Searching for the desert in the Scillies

There's a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet... two of the present residents swimming offshore

There’s a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet… two of the present residents swimming offshore

The Scilly Isles has a large number of deserted islands and rocky outcrops, each of which have their own history… Nornour, in the Eastern isles, was only recently discovered to have housed an important Roman shrine on the way from Gaul to Ireland; Samson was populated until the middle of the nineteenth century; and islands such as Annet now house important seabird colonies.But there were a number of others, which lay close to St Martin’s, that particularly fascinated Jen and myself.

One of these, White Island, lay tantalisingly opposite our lunch spot on our final full day. Seals bobbed around in the sheltered channel, entertainingly curious. I was sure that the map showed that a bar across to the island would appear at low tide but while we were there the sea remained a barrier.

White Island from St. Martin's

White Island from St. Martin’s

We left after lunch, but the lure of exploring a deserted island proved too strong and I persuaded Jen that we should try to cross. By this time another young couple (sorry, a couple who were themselves young) arrived, peered at the sea, and then trod across carefully, trying not to slip from the rocks into any unseen gullies.

So we followed, removing boots and socks, and gingerly waded in… not, in my case, very elegantly… but having learned from the other two we picked our way across without getting too deep. Ten minutes later we looked back and saw that the shingle bar was almost clear of the water… had we waited we’d have crossed with little drama.

White Island at low tide

White Island at low tide: no longer an island

Yet there was still the excitement of being on an uninhabited island, knowing that if we stayed on more than about three hours, we’d be stranded until the next low tide. We were experiencing the allure of the desert… more than a millenium ago, this drew Christian hermits to these islands – and specifically to two that lay a short distance further west.

St Helen's - the home of St Elidius around the 7th century, as seen from White Island

The island at top left is St Helen’s, the home of St Elidius around the 7th century – as seen from White Island

Fifteen hundred years agothese two (St Helen’s and Teän) would have been tidal islands – much as White Island is now. The name St Helen’s is a corruption of St Elidius, the name of a 7th or 8th century hermit about whom little is known, except that he was reputed to be the son of a British king and a bishop. His cell is still visible on the island, as are the mediaeval buildings connected with the monastery on Tresco. In 1461 Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to “the faithful who go in great numbers to the Chapel of St Elidius” [ref] which, whatever the pre-Reformation tone, indicates the great significance of the site locally.

Neighbouring St Helen’s is Teän, a name more obviously derived from ‘Theona’, a female hermit from the same era, about whom even less is known than Elidius. Her influence also seems to have inspired a monastic community that survived for centuries. In the 1950s, an archaeological investigation discovered sixteen Christian graves. One belonged to an elderly lady, who may (because of the location of her grave under the altar of the mediaeval chapel on the island) have been Theona herself.

Teän and St. Helen's - homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius - with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance

Teän and St. Helen’s – homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius – with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance; viewed from St Martin’s

Like St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne (and later, even more remotely, on Inner Farne), these Celtic saints were heading for the British equivalent of the desert. They were following in the footsteps of Antony the Great towards the end of the fourth century, and the thousands who followed him, in subsequent centuries, into the Egyptian desert. Their purpose was to become holy by battling demons, and to intercede for others in spiritual warfare.

This view of what it is to live a holy life seems alien to us in the 21st century, used as we are to comfortable western lifestyles. But perhaps the island mystics had a better insight into Biblical spirituality than we do today: after all, John the Baptist spent his life in the desert eating locusts and wild honey (Matt 3), and Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights specifically to be tested by the devil (Matt 4).

I’m fascinated by St Elidius and St Theona – about whom so little is known except what has been found archaeologically, but who represent a deep strand of Celtic spirituality about which we ourselves have very little understanding.

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