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Nornour – A Deserted Treasure Island

The tiny uninhabited island of Nornour is part of the group known as the Eastern Isles. It lies to the south east of St Martin’s, about 400 metres off shore.  The name Nornour comes from the Cornish “Ar Nor” which means “Facing the mainland” which in this case refers to St Martin’s.

It is a single hill, of about four acres in size. It is connected to Great Gannilly by a rocky tombolo that is covered at high tide.

Prehistoric Nornour

Erosion on Nornour
Erosion on Nornour

Most of the Eastern Isles have signs of prehistoric settlement to one degree or another.  However Nornour was never considered to be particularly special until one stormy night in 1962.

A combination of gale force winds from the South West, and high seas caused the southern aspect of the island to be battered ferociously, and a huge amount of erosion happened literally overnight.

The erosion revealed a number of dwellings that had never been seen in modern times.

Closer inspection showed them to be iron age huts similar to those in Halangy Down Iron Age Village.

Early Excavation of Nornour

Archaeologists saw immediately that the site was at great risk of further erosion.  Another storm of a similar nature, or even just from the same direction could cause irreparable damage to the site.  Excavations started quickly, and a large protective bank was constructed between the settlement and the sea.

The excavations showed two huts, that were dated to the pre-roman iron age. Finds showed that they had been abandoned, and then re-occupied during the roman era. Unusually for Scilly there were roman finds in the site.  However it quickly became clear that these were not simply lost artefacts of the sort usually found in a dwelling.

Roman Finds from Nornour

A Gilt brooch found on Nornour
A Gilt brooch found on Nornour

The number of roman finds was so high that it was originally assumed that the site must have been a workshop for manufacturing jewelry.  However the date range for the finds, and their nature showed that this was highly unlikely to be the explanation.

In total there were over 3000 brooches, 35 bronze rings, 11 bracelets, 24 glass beads, and 84 roman coins in the two huts.  The variance in quality of the brooches was significant too.  Most were fairly standard, but several were of extremely high quality.

Enamelled Brooches from Nornour

Enamelled Roman Brouch found on Nornour
An Enamelled Roman Brooch found on Nornour

Some of the finds from Nornour have become famous across the world for their quality and beauty.  Among them are several enameled ones. There are many lozenge shaped brooches, and circular ones with simple enameling.  But there are also a few more unusual ones.

  • A large circular brooch with alternating enameled panels of red and white around the circumference.  Each panel has an intricate pattern within it.  Around it are eight circular enamelled enclosures and in the centre is a circular blue enclosure.
  • A sword with a decorated scabbard.  The detail on the bronze of the hilt is so clear that the individual strands of the leather wrapping of the handle can be clearly seen.  The scabbard itself has bands of red, blue and white enamel.
  • A sea leopard similar to the ones in the mosaic pavements at Fishbourne Roman Palace. It has the head of a leopard with a long spotted body.  A large finned tail, and a number of individual fins on its back and body.

The collection of amazing finds are all available for viewing in the museum on St Mary’s.

The current explanation for the presence of so many finds is that the abandoned iron age dwellings had been converted to a shrine to a local sea goddess.  Roman traders stopped on their journeys between mainland Europe and Westen England and Ireland to leave an offering to the Goddess for their safety.

Further Excavations

A home on Nornour
A Home on Nornour

Over time further erosion occurred, and more detailed excavations were done to the site. It was found to contain eleven iron age dwellings.  Several of which were connected via a repurposed stone age chambered grave.

The entire site is constantly at risk of further erosion from the extreme weather that can occur in Scilly. After the archaeological excavations work was done to try and protect the site, but most of this has been washed away by winter storms.

Who knows what other amazing sites have been lost forever under the rising waters of the sea around Scilly.  Or that still lie, undisturbed under the soil and sand waiting for the right storm to uncover them.

Nornour’s very own Wreck

Wreckage from the PS Earl of Arran
Wreckage from the PS Earl of Arran

In 1872 the passenger ship Earl of Arran attempted to take a shortcut through the Eastern Isles on the advisement of its unlicensed Pilot. It ran aground on Irishmans ledge and was never recovered.  Fragments of the wreck are still visible on the western side of Nornour.

It is possible to visit the island as part of a guided tour with the Island’s resident historian Katherine Sawyer.  You have to transfer from the passenger boat to a small dinghy, and then land on the beach.  On a personal note I cannot recommend it enough.  But expect to get wet feet!



Martin is the creator of About Scilly. He visited the islands for the first time 15 years ago and fell in love. He's been back every year since and would dearly love to live there.

One thought on “Nornour – A Deserted Treasure Island

  • December 28, 2020 at 2:05 pm

    Fascinating, with lots of material I hadn’t heard about.
    But – there were only (?) 300 brooches found, not 3,000.

    Yours pedantically,

    Phil Ward


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