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 pier they are going from. Many a visitor, standing hopefully on a high water pier, has watched in mystification as a passenger boat came into another pier – just too far to run to in time – and then departed.
The Moorings is on Bryher, the smallest of the inhabited islands. Bryher is both green and rugged, sheltered and windy. There are wonderful walks – although at times you are near the edge of cliffs, so take care. Bryher is the furthest west of the inhabited islands, and faces the Atlantic with nothing between it and the USA. Bryher has high cliffs, rocky inlets and beautiful beaches. Don’t try to bring a boat in on the West side of the island unless you really 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 find 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.
Bryher is visited by various species of breeding sea birds including the European storm petrel and the greater black-backed gull.
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. 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 connected to Tresco when the tide is out.
St Agnes, most southern of the inhabited Isles of Scilly, is the most southerly place in the British Isles. It is connected to the island of Gugh by a sandbar which is covered when the tide comes in. It 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, and 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 still sometimes found there.
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. It’s 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 think are the last remaining tip of the lost land of Lyonesse.
White Island lies off the coast of St Martin’s, and is joined ot it by a tidal causeway. Access to the island can be dangerous when the rocky 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 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, led to many ships hitting the Western rocks whilst thinking they were somewhere else entirely.
Landing on any of the islands is difficult and unsafe, even with modern GPS, and is 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 (site of the wreck of the SS Schiller, which went down with loss of 335 lives). Rosevear was inhabited by workmen during the building of the Bishop Rock lighthouse, 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.
In 1784, The packet ship Nancy also hit the Gilstone. 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 captain, John Haldane. The newspaper accounts of how she had been found “floating in her shift” drowned but holding tight to a 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 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.
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, and was cultivated for some time after this. The Red Barbed Ant, which has been called the rarest resident animal in mainland 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, automated in 1987. Apart from those maintaining the lighthouse, landing is not permitted on Round Island, unless you have the permission of Trinity House (who manage the lighthouse). The light emits one white flash every ten seconds, and a range of 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 many is prohibited for the protection of breeding birds – and for your own safety.
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.