When I first went over to have tea, Ellen mentioned that she had studied history (at Oxford, I think) and had, as part of her coursework, focused on the Scillys. I expressed interest, and she suggested that I take a look at some of her books about the islands.
Today, on a trip across the road to return candles and cutlery, of which we were in deficit for last night’s dinner party, she pressed into my hands four volumes. Two were original texts from the mid-1700s, leather-bound and in fine condition, complete with fold out maps of the islands. It’s just incredible! I feel like I’ve stumbled across the remains of some ancient land, the tip of which has broken through into our current time.
So, as to the ancient inhabitants of this island, I’ll quote from A Natural and Historical Account of the Islands of Scilly by Robert Heath, 1750.
Strabo in his 3d Book of Geography, says, the Isles Cassiterides [presumed to be Scilly] are ten in Number... That one of them is desert and unpeopled, and the rest inhabited by People wearing black Cloaths, and Coats reaching down to their Ankles, girt about their Breasts, and with a Staff in their Hand, like the Furies in Tragedies. That they lived by Cattle; and straggled up and down like them without fix’d Abode, or Habitation. That they had Mines of Tin and Lead, which Commodities they used to barter with Merchants for earthen Vessels, Salt, and Instruments of Brass. And Eustathius, from Strabos, calls these People Melanchlani, from their wearing black Cloaths down to their Ankles. These are the Islands which Solinus reports are severed from the Coast of the Danmonii [or Cornish] by a rough narrow Sea, of three or four Hours in crossing over. That the Inhabitants thereof lived according to their old Manner. That they had no Markets, nor did Money pass among them; but they gave in Exchange one Thing for another; and so provided themselves with Necessaries: That they were very religious, both Men and Women; and pretended to have great Skill in the Art of Divination, or in foretelling of what was to come... Sardus was persuaded that they lived so long till they were weary of Life; because they threw themselves from a Rock into the Sea, in Hopes of a better Life.
Incredible huh? The author gives no account of when Strabo wrote, but in the next few lines he mentions that the Phoenicians were the first outsiders to trade with the Scillys. That would put it in the first millennium BC, I think.
Hang on, I just looked up Strabo on the The Encyclopedia Britannica website and this is what I found:
b. 64/63 BC, Amaseia, Pontus
d. AD 23, ?
Greek geographer and historian whose Geography is the only extant work covering the whole range of peoples and countries known to both Greeks and Romans during the reign of Augustus (27 BC–AD14). Its numerous quotations from technical literature, moreover, provide a remarkable account of the state of Greek geographical science, as well as of the history of the countries it surveys.
Wow! So there you go, a 2000-year-old account relayed by a 250-year-old book. And so we have a glimpse of the people that may have, in another time, stood a large stone on-end to mark a spot on the island next door.
After our trip to Gugh, Philip and Ben and I stopped by James and Sarah Ross' farm and I had the pleasure of meeting our advisor on the seal matter. No one knows how many generations it’s been since they’ve been directly related to Jon but if you squint you can see the resemblance.
They were so nice and offered us a glass of wine as we chatted and went for a small tour of their house. Theirs like ours had been built in stages from a combination of stone, and wood washed up onto the shore from wrecks, St. Agnes being in a position to catch most of the debris from ships that would have run aground on the Western Rocks.
James told us of a beam he had found in the rafters of their house marked “Starboard.” The oldest part of the house dates back 500 years. A couple of shotguns hang upside down against the rafters of the low ceiling, each, ingeniously, from a single nail supporting the trigger guard. On the table stands a fairly new Windows-based PC. Phillip is trying to get James’s email up and running while James shows us around. They seem like one of the more traditional families here, having inherited a broad skill set, tailored to make the most of the land.
One such skill is growing flowers, the islands’ main export crop. He showed us some of the varietals in a walk-in freezer at the back of a large workshop. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed another part of the fall harvest hanging in the freezer, a perfectly quartered cow. They produce all of their own meat, eggs, honey, vegetables, and milk, a metal pitcher of which he gave us to take home and sample.
Just went out tonight for a walk down to the boat shed at Pregliss Cove. It rained tonight. The air is cold. The island is pitch black—no streetlights. I’m glad I never saw Blair Witch. If I had, I’d never be able to set foot outside at night without wetting my pants. Everything wobbles and jumps into the beam of my flashlight from the dark: boats lying on their sides by the shed for the winter, bushes, bracken, and old churches. The tide was out once again and I walked forever down the boat ramp, past clumps of seaweed and unidentifiable plant life, down to the very end.
I started to breathe heavily as I tested myself by wading into the water in my knee-high rubber boots. The water swirled around my ankles, slyly, keenly, flashing grim smiles into my light. I backed out again, chastening myself for taunting the sea late at night, after not even telling anyone I was going out. I pointed my flashlight out into the cove. The thin beam penetrated no more than 50 yds into the fuzzy blackness. Searching, searching and then—shock!—flashes of white, like aberrations, shining back at me.
It turned out to be my own light reflected in the cabin window of a boat heaving to and fro in the choppy cove. It’s almost easier to turn my light off. The contrast of the bright, flitting sea, or there a boat, then a lobster trap, jumping out of the darkness and hiding again makes me feel uneasy.
I do turn off my light and the evening calms into a dark, gray glow. Stars shine and clouds sleep sprawled out above my head while faint shadows show the way and lighthouse beams sweep the landscape from either horizon. I stand for a while trying consciously to breathe as I’m aware of the cold, the sea, the night, the residue of history, and this vast sky, like faintly lit wool, as they all conspire to take my breath from me.
I start back up towards the boat shed, lungs still under manual control, and jump as I see a shadow, again my own, flashed twice against the hull of a fishing boat, I having been briefly illuminated by the double beam of Bishop’s Rock lighthouse five miles to the southwest.
This place is so old and so many people have lived and died on this land, not to mention those who have found their deaths in the surrounding waters, that I’m pretty much expecting to see a ghost most of the time. It’s something I should get over because it doesn’t do much for my sense of ease. Anyway that’s all for now.
Thanks for reading!Nik