The Off Islands
The term ‘Off Islands’ usually refers to the four smaller inhabited islands of Tresco, Bryher, St Martins and St Agnes, although there are around 145 islands all together. Travelling between them isn’t difficult, but you need to watch the timetables and the tides to find out when the boats are going – and the crucial information as to which quay they are going from. Many a visitor, standing hopefully on a high-water quay, has watched in mystification as a passenger boat came into the low water quay – just too far away to run to in time – and then departed.
The Moorings is on the West facing side of Bryher, the smallest of the inhabited islands. Bryher is both green and rugged, both sheltered and windy. There are wonderful walks on moorland and rock – although at times you are near the edge of rocky cliffs, so take care. Bryher is the furthest west of the inhabited islands and faces the Atlantic – there is nothing between it and Newfoundland (for the island it faces, see below!) Bryher has cliffs, rocky inlets and beautiful beaches. Don’t try to bring a boat in on the West side of the island unless you know your way – the charts are not 100% accurate and the rocks are sharp – although seals know what they’re doing and can be seen there fairly often. Shipman Head and Shipman Down have beautiful views and you may spot rare plants growing there, including the dwarf pansy and the orange bird’s foot.
The Pool of Bryher is a natural lagoon separated from the sea. It’s the only true brackish lagoon (salty, but less salty than the sea) on Scilly, and is separated from the sea by a narrow storm beach and low dunes. Bryher is visited by various species of breeding sea birds including the European storm petrel and the greater black-backed gull. Bryher was the setting of the film, “When the Whales Came”, based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel. Samson Hill, on the southern end of the island. was the site of the birdman’s cottage.
Tresco, closest to Bryher, is the second largest of the Scilly islands. Tresco has an ancient abbey (not open to the public), the remains of a medieval monastery, a church and the beautiful Tresco Abbey Gardens, home to over 20,000 plant species and several dozen red squirrels. There are two ruined castles, miles of cycle paths (cycles can be hired on the island) and beautiful beaches, woodland and views. Oystercatchers, curlews and kittiwakes are plentiful on Tresco – twitchers often travel to the island to see other rarer visitors including, in 2016, a snowy owl, and there are several bird hides. Over 440 bird species have been recorded on Scilly.
Tresco has a welcoming pub, the New Inn, which offers food and accommodation, and a variety of cottages are available on the island to rent or as Timeshares. There is truly excellent shrimping at the turn of the low tide around Plumb island, which is connected to Tresco when the tide is out.
St Agnes, most southern of the inhabited Isles of Scilly, is the most southerly island in the British Isles. It is connected to the island of Gugh by a sandbar which is covered when the tide comes in. St Agnes has a grade 2 listed church with beautiful stained-glass windows, almost on the beach, and a lighthouse dating from 1680 (although it no longer operates).
The island is a mixture of rocky coastline, heath and grassland. It has a dairy farm, well known for making Isles of Scilly Troytown ice cream, whilst the Turk’s Head lays a claim to being Britain’s most scenic pub which is hard to refute. Ancient remains have been found at Obadiah’s Barrow, and a nine-foot granite menhir called the Old Man of Gugh has been standing since the Bronze Age. Beady Pool is a sheltered beach on the southern side of the island. Small ceramic beads, from a Dutch cargo ship wrecked nearby in the 17th century, are sometimes found there. Out in the St Mary’s channel to the West of St Agnes, marking the treacherous Spanish ledges, is the Spanish bell, the focus of a particularly lovely song by the Rough Island Band who used the sound of the bell as their opening note.
St Martin’s (in Cornish it is called Brechiek, meaning ‘dappled island’) is the most northerly inhabited island in Scilly. It has three main settlements – Higher Town, Middle Town and Lower Town. Its daymark (a navigational aid) was built in 1683 and is the earliest surviving beacon in Britain. It is painted in red and white bands and has been since 1833. Its arched entrance door is incorrectly dated 1637. There is a vineyard on St Martins, the mouth South-Westerly vineyard in England, where tours and tastings are offered, and red, white and rose wines are made. To the north it is joined by a tidal causeway to White Island. St Martin’s has a diving school, a resident jewellery maker and a hotel. It also has both an Anglican church and a Methodist chapel. The friendly Seven Stones pub in Lower Town is named after the rocks which lie between the Scillies and the mainland which some believe are the last remaining tip of the lost land of Lyonesse.
White Island lies off the coast of St Martin’s, and is joined to it by a tidal causeway. Access to the island can be dangerous when the causeway is covered by the sea, as there are strong currents across it, which can sometimes give the appearance of a standing wave (there is also a much smaller White Island off the coast of Samson). It has a ruined entrance grave and several other ancient monuments, including a chambered cairn.
The Eastern Isles
The Eastern Isles include Great and Little Ganilly, Great and Little Ganinick, Menawethan, Nornour, the three Arthurs (Great, Middle and Little) and, Guther’s, Hanjague and English Island. They were inhabited from the Bronze Age through to the Iron Age and there are shrines, entrance graves and field systems there. Menawethan is a popular hang-out with seals, who are often to be found on the rocks on the eastern side.
Nornour is particularly interesting: in 1962 high winds exposed uncovered hut circles there. Archaeologists descended, and over three hundred Roman brooches were found in the upper layers of two ancient buildings, along with coins (late first to late fourth century), glass, miniature pots and pieces of small clay figurines. It is thought that the objects were for paying respect to a local cult, which may have been a shrine to Sulis Minerva, a Celtic mother-goddess. The boilers of the Earl of Arran can be seen at low tide on the western shore. She sank there on 16 July 1872.
The Western Rocks
These are a group of islands and rocks to the South-West of St Marys, with the Bishop’s Rock to the west. They are best known both for breeding birds and for the number of ships which have been wrecked there. Prior to 1750 sea charts showed the Scillies to be 10 miles further north than they actually are. This combined with the guesswork involved in navigation at sea prior to the ability to measure longitude, and the strong westerly storms which frequently hit the area, led to many ships being driven onto the Western rocks whilst thinking they were somewhere else entirely.
Landing on any of the islands is difficult and unsafe, even with modern GPS. It is also strongly discouraged for the sake of the breeding birds, which include European shags, European storm petrels, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, cormorants), fulmars, puffins, great black–backed gulls, lesser black–backed gulls and herring gulls.
The named rocks include Rosevean, Rosevear and the Retarrier Ledges. The ledges are the site of the wreck of the SS Schiller, which went down in May 1875 with loss of 335 lives whilst travelling from New York to Hamburg. Rosevear was inhabited by workmen during the building of the Bishop Rock lighthouse, and the remains of houses and the smithy can be seen on its flat top, but there has been no long-term human occupation on the Western Rocks.
The Gilstone Reef was the site of the sinking of Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s naval flagship the HMS Association in 1707, with the loss of over 1400 lives. Four vessels were lost in total, and it remains one of the worst maritime disasters in British naval history. It’s said that a common sailor on the flagship, possibly a Scilly native, tried to warn Admiral Shovell that the fleet was off course and might be in Scilly waters as he and his senior officers discussed their probably location, but nobody agreed with him and the Admiral had him hanged at the yardarm for inciting mutiny.
In 1784, The packet ship Nancy also hit the Gilstone Reef. One of the 49 drowned was Ann Cargill, a famous English opera singer who had been ordered back to Britain by the Prime Minister because of her scandalous affair – in India – with the ship’s captain, John Haldane. The newspaper accounts of how she had been found “floating in her shift” drowned but holding tight to her small child made her death as famous as her life.
Originally the dead of the Nancy were buried on Rosevear, which the lighthouse builders of Bishop’s Rock claimed was haunted by Ann’s ghost. They were later re-interred in the Old Town churchyard in St Mary’s.
You can land on St Helen’s from a private boat. On the south side of the island is one of the earliest Christian sites in Scilly, which is thought to be the remains of St Elidius Hermitage, an 8th-century chapel lived in by Saint Lide, (also known as Elid or Elidius). The landing site is on a sandy beach on the south side where there are the remains of a granite quay. The ruined pest house is just behind the dunes: it was built in 1764 to quarantine plague cases from visiting ships calling at Old Grimsby and St Helen’s Pool. It was constructed after an Act of Parliament in 1754 decreed that any plague-ridden ship north of Cape Finisterre heading for England should anchor off this island. There is a graveyard which is known to include the grave of a 27-year-old naval surgeon who was sent to treat the sick and died within a week himself. Nearby islands are considered to be part of the St Helen’s group, these are; Foreman’s Island, Men-a-vaur, Northwethel, Round Island and Teän.
St Helen’s has a long history of habitation – when Issac North visited the islands in 1850 he reported goats and deer. In 1870 sheep were said to run wild. A 1919 guide book recorded St Helen’s only inhabitants as goats, deer, rabbits and sea fowl.
Teän was once inhabited, and has Bronze Age entrance graves, early Christian graves and the remains of an early Christian chapel dedicated to a saint called Theon. In 1652 Teän had only one inhabitant, but it was cultivated for some time after this. The red barbed ant, which may be the rarest resident animal in Britain, has been found on St Martin’s, the Eastern Isles and Teän.
Round Island is most notable for its lighthouse, which was built in 1887. At the time of building it was one of three lights in the Isles of Scilly, the others being the Bishop Rock and St Agnes lighthouse. The light was modernised in 1966 and automated in 1987. Apart from those maintaining the lighthouse, landing is not permitted on Round Island, unless you have the permission of Trinity House. The light emits one white flash every ten seconds and has a visual range of up to 24 nautical miles. The fog signal sounds four blasts every minute. The island is important for its breeding seabirds, especially the European storm–petrel.
There are dozens of other small islands in the archipelago. All are beautiful, and with your own boat and some experience of navigating the Scillies waters, or on a Scillies ‘safari’ tour, you may be able to take a look at them. Landing on most is prohibited for the protection of breeding birds – and for your own safety.
The lighthouse on Bishops Rock is a Scilly landmark. It sits on a rock in the Southwest passage, warning vessels of the beginning of the dangerous rock archipelago that is Scilly. Occasionally, if sea conditions are favourable, boats will head out from St Mary’s to show you the lighthouse on the rock.
The lighthouse is a miracle of endeavour. After the wreck of the navy in 1707 the Elder Brethren of Trinity House decided that the lighting of the Scilly Isles—which at that time consisted of only the old St. Agnes lighthouse—was inadequate. They resolved to build a lighthouse on the most westerly danger, the Bishop Rock, yet the rock ledge was small, rising sheer from the sea bed, and the waves out there are sometimes enormous, the full force of the Atlantic. In 1847 they started to erect a screw-pile lighthouse, sinking cast iron legs into the granite. In February 1850 a heavy gale swept the whole structure away. Next, they built a granite tower. A dam was erected around the rock and the water pumped out, so that masons could work on dry rock. Granite blocks were placed and dovetailed and keyed into position. Working spells were brief, and it took seven years to finish. In 1881 it was strengthened and raised by building a new structure around the old one, improving the foundation with granite blocks bolted into the rock. The lighthouse was converted to automatic operation in 1991. The last keepers left in December 1992, and the fog signal was discontinued in 2007.
The Bishops Rock did not, alas, save the Schiller, which was heading for Plymouth en route to Hamburg. In thick fog the ship’s Captain, knowing he was near Scilly, had brought volunteers from the passengers on deck to try to spot the Bishop’s light. Sadly, he thought it should be to starboard, when in fact they were passing South of the Bishops Rock and it was to port. The Schiller headed straight onto the Retarrier Ledges, it was battered by the sea all night. Although it had fired its minute guns to signal disaster, it had become customary for ships passing the islands to fire their minute gun to signal they were safely through and the alert was not sounded till morning.
Travelling between the islands
There are several boating companies based on several of the off islands, offering excursions and water taxi services throughout Scilly.
These are much more limited. If you are familiar with Scilly in winter you will know that most people take their boats off the water, and whilst passenger services continue, they are subject to demand, wind, sea and tide. If arriving by Skybus, make sure that you have clarified onward arrangements to get to your respective island.
A long way off island
Fogo Island, in the Canadian province of Labrador and Newfoundland, is not one of the off islands, but it nearly was. If you head 2090 miles due west from Bryher you will come ashore on Fogo Island. At exactly the same latitude as the Isles of Scilly, Fogo sits off the island of Newfoundland, Canada.
Fogo Island looks a little like Scilly – the rock formations and heathers are similar. Although it is larger, about 90 sq miles, its permanent population is only about 2500. Some of its wildlife is the same – seals live offshore, whales pass by, cod swim in the seas, lobsters breed and puffins arrive in late May and gannets are plentiful. There are also dramatic differences. Icebergs are still floating by in June, thanks to the southbound Labrador current. The tidal range is only a few inches, and there is still snow on the ground in late May. Fogo is home to coloured ‘saltbox’ Newfoundland houses, to caribou, bald eagles, Icelandic gulls and the blue jay. Somewhere offshore lies the Titanic – Fogo is almost the nearest landfall to where the ship went down. A Marconi radio transmitting centre on top of a hill transmitted news of its distress. First colonised in the 16th century by Breton and Irish fisherman, and once home to a thriving cod fishery, Fogo Island has reinvented itself for developed crab and lobster fisheries and tourism.
It is obviously not a Scilly island, but it once was. Two hundred and fifty million years ago Fogo and Scilly were quite literally joined together. The Atlantic rift split them, tearing the continents apart. Fogo Island and Scilly are long-lost twins, born of the same rock, separated by fate. So, when you look out to the west from Scilly, remember the land didn’t always end with Bryher, St Agnes or the Western Rocks. Once there was more.