The Isles of Scilly.

I Wonder how many of our legion of summer tourists, familiar with Elbe, Rhine, and Danube, who explore Europe from the Fiords to Cape Matapan, interspersing rambles among the Pyramids and trips to Niagara, have ever bestowed a thought on our own little home islands.

They lie close to us, and there are some which would repay a visit almost as much as some of the continental attractions which drain Cheapside and Belgravia, and imprint half the mountains of Switzerland on the Alpenstock of each roaming Templar. True it is that scenic grandeur is par excellence continental, and nowise to be sought in the isles of our own seas. Nor are the habits and manners of their inhabitants, or the productions of nature so dissimilar from our own as those which the favoured tracts of foreign countries present to our annual tourists; but neither, on the other hand, have they been as well explored or as frequently described.

And yet they deserve it at least as much. How intimately, again, have we had successively developed to us, with painful fidelity, all the minutia of civil government, laws, and institutions appertaining to each phase of foreign despotism and democracy from Warsaw to the States. From Laing to Dana, from Inglis to Senior, what feature of nationality in high or low latitudes has escaped reviews and expositions from some one of our wandering literati?

Yet it would strangely astonish them to be told, as they truly might, that peculiarities of government and laws, quite as great and fully as worthy of study by our English politicians, exist close to our own shores, and even under the immediate dynasty of our much beloved Sovereign Lady Queen Victoria! But, as I am not writing a treatise on the political idiosyncrasies of our isles, perhaps I had better begin with the humbler attempt to describe in a very homely fashion the trifling incidents of my own visit to Scilly, and perhaps hereafter to Mona.

There is now a little steamer running from Penzance to Saint Mary’s, but before this was established, in 1856, I took my departure from Penzance, one beautiful Saturday morning, on board the Ariadne — erst a yacht of Lord Godolphin — then the sole means of communication between the isles and the mainland.

She was a famous cutter, of the good old-fashioned build, a thoroughly weatherly sea-boat, such as our yachts used to be before the bluff bows and broad run merged altogether into the lines of the America. Good five hundred yards of canvas composed her main-sail; the chief cabin had been converted into a hold for merchandise; and, though her berths were few, there was ample space on her broad decks for all the tourists who, in those days, were likely to extend their peregrinations beyond the Land’s End.

Our voyage out produced nothing remarkable. It was beautifully fine, with a light breeze from the N.E. We passed one or two liners, crowded with canvas, with their sky-scrapers set — a noble sight. We saw one of those corked bottles which sometimes become so marvellously the media of long-expected news, but are far oftener the result of the silly spree of some party of pleasure: so our craft held on her course, and the low range of dark rocks which you are told is Scilly, loomed soon afterwards into sight.

The isles are numerous, and subside gradually in size till they become mere rocks. Only six are inhabited, but there must be nearly a hundred large enough to land upon. The chief island is St. Mary’s, and the seat of government: that is to say, it can boast of a grim old citadel (temp. Elizabeth) perched aloft on a steep hill rising above the port and town of St. Mary.

In this citadel resides all the official dynasty of the Scilly Islands, comprised in the person of Lieutenant B.N., who unites in his own person the functions of deputy-governor, commandant of the fortress, and commander-in-chief of all the forces, military and naval (of whom I discovered four), in the Isles of Scilly. This comprehensive official, nowise overburdened with these his loftiest functions, discharges (especially in fine weather) with inimitable diligence those of captain of the only revenue cutter which protects Her Majesty’s exchequer in her Scillonian realms. When I speak, however, of Scilly as part of the Queen’s dominions, I do so as a mere facon de parler.

Mr. Augustus Smith, several years ago, if report be true, purchased of the Duchy of Cornwall a long lease, giving him fiefdom over the whole of these islands; and never was autocracy carried into greater minutias, or, I must in justice add, exercised with more hard-headed wisdom and justice.

I had not ventured to incur the hazard of landing on the territories of this insular potentate without some credential from the Lord of the Isles himself, at that time resident in London. A kind mutual friend procured me the necessary missive to the local agent. It happened that I had posted it from Penzance, so that it went by the same packet as I did, and in conversation with the captain I thought it best to inform him of the letter of which he was the bearer, and its probable contents. An unknown gentleman introduced by Mr. Smith into his kingdom was an event to be notified at once to St. Mary’s, and I was afterwards told that this was the reason why an immense burgee was hoisted at the mast-head on nearing the harbour.

I was accosted, on my arrival, with the greatest courtesy by the commandant, in a brand-new coat and epaulettes. I told him the object of my visit; — simply to lounge about and see as much of the islands as I could before Monday morning, when the Ariadne was to return to Penzance. I observed that some delay took place in offering me any definite services.

There are no regular inns in the place, but the house of our skipper hard by seemed in some sort to answer the purpose, and some excellent veal cutlets and delicious hams filled up the gaps very comfortably until my letter of introduction had been conned over by the locum tenens of the introducer, who soon presented himself, and very civilly asked what I wished to see.

I determined to visit the island of Tresco (which contains the residence of Mr. Smith), to sleep there, and return to see St. Mary’s. It turned out that the gig of the revenue cutter was laid up for painting, and nothing available came to hand but the most antique and crazy boat I ever saw. Into this were packed some of the Tresco women, with their market baskets, and an elderly lady, the mother of the amiable curate then at Tresco, who had been my only compagnon de voyage.

I shall always regard that two miles’ sail as the most perilous of my nautical exploits. If a breeze had sprung up, and raised any amount of sea, we should have been infallibly swamped. As I steered her along her creeping course, lolling over the stern sheets, it was delightful to watch the changing view which the bottom of the sea presented. It is usually shallow water among the isles, and mica seems to preponderate in the soil, and richly spangles the pure white sand which abounds here, as on the opposite shore of Cornwall.

The water, which is consequently, when calm, of the lightest blue, was perfectly transparent, and save where the sea-plants had established their luxuriant groves, every fish and shell could be seen as plainly as in an aquarium; and on my return from Tresco next day, in another boat and in a perfect calm, we saw multitudes of plaice lying flat at the bottom under several fathoms of water.

All around us towered or crouched, in various degrees of altitude or flatness, the granite rocks and islets which constitute the great feature of this strange cluster, and give it, with the cerulean waters, snow-white sand, and gaudy yellow gorse, that peculiar character which, I think I may safely say, no other island, or group of islands, presents. It is strangely isolated in the sea; every terrific storm in winter breaks with appalling fury upon its naked shores, with no tree to check its force; in summer it basks in the calm repose of Italian skies, decked by a profusion of flowers of tropical luxuriance. The Scillonians may indeed boast of singularities of aspect, soil, climate, and vegetation, which it would be difficult to assign as belonging to any single zone.

The little attentions I had been able to show the mother of the resident curate were lavishly overpaid by a hospitable invitation to dinner at the parsonage, and by a fund of information which I thus obtained about the islands and their inhabitants. I took up my abode for the night in the smallest possible inn, which afforded me bed, but certainly not board: and I had soon occasion to appreciate my invitation next day to a meat dinner, I the Scillonians not deeming meat one of the necessaries of life.

I spent the evening in roaming among the eminences— I can scarcely call them hills — clothed with the shortest grass, and the fantastic granite rocks jutting out in grotesque shapes above the surface alike of land and water. The beautiful blue sea lazily washed the margin of its dazzling white bed with softly rippling tiny waves beneath my bedroom window, and atoned for the absence of the ordinary supply of creature comforts.

I attended the morning service at the only church in Tresco, which is served together with that in a neighbouring little islet by the same clergyman. I never saw a better or a more attentive congregation, and I was pleased to find that it was the custom to postpone the Litany until the afternoon. The whole service, therefore, divested of unseemly repetitions, was compassed within a reasonable length, and gained vastly in force and effect.

This rejection of customary innovation on the proper division of the services was highly esteemed, as I learnt, by the congregation, and being strictly rubrical, was not opposed by the bishop, who does not however, I imagine, hold frequent visitations in the Scilly Isles. There are several Dissenters, and I heard their cottage worship as I passed their doors. This leads me at once to speak of the highly improved tone of morals which have resulted under Mr. Smith’s sovereignty.

Not only is a drunkard scarcely ever seen in the Islands, except he be a strange sailor, but thieving is rare in the extreme, and people leave their doors unbolted at night with perfect safety. I was shown one man living on St. Martin’s Island who was suspected of the only house robbery known for years, and he was tabooed by his neighbours, and rarely spoken to. The proofs had not been sufficient to convict him.

All offenders are tried at sessions or assizes in Cornwall, but few ever go. Pauperism is almost unknown: and the other vices and ill-deservings seem to have been for many years far below the average of any English district of which I ever investigated the morals — and they are not a few.

I attribute this in great measure to Mr. Smith’s edicts. He permits no person to bring up his children uneducated, and he has provided good schools for them. He carries his power into the family menage, and will tolerate no child after a fit age being unemployed. “Tom” having been long enough at school, must be set to work. I question if there be an idle boy on the islands; and if Miss Carpenter were to establish a Scilly Ragged School, it would infallibly die of inanition for lack of the remotest approach to a “City Arab.”

If any head of a family disobeys Mr. Smith, whether in the good governance of his family or the prescribed management of his land, he gets “notice to quit;” and as every other house belongs to Mr. Smith, his next move is necessarily exile to England.

There are about 3000 inhabitants on all the six isles, and I believe them to constitute the most thoroughly moral group in the kingdom; and my latest experiences and means of judging enable me to speak highly of their general intelligence. It is a proof of the real improvement in public morals effected by the Lord of the Isles that he put down smuggling so vigorously, that scarcely any is said to remain; and yet I was shown the enormous cellars under the parsonage house at Tresco, the clergyman in former times having made much more by kegs than by tithes.

Thus the rigid wisdom of Mr. Smith’s style of government is appreciated by its good results, though submitted to in a spirit rather perhaps of philosophy than love. There is no Mrs. Smith; nor am I aware of the residence of any lady likely to impart largely or actively that indescribable charm to the charities and kindly influences of people in high station, which give them their only access to the hearts of the poorer classes.

I walked to Mr. Smith’s house, a plain, handsome, sensible, stone building. It is admirably planned and furnished, and is the only approach to a good country gentleman’s house I saw or heard of. It occupies a dell in the island a little above the level of the sea. The gardens are extensive and tastefully laid out, and there was a profusion of flowers, many of them tropical or exotic, and all flourishing in the open air.

I was struck with the geranium hedges, reaching far above our heads; the hydrangeas were superb, and there was a beautiful bright green flower (I think the spiraxa). The whole of the cactus and yucca tribes seemed to me (being no florist) of prodigious growth and luxuriance.

There were some Australian birds which diversified the scene, and contributed to render the aspect of the whole place unique and exotic. I took a boat and rowed back to St. Mary’s, and on applying for admission to a sort of boarding-house, which is the nearest approach to an hotel, instead of being admitted I was catechised as to my reasons for not going to Captain T’s as I had done on landing. Having, however, satisfied the lady of the house, I was admitted, and favoured with a comfortable bed and breakfast. This is a specimen of the pride which characterises these islanders. Few will even admit that they are tradesmen, and tell you when you go to make purchases that perhaps they may spare you the articles you want.

I took a delightful walk over the high promontory, which seems to have formed an ancient appendage to the citadel, and is stocked with deer still. It is covered with gigantic gorse, intersected by public walks, and commands a beautiful view of all the islands, and especially of St. Agnes, with its rocky coast: on it the only lighthouse stood, but another was being built.

St. Mary’s, like most of the islands, is nearly cut in two in the centre, where a low isthmus connects this promontory with the mainland of the island. The sea has more than once, in great storms, threatened to break over it and overwhelm the town, which has been indiscreetly built there. It is the only town and the largest island — between two or three miles long.

We sailed at about ten o’clock, and next morning a perfect calm soon set in: we drifted about with the tide amongst the islands until evening, when beginning to get rather hungry, we discovered that not a scrap of food was to be obtained on board. Fortunately for me, the clergyman of St. Mary’s, with his family, were my fellow-passengers. Mr. S. and I persuaded the captain to let us go ashore in the gig: Mr. S. was to beg for the loan of provender for tea; he warned me on no account to offer money.

We went to two or three farmhouses, and easily obtained eggs, bacon, milk, and bread. When we got down again to the creek where we had left the boat, we found to our dismay that the sailor left in it had punted himself off far along the coast: he returned in half an hour, having speared six or seven fine large plaice, one of which afforded a delicious addition to our tea when we got on board.

They who fry their fish when taken, and eat it instanter, will scarcely recognise as the same species such as are eaten after the ordinary interval. As we pulled leisurely back to the cutter, the setting sun shot its long red rays across the water, tinging the ripple we left in our wake with every brilliant hue, spangling with topaz, sapphire, emerald, and ruby the azure surface of that silent rock-girt sea. Not a bird broke the stillness of the scene. The cutter lay motionless, moored to her kedge, with her great white mainsail in helpless repose in the middle of the strait. The broad headlands of St. Margaret’s hemmed us in to the eastward, and the long mainland of St. Mary’s loomed behind us. The only living figure was a solitary man with a glass, on the highest point of the shore we had just left, evidently on the look-out for some expected arrival.

As not a breeze was felt, and the sky gave no symptom that the calm would end, we all composed ourselves for the night, and a gloriously moonlit bed I had on deck. I was scarcely in my first sleep when I was awoke by the sound of oars pulled quietly and almost stealthily. I sang out to the man on watch, “A boat here on the starboard bow!”

He told me it was all right, and I said no more; but I observed her shoot noiselessly into a little cove near where we had landed, and close to where the man with the glass was standing. When I awoke in the broad sunlight at five o’clock, we were floating about with the tide, just outside the islands, and the ships in sight kept us countenance with their royals flapping lazily against their taper spars.

Two huge seals, one black, and one spotted white and black, lay asleep and basking, each on a small rock near the shore. We approached near enough to shoot them; but I was glad we had no gun, or the oil might have tempted some of our crew to shoot one, for they are like the chimpanzee, of far too human a sagacity to reconcile one to their wanton slaughter. A rattle on the forecastle woke them, and they rolled leisurely off the rocks into the sea, and we saw no more of them after swimming away from us. They were evidently off on a fishing cruise. In spite of all that is said of the intelligence of the highest order of the monkey tribe, nothing surpasses that of the seal, while in attachment he excels them, and is easily domesticated.

The calm continuing all the morning, we again persuaded the captain to let us pull into shore, and look for dinner. This time he assented, and went with us. The clergyman took his family, and kindly allowed me to accompany them. We went to two or three houses on St. Mary’s Island, but at some distance from the town.

This enabled me to get a good insight into the domiciles of the Scillonians. Every cottage bespoke comfort. Most of the men were working on their bit of land, and conducted us in their shirt-sleeves into an inner carpeted room, with nice furniture, books on the table, and all the accompaniments of civilisation, exceeding that of our ordinary farmers. Yet these men do not hold the tenth part of the land; and work it chiefly themselves, and their families.

The secret of this is, that every islander who has a patch of suitable land — and few are without it — grows early potatoes for the London markets; and most, if not all, of the very early productions we see at great dinners in May come from Scilly, and are sold by the pound at fabulous prices. I was told that little labour, and not much land, sufficed to insure £50 to the producer.

I found the women especially conversible and intelligent, and extremely hospitable. They gave us sundry eatables, and one of the men sent his cart and horse into the town to purchase a further supply for the clergyman. Nearly all the women have decayed teeth, and few are handsome. They speak very pure English, and free from provincial accent. Wherever there was shelter, the myrtles, geraniums, and fuchsias grew into large shrubs; but a very few trees were to be found, and those only in a single valley.

As we were near the spot, I made them tell me of the loss of the fleet under Sir Cloudesley Shovel, owing to his disregard of the warning of a sailor who knew the islands, and who persisted in his statement, that the course the fleet was taking was directly on to the rocks. He was hanged for his pains at the yard-arm; but not until he had read aloud the 90th Psalm, and prayed God that the grass on Sir Cloudesley Shovel’s grave should dry up and wither like the grass in the Psalm.

The fleet were wrecked within the hour on the Scilly Isles, and Sir Cloudesley’s body buried on the shore, and the legend of the island affirms that no grass did grow on it either before or after the removal of the body to Westminster Abbey. It is singular that a similar occurrence took place in Montgomery churchyard, still better authenticated, and extant to this hour.

In the evening we got on board, and the faintest possible southerly breeze arising, we spread main and broad sail, spent another delightful night on deck, and made Penzance in excellent time for breakfast, having been forty-four hours out on a voyage of some thirty miles.

Jelinger C. Symons.


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