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 late 2000s BCE in the bronze age Scilly comprised one big and one small island (St Agnes). In some respects it was a more viable place to live than today because it was bigger and the climate was better (warmer and less wet, windy and stormy).

The Isle of Scilly constituted a separate world, a somewhat mystic world traditionally reputed to be the Isle of the Dead - and certainly the sheer number of burial-oriented cairns and cairnfields on the islands of today testifies to that.

The 'isle of the dead' could however be interpreted as an 'isle beyond time' or beyond earthly normality - though in ancient times it was also reckoned that the souls of the dead went off westward toward the setting sun. 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

Scilly is dense with ancient sites - mostly cairns, with a large number (83) of chambered cairns, and a few menhirs and cliff sanctuaries. Most of these sites were on higher ground, and many of them were located and built to be seen from the sea.


Scilly is notable for its cairnfields - agglomerations of cairns in large numbers, regarded by archaeologists as cemeteries, though this interpretation is not certain. There's something more about these cairnfields than meets the eye. Shipman Head cairnfield on Bryher contains over 130 cairns, most of them flat, low platform cairns which, if used for burial, surely would be shallow as graves and susceptible to digging up by animals (or, later, grave robbers). This said, it is difficult to imagine other major uses for them. They will have taken a lot of work to build, so their builders certainly were strongly motivated to build them.

The cairns in the cairnfields are not uniform, except that most of them lie on higher ground. They include normal humped round cairns, flatter platform cairns, a few D-shaped and oval cairns and some ring cairns, some built around natural boulders or with a rock at one end, some with kerbs and some not. Kerbs are a ring of flattish stones placed vertically in the ground around the cairn, at least to contain the cairn physically and stop it spreading, but probably serving a greater function than that.

It is possible that these cairns served as forms of 'orgone accumulators' (a term coined by the early 20th Century scientist and psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich) where alternating layers of organic and inorganic matter (soil and stones) generated or accumulated 'orgone' or subtle life-energy (the Chinese call it ch'i and Hindus call it prana), operating a bit like an energy-battery or, to use a computer term, a buffer.

Chambered Cairns

Some cairns are chambered cairns, which clearly have a different purpose. In the larger cairnfields, such as in the north of Bryher and Tresco, there are just a few chambered cairns amongst a large number of solid, mostly platform cairns - broad cairns, not very high, with a flattish top. Often the orientation of the chambers toward a variety of direction-points on the horizon is significant - the only problem being that we don't know exactly how they were significant, especially since there is a wide variety of orientations.

In many but not all cases, these chambers, long, thin and sometimes quite low, were oriented toward such points on the horizon as the solstice sunrise and sunset points, but some were oriented near-due north and in a wide variety of directions that cannot easily be explained. Elsewhere on this site though it is suggested that one purpose for chambered cairns was to serve as places to go to die (what is today called 'conscious dying').

Chambered cairns (archaeologists questionably call them 'entrance graves') were unlikely actually to be for burial as we know it. They were likely to be a form of meditation or initiatory chamber or a repository for important items - such as seeds for upgrading, herbal decoctions for potentising for medicinal or psychoactive use, or for placing tools, then regarded as sacred, for a kind of reconditioning.

Genetic tests have shown that bones left in urns in some chambered cairns tend to be from multiple people, even hundreds, suggesting that these bones were holy relics of tribal ancestors. But this was not burial, as such, in the way that we know it. Nowadays we like to memorialise our  personal significance, but memorialisation of individuals was unlikely to be important to bronze age people, unless perhaps they were the 'great and good' of the tribal lineages, given special treatment to uphold the essence and quality of the ancestral tribal line. They believed in an afterlife and a form of reincarnation or soul-migration, so death was not imbued with the same significance and finality as we invest in death today.
Shipman Head Down cairnfield, Bryher
There's a sense of pattern to the distribution of cairns within some cairnfields - they aren't randomly placed or in rows but in curvy lines and clusters. Again, the reason why is unknown. One hypothesis is that they could represent generations of members of tribes. A string of cairns might start with one, which might have contained a few generations of a whole family, with additional cairns in a string being built for subsequent burials.

These patterns suggest that there is something more to these cairnfields than the simple burial of the dead. Burial is an assumed purpose for the cairns - it is not conclusively proven that they all contain human remains or that they existed primarily for that purpose. This is not helped by the rain and biological action of four thousand years, which dissolves organic remains.

In the cairnfield on the satellite photo above, there are only two chambered cairns (light yellow), on the edge of the hill - all the rest are solid, mostly platform cairns (wide and flat-topped), made of a variety of constituents such as soil and stones, or rocks with infilling earth. Many of them have been raided by grave-robbers, dug through by rabbits or eroded by the weather, so their original internal structure is not clear to see.

A Maritime Culture

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 in Penwith and 2250 BCE in Scilly (rough dates). 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 - there are also some instances in SE Ireland and Brittany.

However, there were differences also between Scilly and Penwith - after all, the islanders were pretty much isolated on their islands during winter months, and the journey to the mainland wasn't easy, so a separate culture developed on Scilly, even though many of Scilly's settlers were probably Penwithians.

One difference is the profusion of menhirs in Penwith and the number and size of cairnfields in Scilly. Scilly does not seem to have the same 'necklace' of cliff sanctuaries as that which surrounds Penwith - this might be because Penwith's cliff sanctuaries were established in the 3000s BCE in the neolithic, at a time when Scilly was not constantly settled.

The people of the neolithic and bronze ages were steadfast mariners, using log boats, plank-built boats and skin-boats (a wooden frame with waterproofed leather stretched over them, like curraghs and coracles). They managed even to bring animals with them, sailing from such places as Brittany to Cornwall and Ireland. Some of those sailing to Ireland might well have used Scilly as a stopover, avoiding the strong tides and waves around West Penwith. With boats as small and fragile as these, sailors had to await the weather for a crossing of the English Channel or the Celtic Sea, applying sea dogs' intuition of a kind few nowadays have.

Archaeologically there are signs of marine contact stretching from Iberia to Britain and Ireland to the Orkneys and Denmark - the Atlantic coast megalithic culture area. Cultural trends and people moved up and down this coastal axis of Europe. In good weather the Scillies and West Penwith are intervisible from high places, and the journey between them could be done in a day using sail and paddle from Great Ganilly, Scilly's then main landing place, and Sennen beach in Penwith, or perhaps to Priest's Cove at Cape Cornwall. This would have been summer seasonal traffic - in winter, whoever was on the islands stayed there for the season, since the seas, weather and currents could be 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 and Ganilly was the main landing place. The presence of beacon places on both sides of the sound separating the islands and the mainland suggest a signalling system too, for practical and religious reasons. It is easier to see Scilly from Penwith than Penwith from Scilly, because the clifftop vantage points of Penwith are much higher than on Scilly.

It is generally accepted that Scilly was permanently colonised around 2250 BCE, though mesolithic and neolithic finds indicate that the islands, then wooded in more sheltered parts, were visited during summer months much earlier than this, and there might have been bouts of settlement too - certain placed stones such as Pig Rock on St Mary's, probably neolithic, hint at this. It is not clear whether any of the cairns of Scilly were built by seasonal visitors before permanent settlement.

Permanent settlement seemed to involve the establishment of a few core bases where farming, fishing and the means of survival were established, and then outlying settlements were established from there. Self-sufficiency was imperative. Fish, seals, dolphins, whales and sea products would have been the main food source, with farm products added as time went on and farming developed. Before the sinking of the islands, there was a wide, fertile valley of dry land, where the water now separating the islands (The Road) now exists.
Isles of Scilly from Carn Boel

Land and Sea Levels

It is commonly held that the Scillies were first permanently occupied around 2250 BCE at the beginning of the bronze age. At that time most of today's islands except St Agnes, Gugh and the western islets formed one island - the land has sunk and the sea has risen by 5-6 metres since then, and the waters between the islands are still shallow. Some ancient sites, especially settlements and field systems, now lie underwater between today's islands, though since the ancients had a habit of locating their sacred sites on higher ground, most of these are still on land today.

The sinking of the land is partially accounted for by a general moderate rise of sea levels since the bronze age (two metres or so), 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 rose up somewhat to compensate for the glacial weighing-down of landmasses further north. When the ice age ended, lands further north, especially in Scotland, rose and Scilly and Cornwall sank relatively. Hence the rather dramatic change of sea levels in Scilly, which continues to some extent today. The sea rose and the land sank, at the same time.

The legend of Lyonesse, reputedly located between Scilly and Penwith, and reputed to have sunk quite suddenly and catastrophically, is a strong, richly suggestive tradition but it is difficult to justify geologically or archaeologically. 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 the Azores or from the continental cliff west of Ireland helped this process - or there is something about the geology of this area that we do not know. (More on Lyonesse here.)

The Seven Stones Reef, northeast of Scilly and west of Penwith (site of the infamous 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster), is roughly two miles by one, and would in the past have been more exposed than now, but this is hardly sufficient a size for the several towns and 140 churches Lyonesse was said to have had. It is difficult therefore to form a sound conclusion on this matter. The Lyonesse tradition thus remains steadfastly in the realm of myth  - perhaps excessively dismissed by many archaeologists and believed in by believers, to the detriment of a resolution.

But a mythic land to the west is a not uncommon theme on the Atlantic coast. Whether Lyonesse was an actuality or a metaphor, it certainly is true that, when seen from the mainland, the Scillies sometimes look from Penwith as if they are hovering slightly above the water - often around low tide on a hot summer's day. Looking at the Scillies from a Penwith clifftop, it holds a mystique - even from Penwith's own mystique-rich viewpoint.
Isles of Scilly from near St Just
Isles of Scilly from near St Just

Alignments on Scilly

Click the map below to see it 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 and many alignments would disappear. This might not satisfy leyline-sceptics, but just look at the patterns that emerge from it.

A minority of alignments are three-point alignments - most are four or five. There is a pattern to the location of many cairns and menhirs that suggests Scilly-wide coordination of their building, either planned or according to a consistent logic.

Some sites are aligned to points on the Penwith mainland. Some of these form very significant alignments. Alignment 78 starts at Bonfire Carn on Bryher, passing through three cairns in the Chapel Down cairnfield on St Martin's, then, over the water, it intersects the Longships Rocks, Maen Castle (a cliff sanctuary south of Sennen), Boscawen-ûn stone circle and St Michael's Mount.

Many of the cairns on Scilly were designed to be seen clearly from the sea. They are placed so, sometimes in places where they stand out in profile on the land horizon, as seen from a boat offshore. This applies to cairns but not to the modest number of menhirs on St Mary's, all of which are inland.

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 violet and blue are Scilly alignments, the blue ones being near-parallel. These near-parallel alignments, just one degree or so from exactly parallel, are seen elsewhere in Cornwall and throughout Britain. These near-parallel alignments must in some way be significant - but we cannot deduce exactly what was going on in the thoughts and intentions of bronze age cairn builders.

The pattern of alignments slightly resembles a 'cat's cradle' with three predominant components: orientations of alignments NE-SW across St Mary's, roughly E-W across the northern isles, and a N-S axis between Bryher, Samson and St Agnes. There are also radials coming from sites on St Mary's across The Road to other islands.

Several sites emerge 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,
  • Pig Rock on St Mary's,
  • Samson Hill on Bryher, and
  • the multiple cairns on South Hill on the island of Samson.

There are several incoming backbone alignments from the mainland (yellow on the map), and five other alignments (orange on the map) 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 starting at Godolphin Hill and the other starting at St Michael's Mount). One alignment comes from the Merry Maidens and Carn Lês Boel and one from Cape Cornwall, St Ives Head and possibly further upcountry.

One alignment passes through three sites on Scilly, ending at Wolf Rock, ten miles over the sea and now hosting a lighthouse. In ancient times Wolf Rock would have protruded more prominently from the sea than now, probably by nearly as much as the lighthouse does today.

Other alignments go from the Scillies to prominent cliff sanctuaries on the Penwith coast such as Cape Cornwall, Maen Castle, Pendeen Watch and Carn Lês Boel, or to hills such as Chapel Carn Brea (a neolithic and bronze age 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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