The early history of the island is unclear, however it is mentioned in early records and on maps as St Michael's Island. Later the name changed to Borough Island, eventually being corrupted to Burgh. As late as 1947 an Ordnance Survey map refers to the island as Borough Island. In 1908 a postcard produced by Stengel & Co Ltd of London referred to it as Burr Island. A map published in 1765 shows "Borough or Bur Isle".
It is believed a monastery was established on the island, most of the remains of which may lie beneath the current hotel. The ancient Pilchard Inn may have started life as the guest lodgings for the monastery.
A small, perhaps transient, population of fishermen occupied the island following the dissolution of the monastery, specialising in pilchard fishing. There are the remains of a chapel atop the island, which later became a "huers hut" — a place where fishermen would make a "hue and cry" call to inform other fishermen of shoals of pilchards. During this period smuggling, wrecking and piracy were common, benefiting from a natural barrier for half the day.
Fears of German landing forces using the island as a beachhead during World War II resulted in the area's fortification with anti-tank defences and two pillboxes, positioned on both sides of the causeway. An observation post was also established on the summit to monitor the coastline..
The island is approximately 250 metres (270 yards) from the mainland at Bigbury-on-Sea and is approachable on foot at low tide. At high tide, the Sea Tractor, which is operated by the hotel, transports pedestrians back and forth. The original vehicle was constructed in 1930; the current, third generation tractor dates from 1969. The vehicle drives across the beach with its wheels underwater on the sandy bottom while its driver and passengers sit on a platform high above. Power from a Fordson tractor engine is relayed to the wheels via hydraulic motors. It costs £2 per person each way and takes about five minutes.
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