Goodbye, Isle of Man, We’ll Miss You

They say all good things come to an end, and unfortunately our time on the Isle of Man has done just that. It’s a case of “au revoir”, though, not “adieu” – we’ll definitely be back.

We’ve spent our last couple of days on the island trotting round a few more ancient sites and, when the Sun’s been out, generally dossing and appreciating the scenery.

Balladoole, near Castletown, is a site with a rich history: Bronze Age graves have been excavated here, and there’s the rampart of an Iron Age hillfort circling the top of the hill – though we found this hard to make out given the long grass:

We saw the remains of yet another keeil. Keeils, you’ll remember, are the tiny Celtic chapels that are scattered across the island. Itinerant preachers held services in the open air outside the keeils, which must’ve been interesting at times given the propensity of Manannan’s Cloak (the mist) to descend without warning over the island. On a clear day, though, this would certainly have been a keeil with a view!

The keeil apparently dates back to the 10th or 11th centuries but it may be on the site of an earlier one as there was definitely a Christian burial ground here much earlier – we know this as some of the Christian graves have been disturbed by a late 9th century pagan burial.

It was this 9th century burial site that we’d come to see. This was a Viking boat burial; a man was buried with plenty of grave goods inside a 10.5 metre long oak boat of the type used for trading in the Irish Sea. Large stones were put around the ship to hold it in place and the whole thing was then buried under a low stone cairn.

The Viking boat burial was discovered in the 1940s by an interned German archaeologist. In our last post, we mentioned the WW1 internment of “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man (including, as we found out in the comments, Teeside ice cream vendors of Italian origin). Well, a similar thing happened during WW2, with camps established around the island. Many internees were held in requisitioned guest houses, though I doubt they got the full seaside holiday experience. One of the WW2 internees, Gerhard Bersu, was a prominent archaeologist who had moved to the UK from Nazi Germany in 1937 (he was Jewish). Interned on the Isle of Man during the War, he was allowed to continue his work, making a number of important finds including the Viking boat burial at Balladoole.

Gerhard Bersu was also involved in the study of a site at Braaid. Here, we saw what is thought to be the circular stone base of a Celtic roundhouse and behind it, the remains of the stone walls of two Norse-era structures.

The roundhouse would have had a flattish turf roof supported by wooden posts, as per the photo below taken in the House of Manannan earlier in the trip:

Of the two Norse structures, one is a Viking longhouse 20 metres long and 9 metres wide with typically bowed sides. These added strength and would have given the structure the “upturned boat” aspect that we saw last year in Scandinavia. The other structure has straight walls and is thought to have been a cattle byre.

To be fair, there really wasn’t a lot visible above ground level; plenty of imagination was required!

We’ve also had a look at some more Manx crosses, this time in the churches at Braddan and Jurby. We loved the higgledy-piggledy gravestones at Braddan Old Church: we can’t imagine a better setting for a ghost film!

Here’s my favourite cross from Braddan and Jurby:

Thorleif’s cross (in Braddan Old Church) dates back to the late 10th or early 11th centuries. It has a very attractive Norse-style design of interlaced dragons on it, together with an inscription on the edge in runes that reads “Thorleif erected this cross to the memory of Fiac his son, brother’s son to Hafr”. The father and uncle have Norse names but the dead son has a Celtic name: cultural assimilation at work.

It’s interesting that when the Vikings settled on the Isle of Man (rather than just raiding it and leaving, as they did in other places), it was the existing Celtic language that eventually prevailed rather than the incoming Norse. In terms of place names on the Isle of Man, the first thing you notice is the sheer number of place names beginning in “Balla”, “balla” meaning “farm” in Manx. There are also quite a few surviving Norse place names, such as Snaefell (the mountain crossed by the TT circuit), meaning “snow mountain”, and Laxey meaning “salmon river”.

We stopped off at Laxey during our whistlestop last couple of days to pay a quick visit to the Laxey Wheel, which is the largest working waterwheel in the World.

Lead and zinc mining took off at Laxey in the 1840s and peaked in the 1880s, with the Laxey mines producing more zinc at one point than all of the other mines in Britain put together. The Lady Isabella waterwheel was installed in 1854 to pump water from the mines. It is 21.75m in diameter and weighs over 50 tonnes. It runs at two full revolutions per minute, producing around 200 horse power. A 200 metre long power rod rolls backwards and forwards on wheels on a viaduct-like structure (in the photo below) to transfer the power generated by the wheel to the head of the mine.

Ingenious! Initially it seemed odd to have built a waterwheel to pump water from a mine at such a late date – after all, the Cornish mines had moved to steam power decades earlier. It makes sense, though, when you realise that the Isle of Man has no coal but has lots of water, so a huge water wheel was probably the most cost-effective way of getting the job done.

We found time for a quick trip to the Manx Museum. It’s a great museum, not too big but with a real mix of things to look at. I found the Pagan Lady’s beads (from her grave on St Patrick’s Isle: see previous post here):

LOTS of silver hoards have been found that were buried around the time of the arrival of the Vikings:

Here’s Mark enjoying the video about the Isle of Man tourist industry:

Finally, the bizarre visit of the week award has to go to “Top Banana”, a shop that has been heavily advertising its “free from” food offerings on Manx Radio. From the adverts, you’d think it was a massive emporium. As it turned out, it’s in the middle of a residential estate on the outskirts of Douglas. It doesn’t look like much at all when you arrive:

Once we got past the bit of a building site at the entrance, though, it actually had a pretty good “health food shop”-type offering, and the chap running it was exceptionally keen and helpful. So needless to say we spent what we could and restocked SOK with a range of dairy-free goodies (I’m allergic to milk protein).

We’ve really enjoyed our four weeks on the Isle of Man, in fact I think it’s fair to say that in our humble opinion, the entire island is nothing short of TOP BANANA 🍌 If you haven’t been here yet, add it to your list!


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