The Isles of Scilly in ancient times - Ancient Penwith | Cornwall

West Penwith, Cornwall
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula
Ancient Penwith
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End Peninsula
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The Isles of Scilly in ancient times

Island of the Dead


In the bronze age Scilly comprised one big and one small island (St Agnes). The Isle of Scilly constituted a separate world, a somewhat mystic world reputed to be the Isle of the Dead - and certainly the sheer number of burial-oriented cairns on the islands testifies to that. The 'isle of the dead' could however be regarded as an 'isle beyond time' or beyond earthly normality. The tradition of a sunken landmass, Lyonesse, perhaps the Scilly island or a landmass between Scilly and the mainland, adds to this mystique.
The Isles of Scilly from the mainland  
The Isles of Scilly as seen from near Tregeseal stone circle


Culturally Scilly was connected with West Penwith, and whatever happened in one generally happened in the other, as evidenced by the chambered or entrance cairns uniquely built in both places from around 2500 BCE. Though these are called 'Scillonian chambered cairns', their construction seems to have started first in Penwith in the later neolithic, then to spread to Scilly in the bronze age.

The people of the neolithic and bronze ages were steadfast mariners. Archaeologically there are signs of plenty of marine contact stretching from Iberia to Britain and Ireland to the Orkneys and Denmark. In good weather the Scillies and West Penwith are intervisible, and the journey could be done in a day using sail and paddle from the islands between Great Ganilly and Sennen beach, or perhaps to Priest's Cove at Cape Cornwall. This would probably have been mainly summer seasonal traffic - in winter it is likely that whoever was on the islands stayed there for the season, since the seas and currents were rough and dangerous.

Ganilly is now an island, site of the notable ancient settlement of Nornour, but in the bronze age the Scillies formed one main island. The presence of beacon hills on both sides of the sound separating the islands and the mainland suggest a signalling system too, for practical and religious reasons.

The Isles of Scilly could also have acted as a stopover and safe haven for marine traffic passing between Brittany and Ireland and the Irish Sea, avoiding the strong tidal currents off Land's End.
Isles of Scilly from Carn Boel
It is commonly held that the Scillies were first permanently occupied around 2250 BCE at the beginning of the bronze age. Earlier seasonal settlement and visits are likely. At that time most of today's islands except St Agnes, Gugh and the western islets formed one island - the land has sunk by 5-6 metres relative to the sea since then, and the waters between the islands are still shallow. This means that some ancient sites now lie underwater between today's islands, though since the ancients had a habit of locating sites on hilltops and higher ground, most sites are still on land today.

This sinking of the land is partially accounted for by a general moderate rise of sea levels since the bronze age, but it was also caused by a post-glacial sinking of the land. The Scillies and Cornwall were not covered with ice so, during the ice age they will have risen up somewhat to compensate for the weighing-down of landmasses further north. Then when the ice age ended, lands further north, especially in Scotland, would have risen and Scilly and Cornwall sank relatively. Hence the rather dramatic change of sea levels in Scilly, which continues to some extent today.

The legend of Lyonesse, probably located between Scilly and Penwith, and reputed to have sunk quite suddenly, is a strong tradition but it is difficult to justify geologically. Either it is a romanticisation and extrapolation of the fact that the Scillies and some parts between Scilly and Penwith sank between the bronze age and now - and there is a possibility that a tsunami emanating from Portugal/Azores or from west of Ireland helped this process, or there is something about the geology of this area that we do not know. It is difficult therefore to form a sound conclusion on this matter.
Isles of Scilly from near St Just
Isles of Scilly from near St Just

Alignments on Scilly


Click the map below to see the map in greater detail
Alignments in the Isles of Scilly
To do justice to Scilly's alignments, the normal geomancers' rule of four or five sites to make an alignment has been reduced to three sites - otherwise, much is lost.

The islands are not big enough for a preponderance of four-site alignments, in most cases (though there are a few such alignments).

Alignments on Scilly fall into two main types: those local to the islands (violet and blue) and those spanning the sound to the mainland (yellow and orange).

The pattern of alignments slightly resembles a 'cat's cradle' with a predominant NE-SW orientation. There are a number of parallel or near-parallel alignments, marked in blue, which must in some way be significant.

Several sites emerge from this as being prominent, at least as nodes in the alignments system on the islands:

  • Gun Hill cairn on the SE end of St Martin's,
  • Knackyboy cairn in the middle of St Martin's,
  • Castle Down cairn on Tresco,
  • Halangy Lower cairn on St Mary's,
  • Samson Hill on Bryher, and
  • the multiple cairns on South Hill on the island of Samson.

There are four incoming 'backbone' alignments from the mainland, and five other alignments discovered thus far, all of them striking at least two sites on the Scillies and ending in the west of the islands. These longer-distance alignments highlight Samson Hill on Bryher, Knackyboy cairn on St Martin's, Obadiah's Barrow on Gugh and the Castle Down cairnfield on Tresco.

Two of the backbone alignments come from Boscawen-ûn (one of these from Godolphin Hill and the other from St Michael's Mount). One alignment comes from the Merry Maidens and one from Cape Cornwall, St Ives Head and possibly further upcountry.

Of the other alignments, one passes through three sites on the Scillies and ends at Wolf Rock - which in ancient times would have protruded more markedly from the sea than today (it would have been more prominent).

Other alignments go from the Scillies to prominent cliff sanctuaries on the Penwith coast such as Cape Cornwall, Maen Castle and Carn Lês Boel, or to hills such as Chapel Carn Brea (an ancient beacon hill). One alignment goes even as far as Carn Brea near Camborne.

Alignments SC06 and SC18 are parallel to each other, possibly pointing at the summer solstice setting point of the sun (or its winter solstice rising point in the other direction). This is also the case with SC15 and SC17 on St Martin's, though with a different orientation.

It's also worth noting two 'radiation points' where alignments fan out at a series of relatively close angles, at the Chapel Downs cairns on St Martin's, and at South Hill on Bryher.

For more about the Scillies, try here too.

Isles of Scilly from near St Just
Isles of Scilly from Carn Les Boel
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