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Talking Location with author Linda MacDonald – the Isles of Scilly

16th August 2017

#TalkingLocation With… author Linda MacDonald – The Isles of Scilly (Paradise Found!)

Twenty-eight miles off the tip of Cornwall is an archipelago the stuff of dreams. Catch sight of a summer-sunny photograph of the dozens of rocky islands and you may believe you are gazing on a far-off tropical paradise. But no, these are the Isles of Scilly, the Scillies, or simply Scilly. Like jewels they sparkle under the sun in a turquoise sea, in a climate where the snowmen are made from rocks and a frost hardly ever happens.

the Isles of Scilly

Isles of Scilly. Photo: Merryn Smith

I first visited the Scillies in 2004 and wished I had travelled there sooner. A few years earlier, a TV feature had brought them to my attention, but it was a conversation with a colleague who visits there frequently, that persuaded me to take the plunge. She told me that many people book the same slot year on year so it was our good fortune to find a self-catering week at The Parsonage on St Agnes, one of the smallest inhabited islands.

the Isles of Scilly

St Mary’s Harbour from viewing point


It was there that my love-affair with Scilly began and where I became inspired to include the islands in my fiction. The week passed in a dream as we savoured the gig racing, the boat trips to other islands and the sea safaris to find seals and puffins. But most of the delight came from discovering St Agnes. Despite being only one mile square, in every direction there was something new and different: breathtaking rock formations, an almost lunar landscape, high hedges, green pastures, sheltered sandy coves, amazing views of the other islands, and most of all, peace and tranquillity.

The Maze

The Troy Town Maze on the western edge is a place of ley lines, myths and legends and it caught my imagination. When I returned home, I started researching labyrinth mazes in general and the St Agnes maze in particular. They say the plots of novels sometimes write themselves and in the case of my Scilly sub-plots, that’s exactly what happened. My first novel, Meeting Lydia, was into its third year of writing. One of my main characters was already an archaeology lecturer so it was easy to picture how he might visit Scilly to take part in a university ‘dig’ and then make a fictional discovery connected with the maze that sets the news media buzzing. One thing led to another in subsequent novels. In A Meeting of a Different Kind the archaeologist organises a maze exhibition at the British Museum and this becomes a focal point for several dramatic scenes. A lecture tour of the islands enabled me to set a chapter on Scilly. At that time, I only knew St Agnes well, so it was the perfect excuse to arrange a mini-break to the luxury Island Hotel on Tresco and to visit the Abbey Gardens, the perfect setting for a fictional picnic. In my latest novel, The Man in the Needlecord Jacket, Tresco is also the setting of an argument that plays a key role in establishing the troublesome personality of the villain.


Troy Town Maze with Rock Formations


St Agnes Lighthouse. Photo: Hayley Gillatt

The islands were once seriously overpopulated with land being divided between offspring such that it became less and less able to support a family. Following a famine in 1818, the islanders were starving. When Augustus Smith became Lord Proprietor of Scilly in 1834, he took drastic action, evicting many and sending them back to the mainland. He reallocated the land into manageable parcels and introduced primogeniture where the eldest son inherits, so ensuring enough land to make a living in perpetuity.

On an island as small as St Agnes, it is easy to see how quickly the balance of factors affecting survival can shift towards destruction. It concerns me that the UK as a whole is becoming so overpopulated that we are on a trajectory towards insufficient infrastructure, lowering our quality of life and in the longer term, worse. This notion became the stimulus for a further Scilly sub-plot; that of a documentary series set on the islands, using St Agnes as a model of sustainability that could be rolled out on the mainland. A filming trip ensues with St Agnes and Tresco providing the backdrop to a developing romance in The Alone Alternative.

Many people who have read my novels say they want to go to Scilly and my advice would be: ‘Go!’ Go while you are as fit as you can be and can enjoy them to the full; go while there are many years left for you to return again and again to sample their different moods and pleasures; go because they may change your life, as they did mine.

Thank you so much to Linda for sharing her love of the Isles of Scilly with us.

You can follow Linda and Twitter, and of course buy her two novels, that are strong on location, through TripFiction

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  1. User: Frances Sivyer

    Posted on: 16/02/2019 at 12:41 pm

    I fell in love with the islands some 50 years ago, visiting every year and sometimes seven times year which included Christmas and New Year. I am glad that I found them when I was young as my health stops me doing numerous activities now. I still visit every year and will continue to do so for as long as I can. I adore the islands and always will. Go whilst you are young.


  2. User: Barbara Thompson

    Posted on: 24/04/2018 at 12:42 pm

    I visited Scilly in 1973 on a school trip. I would say that the fortnight of Easter sunshine as a 13year old with friends, bikes, boats and beaches formed part of my soul. I would love to return.


  3. User: Yvonne Lyon

    Posted on: 08/09/2017 at 4:33 pm

    You might be interested to learn that I’ve written a short story set on the uninhabited island of Samson. It’s about the last families living there and the point at which they leave their home.

    It’ll be published by Corazon Books in the Historical Novel Society Anthology coming out on 25th September.

    All the islands are so inspiring for writers of historical fiction. I was there in June 2016 after a 20 or more year absence. Great to go back. Not much had changed except for lots more cars on St Mary’s.


  4. User: Sue Shirley

    Posted on: 18/08/2017 at 8:06 am

    I love the Isles and have visited 4 times. Unfortunately didn’t go this year but I shall be back hopefully one day.