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Samson – A Deserted Island

To most people Samson is the pretty island with two hills that is in all the photos of sunsets. But in reality it is far more than that.  It is a deserted island with history to spare, and character in bucketloads. It is named after St Samson of Dol, one of the founders of the Kingdom of Brittany who visited Scilly in the 6th century

Situated a short distance from Rushy Bay on Bryther It is possible to walk if the tides are right. It is the largest of the uninhabited islands in Scilly, however large Samson is not.  With a total size of around eighty acres, it only takes half an hour to walk all the way round the island.

Prehistoric Samson

Entrance Grave on Samson

Samson has more prehistoric sites per acre than pretty much any of the other islands. Both the North and South Hills of Samson are covered in ancient burial grounds.  South Hill has four entrance graves on its summit, one of which is quite unusual.  It has two separate chambers within the same carn. A carn which is not circular as the majority are, but an irregular shape.  North Hill has a dozen or more entrance graves in varying states of repair. Cist graves and carns litter the entire island.

On the sandy flats visible at low tide are even more sites.  The remains of field walls are clearly visible, as well as the remains of Round houses, huts, and even graves.  There is also a long linear feature that has been suggested to be the remains of a causeway.

2000 years ago the entire area inbetween the islands, known as the Road was fertile farmland.  Nowehere is this more evident than on Samson at low tide.

People on Samson

The island was lived on until Augustus Smith took the decision to remove everyone in 1855.  At that time there were only three households from two families living on the islands and they were on the brink of starvation. Some thirty years earlier there were seven households recorded as being present.  As far as records show, the peak of the population was in 1816 when the island had forty residents.

The Clearing of Samson

ruins on samson

In 1855 Augustus Smith, the Lord Proprieter of the Islands took the decision to remove the remaining population of Samson and relocate them to the other islands.  They were suffering severe malnutrition having subsisted on a diet of little more than Limpets and Potatoes.  Large mounds of Limpet shells can still be seen next to the ruins of the cottages on the island.

Smith then constructed a deer park on the island, and imported deer from the mainland.  However despite his attempts to wall them in, the deer all escaped or died in the attempt. Some even made it to Tresco.

Wildlife on Samson

The island is managed by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, and like a lot of the islands nearby is home to a variety of wildlife.  In 1971 Samson, along with Green Island, Puffin Island, Stony Island, and White Island was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest for it’s biological characteristics.

Parts of the island are closed to visitors between April and September in order to protect the wild birds nesting there.

Visiting Samson

Samson from Tresco

Regular trips are run to Samson from St Mary’s.  However there is no quay on the island so visitors either disembark via a wooden gangway, or into a smaller dinghy that lands on the beach itself.

Samson in Literature

Samson has appeared in literature a number of times over several centuries. In the story of Tristan and Isolde it is where Tristan fights and kills Isolde’s uncle, the giant Morolt.  But it is probably most famous as the focus of the Former Children’s Laureate Sir Michael Morpurgo in his novel Why the Whales Came. In this famous story the island is under a curse which can only be lifted by Daniel and Gracie, the protagonists.

It was made into a successful film which was filmed on the islands in 1989.  There is a display dedicated to the film in a disused phone box on Bryher.

Summary

To most people Samson is simply beautiful scenery.  But for those who have made the trip across to spend some time there it is much more than that. There is a haunting beauty to the place, and the solitude you can experience there is unique. Even by Scilly standards.

Martin

Martin

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.

2 thoughts on “Samson – A Deserted Island

  • April 23, 2020 at 10:59 pm
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    Fantastic article Martin.

    I’ve visited the island twice on long vocations and I’m due to return again this summer. I totally agree, the islands are truly enchanting. The archipelago is breath taking beautiful, mystical and the entire island group as a whole is festooned with mesmerising, captivating, maritime history (as an ex history lecturer) that’s always a plus.

    Anyway, just wanted to congratulate you on your articles. There a great read, provocative and highly inspiring.

    Keep up the good work.

    Adam

    Reply
  • July 5, 2020 at 3:49 pm
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    Went back to the island of Samson last year after my first visit fifty years ago?
    The island of Lyonnesse will appear in Book 5 of my SciFi story “Eve not Adam” and having written the ending, need to go back again to write a short ‘Postlude’ to the series.

    There’s so much to write about from the original neolithic settlers, phoenician’s who may have traded Egyptian blue beads for more valuable tin ingots? Some of this has been found on Samson, but most has been lost in time?

    Reply

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