The Isles of Scilly comprise some 55 islands and over 90 rocks lying in the Atlantic Ocean some 28 miles south-west from Land's End on the Cornish mainland. The name 'Scilly' comes from SULLY meaning the Sun Isles which describe its climate with an excellent sunshine record. The temperature is remarkably constant throughout the year with only a 9° variation between the average of the hottest and coldest months.
There are five inhabited islands: St Mary's, (Cornish: An Nor), St Martin's, (Cornish: Breghyek), St Agnes', (Cornish: Pennpras), Tresco (Cornish: Treskaw), and Bryher, and about 50 others which would be classed as islands as well as hundreds of rocks. One of these, the island of Samson was inhabited by one family in 1669; this had increased to six dwelling houses and 30 inhabitants in 1794. By 1829 there were 36 residents on Samson. In 1855, the last 10 residents were ordered to evacuate the island; the remains of their houses can still be seen.
The islands are comprised of granite, which has broken down to form a stony, sandy or gritty soil, as well as bright sandy beaches. In places the granite forms block cliffs and tors, rounded boulders or tilted slabs. The rocks around the islands became a graveyard for numerous shipping over the years, although many lighhouses were built towards the end of the 19th century, including the Bishop Rock which is the most westerly in the UK.
The islands were inhabited during the Bronze age, and this is marked by a number of standing stones and burial chambers. During the Roman occupation, trade was conducted on the islands as roman coins have been recovered. In later centuries, early christian hermits were attracted to the islands, as were pirates. It appears to have passed unnoticed in the Domesday survey of 1087. A Benedictine priory was founded on Tresco in the 12th century and Henry I granted the islands to Tavistock Abbey. By the 14th century the islands formed part of the Duchy of Cornwall, and Edward III gave them to the Black Prince who was made Duke of Cornwall. In the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I granted the lease of the islands to Francis Godophin. Godolphin built the eight-pointed Star Castle over the harbour of St Mary's, and Prince Charles (later Charles II) stayed there for a period during the English Civil War.
The 18th century saw a great deal of poverty on the islands but, despite there remoteness, John Wesley visited them during the course of his preaching. Shipbuilding became an important occupation on the islands and this extended into the 19th century. The Godolphins allowed their leases to lapse in the early 19th century and so the islands reverted to the Duchy of Cornwall. About this time, the islands began to export flowers with mixed success, although the trade continues to this day.
Originally Old Town on St Mary's was the chief centre of population for the Isles, but the centre shifted to Hugh Town in the middle of the 19th century.