Case Study Site 18 – Isles of Scilly

Case Study Site 18 – Isles of Scilly

1.         Location

The Isles of Scilly are an archipelago located off the south-western tip of the Cornish Peninsula, 45km south-west of Cornwall.  They comprise five inhabited islands and numerous small rocky islands (approximately 140 in total).

2.         Why was the Case Study Site selected?

The Isle of Scilly have a rich heritage, having been inhabited since the Mesolithic period.  The importance of the Isles, from a strategic point of view, was recognised as early as the middle of the sixteenth century when the first fortifications were constructed.  However, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, further major defences were provided in order to provide protection for the islands from possible French or Spanish attack.  A further phase of construction took place throughout the eighteenth century, with the addition of substantial batteries, and a mile of interconnecting walls was built around the east and south side of The Garrison.  After the end of the Napoleonic Wars many of these defences fell into disrepair, although the islands fulfilled a strategic role during both World Wars. 

Despite its solid geology, the gradual post-glacial submergence of the archipelago’s land mass as well as the exposed nature of the coastline in many places has resulted in damage and actual loss to heritage assets. 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

The Isle of Scilly are wholly composed of granite of the Permian Period.  Elevations at the coast reach 30-40m in the north-western part of the island.  The coastline of St Mary’s consist largely of rocky foreshore with fronting cliffs and slopes, together with numerous sandy pocket beaches.  The shores, with granite cliffs behind and sandy beaches, are characteristic of many of the islands. 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

On St Mary’s there are over ninety Scheduled Monuments, including numerous Bronze Age barrows, cairns and other signs of prehistoric settlement.  Some of these are submerged and many are under threat from coastal erosion (Royal Haskoning, 20111).  The other islands also contain a rich heritage, with many sites in the intertidal zone or submerged (Charman et al., 20142).  Some of the impacts of coastal erosion have been described previously (Bowden & Brodie, 20113) and sea level rise and the further impacts of climate change mean that this is likely to be a worsening situation. 

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

In terms of artworks, relatively few artists ventured across the sea from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly, although the celebrated marine and coastal artist, Edward William Cooke RA, did paint a fine watercolour of ‘St Agnes Point, Scilly Isles’ in 1848 (see Figure 18.6).  A comprehensive illustrated description of the Islands was provided by William Borlase in 1756 (Borlase, 17564).  His book contains maps, topographical views from the sea and some fine copperplate illustrations, which show the patterns of development in the Islands at that time.  During the mid-to-late nineteenth century the artists, Fanny le Marchant and Sophia Tower, produced delicate watercolour views of ‘Old Grimsby on Tresco’, ‘St Mary’s from Carn Morval’, and ‘Off St Mary’s Pier’ (Llewellyn, 20055). 

Although the Isles of Scilly may be somewhat lacking in terms of artistic images, the Isles do have a very rich photographic heritage (Martin, 20146).  The topographical photographer, Francis Frith, played an important role in bringing the photographic medium to Scilly, as did the Gibson family who worked both in Scilly and on the Cornish mainland.  Two further photographers, Charles King and Francis Mortimer, continued the photographic tradition, highlighting the quality of the light and the benefits this brought to their subject matter.  A fine collection of photographs of the islands are held by the Isles of Scilly Museum ( 

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this site?

The Isles of Scilly have a very rich heritage extending back to the Mesolithic at Old Quay, St Martin’s.  The low-lying nature of the Islands, their exposure and the long trend of sea level rise, together with climate change impacts, will continue to pose an increasing level of risk for those assets located close to the coast or in the coastal waters. 

A limited number of artists travelled to the Isles of Scilly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, despite the size of the art colonies that existed in Cornwall.  However, the early to mid-nineteenth century paintings and drawings of artists visiting Augustus Smith do contribute to the art record of Scilly.  A lack of artistic images is, however, supplemented by a wealth of photographic evidence that provides a unique record of the history of the islands and their changing physical and social conditions since the middle of the nineteenth century.  For this case study, therefore, photography, both terrestrial and aerial, provides the best medium for the assessment of coastal heritage risk. 

Figure 18.1: Title page from William Borlase’s 1756 publication on ‘The Islands of Scilly’, which includes views of the Islands from the sea and annotated copperplate engravings such as ‘New Grynsey Harbour’ (Figure 18.2).

Images courtesy of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Figures 18.3 and 18.4 provide details from a further Borlase engraving of the town pier and harbour of St. Mary’s and the Northern Island’s taken from Bosou Hill in June 1752. 

Images courtesy of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Figure 18.5 provides views of the Islands from the sea.  Such perspectives formed an essential aid for navigation in the Islands’ rock strewn coastal waters.

Figure 18.6: ‘St Agnes’ Point, Isles of Scilly’ by Edward William Cooke RA. A fine watercolour by the leading marine and coastal artist. Cooke was one of relatively few artists to visit Scilly. 1848.

Figure 18.7: ‘Cromwell’s Castle’ on Tresco.  The rich heritage on the Isles of Scilly is represented through a wealth of photographic images held in the collection of the Isles of Scilly Museum.

7.         References

  1. Royal Haskoning, 2011.  ‘Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Islands Shoreline Management Plan 2’
  2. Charman, D., Johns, C., Camidge, C., Marshall, K., Mills, P., Mulville, J. & Roberts, H. M., 2014.  ‘The Lyonesse Project; A Study of the Coastal and Marine Environments of the Isles of Scilly’ (OASIS ID Cornwall 2-58903). 
  3. Bowden, M. & Brodie, A., 2011.  ‘Defending Scilly’.  English Heritage publication.  ISBN: 978-1-84802-043-6.
  4. Borlase, W., 1756. ‘Observations on the Ancient and Present State of the Islands of Scilly’.  W. Jackson (Printer).
  5. Llewellyn, S., 2005. ‘Emperor Smith – The Man Who Built Scilly’.  The Dovecote Press.  ISBN: 1-904349-18-8.
  6. Martin, A., 2014.  ‘Viewing the Past: The Photographic Heritage of the Isles of Scilly’.  Copyright, Isles of Scilly Museum.  ISBN: 978-0-9562903-3-5.