Sunday, 19 July 2009

Scilly Isles: Place in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series ****

The Isles of Scilly (Cornish: Ynysek Syllan; French: Les Sorlingues) form an archipelago off the southwestern tip of the Cornish peninsula of Great Britain. Traditionally administered as part of the county of Cornwall, the islands have had a unitary authority council since 1889. They are also designated the Isles of Scilly Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The correct name for the islands is the Isles of Scilly, or simply Scilly; the people of Scilly consider the terms "Scillies" and "Scilly Isles" to be incorrect. The adjective "Scillonian" is sometimes used for people or things related to the archipelago.

The Isles of Scilly form an archipelago of six inhabited islands and numerous other small rocky islets (around 140 in total) lying 45 km (28 miles) off Land's End.

Satelite Photo from NASA

The islands' position produces a place of great contrast—the ameliorating 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 product is cut flowers, mostly daffodils. 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.
As part of a 2002 marketing campaign, the plant conservation charity Plantlife chose Thrift (Armeria maritima) as the "county flower" of the islands.


An aerial photo of the Isles of Scilly St Martin's taken from the helicopter to Penzance .

View from Tresco, the second largest member of the Isles of Scilly

Looking across Tresco, one of the 5 inhabited islands of the Isles of Scilly 45km from the coast of Cornwall in the United Kingdom

Farm Boundary Walls

Scilly has been inhabited since the Stone Age and its history has been one of subsistence living until the early 20th century (people lived from what they could get from the land or the sea). 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 Isles were much larger with many of them joined 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, as if there was 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 amongst the Brythonic peoples; the legend of "Ys" is a parallel and cognate legend in Brittany.

Norse and Norman period

Olaf Tryggvason, who supposedly visited the islands in 986. It is said an encounter with a cleric there led him to Christianise Norway.

At the time of King Cnut, the Isles of Scilly fell outside his British realms, as did Wales and Cornwall.
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, if the English crown as such can be said to have actually existed at that time.
During the latter part of the pre-Norman period, the eastern seaboard of modern-day England came increasingly under the sway of the Norse. The Isles of Scilly, called Syllingar by the Norse, themselves came under Viking attack, as it is recorded in the Orkneyinga saga—Swein 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 [9th June], and took much booty. Then they returned to the Orkneys." "Maríuhöfn", literally means "Mary's Harbour/Haven". The name doesn't make it clear whether it referred to a harbour on a larger island than today's St Mary's, or a whole island.
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. In 986 however, he (supposedly) met a Christian seer on the Isles of Scilly. In Snorre Sturlason'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 baptized. 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 convinced the rebels to accept him as their king, and Haakon Jarl was killed by his own slave, while he was hiding from the rebels in a pig sty.
Eventually England became ruled by Norse monarchs, and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms fell one by one, with Wessex being conquered in 1013 by King Sweyn Forkbeard. Sweyn's realms included Denmark and Norway in the north, and modern-day English areas such as Mercia (an Anglian kingdom of the current Midlands), much of which, along with northern England, fell under the "Danelaw". Sweyn also ruled Wessex, along with his other realms, from 1013 onwards, followed by his son Canute the Great. However the Isles of Scilly were not part of his realm of Wessex.
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.

Middle Ages and early modern period
Scilly was one of the Hundreds of Cornwall in the early 19th century, (formerly known as Cornish Shires).
At the turn of the 14th century, the Abbot and convent of Tavistock Abbey petitioned the king saying that 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." 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 Cornish, but it seems to have gone into decline during the Middle Ages. 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. 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 captured the isles for the Parliamentarians. Blake's initial attack, on Old Grimsby, failed, but the next attacks succeeded in taking Tresco and Bryher. Blake set up 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.
Later Modern period
Scilly is famous for its danger to shipping and its many shipwrecks. The wreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell's ship HMS Association and three others of his fleet in 1707 off the Isles of Scilly due to inaccuracies in navigation led to the establishment of the Board of Longitude and consequently the development of the method of lunar distances, and to the invention of the marine chronometer by John Harrison, the first reliable methods of determining longitude at sea.
The sea has always played a huge part in Scillonian history but it was in the 19th century that Scilly had its maritime heyday. Beaches which are now enjoyed by sunbathers were then factories for shipbuilding; the harbours now full of pleasure boats were once packed with local and visiting fishing and trading boats.
In 1834, Augustus Smith acquired the lease on the Isles of Scilly from the Duchy of Cornwall for £20,000, and set about changing the islanders' way of life, expelling those who could not find a job locally and evicting some of the inhabitants of smaller islands, in a manner similar to that practised in the Scottish clearances. In 1855, he expelled the ten inhabitants of Samson, in order to turn the island into a deer park (the deer did not like the habitat, and escaped.)
A map of the Isles of Scilly from 1945.

Smith created the quasi-aristocratic title Lord Proprietor for himself, and many of his actions were unpopular. However, it can be said that not all these were detrimental to the inhabitants, for example, besides building a new quay at Hugh Town on St. Mary's, he sowed gorse and trees to provide shelter for the agricultural land. He built schools on the more populated islands. These were the first compulsory schools in the whole of Britain. It cost one penny a time but if you missed school then the charge was two pence.
The archipelago became fairly popular in the 20th century as a holiday resort and holiday home location. For example, former Prime Minister Harold Wilson frequently holidayed on the Isles and eventually bought a cottage there as a holiday home: he is buried on St Mary's. His widow Mary Wilson is still a frequent visitor.

The vast majority of the population are British, mostly originating from Cornwall. As with other parts of the UK, a large number of Central and Eastern Europeans, particularly Poles have been brought in to do low paid labour in the early 21st century.
Whilst there is little evidence to substantiate the claim, it is sometimes rather tenuously suggested, that the early inhabitants of the islands may have had a genetic link to the "Ancient British" who inhabited the islands long before the arrival of the Celts or Romans.
The criterion for claiming oneself to be a "Scillonian" typically relies on proof of being "island-born". Recent evidence from Essex University indicates that the young indigenous Cornish are increasingly underrepresented in the demographic profile, having been economically and socially displaced by older mainland-incomers. Census and subjective observations suggest that the ethnic makeup of the islands is almost exclusively white.

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