Charles A. Cain
This month, we thought that we would look to our own home, the Isle
of Man. This editorial is therefore not a coherent document, but more
a random collection of thoughts on the history of the Isle of Man, trying
to set right some of the dafter ideas that circulate. Some have circulated
for years. Some are more recent. Nearly all derived from a profound
ignorance of the reality of Manx history and an attempt to project a
type of Disneyworld fantasy. Newcomers to the island (‘come-overs’,
or ‘when-I’s’, as you prefer) usually come with profound
ignorance, and often with daft pre-conceptions of Manx history.
The influence of the sea.
The most important determinant in Manx history has been the tides, and
the adjacent coastlines. Boats sailing at 4 knots could not sail either
against the wind (mostly South Westerlies) or against the tides (sometimes
up to 5 knots around Langness, or the Point of Ayre). The easiest passages
were North to South, or vice versa, with the tide running with the boat.
Rushen Castle was not located where it is by the Norsemen to defend the
south of the island. It was located to command the anchorages and harbours
around Langness, where sailing boats HAD to anchor to await a favourable
tide. There are strong tidal rips around Langness. That gave plenty of
opportunities for the collection of Harbour Dues! The Norsemen were not
Every one knows that a lee shore is dangerous for a sailing boat with
no engine. That is because if you are blown onto it, you cannot sail off
it. You are wrecked. In westerly winds (the usual wind around here) the
Lancashire coast is always a lee shore. It is also mostly shifting sandbanks.
That is why Manx boats did not go there. For England, boats went to Cumbria
(Whitehaven) until the invention of powered boats.
Until recent times, most Manx people were far more aware of Scotland and
Ireland than England. This is because most Manx people got their living
from the sea, and the sea takes one north and west. It still does. Substantial
social connections with England date only from the invention of steam
and what are the Manx people
The Isle of Man has NEVER been an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ country. Until
the end of the nineteenth century, Manx Gaelic (a Celtic tongue, closely
related to Irish and Scots Gaelic) was the normal language of the people.
(The modern usage of the ethnic term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to describe
the ‘English speaking peoples’ is at best lazy and at worst
as racist as the usage by the Nazis of ‘Aryan’.)
The Manx Gaelic language and culture is most closely related to that of
Gaelic Ulster. The Manx people, culturally, historically, linguistically
and geographically are more closely related to the world of Gaelic Ulster
and the west of Scotland than any where else. Recent attempts to produce
a phony Norwegian identity are misguided, and attempts to deny the Gaelic
inheritance in favour of a phony English identity are, frankly, pathetic.
Except in some specific areas, the Norse did not impose their culture
on the Gaelic peoples. They were, instead, absorbed, just as the Normans
were in Ireland. Until quite late times, the Gaelic traditions of Government
continued. When Olaf 1 was unable to take over from his father in 1102,
the Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles state that the nobles
asked the King of Ulster to nominate a successor. This was strictly in
accordance with Gaelic Brehon Law. The Isle of Man was a sub-kingdom of
Dalriadh, the main part of Ulster.
The Norse did not start the festival of Tynwald on 5th July. It was originally
a Gaelic Oenach, or midsummer assembly, at which there was combined the
worship of the Lugh the Sun God (whose symbol is the circle in the Celtic
Cross), and the affirmation of the religious authority of the King and
his proclaimed heir. The Norse renamed and adapted it to their ends. We
still remember Lugh by strewing rushes on the walkway (rushes were sacred
Although the normal community language on the Isle of Man was Gaelic right
up to the end of the nineteenth century, English has been the official
language of government since the fifteenth century. The Stanleys, Lords
of Mann, spoke no Gaelic, and sent officials from their Lancashire estates
to run the island. There is an analogy with colonial district officers
sent to run the British Empire until half a century ago.
Many of the Lancashire officials sent across to rule the island married
locally and their descendants are still here. Halsall, Radcliffe, Stephenson,
Maddrell, Skillicorn, Boyd are such families. Such names were all Gaelicised
as the families were assimilated into Manx society, and have Manx Gaelic
Today, about half the population identifies with the Manx legacy. Most
of the remainder are welcome guests. Manxness is open to all, on request!
But being Manx precludes any other loyalty. A Manxman cannot be anything
else. Someone who considers himself, for example, ‘English’,
means that such person cannot ever be truly Manx.
Robert Bruce did not ‘raid’ the Isle of Man in 1312. He came
to kick the raiders out. The Isle of Man was, at that time, legally (and
culturally) a part of Scotland, following the ceding of the whole Kingdom
of Mann and the Isles to Scotland following the Battle of Largs 1275,
when King Alexander III defeated King Haakon of Norway. English pirates
raided and occupied the island. Robert Bruce came to throw them out. Unhappily,
after Robert Bruce died (of leprosy), the English pirates invaded again.
Only this time they stayed. It is only since 1980 that we can really say
that we have recovered our integrity. We still come under the English
Home Office, however. Really, we should come under the Scottish office.
The Queen’s English ancestors have no hereditary legitimate claim
to the Isle of Man. Her Scots ancestors do. If it had not been for the
Act of Revestment in 1765, the current Lord of Man would have been Baroness
Strange, whose claim goes back to 1405, when Sir John Stanley took possession,
with the authority of the King of England, after the Scots had finally
given up trying to recover the island.
The Bishop’s title of Sodor and Mann is recent. It should be just
Bishop of Sodor. Sodor is a corruption of the Norse ‘Sudreyjar’,
meaning the Southern isles (the Hebrides) as opposed to the ‘Nordreyjar’,
the northern islands, (Shetland and Orkney). The term ‘and Mann’
was introduced by an ignorant English clerk sometime in the seventeenth
century. The Isle of Man was always considered as the southernmost of
the Hebrides until modern times. The original diocese was split in 1378
between the new Diocese of the Isles (Cathedral at Iona) and the remainder
of the diocese of Sodor, consisting of just Mann, (Cathedral at Peel).
Subsequently, the diocese of the Isles was joined with the diocese of
Argyll (Cathedral on the isle of Lismore). Both the modern Catholic Church
and the modern Episcopal Church have retained the combined diocese with
cathedrals in Oban.
Folklore - general
Fairies in the Isle of Man have never had wings. They were sinister
little people, to be feared. (Vooinjerey Veggey - the households of
the small people). The concept is exactly the same as that in Irish
There is a rich mythology in the Isle of Man. It is Gaelic. There is scarcely
a trace of Norse mythology in popular culture. Manx stories contain such
creatures as Tarroo Ushtey (pronounced Tarroo Ushtcha)(Gaelic ‘Tarbh
Uisce’) - Water Bull, Dooiney Ny Marrey (pronounced Dunya na mahra’)
(Gaelic ‘Duine na Mara’) - Sea Man, Phynodderee (origin doubtful)
- mountain satyr, Buggane (origin doubtful) - mountain magic ogre, and
many others. It is closely related to the Gaelic mythology of Ulster and
the Hebrides (as you would expect). Attempts to relate it to English mythology
One of the few ‘Norse’ stories relates to ‘King Orry’
(King Godred) who is alleged to have found the island by travelling on
the Milky Way (as our galaxy in the night sky is known). It tells you
that the Norsemen knew how to navigate by the stars.
In the New Year, the first person over the threshold should be a dark
man. He is called the ‘Quaaltagh’. The word is derived from
‘Quaiyl’, a Meeting. (Cf. Slieau Whaiyl Eoin (modern Slieau
Whallian)– the mountain of the meeting of John, adjacent to St Johns.
It is the same word as is used in Irish to describe the lower House of
their parliament, the Dail. (The phrase ‘Ag Dail’, became
in Manx ‘y Quaiyl’)
If a building has two doors, you should always leave by the door that
you entered by.
The Mountain Ash tree is very powerful at keeping evil spirits away. Manx
people each year used to take two twigs of mountain Ash and tie them with
wool gathered from the hedgerows, into a cross, and fix the cross to the
door frame for good luck. Actually, this is not a Christian cross. This
is another (rare) piece of Norse heritage. It is the hammer of Thor.
Rats are NEVER described as such. They are usually called Longtails. There
are other synonyms.
tu Naa’, the children’s custom of singing around the houses
on Oie Houney, is not derived from Hallowe’en or any other curious
foreign festival. It is the sole remainder of the ancient Celtic ‘Oie
Houney’ festival. The modern words used are very corrupted. The
phrase ‘Hop tu naa’ comes from ‘Shogh ta’n Oie’,
or ‘This is the Night’. In Scotland, after the reformation,
the tradition was moved from the Celtic New Year on 1st November, to the
secular New Year on 1st January, but the phrase ‘Shogh Ta’n
Oie’ continued as ‘Hogmanay’.
Guy Fawkes’ bonfire night on 5th November has nothing to do with
Manx history or customs, and has only recently been introduced into the
Isle of Man. The Manx celebrated the original New Year’s eve, on
31st October, ‘Oie Houney’,(pronounced ‘Ee Houna’
(‘ou’ as in sound)), the eve of the feat of Sauin (Gaelic
‘Samhain’), along with the whole Celtic world, as commented
on by Julius Caesar in Gaul.
Answers to questions
The Three Legs
The three legs of Mann were brought back to the island by crusading
Manx kings from Sicily. Before then the symbol of the royal family was
the Norse longship with its sails furled. Almost every clan in the west
of Scotland has the ship in its shield, thereby asserting descent from
that Norse dynasty (including Clan MacDonald). The major exception is
Clan MacLeod, which does not have the ship, but has the three legs.
This is because it is the youngest of the clans, and the three legs
were in use by then. Leod was the son of Olav the second (the Black).
A variant of the ship design is the flag of the Tynwald. (c.f. the Portcullis
of the English Parliament)
The significance of the 11th November, when leases begin
In the eighteenth century, the calendars were changed by eleven days,
in order to reconcile the calendar in use with the movements of the sun.
As a result, there were riots in many European cities, as less intelligent
people felt that they had been ‘robbed’ of eleven days of
their lives. For leases, however, this was true; a lease for six months
lasted 171 days instead of 182 days. In order to compensate, the day on
which leases fell due was moved from the ancient New Year’s Day
of 1st November to 11th November. It has never been changed, and this
is the reason that all Manx leases begin on the 11th of November, February,
April or August. For the same reason, Tynwald Day is 5th July, instead
of old Midsummers day, (St John the Baptist’s day)
Some Placename nonsenses
‘Ellan Vannin’ (Scots Gaelic ‘Eilean Mhannan’)
is not pronounced Ellun Vannin. Ellan Vannin is pronounced Elyan Vannin.
The phrase pronounced ‘Ellun Vannin’ means Art of Mann (or
Ellyn Vannin). The word Vannin is the word ‘Mannin’ in the
genitive case. Old Gaelic declined its nouns, like Latin. The stem form
was ‘Mann’, and the nominative form was Manna, with the
genitive Mannin (compare with Eire and Eireann). When placed in a phrase,
the initial consonant is aspirated, and the ‘M’ is spelt
‘V’ (in Gaelic orthography ‘Mh’). Thus Ellan
Vannin, (Elyan Vannin) : the island of Mann)
The name does not refer confluence of rivers Doo and Glass (which happens
in any event at Tromode, miles away from old Douglas!). It means ‘Blackpool’,
referring to the tidal pool by the tongue. Full name ‘Balley yn
Doo Ghlish’ (pronounced Bahlya ‘n Doo ‘lish). There
are many other places called Douglas, in both England and Scotland. All
have the same derivation (Yes, there are some Gaelic place names in England!).
Foxdale is not named after Foxes. There are no foxes in the Isle of Man.
The word ‘foxdale’ is a corruption of ‘foss tal’
the Norse for the ‘waterfall glen’. The Gaelic for waterfall
is ‘Eas’ as in Renass, or Rheyn Eas, the area of the waterfall.
Feegan: Original article was
found on the website of skyefid but now seems to have been removed