Published: December 23rd 2011December 23rd 2011 The Isle of Man’s striking castles and monuments are a legacy of its Viking and Celtic rulers, but they also illuminate the history, isolation and traditions that are now a fundamental way of Manx life.
The Manx flag is a triskelion, composed of three armoured legs with golden spurs, upon a red background. Believe that which ever way its thrown, it will always land on its feet.
In the pre-dawn darkness, the 1,000-year-old Fairy Bridge crouches over a narrow trickling stream surrounded by daffodils and plump green foliage. It’s delicately placed at the bottom of the hill near Balasalla (‘place of the willows’). My fingers curl around the car wheel as I edge towards a narrow road. It’s the start of summer and the night air is almost cool. There’s birdsong from the twisted bushes on either side of the road, and a faint smell of freshly cut grass floating through the air. Gradually, as the sun rises, the bold black and white sign labelled“Fairy Bridge” appears in a milky mist just a few meters ahead. On the eastern skyline are the twin Bronze Age cairns of Aragon.
At their peak, the Vikings ruled over an empire that included the Isle of Man, parts of modern-day Ireland, Wales and England. They influenced mythical beliefs and folklore, following the previous Celtic rule. The Isle of Man, of mixed Celtic and Scandinavian origin,
Originally constructed by Vikings, this castle stands on St.Patricks Isle. Here you may encounter the "Moddy Dhoo" or black ghost dog. Excavations in 1982-87 also revealed an extensive graveyard, where a pagan lady was discovered and parts of Magnus Barelegs (Viking God) wooden fort.
was naturally superstitious and this characteristic was further engendered because of its exclusion from the outside world. Locals like to believe that the island is named after its legendary sea god, and ruler, Manannan Mac Lir.
According to legend he could make one man appear to be as many as a hundred and in the face of invasion could hide the island under his cloak of mist - like the magical performance of an illusionist. On midsummer’s eve people still bring their tribute of rushes to South Barrule, where the remains of an ancient fort rest at its summit. The mountain, of Barrule encloses an irregular area of more than 22,000 sq yds. The fort is supposed to be Manannan’s seat. By giving rushes to the sea god, locals have confidence that he will protect them with his magical powers.
This tradition of laying rushes is also performed on Tynwald Day every year. Tynwald has been running for over 1,000 years and is the oldest continuous system of parliamentary democracy in the world. Once a bill is agreed, it is then signed by Her Majesty’s Royal Assent before it becomes law. Manx people will remind you that Manannan
TT Motorbike Races
The Isle of Man is famous for its controversial TT Motorbike races.
has a mist coat that hides the island, particularly from royal visitors during early July. This strange occurrence of mist also makes a regular appearance during the world famous championship TT motorbike races.
It’s early morning; there is raucous birdsong and the old stone bridge, white-washed with paint, casts its shadow through the spilling stream in the dawn light. This is the time when traffic starts to peak and local folk as they cross the bridge offer their greetings to the fairies that live beneath. It’s another one of the myths that surround the Island, and according to folklore if you forget to say “hello” to the little people, you will face a wicked fairy spell the following night!
Fairies were believed to be the original inhabitants of this land. According to Curator for Social History, at the Manx Museum, Yvonne Cresswell: “Traditionally they are neither good or bad and can be quite helpful or spiteful depending on how the mood takes them. They also easily take offence, which is why one should never talk about them directly or call them by name but only use terms such as Themselves
or Mooinjer Veggey
(Manx Gaelic for the Little Folk).“
The "Sunset City", because of the spectacular views. This is rather a rural town based on a strong fishing culture.
However, the coming of Christianity through Saint Patrick made huge efforts to overcome this innate superstition. Churches sprung up across the island, including the keeills
, which aimed to teach people to follow Christ in his footsteps. But many locals still feared the “little people.” For instance, some locals grow herbs to ward off illness, which is believed to be associated with fairy curses. Ms. Cresswell explains: “As well as borrowing horses, a great fear and concern was themselves
taking babies and exchanging them for fairy changelings. As a result there are several ways to protect babies from being ‘took’ the most powerful form of protection was to have a child baptised as soon as possible. Another form of protection was to sew Vervain, the potent and powerful Manx herb, into the baby’s clothes. If all else failed, always put the iron tongs across the cradle if the child had to be left alone, for even a moment, as iron was considered a great defence against Themselves
.“ Other forms of protection came from binding twigs in the form of crosses above doorways for good luck. According to Ms. Cresswell another Manx tradition of protection is the spreading of “primroses
Viking Long Boats
Every year Viking Long Boat races take place between rival teams. This keeps the culture thriving in its vibrant past.
or other yellow flowers such as Kingcups (the more powerful and effective Manx Bullaght
) on doorsteps and thresholds to stop evil spirits from crossing over on May Eve.”
By the mid-morning, I have arrived at my destination of Peel Castle on St Patrick’s Isle, which is awash with visitors. English, French, Spanish, German, Italian parties, they all start arriving this season to admire the historical sites and gasp at the modern TT races. Even during this busy time and influx of tourists, the scale of the towering castle walls and intriguing monuments inside are such that at one moment you can be cursing an exasperating crowd of slow-moving sightseers, and the next you can be alone in an environment so unsettling and spooky that you wish the visitors would appear and break the mood.
Locals tell me of a Giant’s Cave resting nearby at Barrule, in which it’s said that an immortal prince was bound by enchantment for the last six hundred years. Other Manx tales include accounts of fire dragons, with tails and wings. Here a dragon would descend into a cave where the most terrible shrieks and groans were heard. I’m then told of the horrid
They say Manannan Mac Lir covers the island in his coat of mist when he feels invaders are near (esp. the royal family!).
Buggane, an evil goblin and the Phynnoderee, a benevolent Manx fairy. The Phynnoderee is described as big and hairy, similar to the Glashtin. But despite the stories I’m told, none of these locals has ever encountered one of these creatures.
By the end of the day, most of the castle ruins are deserted. One evening, I seem to be the only visitor within the majestic walls of the fortress. Remnants of a past generation echo around my silhouette, whispering through the wind the name Magnus Barelegs, a King of Norway who had once called this his home. I stand alone in the sandstone and laterite walls listening to the squawking of seagulls in the sky above and wondering if the Moddy Dhoo (black ghost dog) is prowling nearby. There’s something ominous about the breezy-sea evening light and the moss enveloping the sandstone.
The Isle of Man was separated from Britain around 12,500 BP which is comparatively recent in geological times. The latter date coincides with the Ice Age and the Holocene period of rapid warming temperatures. Geologists continue to study a section of the island in the northwest, called the Ayres, for its glacial formation of rocks and
Tower of Refuge
Completed in 1832, The Tower of Refuge is a granite haven in the form of a small castle took. Built as a lifesaver for sailors because of the dangerous Irish Sea.
boulders, which are all captured in the strong undercurrents of the sea and ghostly howling winds. There’s a mythical element on this island too: Fairy Hill, Elfin Glen, enchanted woodlands and forests, peat marshes. And water.
There has been a strong dependence on the successful husbandry of water since the Isle of Man’s formation. Today water is used mainly for the growing tourism industry. For instance, wildlife tours on the waterfront offer views of seals, basking sharks, dolphins and sea birds. However, be careful not to wander too close in case the Ben Varrey, or mermaids of the sea are swimming nearby, in which case “they will drag you off under the waves, never to be seen again,” say local fishermen from Peel, in the west of the island.
Another folk legend claims that infants who died early or stillborn babies who were unbaptized and buried in unhallowed graves would haunt mariners sailing close to the shore, through ghostly wailing. Many now argue this “wailing noise” can easily be the seals resting on the rocks that sound very similar to the cries of a young infant.
But as symbolism it’s not subtle; the water is made potent
The Irish Sea
The Irish Sea is like the River Nile in Egypt- a life giver. Due to the location of The Isle of Man, it has played part in smuggling, invasion, and the islands unique isolation.
by the Vikings. Today in the sunset city of Peel, the practice of rowing Viking longboats still takes place once each year in the months of August, forming a competition between rivalry teams. In Peel you can also discover The House of Manannan Museum, where an actual replica of the Viking ship, Odin’s Raven
rests. Odin was a Norse god, who was accompanied by two ravens, Hugi (‘thought’) and Munin (‘memory’) that brought back tidings of things seen or heard.
Yet out on the water, you get a sense of the islands scale: the sea is vast. It can be as still and shiny as a pool of mercury, joining the sky at the horizon, or as chilling and dangerous as Manannan’s mist coat. To the island the Irish Sea is what the Nile is the Egypt, a life-giver. Growing in size, around 75,000 people live in the Isle of Man. Most inhabitants are based in picturesque rural pedestrian villages and towns. There are many heritage buildings housing cafes, restaurants and boutique shopping, creating a magical ambience.
Tradition tells us that the very ancient symbol of the Isle of Man, the three legs of man, is Manannan whirling
Pagan versus Christian
Christianity soon replaced pagan rituals on the island. However many locals still believe in saying "hello" to the little folk while crossing Fairy Bridge, avoiding RATs and various other little customs.
down Snaefell Mountain (‘snow mountain’), towards the sea. In Latin the motto of the emblem says: ‘Quocunque jeceris stabit,’ which translates: ‘whichever way you throw it, it will stand’ acting as a reminder of independent spirit and identity associated with this little island.
Driving through the sticky summer heat on the narrow roads, I see old world charm with new world comfort. Thatched white cottages hold satellite television, internet and other gadgets and gizmos. The island has a wealth of history and culture waiting to be discovered.
Over two-thirds of the island is used for agricultural purpose, with good quality grass supporting the domineering beef and farming industry, and sheep on the lowlands. It’s impossible to travel around and not be stunned at the contrast between the solidarity of the mainly small rural communities and the hurried pace of life in its busy capital, Douglas. There’s still an air of mythical presence wherever you go, where Celtic and Norse rock art can be discovered, acting as a distant mirror of the modern nation.
Ms. Cresswell states “if the British Isles are considered to be one of the most haunted and supernatural places in the world, then the
The island is surropunded in farmland, whereever you go you will encounter Manx Loaghtan sheep, horses and cows. It's just a way of life. Although banking has become a nice "haven" for the island and foreign investment.
Isle of Man can probably be considered to be the centre of that supernatural activity.”
This is to be expected because of its sense of isolation away from the mainland and Ms. Creswell says “virtually every square mile of the island can claim to have its own tales of fairies and other supernatural creatures.”
According to Ms Cresswell, “The Isle of Man has a rich and colourful heritage of folklore and traditions and one that is not just part of its past but is also still an important part of its present and future. As people have said, they may not normally believe in fairies but on the Isle of Man it does no harm to be better safe than sorry and to say hello to Themselves - just in case !”
There are many soul-stirring myths surrounding the island, whether real or imagined. Waldron, writing in 1726, mentions of a splendid palace which existed on Barrule in the days of enchantment, where dwelt a celebrated magician. Any mortal who ventured in these grounds would be instantly converted into stone and this spread across the country, putting great fear into the locals hearts, who tried to avoid
The river Neb flows through The Raggatt. This is a beautiful place to walk and go fishing.
this area of ground.
Yet, with time a modern nation has begun to push aside the myths and fables. Time and neglect are the co-authors of many Celtic and Viking monuments. This sense of decay is both part of their charm and deep unsettlement. They evoke a scale of cosmic time in which human lives are so poignantly brief. There is also a solace here - a feeling of peace and wonder and the knowledge that this natural beauty will outlive us all. And, according to Ms. Creswell explains to me that “folklore is a dynamic entity and one that is forever regenerating itself…
This process of regeneration was both recognised and celebrated by the Manx in the proverb Mannagh vow cliaghtey cliaghtey, nee cliaghtey coe
(if custom be not indulged with/ beget custom, custom will weep) but it also acts as a warning that apathy, rather that development, is folklore and culture’s true enemy.”
I want to savour my last moments before leaving the rural villages and heading back to the bustling town- the birdsong and the mossy stonework in the fading light. Many of the carved rock formations you can see scattered around the island have grown blurry with time, but every now and then one startles at the pristine edges and detailed art work, as clear as it was when the sculptor laid down his chisel more than 1,000 years ago.