St Helen's, Teän and Round Island

The uninhabited northern islands of Scilly

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Although uninhabited today, the northernmost islands of the Scillies archipelago show signs of ancient and sacred sites. Located just beyond Tresco and St Martin's these are a little trickier to get to than the main islands.

St Helen's

The largest of the three islands, St Helen's appears as a grass-covered hill rising over 100ft out of the sea. There is a sandy beach on the island, backed by low dunes along with the remains of a granite quay.

St Helens from Tresco
St Helens from Tresco

The island was originally named after the 8th century Celtic saint, Elidius (or Lide), but over the years the name was corrupted to St Helen's. Not a great deal is known about St Elidius but it is believed he may have been the son of a British king. At some point in his life the saint is said to have lived in a hermitage on the island and the remains of this small, circular cell along with a small chapel have been found. 

Over the centuries the site continued to have a religious significance. The chapel was extended during the 12th century, probably by the monks of Tavistock Abbey who had settled on Tresco, although it fell into disuse within a couple of hundred years.

Today there is still an annual service held at the ruined chapel to celebrate the feast day of St Elidius on August 8th.

Located on the southern side of St Helen's is a better preserved granite and brick building known as the "Pest house". This dates back to 1764 when it was built to quarantine sailors frome plague-ridden ships. At the time there was a law enacted stating that any ship north of Cape Finisterre, carrying the plague, that was en-route to England should anchor off the island.

Just west of St Helen's is the Golden Ball Brow reef which is known for two reasons. Firstly it has been the site of many a shipwreck, the most recent of which was in 1955 when the Panamanian ship Mando went down here. The reef is also something of a legendary surf spot, with only the vaguest tales of big waves being surfed here.


Pronounced 'Tee-an', this little island was inhabited up until the middle of the 18th century by the Nance family. They primarily made a living by collecting up kelp which was sold to be burnt with the end product being used in the glass-making process.

Signs of settlement on Tean go back as far as the Bronze Age and entrance graves have been found on Great Hill and Old Man carn. More recent Iron Age hut circles and field systems have been identified on the lower ground of East and West Porth.

The island is thought to have been named after another Celtic saint, St Theona. Tean is home to the remains of a small rectangular chapel that is dedicated to her. The site was also discovered to contain a number of early Christian graves, one of which may have been of St Theona herself.

Round Island

By Scilly standards this island is fairly round in appearance. Sitting on the northern edge of the Scillies Round Island rises around 130 feet out of deep water. The island is best-known for its lighthouse which was built as the last part of a protective ring warning shipping in all directions of the treacherous rocks that fringe the islands.

Round Island lighthouse
Round Island

The Round Island lighthouse was built in 1887 on the site of a Bronze Age burial chamber. Building the 60 ft tall granite tower was something of a feat of logistics with materials having to be winched up via a cable slung between islands.

The lighthouse was automated in 1987, when its familiar ruby coloured light was also replaced with a brighter, white one. Set over 200 feet above sea level the light can now be seen from the far west coast of mainland Cornwall.

It is probably no surprise that the weather out here can be somewhat extreme. When the lighthouse was being built a storm is said to have blasted limpets off the rocks below and deposited on the roof of the accommodation building around 180 feet up. And back in 1954 winds were recorded here reaching 110 mph before the wind gauge was destroyed.