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The Land Beneath the Waves

December 30, 2010
The Isles of Scilly as seen from the air. All of the water between the islands on the left and most of the water between them and St. Mary's, the large island on the lower right, was dry land as late as 500 AD. Photo by Mike Knell, taken in March 2009, and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Generic 2.0 License.

The Isles of Scilly as seen from the air. All of the water between the islands on the left and most of the water between them and St. Mary's, the large island on the lower right, was dry land as late as 500 AD. Photo by Mike Knell, taken in March 2009, and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Generic 2.0 License.

Beneath Land’s End and Scilly rocks
Sunk lies a town that Ocean mocks.

– Unattributed rhyme from Legend Land, Volume 2, George Basil Barham, published in 1924

The Isles of Scilly barely enter into history. About the only major event associated with them was the Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707, when the gloriously named Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell sailed a significant fraction of the British Navy into their shallow waters, losing four ships and approximately 1,400 sailors’ lives—including his own. The disaster led to the solution of the Longitude Problem by means of naval chronometers, and as these precise clocks spread they and their descendants revolutionized war, industry, trade, and science. Thank Admiral Shovell when the alarm clock wakes you tomorrow morning. However, the other particularly interesting thing about the Isles of Scilly looks back into the past rather than forward into the Industrial Age.

Britain is lousy with towns and even entire lands lost to the sea. H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by the story of Dunwich in Suffolk: one of the most important towns in medieval England, it was progressively swept into the ocean after a storm surge hit it in 1286. A bit further east the central part of the North Sea covers Doggerland, which was above sea level during the last Ice Age and only submerged about 6500 BC; the author owns a chunk of mammoth tusk dredged up from the area. The effect of the Ice Age on Britain hit Scilly too, but in a less obvious way. The southern half of Britain is further underwater than it should be after accounting for the melting of ancient ice caps, while the north is, in places, actually higher than it was at the Last Glacial Maximum, 20,000 years ago. This is because one of the ice caps was actually on Scotland and Northern England, and the weight of the ice pressed that section of the island down. Now that the ice has been removed, Britain has been slowly rebalancing itself, and the southern reaches are subsiding as the north rebounds, like a great tectonic see-saw.

This post-glacial rebound is continuing even as we speak, so the Isles of Scilly—literally the most southern point of England—have changed well into the last couple of millennia. It’s worth looking at the British Admiralty’s depth charts for the waters around the islands. The rather small brown areas are the present-day Isles, while the green represents flats that can become exposed if the tide is low enough. The blue area is a rough approximation of what Scilly would have been like some time in the past, with a depth of four meters or less. As you can see, this produces a single large island (sometimes called Ennor after a castle on the largest of the present islands, St. Mary’s) out of most of the plural, 21st century Scillies. The main difficulty here is knowing just when this island existed. Charles Thomas, emeritus Professor of Cornish Studies at Exeter University has suggested it disappeared some time around 1600 BC, but others have suggested that it existed until more recently—possibly as late as 500 AD. It’s worth noting that the Roman name for the Isles, Scillonia insula,  is singular.

If the latter is true then Ennor existed well into the Celtic period of Britain, which is interesting because there are several legends about drowned lands in Celtic mythology. Readers who know their Thomas Malory (or Jack Vance) are aware of Lyonesse, home of the Arthurian Tristan, and Lyonesse has long been associated with the Isles of Scilly. However, there are signs that the association is a  16th-century invention. The first known mentions of Lyonesse in literature are just variations on Lodonesia, which is the Roman name for Lothian in Scotland; “Tristan” itself is just a variant, via Latin, of the Pictish royal name “Drust″. The identity of Lyonesse and Scilly (or, rather, the Seven Stones Reef , deathbed of the Torrey Canyon, to the northeast) wasn’t entirely cemented until Alfred, Lord Tennyson got his hands on it in his mid-19th century Idylls of the King.

All is not lost, however. The Celtic legends go deeper than Lyonesse, to stories such as Brittany’s Ker-Is (or Caer Ys, if you prefer the more common Welsh or Narnian spelling to the Breton). It too is a sunken land, this time placed in Douarnenez Bay south-east of Brest. There is even a potential connection between it and Scilly: Mont Saint-Michel is not too far away on the border between Brittany and Normandy and it was the sister house of the remarkably similar-looking St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall—right where the British coast is closest to Scilly and where a drowned forest can be seen at low tide. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to suppose a Breton monk, familiar with the story of Ker-Is, being transferred to St. Michael’s Mount when it was gifted to the Norman monastery in the 11th century and him making the obvious inference when he saw what was in the water.

On the other hand, the story may be entirely native. The Welsh have a similar legend, Cantre’r Gwaelod, which is supposed to be a drowned hundred in Cardigan Bay. If it comes down to it, the story could even be both native and imported. After all, Brittany was colonized by Britons from Wales and Cornwall in the 4th and 6th centuries (a trek legendarily led by a Welsh prince whose name hits two fantasy heroes in one blow, Conan Meriadoc). Ker-Is may just be the colonists’ version of Cantre’r Gwaelod, 1500 years on.

The main difficulty with fitting Ennor to any of these stories is that they’re all of sudden inundation. Most are about sinful lands suffering the wrath of God and feature a single survivor literally galloping his horse away from the clawing waves—a myth memorialized in the coat of arms of the Trevelyan family of Cornwall. The flooding of Scilly’s central plain would have taken many years; a snail could have escaped, let alone a horse. Still, this isn’t a fatal rupture of the connection between the two. Human beings have a knack for making stories more interesting, and it’s not too difficult to see a folk tale that “once there were farms under the bay” slowly turn into a story of dash and adventure, especially under the influence of the biblical story of Noah.

Ultimately, we’ll learn more about Ennor only through archaeological investigation. Surprisingly for the heritage-mad United Kingdom there’s never been a large-scale investigation of the waters around the present-day isles. But the so-called Lyonesse Project began in 2009, and is to run until 2011. Its goal is to determine what the Isles of Scilly were like prior to inundation. Results are expected in the next few months.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2010 8:07 PM

    Interesting connections you draw here. Nothing I had known about before now!

  2. December 30, 2010 11:19 PM

    I’ve seen “Lyonesse” associated with the Irish County “Leinster,” just west across the sea from Wales.

    The French city of Lyons, and if I remember right other places such as Leiden, are, if I remember right, named after Lugh, the chief of the Celtic gods. Lyons was “Lugu-dunum,” in Latin.

    Lugh’s cognomen was “Lamh Fada,” which means “Long Hand.” The founder of Moscow, “Alexander?” had the cognomen “Dolgo Ruki,” which means “Long Hand,” in Russian.

    • Paul Drye permalink*
      December 31, 2010 9:00 AM

      Breaking a name down can give useful associations, but you’ve got to be careful. For example, I’ve got a weird one that can top your Lugh/Moscow one: Bangkok, Thailand’s proper name is “Krung Thep Mahanakhon”, which translates as “City of Angels”. In other words, it’s another Los Angeles.

      Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure Felipe de Neve did not make it to that part of the world!

  3. Ian Scott permalink
    September 5, 2012 12:26 AM

    The charts link no longer works – it should be:

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