I have been in love with the Isles of Scilly since spending time there as a teenager. I was lucky to have a friend who worked for a while at the Tresco Abbey Gardens and I was able to stay with her for free. A few years ago I went back and spent a blissful week just camping and walking. It was during that last holiday that I happened to pay a visit to the Old Man of Gugh. And now sitting in the comfort of my home on the mainland for some reason he has popped into my mind. I imagine him now, out there alone, on the edge of the world, facing the elements head on. And of course, I can’t help but wonder what his story is.
The Island of Gugh
The Isles of Scilly lie about 28 miles southwest of the coast of mainland Cornwall. There are six inhabited islands, including Gugh, and around 140 smaller off-islands that are mostly home to birds.
Gugh is tiny. Just 600m long by 310m wide. It has only two houses designed and built in the 1920s by Charles Hamlet Cooper. The two buildings have unusual curved roofs, common in some Scandinavian countries, that make them better able to stand up to the wild weather.
At low tide Gugh is joined to the island of St Agnes by a curving, white bar of sand. The narrow channel between the two islands is known for its dangerous currents.
Looking across to Gugh from St Agnes
Gugh feels a long way from anywhere. And I think it would be fair to say that the Scillies are isolated, especially in the winter. In his book The Fortunate Islands E.L. Bowley argues that it is this isolation that would have made them attractive to our ancient ancestors.
“It is probable that lonely islands were invested with a peculiar sanctity for reasons of safety; in historic times there could have been little security on large tracts of land which were liable to raids, whereas islands, owing to their inaccessibility provided the obvious depository for sentimental and material treasures and also presented an opportunity for the steady progress of culture and the Arts.”
The earliest known evidence for human activity found anywhere on the Isles of Scilly was discovered on Gugh. A barrow on the island, known as Obadiah’s Grave, was excavated in 1901.
House on Gugh, Islands Apart, John Hunt, 1989
Obadiah’s Grave on Gugh
Obadiah’s Grave is thought to have been named in more recent times after a farmer from St Agnes called Obadiah Hicks. This barrow is just one of roughly eighty burial chambers all across the Scillies. It was opened in 1901 by George Bonsor, a French-born historian and archaeologist.
The excavation was unusually well-recorded for the time. The surviving plans provide one of the most detailed records of an entrance grave’s chamber deposits and their funerary and artefactual contents. Obadiah’s Grave also contained the rare surviving deposits of an unburnt human burial.
Bonsor also dug around the base of the standing stone known as the Old Man of Gugh. He found nothing of interest, just five large packing stones.
What’s in a name?
The whole of Kittern Hill which makes up a large part of Gugh Island is a designated Scheduled Monument. Historic England identified it as a place of particular interest in the 1970s because of the concentration of ancient remains found there. These include a number of prehistoric cairns, five entrance graves, an ancient field system and settlements as well as post-mediaeval kelp pits.
Looking across to St Agnes
Kittern Hill is thought to get its name from the old Cornish for kite’s nest, cyta aern. And as for Gugh itself, Craig Weatherhill suggests that the name was originally Agnes Gue meaning ‘enclosure of St Agnes island’. Lake’s Parochial History of the County of Cornwall records the name of the island as Guew and it is possible this may come from keow meaning hedge or banks.
And while we are discussing names, it just so happens that the Old Man of Gugh has another title too.
The UK’s Most Southerly Standing Stone
It is estimated that there are around 250 standing stones dotted all across the UK. The most southerly of which stands quite alone and windswept on the small island of Gugh. The Old Man of Gugh, as he has become known, is roughly 2.7m (9ft) tall and can be found close to the base of Kittern Hill.
The stone leans dramatically, possibly due in part to the excavations around its base, but not entirely. This monument has been inclining for a very long time. Head towards the sea, face into the elements. Covered in lichen and heavily weathered it seems to almost bend into the prevailing winds.
When Murray visited the islands in the 1850s he recorded the stone’s name as the Old Man Cutting Turf. In 1872 Lake’s also uses this name for the menhir. Strange perhaps but of course both of these given names quite naturally refer to the stone’s age. And perhaps from a distance the bent-double angle of the stone does look like a man at work or a man crooked with age.
There is some wonderful old footage of the stone below when it was visited by Don Wilkins, a dowser, in 1988. You will find the stone at around 17mins in.
There are ancient remains all over the islands. Cairns can be found on St Agnes, St Mary’s, Tresco, Samson, Bryher, Tean, Great Arthur and St Martin’s. There are huts circles and other standing stones, and of course I haven’t seen them all, but there’s an old man on Gugh that has a piece of my heart.