Among the islands

What’s in a name, Juliet asks, as I did in another post, seven years ago, which I’m sure you’ll all remember… or maybe not.

I’m in the Scilly Islands, among the islands and the rocks and ledges, and stories of wrecks abound. Even the smallest rock it seems has a name, testimony to their place in island life. They lie on the horizons, east, west or north, and between them run narrow channels through which for three hundred years pilot gigs (powerful six-oared boats) guided ships coming into harbour at Tresco or St Mary’s.

There are rocks, out-there, obvious, unmissable, save in a storm … and there are ledges, underwater ledges, underhand, lurking as might a shark, and jagged as shark’s teeth.

And the names – I’ll start out west – Great Minalto, Little Minalto, tiny islands with ledges adjacent, and further north, south-west of Samson (an island with its very own tragic story to tell), Castinicks and Peaked Rock. I wonder at Castinicks… To the their north, between Westward Ledge and Middle Ledge, we’ve Stippit, Maiden Bower, Picket Rock and Illiswilgig. There’s deadpan, deadman humour here, Maiden Bower would shelter neither lover or beast, or anyone in between, and what mysteries lie in Illiswilgig?

Off the Bryher coast Moon Rock and Buzza Rock … Why the moon? A crescent moon, above a wave-ripped sea? Who was Buzza? On the coast there’s Droppy Nose Point, which just might be descriptive, if I knew what a droppy nose was. Drooping or dripping….

To the north, Westward and Eastward Ledges, and nearby North Cuckoo and South Cuckoo, and to the south of South Cuckoo, an island or ledge simply named The Flat.
Kettle and Kettle Bottom welcome sailors entering the channel between Bryher and Tresco. The channel is protected by the two large islands east and west, and Hangman Island doesn’t seem quite as ominous as the name suggests – might it just have reminded someone of a gibbet? To the south Appletree Point and Puffin Island seem to welcome you, but beware Great Rag Ledge – and Paper Ledge – I sense understatement here. South of Tresco, more ledges, Conger, Yellow, Mare. And Tobaccoman’s Point.

North of Tresco, Men-a-Vaur reminds us of a Cornish language past. To the south, south of St Helens and Tean, we have yet more ledges – Little Cheese, Great Cheese, Rascal’s, Dog and the disappointingly prosaic Long. South of St Martin’s, Broad and Pigs and Wra lie in wait. And why the name Damasinnas, for a small group of islands? Suggestive of both sin and damnation, and probably having no connection with either.

Ganinick and Ganilly lie west and east, in the Eastern Islands, but what of Great and Little Arthur? Shades of Lyonnese, Arthur’s ancient kingdom, which lies forever drowned between the Scillies and Lands End. Maybe the Seven Steps, also the name of splendid pub on St Martin’s, roughly marks the location.

To the east of Ganilly, Great and Little Innisvouls, to the south Menawethan, to their north, Hanjague (most names have an almost lyrical feel, not this one), and then Hard Lewis Rocks brings us down, down to earth, or to rough water. Far out east, beyond Ganilly, we’re into the wild sea, beyond any island shelter.

Between St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin’s and the Eastern Isles there’s a wonderful protected space, an ocean Shangri-la, where waves don’t beat and the storm waters don’t surge as they do beyond. A safe haven – but first you have to find your way in.

Finally, circling round, south of St Agnes and Annet, back to extreme danger. The Bishop Rock lighthouse warns you. Rosevean and Rosevear tease you with their gentle names. Trenemene suggests a gentle soul…. and Rags and Inner Rags sound as if they should be good friends.

What should I make of the Biggal of Gorregan – probably my favourite name of all? Jacky’s Rock and Jolly Rock sound cheerful, but I wouldn’t be too cheerful here. I could write a children’s novel with the title ‘The Round Rock of Crebawethan’, I just love the name. I will have to think of what it might be about. To its south is Crebawethan Neck, a narrow and risky-looking channel. And just west of the channel we have Wee, yes, Wee.

Close to St Agnes there’s Menrounds, Menpingrim, Great Menbeam, and to their south, Doctor’s Hole, to their north Old Woman’s House and finally – something simple and brutally honest, Hellweathers. South of St Agnes, another favourite – Great Wingletang, next to Grandfather Hugh’s Point.

And that, my friends, is it. We’ve come full circle, back where we started, to the North West Passage, Minalto to the north, Annet (and Minmanueth and Butterman’s Point) to the south, and The Road, heading hopefully into St Mary’s and Hugh Town, to the east.

But better if you can to skirt all this trouble, head to the north, with your cargoes of spices and other Eastern wonders, or to the south, heading for the English Channel. But countless ships never made it, and their wrecks make for wonderful stories, read by the firelight, on a stormy night… and so too the names of the rocks and ledges that brought them down.

Out on to the Silk Road …

The new Silk Road – will the direction of traffic be primarily east to west, west to east, or both – and who will control the flow?

I’ve posted recently on the subject of history, and how we abuse it. But sometimes we do need the big picture, and I’m thinking here of China President Xi’s $900 million Belt and Road initiative to build a modern-day Silk Road.

History provides a vital context, and a warning.

Forty-six nations attended a gathering in Beijing last weekend. Heads of state from Rusia and Turkey were there, though not from Europe. The EU held back from endorsing a final statement because it didn’t stress ‘transparency and co-ownership’. India argued the scheme is ‘little more than a colonial enterprise [that would leave] debt and broken communities in its wake’.

Philip Hammond attended (not our high-risk foreign secretary, I note), relishing the opportunity for trade deals. In his speech to delegates he argued Britain was a ‘natural partner’ for China. ‘China and the UK have a long and rich trading history…’  Others have commented that the Chinese, remembering the 19th century Opium Wars, and the great British imperial enterprise, might see this ‘natural partnership’ in  different way.

There’s something telling in this sycophancy. Sycophancy comes out of weakness, not strength. The EU holds back, argues from a position of strength. India is rebarbative, confrontational, overstates it – yet there’s truth lurking there. Circumspection has its merits.

Britain in the 16th century set up its own maritime Silk Road, along with the Dutch, Portuguese and (less successfully) the French. The Belt and Road initiative is the land route reasserting itself. The old oceanic skills of Empire will no longer help us. We are one of many, supplicants, out on a western European limb.

There will be many camel trains along the new road, if it develops the way the Chinese wish. We might just be a little lonely. On a camel train, as out on the ocean, there is strength in numbers.