.

The islands are wild and picturesque, with sheer cliffs and many large caves hollowed out by the Atlantic. Owing to the reefs and shoals by which these shores are surrounded, navigation becomes perilous in rough weather, and many disasters have occurred, most infamously when in 1707 when Sir Cloudesley Shovel perished in the shipwreck of his fleet on the rocks of Scilly. A local proverb tells that for every man who dies a natural death on the islands the sea takes nine. Thankfully, since the building of lighthouses and improvements in navigation, that grim proverb is no longer true.


The Isles of Scilly are struck by the first landfall of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and consequently have the mildest and warmest climate in the United Kingdom. The average annual temperature is 11.6 °C, in comparison to London, where it is 11.0 °C. Winters are the warmest in the country due to southerly latitude and moderating effects of the ocean. Summers are not as warm as on the mainland.

The islands are perhaps the sunniest areas in the United Kingdom with on average 7.6 hours a day in July. The lowest temperature ever recorded was -6.4 °C on 13 January 1987 and the highest was 27.8 °C on 16 August 1947.[3] The maximum snowfall was 9 inches on the 12 January 1987. On average there are fewer than 10 days of air frost a year.

This climate, bathed in the Gulf Stream, enables the islands to grown plants not found growing freely elsewhere in the British Isles and to grow flowers much earlier than elsewhere; hence the islands' profitable export of cut flowers to the mainland.


Ancient history

View from Tresco
Looking across Tresco

Scilly has been inhabited since the Stone Age and its history has been one of subsistence living until the early 20th century. Farming and fishing continue today, but the main industry now is tourism. The islands were once supposed to be the Cassiterides (Tin Isles) visited by the Phoenicians and named by the Greeks, but this theory has long since been abandoned.

It is likely that until relatively recent times the Isles were much larger with many of them joined into one island. Rising sea levels flooded the central plain around 400–500 AD, forming the current islands.[4]

Evidence for the older large island includes:

  • A description in Roman times describes Scilly as "Scillonia insula" in the singular, as if there were a single island or there were one island much bigger than any of the others.
  • Remains of a prehistoric farm have been found on Nornour, which is now a small rocky skerry far too small for farming.[2][5]
  • At certain low tides the sea becomes shallow enough for people to walk between some of the islands.
  • Ancient field walls are visible below the high tide line off some of the islands (for example Samson).
  • Some of the Cornish language place names also appear to reflect past shorelines, and former land areas.[6]
  • The whole of southern Great Britain has been steadily sinking in opposition to post-glacial rebound in the north: this has caused the rias (drowned river valleys) on the southern Cornish coast, for example the River Fal and the Tamar Estuary.

Mediæval romance told of a drowned land midway between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly, known as Lyonesse in Arthurian literature. This may be a folk memory of inundated lands, but this legend is also common amongst the ancient Britons; the legend of Ys is a parallel and cognate legend in Brittany. The name of Lyonesse is no myth: Leon is part of Brittany.

Norse and Norman period

Olaf Tryggvason, who visited Scilly in 986

In 995 Olaf Tryggvason would become King Olaf I of Norway. Born c. 960, Olaf had raided various European cities and fought in several wars. The saga tells that he met a Christian seer on the Isles of Scilly and that the seer told him:

Thou wilt become a renowned king, and do celebrated deeds. Many men wilt thou bring to faith and baptism, and both to thy own and others' good; and that thou mayst have no doubt of the truth of this answer, listen to these tokens. When thou comest to thy ships many of thy people will conspire against thee, and then a battle will follow in which many of thy men will fall, and thou wilt be wounded almost to death, and carried upon a shield to thy ship; yet after seven days thou shalt be well of thy wounds, and immediately thou shalt let thyself be baptised.

The legend continues that, as the seer foretold, Olaf was attacked by a group of mutineers upon returning to his ships. As soon as he had recovered from his wounds, he let himself be baptised. He then stopped raiding Christian cities and lived in England and Ireland. In 995 he used an opportunity to return to Norway. When he arrived, the Haakon Jarl was already facing a revolt. Olaf Tryggvason persuaded the rebels to accept him as their king, and Jarl Haakon was murdered by his own slave, while he was hiding from the rebels in a pig sty.

In the mid-12th century there was reportedly a Viking attack on the Isles of Scilly, called Syllingar by the Norse,[7] recorded in the Orkneyinga saga— Sweyn Asleifsson "went south, under Ireland, and seized a barge belonging to some monks in Syllingar and plundered it."[7] (Chap LXXIII)

"...the three chiefs Swein, Þorbjörn and Eirik went out on a plundering expedition. They went first to the Suðreyar [Hebrides], and all along the west to the Syllingar, where they gained a great victory in Maríuhöfn on Columba's-mass [9 June], and took much booty. Then they returned to the Orkneys."[7]

"Maríuhöfn", literally means "Mary's Harbour/Haven", which is assumed to be the harbour on St Mary's.

In early times one group of islands was in the possession of a confederacy of hermits. King Henry I gave it to the abbey of Tavistock who established a priory on Tresco, which was abolished at the Reformation.[8]

Later Middle Ages

Scilly is one of the Hundreds of Cornwall

At the turn of the 14th century, the Abbot and convent of Tavistock Abbey petitioned the king, saying they:

state that they hold certain isles in the sea between Cornwall and Ireland, of which the largest is called Scilly, to which ships come passing between France, Normandy, Spain, Bayonne, Gascony, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall: and, because they feel that in the event of a war breaking out between the kings of England and France, or between any of the other places mentioned, they would not have enough power to do justice to these sailors, they ask that they might exchange these islands for lands in Devon, saving the churches on the islands appropriated to them.[9]

It is not known at what point the islands' inhabitants stopped speaking Cornish, but the language seems to have gone into decline during the Middle Ages. The islands appear to have lost the old language before parts of Penwith on the mainland.

Early modern period

During the English Civil War, the Parliamentarians captured the isles, only to see their garrison mutiny and return the isles to the Royalists. By 1651, the Royalist governor, Sir John Grenville, was using the islands as a base for privateering raids on Commonwealth and Dutch shipping. The Dutch admiral Maarten Tromp sailed to the isles and on arriving on 30 May 1651 demanded compensation. In absence of compensation or a satisfactory reply, he declared war on England in June. It was during this period that the Three Hundred and Thirty Five Years' War started between the isles and the Netherlands.

In June 1651, Admiral Robert Blake recaptured the isles for the Parliamentarians. Blake's initial attack on Old Grimsby failed, but the next attacks succeeded in taking Tresco and Bryher. Blake placed a battery on Tresco to fire on St Mary's, but one of the guns exploded, killing its crew and injuring Blake himself. A second battery proved more successful. Subsequently, Grenville and Blake negotiated terms that permitted the Royalists to surrender honourably. The Parliamentary forces then set to fortifying the islands. They built Cromwell's Castle, a gun platform on the west side of Tresco, using materials scavenged from an earlier gun platform further up the hill. Although this poorly-sited earlier platform dated back to the 1550s, it is now referred to as King Charles's Castle.

The islands appear to have been raided frequently by Barbary pirates in the 17th century.

During the night of the 22 October 1707 the isles were the scene of the Scilly naval disaster, when out of a fleet of Royal Navy 21 ships commanded by the famous Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, 6 were driven onto the cliffs; 4 of these were wrecked, with the loss of at least 1,450 dead, including the admiral, who was murdered by robbers on the beach. This disaster led to the great effort by the Admiralty to find an accurate way to measure longitude.

Governors of Scilly

Since 1539 the Isles of Scilly have been administrated as a part of the Duchy of Cornwall. An early governor of Scilly was Thomas Godolphin, whose son Francis received a lease on the Isles in 1568. They were styled Governors of Scilly and the Godolphins and their Osborne relatives held this position until 1834.

In 1834, Augustus John Smith acquired the lease from the Duchy for £20,000. Smith created the title Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly for himself, and many of his actions were unpopular at the time, though sober history has recorded that under his and his nephew's wise autocracy the islands prospered. The lease remained in his family until it expired for most of the Isles in 1920 when ownership reverted to the Duchy of Cornwall. Today, the Dorrien-Smith estate still holds the lease for the island of Tresco.

The Governors of Scilly have been:

  • 1568–1608 Sir Francis Godolphin (1540–1608)
  • 1608–1613 Sir William Godolphin of Godolphin (1567–1613)
  • 1613–1636 William Godolphin (1611–1636)
  • 1636–1643 Sidney Godolphin (1610–1643) (the poet)
  • 1643–1667 Sir Francis Godolphin of Godolphin (1605–1667)
  • 1667–1712 Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin (1645–1712)
  • 1712–1766 Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin (1678–1766)
  • 1766–1785 Thomas Osborne, 4th Duke of Leeds (1713–1789)
  • 1785–1799 Francis Osborne, 5th Duke of Leeds (1751–1799)
  • 1799–1831 George Osborne, 6th Duke of Leeds (1775–1838)
  • 1834–1872 Augustus John Smith (1804–1872)
  • 1872–1918 Thomas Algernon Smith-Dorrien-Smith
  • 1918–1920 Arthur Algernon Dorrien-Smith


The Scillonian Cross

The flag of the islands is the Scillonian Cross. This was adopted in a local effort launched by the local newspaper, the Scilly News in 2002, and voted for by readers.[10]

The flag is officially registered by the Flag Institute in the UK Flags Register.[11]


Education is available on the islands up to age 16. There is one school, the Five Islands School, which provides primary schooling at sites on St Agnes, St Mary's, St Martin's and Tresco, and secondary schooling at a site on St Mary's. Secondary students from outside St Mary's live at a school boarding house (Mundesley House) during the week.

Sixteen to eighteen year olds are entitled to a free sixth form place at a state school or sixth form college on the mainland, and are provided with free flights and a grant towards accommodation.

The predominance of tourism means that "tourism is by far the main sector throughout each of the individual islands, in terms of employment... [and] this is much greater than other remote and rural areas in the United Kingdom”. Tourism accounts for approximately 63 per cent of all employment.[12]

Businesses dependent on tourism, with the exception of a few hotels, tend to be small enterprises typically employing fewer than 4 people; many of these are family run, suggesting an entrepreneurial culture amongst the local population.[12] However, much of the work generated by this, with the exception of management, is low skilled and thus poorly paid, especially for those involved in cleaning, catering and retail.[13]

Because of the seasonality of tourism, many jobs on the islands are seasonal and part time, so work cannot be guaranteed throughout the year. Some islanders take up other temporary jobs ‘out of season’ to compensate for this. Due to a lack of local casual labour at peak holiday times, many of the larger employers accommodate guest workers, who come to the islands for the summer to have a ‘working holiday’.


Historical context

Since the mid-eighteenth century the economy of Scilly has relied on trade with the mainland and beyond as a means of sustaining its population. Over the years the nature of this trade has varied, due to wider economic and political factors that have seen the rise and fall of industries such as kelp harvesting, pilotage, smuggling, fishing, shipbuilding and, latterly, flower farming. In a study of the Scillionian economy by Neate in 1987, it was found that many farms on the islands were struggling to remain profitable due to increasing costs and strong competition from overseas producers resulting in a diversification into tourism. Recent statistics suggest that agriculture on the islands now represents less than 2 percent of all employment.[14][12][15]


The Daymark on St Martin's; the nearest point to mainland Great Britain

Today, tourism is estimated to account for 85% of the islands' income. The islands have been successful in attracting this money due to their special environment, favourable summer climate, relaxed culture, efficient co-ordination of tourism providers and good transport links by sea and air to the mainland, uncommon in scale to similar sized island communities.[16][17] The majority of visitors stay on St Mary's, which has a concentration of holiday accommodation and other amenities. Of the other inhabited islands, Tresco is run as a timeshare resort, and is consequently the most obviously tourist-oriented. Bryher and St Martin's are more unspoilt, although each has a hotel and other accommodation. St Agnes has no hotel and is the least developed of the inhabited islands.

Tourism is also a highly seasonal industry owing to its reliance on outdoor recreation, and the low level of tourist activity in winter causes a near shut-down of the islands during that season. However, the tourist season benefits from an extended period of business in October when many birdwatchers arrive.


Because of its position, Scilly is the first landing for many migrant birds, including extreme rarities from North America and Siberia. Scilly is situated far into the Atlantic Ocean, so many American vagrant birds will make first European landfall in the archipelago.

Scilly is responsible for many firsts for Britain, and is particularly good at producing vagrant American passerines. If an extremely rare bird turns up, the island will see a significant increase in numbers of birders. This type of birding, chasing after rare birds, is called "twitching".


Scillonian III approaching St Mary's Harbour

The islands are linked to the mainland by both air and sea services, and rely on boat services for inter-island connections.

The other islands are linked to St Mary's by a network of inter-island launches.


The freehold of the islands is the property of the Duchy of Cornwall (except for Hugh Town on St Mary's, which was sold to the inhabitants in 1949). The duchy also holds 3,921 acres as duchy property, part of the duchy's landholding.[18]

All the uninhabited islands, islets and rocks and much of the untenanted land on the inhabited islands is managed by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, which leases these lands from the Duchy for the rent of one daffodil a year.[19] The Trust currently has three salaried staff and twelve trustees, who are all residents of the Isles.

Few properties are privately owned, with many units being let by the Duchy of Cornwall, the Council, and a few by housing associations. The management of these subsequently affects the possibility of residency on the islands.[20] Housing demand outstrips supply; a problem compounded by restrictions on further development designed to protect the islands' unique environment and prevent the infrastructural carrying capacity from being exceeded. Thus prices have increased while incomes remain low, and housing problems are an ever-present political topic.


Gig racing

Gig racing is a popular sport; the gigs are Cornish pilot gigs; fast rowing boats with a crew of six (or in one case, seven) and they race between the main islands.

Visitors are told that gig racing started in the race to collect salvage from shipwrecks on the rocks around Scilly, but in truth the boats were to deliver a pilot to incoming vessels, to guide them through the hazardous reefs and shallows, for pilotage was once a substantial source of income in the islands.

The World Pilot Gig Championships take place every year over the May Day bank holiday weekend. The event originally involved crews from the Islands and a few crews from Cornwall, but in the intervening years the amount of pilot gigs attending has increased with crews coming from all over the South-West and some from even further afield.[21]


The Isles of Scilly feature what is reportedly the smallest football league in the world, the Isles of Scilly Football League. The league's two clubs, Woolpack Wanderers and Garrison Gunners, play each other seventeen times a season and compete for two cups as well as the league title. The two rivals share a ground, Garrison Field, but travel to the mainland for part of the year to play other non-professional clubs.

In December 2006, Sport England published a survey which revealed that residents of the Isles of Scilly were the most active in England in sports and other fitness activities. 32% of the population participate at least 3 times a week for 30 minutes.[22]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Isles of Scilly)


  1. "County flower of Isles of Scilly". Plantlife International – The Wild Plant Conservation Charity. Retrieved 7 April 2006. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Thorgrim. "Nornour". Retrieved 18 November 2009. 
  3. "Local Climate Profile" (PDF). Council of the Isles of Scilly. 28 May 2009. Retrieved 8 February 2010. 
  4. "Ancient Sites on the Isles of Scilly". Cornwall in focus. Retrieved 15 October 2008. 
  5. Dudley, Dorothy. "Excavations on Nor'Nour in the Isles of Scilly, 1962-6", in The Archaeological Journal, CXXIV, 1967 (includes the description of over 250 Roman fibulae found at the site)
  6. Weatherhill, Craig (2007) Cornish Placenames and Language. Wilmslow: Sigma Leisure.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Anderson, Joseph (Ed.) (1893) Orkneyinga saga. Translated by Jón A. Hjaltalin & Gilbert Goudie. Edinburgh. James Thin and Mercat Press (1990 reprint). ISBN 0-901824-25-9
  8. Cornish Church Guide; p. 194
  9. National Archives
  10. "How Do You Get A Scillonian Cross". Scilly Archive. Retrieved 16 January 2007. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Isles of Scilly Integrated Area Plan 2001–2004, Isles of Scilly Partnership 2001
  13. J.Urry, The Tourist Gaze (2nd edition), London, 2002
  14. Gibson, F, My Scillionian Home... its past, its present, its future, St Ives, 1980
  15. Neate, S, The role of tourism in sustaining farm structures and communities on the Isles of Scilly in M Bouquet and M Winter (eds) Who From Their Labours Rest? Conflict and practice in rural tourism Aldershot, 1987
  16. Isles of Scilly Local Plan: A 2020 Vision, Council of the Isles of Scilly, 2004
  17. Isles of Scilly 2004, imagine..., Isles of Scilly Tourist Board, 2004
  18. Mitchel, Sandy. Duchy of Cornwall – Prince Charles' Backyard – Prince Charles – Not Your Typical Radical. National Geographic Magazine. May 2006:96–115. Map ref 104. Map source Duchy of Cornwall Property Services Department Sandy Mitchell. "Prince Charles not your typical radical". National Geographic. Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  19. Duchy of Cornwall website
  20. Martin D, 'Heaven and Hell', in Inside Housing, 31 October 2004
  21. Rick Persich, Chairman World Pilot Gigs Championships Committee.. "World Pilot Gig Championships – Isles of Scilly". Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  22. "Active People Survey – national factsheet appendix (Microsoft Excel)". Sport England. Retrieved 16 January 2007. 

Further reading

  • Woodley, George (1822) A View of the Present State of the Scilly Islands: exhibiting their vast importance to the British empire, the improvements of which they are susceptible, and a particular account of the means lately adopted for the amelioration of the condition of the inhabitants, by the establishment and extension of their fisheries. 344 p. London: Rivington
Isles of Scilly

St Mary's  • St Agnes  • Tresco  • Bryher  • St Martin's  • Gugh
Annet  •
Bishop Rock  • Crim Rocks  • Eastern Isles  • English Island  • Great Ganilly  • Gweal  • Norrard Rocks  • Rosevear  • Round Island  • Samson  • St Helens  • Teän  • Western Rocks  • White Island  • Zantman's Rock

Hundreds of Cornwall

East Wivelshire • Kerrier • Lesnewth • Penwith • Powdershire • Pydershire • Isles of Scilly • Stratton • Triggshire • West Wivelshire