The Isles of Scilly

I acquired The Isles of Scilly by Robert Heath from the old Central Library as an unwanted donation, thus I have had it on my bookshelves in three different residences for at least 31 years. The reason I chose to read it now is as inspiration for my upcoming trip to the UK–my first time there, since I don’t consider airport transfers at Heathrow a legitimate visit–yet I will not be visiting this archipelago. I tend to read books about a place before I visit it, although this one is a stretch since Mark and I will be in Manchester and the Isle of Man in September. So at least there is an insular context.

As the cover states, this book was written in 1750. The price on the cover, six shillings, indicates the book was printed prior to the adoption of decimal currency in 1971 (the publication date inside is 1967). Thankfully the type has been reset to make it more legible to twentieth-century eyes yet the Germanic capitalization of all nouns, as well as the mysterious placement of all geographical names in italics, was jarring. This brief book at only 87 pages was nonetheless a struggle to get through, as the mid-eighteenth century text broke off into frequent non sequiturs and in spite of repeated attempts to understand what was being stated I often had no idea what was going on. The flowery language was typical of the time with extended descriptions within clauses that took an entire paragraph to finally get to the heart of the sentence.

A large foldout map was included yet its text, in a tiny and compact cursive, could only be read with a magnifying glass. The map wasn’t even worth ripping out and I will not be keeping this book.

One sample of the writing style, complete with nominal capitalization and erroneous italics, was this priceless example:

“It is remarkable, that no venomous Insects or Creatures harbour in these Islands. And that Attorneys, or Sheriff’s Officers, never shew their Faces amongst these People, who live by their own distinct Property and Industry. The Place is also clear of Robbers, House-Breakers, and Highwaymen, since if any were disposed to set up those Trades here, the Limits of their Situation would render it next to impossible for them to escape the Hands of Justice.”

Flooding was a common problem and I can only wonder now if the settlements have been moved to higher elevations. Why would anyone build upon an area prone to flooding in the first place?

The author wrote about tin mining on the islands, but went to such great detail that, while it was crushingly boring to me, might interest others in mining history. He wrote about sailing conditions around the rocky archipelago involving specific depths and distances, which was probably a necessity for the seafarer in 1750. I was most interested in the chapter on the Cornish language, which included translations of common words and phrases. The most humorous was:

“A Sister they call Whore. A Whore Whorra.”

And of the ten words chosen to mark similarities between Cornish, Greek and English, among Mother, Here, Dog, Drink and Boat, the last one, mysteriously, was Snorting (which in Cornish is Ronchie and in Greek Ronchos).

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