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Exploring Scilly's Historical Sites: Uncovering the Islands' rich past

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

Despite their modest size, these tiny islands hold an extraordinary historical significance that spans various epochs, leaving behind a tapestry of events that have shaped the region and its people.

The Isles of Scilly have been inhabited since the prehistoric era, with evidence of early settlements dating back to the Neolithic period. Over the millennia, the islands witnessed the passage of numerous civilisations, each leaving a unique imprint on their cultural and historical landscape.

Ancient Burial Chambers & Tombs

Among the most fascinating archaeological sites are the Innisidgen and Bant's Carn Burial Chambers, which stand as enduring testaments to the ancient communities that called the Scillies home.

Innisidgen, situated on the island of St. Mary's, is a Neolithic burial chamber dating back over 4,000 years. It consists of a chambered tomb constructed using large granite slabs and is surrounded by a circular mound. The purpose of these chambers remains a subject of scholarly debate, but it is believed that they served as communal burial sites for families or tribal groups. The careful alignment of these tombs with astronomical events adds to their mystique and hints at the advanced knowledge and significance of celestial events in the lives of these ancient island dwellers.

Bant's Carn Burial Chamber, also found on the island of St. Mary's, is another noteworthy site from the Bronze Age. This chambered tomb is perched atop a hill, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. The tomb's name, "Bant's Carn," is derived from the Cornish language, where "carn" means "rock pile," referring to the cairn-like mound that once covered the burial chamber. Excavations at Bant's Carn have revealed a rich array of artefacts, including pottery and beads, providing valuable insights into the burial practices and daily lives of the people who constructed it.

Bant's Carn Burial Chamber, Isles of Scilly
Bant's Carn Burial Chamber [Image source: Wikipedia]

These burial chambers and tombs exemplify ancient Scillonians' deep reverence for their deceased ancestors and their connection to the natural world. The construction of these monumental structures would have required considerable labour and engineering skills, underscoring the importance of ancestral veneration in their culture.

Iron Age Fortifications

The Old Man of Gugh, located on the tiny island of Gugh, is a prime example of an Iron Age hill fort. This ancient defensive structure consists of an earthen rampart encircling the summit of a prominent hill, offering commanding views of the surrounding landscape and sea. These hill forts served as defensive strongholds, protecting the inhabitants during conflict. The construction of such formidable structures highlights the strategic importance of the Isles of Scilly in the broader context of ancient trade and territorial disputes.

Harry's Walls, an intriguing cliff castle on the island of St. Mary's, is another remarkable Iron Age fortification. Perched on the edge of a steep cliff, this ancient settlement comprises a series of walls and earthworks that once formed a defensive enclosure. The location of Harry's Walls, overlooking the sea, further emphasises its defensive purpose, allowing its inhabitants to monitor potential threats from both land and sea.

Harry's Walls, Isles of Scilly
Harry's Walls [Image Source: Wikipedia]

These Iron Age fortifications showcase the advanced engineering and construction skills of the ancient inhabitants of the Isles of Scilly. Building these hill forts and cliff castles would have required a significant investment of labour and resources, indicating a cohesive and organised community capable of defending itself against external aggressors.

The discovery of artefacts within and around these sites, including pottery and tools, provides valuable insights into the daily lives and material culture of the Iron Age people who once lived on the islands. These fortifications also give archaeologists and historians a glimpse into the time's social, political, and economic dynamics, shedding light on the complex societies that inhabited these remote islands thousands of years ago.

Today, exploring the remains of these Iron Age fortifications offers visitors a chance to connect with the ancient past and appreciate the historical significance of the Isles of Scilly. Standing amidst the remnants of these defensive structures, one can't help but marvel at the ingenuity and resilience of the people who called these islands home so many centuries ago.

Tresco Abbey Gardens

Tresco Abbey Gardens, located on the captivating island of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, holds a rich historical significance as the site of a former Benedictine Abbey dating back to the 12th century. The gardens are nestled amidst the ruins of this ancient religious institution, which was established in 1114 AD.

Tresco Abbey Gardens, Isles of Scilly
Tresco Abbey Gardens [Image Source: Wikipedia]

The abbey was founded by monks from the Savigny Abbey in France and served as a place of worship and contemplation for several centuries. The religious community thrived on Tresco, and the abbey became a centre of learning and spiritual devotion.

Throughout its existence, the abbey experienced both prosperity and challenges, including periods of conflict and destruction, but it continued to play a vital role in the spiritual and cultural life of the region.

Over time, the abbey fell into ruins, but its remains were gradually transformed into a remarkable garden oasis. In the mid-19th century, Augustus Smith, the Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly, initiated the restoration and landscaping of the abbey's grounds, creating the enchanting Tresco Abbey Gardens we see today.

Thanks to the island's unique microclimate, the gardens now house a remarkable collection of exotic plants and subtropical flora from various corners of the world. This transformation from monastic ruins to a lush botanical paradise not only adds to the allure of Tresco but also preserves and honours the island's historical and cultural heritage.

Old Town Church and Standing Stones

The Old Town Church, officially known as St. Mary's Old Church, is one of the oldest parish churches in the region, with origins dating back to the medieval period. This impressive granite structure showcases a blend of architectural styles, reflecting its long and diverse history. Visitors can explore medieval features such as the ancient font and carved wooden benches. At the same time, the exterior boasts a striking tower and a serene churchyard that serves as the final resting place for generations of islanders.

Adjacent to the Old Town Church, the Standing Stones are a collection of ancient megaliths from prehistoric times with religious and spiritual significance. These enigmatic stones, carefully placed in the landscape, are thought to have served as markers for ritual and ceremonial activities, attesting to the island's sacred past.

The Old Town Church and Standing Stones create a unique atmosphere where centuries of religious practices and beliefs converge. Visitors can contemplate the enduring presence of human spirituality in this tranquil setting and marvel at the interplay of history, architecture, and nature that defines this cherished site on the Isles of Scilly.

St. Mary's Garrison Walls

The Garrison Walls on the island of St Mary is a testament to the turbulent period of the English Civil War when the Isles of Scilly found themselves embroiled in conflict. Located next to the Star Castle and constructed during the mid-17th century, these fortifications were a defensive response to the threat posed by parliamentary forces.

The strategic location of the Isles of Scilly made them a valuable prize during the English Civil War, and control of these islands was fiercely contested. The St. Mary's Garrison Walls served as a vital line of defence, protecting the Royalist forces stationed on the islands.

These formidable fortifications comprised earthworks, stone walls, and gun emplacements strategically positioned to guard against potential invasions. The Garrison Walls encircled key areas, providing a stronghold from which the Royalists could defend against their enemies.

The English Civil War was a period of intense upheaval, and the construction of the St. Mary's Garrison Walls represented the islanders' determination to safeguard their way of life and allegiance to the Crown.

Today, these historic walls offer a glimpse into the past, allowing visitors to explore the remnants of the defensive structures and reflect on the significance of the English Civil War on the Isles of Scilly. The St. Mary's Garrison Walls are a poignant reminder of the island's role in a pivotal moment in the British Isles' history and the enduring legacy of those who fought to protect these cherished islands.

The Isles of Scilly's historical sites are captivating portals to the past, revealing the footsteps of ancient civilisations and the echoes of turbulent eras. From Neolithic burial chambers to medieval abbeys, these remnants tell tales of resilience, spirituality, and human ingenuity. Exploring them is a profound journey through time.

We look forward to welcoming you to the islands! If you have questions, please don't hesitate to message us via our website or email We'd be happy to help with accommodation in the Isles of Scilly and more.

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