Isles of Scilly
Map of the Isles of Scilly
Location in relation to Cornwall
|Location||Celtic Sea, 45 km (28 mi) off the coast of Cornwall; English Channel|
|Total islands||5 inhabited, 140 others|
|Major islands||St Mary's, Tresco, St Martin's, Bryher, St Agnes|
|Area||16.03 km2 (6.189 sq mi)( Ranked 323rd)|
|Status||Sui generis, Unitary|
|Capital city||Hugh Town|
|Leadership||Cllr Mrs Julia Day|
|Executive||Philip Hygate BA, FRSA|
|Designated:||13 August 2001|
|Population||2,200 ( Ranked 326th) (as of 2011 est.)|
|Ethnic groups||97.3% White British, 2.4% Other White, 0.3% Mixed|
The Isles of Scilly (pron.: / /; Cornish: Syllan or Enesek Syllan) form an archipelago off the southwestern tip of the Cornish peninsula of Great Britain.
Since 1890 the Islands have had a local authority separate from Cornwall's, but some services were combined with Cornwall and the islands are still part of the ceremonial county of Cornwall; the authority has otherwise had the status of a county council since the passing of the Isles of Scilly Order 1930. The council is currently known as the Council of the Isles of Scilly. The adjective "Scillonian" is sometimes used for people or things related to the archipelago. The Duchy of Cornwall owns most of the freehold land on the islands. Tourism plays a major part in the local economy, along with farming and agriculture.
Scilly has been inhabited since the Stone Age and its history had been one of subsistence living until the early 20th century. Farming and fishing continue today, but the main industry now is tourism.
The islands may correspond to the Cassiterides (Tin Isles) visited by the Phoenicians and mentioned by the Greeks. However, the archipelago itself does not contain much tin—it may be that they were used as a staging post from the mainland.
It is likely that until relatively recent times the islands were much larger, and perhaps joined together into one island, named Ennor. Rising sea levels flooded the central plain around 400–500 AD, forming the current islands.
Evidence for the older large island includes:
- A description in Roman times describes Scilly as "Scillonia insula" in the singular, indicating either a single island or an 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.
- At certain low tides the sea becomes shallow enough for people to walk between some of the islands. This is possibly one of the sources for stories of drowned lands, e.g. Lyonesse.
- Ancient field walls are visible below the high tide line off some of the islands (e.g. Samson).
- Some of the Cornish language place names also appear to reflect past shorelines, and former land areas.
- The whole of southern England has been steadily sinking in opposition to post-glacial rebound in Scotland: this has caused the rias (drowned river valleys) on the southern Cornish coast, e.g. River Fal and the Tamar Estuary.
Offshore, midway between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly, is the supposed location of the mythical lost land of Lyonesse, referred to in Arthurian literature. This may be a folk memory of inundated lands, but this legend is also common among the Brythonic peoples; the legend of Ys is a parallel and cognate legend in Brittany.
Scilly has been identified as the place of exile of two heretical 4th century bishops, Instantius and Tiberianus, who were followers of Priscillian.
Norse and Norman period
In 995 Olaf Tryggvason became King Olaf I of Norway. Born c. 960, Olaf had raided various European cities and fought in several wars. In 986 he (supposedly) met a Christian seer on the Isles of Scilly. In Snorri Sturluson's Royal Sagas of Norway, it is stated that this 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 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.
With the Norman Conquest, the Isles of Scilly came more under centralised control. About twenty years later, the Domesday survey was conducted. The islands would have formed part of the " Exeter Domesday" circuit, which included Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, and Wiltshire.
In the mid-12th century there was reportedly a Viking attack on the Isles of Scilly, called Syllingar by the Norse, recorded in the Orkneyinga saga— Sweyn Asleifsson "went south, under Ireland, and seized a barge belonging to some monks in Syllingar and plundered it." (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."
"Maríuhöfn", literally means "Mary's Harbour/Haven". The name does not make it clear if it referred to a harbour on a larger island than today's St Mary's, or a whole island.
It is generally considered that Cornwall, and possibly the Isles of Scilly, came under the dominion of the English Crown late in the reign of Athelstan. 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.
Later Middle Ages and early modern period
At the turn of the 14th century, the Abbot and convent of Tavistock Abbey petitioned the king,
- "stat[ing] 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."
William le Poer, coroner of Scilly, is recorded in 1305 as being worried about the extent of wrecking in the islands, and sending a petition to the King. The names provide a wide variety of origins, e.g. Robert and Henry Sage (English), Richard de Tregenestre (Cornish), Ace de Veldre (French), Davy Gogch (possibly Welsh, or Cornish), and Adam le Fuiz Yaldicz (Spanish?).
It is not known at what point the islands' inhabitants stopped speaking the Cornish language, but the language seems to have gone into decline in Cornwall since the Late Middle Ages, although it was still dominant between the islands and Bodmin at the time of the reformation but suffered an accelerated decline thereafter. The islands appear to have lost the old Celtic language before parts of Penwith on the mainland, in contrast to the history of Irish or Scottish Gaelic.
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. 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.
During the night of 22 October 1707, the isles were the scene of the Scilly naval disaster, when out of a fleet of 21 Royal Navy ships commanded by Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, 6 were driven onto the cliffs. Four of the ships capsized, with at least 1,450 dead, including the admiral, who was murdered by robbers on the beach. The probable cause was poor navigation. However, inability to accurately calculate their longitude is thought to have been a contributing factor.
The islands appear to have been raided frequently by Barbary pirates.
Governors of Scilly
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. 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.
- 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)
- 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 (1846-1918)
- 1918–1920 Arthur Algernon Dorrien-Smith (1876-1955)
The Isles of Scilly form an archipelago of five inhabited islands and numerous other small rocky islets (around 140 in total) lying 45 km (28 mi) off Land's End. They are all composed of granite rock of early Permian age, an exposed part of the Cornubian batholith.
The islands' position produces a place of great contrast—the ameliorating effect of the sea, greatly influenced by the North Atlantic Current, means they rarely have frost or snow, which allows local farmers to grow flowers well ahead of those in mainland Britain. The chief agricultural product is cut flowers, mostly daffodils. Exposure to Atlantic winds also 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.
As part of a 2002 marketing campaign, the plant conservation charity Plantlife chose sea thrift (Armeria maritima) as the "county flower" of the islands.
This table provides an overview of the most important islands:
( Census 2001)
|Area (km²)||Main settlement|
|St Mary's||1,666||6.29||Hugh Town|
|St Martin's (with White Island)||142||2.37||Higher Town|
|St Agnes (with Gugh)||73||1.48||Saint Agnes|
|Bryher (with Gweal)||92||1.32||Bryher|
|remaining 45 islets||–||0.50|
|Isles of Scilly||2,153||16.03||Hugh Town|
(1) Inhabited until 1855.
In 1975 the islands were designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The designation covers the entire archipelago, including the uninhabited islands and rocks, and is the smallest such area in the UK. 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 among birdwatchers 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 have a temperate Oceanic climate ( Köppen climate classification Cfb), among the mildest and warmest climates in the United Kingdom. The average annual temperature is 11.8 °C (54 °F) in comparison to London, where it is 11.6 °C (53 °F). Winters are among the warmest in the country due to the southerly latitude and moderating effects of the ocean. Summers are not as warm as on the mainland. They are one of the sunniest areas in the south west with on average 7.6 hours per day in July. The lowest temperature ever recorded was −7.2 °C on 13 January 1987 and the highest was 27.8 °C on 16 August 1947. The maximum snowfall was 23 cm (9 inches) on 12 January 1987. The Isles of Scilly, with fewer than 2 days of air frost per year (on average), are in the USDA Hardiness zone 10. This is the only UK domain which falls in this Hardiness zone. Less than one day per year has an average air temperature above 30 °C (86 °F) (on average); the isles are in the AHS Heat Zone 1.
|Climate data for St Mary's Heliport, 1981 - 2010 averages|
|Average high °C (°F)||9.7
|Average low °C (°F)||6.2
|Precipitation mm (inches)||94.8
|Avg. precipitation days||14.5||13.0||11.5||10.4||8.5||6.9||8.9||9.7||10.2||14.4||14.9||15.2||138.1|
|Mean monthly sunshine hours||58.8||79.8||124.4||192.4||218.5||206.3||204.1||203.4||160.1||113.0||74.6||54.4||1,689.8|
|Source: Met Office|
Politically, the islands are part of England, one of the four countries of the United Kingdom. They are represented in the UK Parliament as part of the St Ives constituency. As part of the United Kingdom, the islands are part of the European Union and are represented in the European Parliament as part of the multi-member South West England constituency.
Historically, the Isles of Scilly were administered as one of the hundreds of Cornwall, although the Cornwall quarter sessions had limited jurisdiction there. For judicial purposes, shrievalty purposes, and lieutenancy purposes, the Isles of Scilly are "deemed to form part of the county of Cornwall". The archipelago is part of the Duchy of Cornwall – the duchy owns the freehold of most of the land on the islands and the duke exercises certain formal rights and privileges across the territory, as he does in Cornwall proper.
The Local Government Act 1888 allowed the Local Government Board to establish in the Isles of Scilly "councils and other local authorities separate from those of the county of Cornwall"... "for the application to the islands of any act touching local government." Accordingly, in 1890 the Isles of Scilly Rural District Council (the RDC) was formed as a sui generis unitary authority, outside the administrative county of Cornwall. Cornwall County Council provided some services to the Isles, for which the RDC made financial contributions. Section 265 of the Local Government Act of 1972 allowed for the continued existence of the RDC, but renamed as the Council of the Isles of Scilly.
This unusual status also means that much administrative law (for example relating to the functions of local authorities, the health service and other public bodies) that applies in the rest of England applies in modified form in the islands.
The Council of the Isles of Scilly is a separate authority to the Cornwall Council unitary authority, and as such the islands are not part of the administrative county of Cornwall. However the islands are still considered to be part of the ceremonial county of Cornwall. Some areas of local government are shared with Cornwall, such as health, and the two councils submitted a joint bid for a Cornwall and Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.
With a total population of just over 2,000, the council represents fewer inhabitants than many English parish councils, and is by far the smallest English unitary council. The latest elections took place on the 4 June 2009; there were 21 elected councillors (all independent), 13 elected by St Mary's residents and two each elected by residents of Bryher, St Martins, St Agnes and Tresco. There are also some 164 staff employed by the council. These numbers are significant in that almost 10 per cent of the population is directly linked to the council as either an employee or councillor.
Two flags are used to represent Scilly:
- The flag of the Council of the Isles of Scilly, which incorporates the Council's logo.
- The unofficial Scillonian Cross, selected by readers of Scilly News in a 2002 vote.
An adapted version of the old Board of Ordnance flag has also been used, after it was left behind when munitions were removed from the isles. The Cornish Ensign has also been used.
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. In 2004, 92.9% of pupils (26 out of 28) achieved five or more GCSEs at grade C and above, compared to the English average of 53.7%. 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. Post eighteen, suitably qualified students attend universities and colleges on the mainland.
Since the mid-eighteenth century the Scillonian economy 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 1987 study of the Scillionian economy, Neate found that many farms on the islands were struggling to remain profitable due to increasing costs and strong competition from overseas producers, with resulting diversification into tourism. Recent statistics suggest that agriculture on the islands now represents less than 2 percent of all employment.
Today, tourism is estimated to account for 85 per cent of the islands' income. The islands have been successful in attracting this investment 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. 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.
The islands' economy is highly dependent on tourism, even by the standards of other island communities. “The concentration [on] a small number of sectors is typical of most similarly sized UK island communities. However, it is the degree of concentration, which is distinctive along with the overall importance of tourism within the economy as a whole and the very limited manufacturing base that stands out.”
Tourism is also a highly seasonal industry owing to its reliance on outdoor recreation, and the lower number of tourists in winter results in a significant constriction of the islands' commercial activities. However, the tourist season benefits from an extended period of business in October when many birdwatchers ("birders") 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'.
The islands are home to ornithologist Will Wagstaff.
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.
Businesses dependent on tourism, with the exception of a few hotels, tend to be small enterprises typically employing fewer than four people; many of these are family run, suggesting an entrepreneurial culture among the local population. 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.
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’.
The islands were not subject to Income Tax until 1954, and there was no motor vehicle excise duty levied until 1971.
The islands are linked to the mainland by air and sea services, and they rely on boat services for inter-island connections.
St. Mary's is the only island with a significant road network; in 2005 there were 619 registered vehicles on the island. The island also has taxis and a community bus service. Vehicles on the islands are exempt from annual MOT tests. On St Mary's you can hire electric powered golf cart type buggies for use on the island's metalled road network.
Air access to the islands is via St. Mary's Airport. Tresco Heliport on Tresco operated until late 2012 and is now closed to scheduled services. The following air services currently operate:
- Fixed-wing aircraft services, operated by Isles of Scilly Skybus, from Land's End, Newquay, Exeter, Bristol and Southampton to St Mary's Airport.
By sea, the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company provides a passenger and cargo service from Penzance to St Mary's, which is currently operated by the Scillonian III passenger ferry, supported by the Gry Maritha cargo vessel. The other islands are linked to St. Mary's by a network of inter-island launches.
The freehold land 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 (16 km2) as duchy property, part of the duchy's landholding. 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 per year. The Trust currently has four full-time salaried staff and twelve trustees, who are all residents of the Isles. The full Trust Board is responsible for policy whilst a Management Team is responsible for day-to-day administration. Its small income and the small number of staff have led to the Trust adopting a policy of recruiting volunteers to help it carry out its extensive work programme. While volunteers of all ages are welcome, most are young people who are studying for qualifications in related fields, such as conservation and land management.
Limited housing availability is a contentious yet critical issue for the Isles of Scilly, especially as it affects the feasibility of residency on the islands. 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.
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. This has pushed up the prices of the few private properties that become available and, significantly for the majority of the islands' populations, it has also had an impact on the rental sector where rates have likewise drastically increased.
High housing costs pose significant problems for the local population, especially as local incomes (in Cornwall) are only 70% of the national average, whilst house prices are almost £5,000 higher than the national average. This in turn affects the retention of ‘key workers’ and the younger generation, which has a consequent impact upon the viability of schools and other essential community services.
The limited access to housing provokes strong local politics. It is often assumed that tourism is to blame for this, attracting newcomers to the area who can afford to outbid locals for available housing. Many buildings are used for tourist accommodation which reduces the number available for local residents. Second homes are also thought to account for a significant proportion of the housing stock, leaving many buildings empty for much of the year.
According to the 2001 UK census, 97% of the population of the islands are white British, with nearly 93% of the inhabitants born in the islands, in mainland Cornwall or elsewhere in England. Since EU enlargement in 2004, a number of eastern Europeans have moved to the island, joining the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans who traditionally made up most of the islands' overseas workers. By 2005, their numbers were estimated at nearly 100 out of a total population of just over 2,000.
One continuing legacy of the isles' past is gig racing, wherein fast rowing boats ("gigs") with crews of six (or in one case, seven) race between the main islands. Gig racing has been said to derive from the race to collect salvage from shipwrecks on the rocks around Scilly, but the race was actually to deliver a pilot onto incoming vessels, to guide them through the hazardous reefs and shallows. (The boats are correctly termed "pilot gigs"). The World Pilot Gig Championships are held annually 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 number of gigs attending has increased, with crews coming from all over the South-West and further afield.
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 each season and compete for two cups and for the league title. The league was a launching pad for the adidas "Dream Big" Campaign in which a number of famous professional footballers (including David Beckham) arrive on the island to coach the local children's side. The two 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 per week for 30 minutes or more.
Three children's books written by Michael Morpurgo, Why the Whales Came, The Sleeping Sword and The Wreck of the Zanzibar, are set around the Isles of Scilly.
The Nevil Shute novel " Marazan" occurs, in part, around these islands.