A Description of the Isle of Man

G. Waldron 1731 - pages 1 to 15

[Introduction – Towns – Castle Rushen – Douglas – Smuggling – Peel Castle – 'Moddey Doo']

BETWEEN Great Britain and Ireland there is stretched out a considerable Island from north to south, about thirty Italian miles in length; but where widest, not above fifteen in breadth.(1) The several ancient writers have given it several names :(2) by Caesar 'tis called Mona; by Ptolemy, Monaeda; by Pliny, Monabia: and the same variety appears in such of our modern authors as make mention of it. It was first inhabited by the Britons, then by the Scots or Picts, and afterwards by the Norwegians, who had it in their possession a long time :(3) it since passed thro' a strange diversity of revolutions, and at length fell into the hands of the English, about the latter end of Edward the First, and remains to this day under their jurisdiction. It has had several Lords; such generally as had the greatest interest in our Princes: till the grant hereof, together with the patronage of the bishoprick, was made to Sir John Stanley(4)and his heirs, by King Henry the Fourth; in which family it is still continued.

Thus far the account given by Mr. Moll in his Compleat Geographer may be depended on, but he is guilty of a gross mistake in saying the soil is extremely fruitful and produces wheat, rye, and barley in such plenty that it not only furnishes the inhabitants but likewise allows great quantities to be exported. Whereas it is notoriously known, that the little wheat they have is so bad, that those who eat bread made of it have the corn from England or Ireland. As for rye, I never saw any there; barley for the most part they have enough of to make malt for themselves, but never to send abroad. Oats is their chief produce, of which they make bread, as also of potatoes;(5) the land affording such abundance that fields of them are almost as common as grass.

As to the seasons, three parts of the year is winter,(6) and the vast quantity of snow and rain that are almost continually falling swells the rivers to that degree that they frequently overflow the lands and do much damage; great numbers of small cattle, such as sheep, goats, and hogs being lost in them. Notwithstanding this the air is very wholesome, the plague nor any other contagious distemper having never been known there, and the people generally live to a very great age.(7)

The black cattle of this Island are excellently good, but small, as also their sheep: it abounds in hogs and goats, kid being as commonly eat there as lamb in England. They have great store of poultry of all sorts, except turkeys, which being hard to rear are not-to be found but in particular families. The near neighbourhood of the sea, and the number of rivers, afford very fine fish of all kind, but especially salmon and cod: tho' herrings are the chief food of the poor people, which are salted up in the season to last for the whole year.

The Island being very rocky, the buildings are mostly stone, I mean those which are inhabited by the gentry; as for the others, they are no more than cabins built of sods, and covered with the same, except a few belonging to the better sort of farmers, which are thatched with straw: but in the midst of the utmost irregularity they have two convenencies, which some times the best-ordered houses cannot boast of, the finest brooks in the world running continually near them, and turf,(8) which makes a very sweet firing, at their very doors. Their towns are six in number,(9) and called,

Castle-Town or Russin.




Peel or Pile.

Macguires or New-Town

Of these I shall give a particular description, having spent a great deal of time in examining several curiosities and antiquities which I believe no author has ever yet treated on, but are very worthy of observation. And first of Castle-Town:

It is the metropolis of the Island, and the place where most of the persons of any note chuse to have their residence, because the Governour keeps his court in it; the Castle is a fine ancient building, and has been honoured with the presence of several of the Lords of Man; the late Earl of Derby continued there some time, but his present Lordship has never yet vouchsafed to visit it. The courts of Judicature are also kept here, and what records of the Island are yet remaining: but the greatest part of them, it troublesome times, were carried away by the Norwegians, and deposited among the archives of the Bishops of Drunton(10) in Norway, where they still remain; tho' a few years since, Mr. Stevenson, an eminent, worthy, and learned merchant of Dublin, offered the then Bishop of Drunton a considerable sum of money for the purchase of them, designing to restore and present them to the Island, but the Bishop of Drunton would not part with them on any. terms.

 The abridger of Camden's Britannia makes mention of a little Isle within this town,(11) where Pope Gregory the Fourth erected an episcopal see; but at present there is no such place to be found; nor is it probable it can have been swallowed up by the sea, there being no low grounds, but a high mountainous shore all along that part of the Island. He farther says that among the Hebrides, generally reckoned forty-four in number,was the isle Jona, lying between Ila and Scotland, and called by Bede, Hy or Hu; and that there was a bishop's see erected in Sodore, a small village, from which all the islanders took the name of Sodorenses, being all contained in his dioceses. nothing is more certain than that this opinion is erroneous; for the Bishops of Man do not take their title of Sodor(12) from the Island so called, but from the church at Peel, called Ecctesia Sodorensis, dedicated to our Saviour (). This is not only maintained by Archbishop Spottiswoode, and the most judicious antiquaries and historians, but by the tradition of the natives themselves: nor do I see any reason to believe the Bishops of Man ever had any jurisdiction over the Hebrides; because, were it so, some accounts would have been handed down to posterity, by what means they had lost it: and as there is nothing but the name of Sodor to countenance that opinion, the objection against it may easily be answered by what I have said.

 The great officers of the Island(13) are first the Governour, who under the Lord of Man has the entire command of it; secondly, the two Deempsters, who are the judges in matters civil and criminal; thirdly, the Comptroller, who calls the Receiver General to an account, and fourthly, the Receiver-General, in whose hands all the inferior collectors deposits the rents due to the Lord.

 Just at the entrance of the castle is a great stone chair(14) for the Governour, and two lesser for the Deemsters here they try all causes, except ecclesiastick, which are entirely under the decision of the Bishop: when you are past this little court, you enter into a long winding passage between two high walls, not much unlike what is described of Rosamond's labyrinth at Woodstock: in case of an attack, ten thousand men might be destroyed by a very few in attempting to enter. The extremity of it brings you to a room where the keys sit ;(15) they are twenty-four in number; they call them the Parliament; but in my opinion they more resemble our juries in England: because the business of their meeting is to adjust differences between the common people, and are locked in till they have given their verdict. They may be said in this sense indeed, to be supreme judges, because from them there is no appeal but to the Lord himself.

A little farther is an apartment which has never been opened in the memory of man; the persons belonging to the Castle are very cautious in giving any reason for it, but the natives, who are excessively superstitious, assign this: that there is something of inchantment in it. They tell you that the Castle was at first inhabited by fairies, and afterwards by giants, who continued in the possession of it till the days of Merlin, who by the force of magic dislodg'd the greatest part of them, and bound the rest in spells, which they believe will be indissoluble to the end of the world. For proof of this, they tell you a very odd story: they say there are a great number of fine apartments underground, exceeding in magnificence any of the upper rooms; several men of more than ordinary courage, have in former times ventured down to explore the secrets of this subterranean dwelling-place,(16), but none of them ever returned to give an account of what they saw; it was therefore judged convenient that all the passes to it should be kept continually shut, that no more might Offer by their temerity. But about some 50 or 55 years since, a person who had an uncommon boldness or resolution, never left soliciting permission of those who had the power to grant it, to visit those dark abodes: in fine, he obtain'd his request, went down, and returned by the help of a clue of packthread, which he took with him, which no man before himself had ever done; and brought this amazing discovery, viz., that after having passed thro' great number of vaults, he came into a long narrow place, which the farther he penetrated, he perceived he went more and more on a descent, till having travelled, as near as he could guess, for the space of a mile, he began to see a little gleam of light, which, tho' it seemed to come from a vast distance, yet was the most delightful sight he had ever beheld in his life. Having at length come to the end of that lane of darkness, he perceived a very large and magnificent house, illuminated th a great many candles, whence proceeded the light just now mentioned: having, before he begun this expedition, well fortifed himself with brandy, he had courage enough to knock at the door, which a servant, at the third knock, having open'd, asked him what he wanted. I would go as far as I can, reply'd our adventurer; be so kind therefore to direct me-how to accomplish my design, for I see no passage but that dark cavern thro' which I came. The servant told him he must go thro' that house, and accordingly led him thro' a long entry, and out at a back-door. He then walked a considerable way, and at last beheld another house, more magnificent than the first; and the windows being all open, discovered innumerable lamps burning in every room. Here he designed also to knock, but had the curiosity to step on a little bank which commanded a low parlour; on looking in he beheld a vast table in the middle of the room of black marble, and on it, extended at full length, a man, or rather monster; for by his account, he could not be less than fourteen foot long, and ten or eleven round the body. This prodigious fabrick lay as if sleeping with his head on a book, and a sword by him, of a size answerable to the hand which 'tis supposed made use of it. This sight was more terrifying to our traveller than all the dark and dreary mansions he had passed thro' in his arrival to it: he resolved therefore not to attempt entrance into a place inhabited by persons of that unequal stature, and made the best of his way back to the other house, where the same servant reconducted, and informed him, that if he had knocked at the second door, he would have seen company enough, but never could have return'd. On which he desired to know what place it was, and by whom possessed; but the other reply'd, that these things were not to be revealed. He then tools his leave, and by the same dark passage got into the vaults, and soon after once more ascended to the light of the sun.

Ridiculous as this narrative appears, whoever seems to disbelieve it, is looked on as a person of a weak faith; but tho' this might be sufficient to prove their superstition, I cannot forbear making mention of another tradition they have, and of a moth longer- standing. I have already taken notice that their most ancient records were taken away in a Norwegian conquest, which renders it impossible to be certain how long the Island has been found out, or by whom: to make up this deficiency, they tell you this history of it.

 Some hundred years, say they, before the coming of our Saviour, the Isle of Man was inhabited by a certain species called fairies, and that everything was carried on in a kind of supernatural manner; that a blue mist hanging continually over the land,(17), prevented the ships that passed by from having any suspicion there was an island. This mist, contrary to nature, was preserved by keeping a perpetual fire, which happening once to be extinguished, the shore discover'd itself to some fishermen who were then in a boat on their vocation, and by them notice was given to the people of some country, (but what, they do not pretend to determine) who sent ships in order to make a further discovery: that on their landing they had a fierce encounter with the little people, and having got the better over them, possess'd themselves of Castle Russin, and by degrees, as they received reinforcements, of the whole Island. These new conquerors maintained their ground some time, but were at length beaten out by a race of giants, who were not extirpated, as I said before, till the reign of Prince Arthur, by Merlin, the famous British enchanter. They pretend also that this Island afterward became an asylum to all the distress'd princes and great men in Europe, and that those uncommon fortifications made about Peel Castle were added for their better security: but of this I shall treat more copiously when I come to the description of that place.

The tradition of what happened on suffering the domestic fire to be extinct, remains in such credit with them, that not a family in the whole Island, to this day, of the natives, but keeps a small quantity continually burning,(18), no one daring to depend on his neighbour's vigilance in a thing which he imagines is of so much consequence: every one confidently believing that if it should ever happen that no fire were to be found throughout, most terrible revolutions and mischiefs would immediately ensue.

The castle,(19), as also the two walls which encompass it, and are broad enough for three persons to walk a-breast on, are all of free stone, which is the only building of that sort. Within the walls.is a small tower adjoining to the castle, where formerly state-prisoners were kept, but serves now as a store-house for the Lord Derby's wines; it has a moat round it, and draw-bridge, and is a very strong place. On the other side of the castle, is the Governour's house, which is very commodious and spacious. Here is also a fine chapel, where divine service is celebrated morning and afternoon, and several offices belonging to the Court of Chancery.

 In this town are the most regular buildings in general of the whole Island, and within a short mile of it is Derby-Haven which is by much the best harbour they can boast of, and has a very strong fort in the mouth of it.(20)

 Duglas, so called(21), from the two rivers running into that har bour, and called the black and the grey waters, must fall next under our consideration, as being the town of the most trade; and the' the buildings are very indifferent, and the near neigh bourhood of the sea, which sometimes runs mountain high, and in tempestuous weather threatens the inhabitants with an inunda tion; yet is full of very rich and eminent dealers. The reason of which is plain; the harbour of it being the most frequented of any in the Island, Dutch, Irish, and East-India vessels, there is the utmost opportunity that can be wished for carrying on the smugling trade. So much, it must be confess'd, do some men prefer their gain to their safety, that they will venture it any where, but in this place there is little danger in infringing on the rights of the Crown. And here I must inform my reader that tho' his most excellent Majesty of Great-Britain is master of the seas, yet the Lord of Man has the jurisdiction of so much round the Island, that a master of a ship has no more to do than to watch his opportunity of coming within the piles(22), and he is secure from any danger from the king's officers. I myself had once notice of a stately pirate that was steering her course into this harbour, and would have boarded her before she got within the piles, but for want of being able to get sufficient help, could not execute my design. Her cargo was indigo, mastic, raisins of the sun, and other very rich goods, which I had the mortification to see sold to the traders of Duglas without the least duty paid to his Majesty. The same ship was taken afterwards near the coast, by the information I sent of it to the Commissioners of the Customs.

Peel,(23), or Pile-town, is so called from its garrison and castle; tho'in effect the castle cannot properly be said to be in the town, an arm of the sea running between them, which in high tides w ould be deep enough to bear a ship of forty or fifty fun, the' some times quite drained of salt water; but then it is supply'd with fresh by a river which runs from Kirk Jarmyn mountains, and empties itself in the sea. This castle for its situation, antiquity, strength, and beauty, might justly come in for one of the wonders of the world. Art and nature seem to have vied with each other in the model, nor ought the most minute particulars to escape observation.

 As to its situation, it is built upon the top of a huge rock, which rears itself a stupendous height above the sea, with which, as I said before, it is surrounded. And also by natural fortifica tions of other lesser rocks, which renders it Inaccessible but by passing that little arm of the sea which divides it from the town; this you may do in a small beat: and the natives, tucking up their cloaths under their arms, and plucking off their shoes and stockings frequently wade it at low tides. When you arrive at the foot of the rock, you ascend about some threescore steps, which are cut out of it to the first wall, which is immensely thick and high, and built of a very durable and bright stone, tho' not of the same sort with that of Castle Russin in Castle Town.; and has on it four little houses, or watch-towers, which overlook the sea. The gates are wood, but most curiously arched, carved, and adorned with pilasters. Having passed the first, you have other stairs of near half the number with the former to mount before you come at the second wall, which, as well as the other, is full of port-holes for cannon, which are planted on stone crosses on a third wall.

Being entered you find yourself in a wide plain(24), the midst of which stands the castle, encompassed by four churches, three of which time has so much decayed that there is little remaining besides the walls and some few tombs, which seem to have been erected with so much care as to perpetuate the memory of those buried in them, till the final dissolution of all things. The fourth is kept a little better in repair, but not so much for its own sake, tho'it has been the most magnificent of them all. As for a chapel within it, which is appropriated to the use of the Bishop, and has under it a prison, or rather dungeon,(25) for those offenders who are so miserable as to incur the spiritual censure; this is certainly one of the most dreadful places that imagination can form, the sea runs under it tllro' the hollows of the rock, with such a continual roar that you would think it were every moment breaking in upon you, and over it are the vaults for burying the dead. The stairs descending to this place of terrors are not above thirty, but so steep and narrow that they are very difficult to go down, a child of eight or nine years old not being able to pass them but sideways. Within it are thirteen pillars, on which the whole chapel is supported: They have a superstition that whatsoever stranger goes to see this cavern out of curiosity, and omits to count the pillars, shall do something to occasion being confined there.

There are places for penance also under all the other churches, containing several very dark and horrid cells; some have nothing in them either to sit or lie down on, others a small piece of brick-work; some are lower and more dark than others, but all of them, in my opinion, dreadful enough for almost any crime humanity is capable of being, guilty of; tho' tis supposed they were built with different degrees of horror, that the punishment might be proportionate to the faults of those wretches who were to be confined in them. These have never been made use of, since the times of Popery; but that under the Bishop's chapel is the common and only prison for all offences in the spiritual court; and to that the delinquents are sentenced. But the soldiers of the garrison permit them to suffer their confinement in the castle, it being morally impossible for the strongest con stitution to sustain the damps and noisomeness of the cavern even for a few hours, much less for months and years, as is the punishment sometimes allotted. But I shall speak hereafter more-fully of the severity of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

'Tis certain that here have been very great architects in this Island; for the noble monuments in this church, which is kept in repair, and indeed in the ruins of the others also, show the builders to be masters of all the orders in that art, tho' the great number of Doric pillars prove them to be chiefly admirers of that.

Nor are the epitaphs and inscriptions on the tombstones(26) less worthy of remark: the various languages in which they are engraved, testify by what a diversity of nations this little spot of earth has been possess'd. Tho' time has defaced too many of the letters to render the remainder intelligible, yet you may easily perceive fragments of the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabian, Saxon, Scotch, and Irish characters; some dates yet visible declare they were written before the coming of Christ; and indeed if one considers the walls, the thickness of them, and the durableness of the stone of which they are composed, one must be sensible that a great number of centuries must pass before such strong workmanship could be reduced to the condition it now is. These churches, therefore, were doubtless once the temples of pagan deities, tho' since consecrated to the worship of the true divinity; and what confirms me more strongly in this conjecture is that there is still a part of one remaining, where stands a large stone directly in form and manner like the tripods's which in those days of ignorance the priests stood upon to deliver their fabulous oracles.

Through one of these old churches there was formerly a passage to the apartment belonging to the captain of the guard, but is now closed up. The reason they give you for it is a pretty odd one; but as I think it not sufficient satisfaction to my curious reader to acquaint him with what sort of buildings this Island affords, without letting him know also what traditions are concerning them, I shall have little regard to the censure of those critics who find fault with every thing out of the common road; and in this, as well as in all other places, where it falls in my way' shall make it my endeavour to lead him into the humours and very souls of the Manks people.

 They say, that an apparition called, in their language, the Mauthe Doog,(27), in the shape of a large black spaniel with curled shaggy hair, was used to haunt Peel Castle; and has been frequently seen in every room, but particularly in the guard-chamb'er, where, as soon as the candles were lighted, it came and lay down before the fire in presence of all the soldiers, who at length, by being so much accustomed to the sight of it, lost great part of the terror they were seized with at its first appear ance. They still, however, retain'd a certain awe, as believing it was an evil spirit which only waited permission to do them hurt, and for that reason forbore swearing and all prophane discourse while in his company. But tho' they endured the shock of such a guest when all together in a body, none cared to be left alone with it: it being the custom therefore, for one of the soldiers to lock the gates of the castle(28), at a certain hour, and carry them to the captain, to whose apartment as I said before, the way led through a church; they agreed among themselves that whoever was to succeed the ensuing night, his fellow in this errand should accompany him that went first, and by this means no man would be expos'd singly to the danger: for I forgot to mention that the Mauthe Doog was always seen to come out from that passage at the close of day, and return to it again as soon as the morning dawned; which made them look on this place as its peculiar residence.

One night a fellow being drunk, and by the strength of his liquor rendered more daring than ordinary, laugh'd at the sim plicity of his companions, and the' it was not his turn to go with the keys, would needs take that office upon him to testify his courage. All the soldiers endeavour'd to dissuade him, but the more they said, the more resolute he seemed, and swore that he desired nothing more than that Mauthe Doog would follow him, as it had done the others, for he would try if it were dog or devil. After having talked in a very reprobate manner for some time, he snatched up the keys and went out of the guard-room: in some time after his departure a great noise was heard, but nobody had the boldness to see what occasioned it, till the adventurer returning, they demanded the knowledge of him; but as loud and noisy as he had been in leaving them, he was now become silent and sober enough, for he was never heard to speak more. and tho' all the time he lived, which was three days, he was entreated by all who came near him, either to speak, or if he - could not do that, to make some signs, by which they might understand what had happened to him, yet nothing inter ligible could begot from him, only that by the distortion of his limbs and features, it might be guess'd that he died in agonies more than is common in a natural death.

 The Mauthe Doog was, however, never seen after in the castle, nor would any one attempt to go thro' that passage, for which reason it was closed up, and another way made. This accident happened about threescore years since, and I heard it attested by several, but especially by an old soldier, who assured me he had seen it oftener than he had then hairs on his head.

 Having taken notice of every thing remarkable in the churches, I believe my reader will be impatient to come to the castle itself, which, in spite of the magnificence the pride of modern ages has adorned the palaces of princes with, exceeds not only every thing I have seen, but also read of, in nobleness of structure. Tho' now no more than a garrison for soldiers, you cannot enter it without being struck with a veneration, which the most beautiful buildings of later years cannot inspire you with; the largeness and loftiness of the rooms, the vast echo resounding thro' them, the many winding galleries, the prospect of the sea, and the ships, which by reason of the height of the place, seem but like buoys floating on the waves, makes you fancy yourself in a superior orb to what the rest of mankind inhabit, and fills you with contemplations the most refined and pure that the soul is capable of conceiving.

The situation, strength, and magnificence of this edifice, inclines me very much to believe what the natives say it was built for, the education of young princes, for certainly study and meditation can no where be more indulged. Happy were it for the youth of England if our universities had the same advantage, so many of our nobility and gentry would not then imbibe a corruption of morals with an improvement in learning. 

It was in this castle that Eleanor, wife to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, uncle to King Henry VI. and Lord Protector of England, was confined, after being banished thro' the malice of the Duke of Suffolk and Cardinal of Winchester, who accused her of having been guilty of associating herself with wizards and witches, to know if her husband would ever attain the crown, and other treasonable practices. Sir John Stanley, then Lord of Man, had the charge of her, and having conducted her to the Island, placed her in this castle; where she lived in a manner befitting her dignity, nothing but liberty being refused: she appeared however so turbulent and impatient under this confine ment, that he was obliged to keep a strict guard over her, not only because there were daily attempts made to get her away, but also to prevent her from laying violent hands on her own life. They tell you that ever since her death, to this hour, a person is heard to go up the stone stairs of one of these little houses on the walls, constantly every night as soon as the clock has struck twelve; but I never heard any one say they had seen what it was, tho' the general conjecture is, that it is no other than the troubled spirit of this lady,(29), who died, as she had lived, dissatisfied and murmuring at her fate.

I could dwell much longer on the description of a place which I so much admire; but I fear being tedious, and shall therefore conduct my reader from the castle to the town, which is long but narrow, few people of any distinction dwelling here, most of the houses are but a better sort of cabins. Here.is a very good harbour, and much resorted to by the Scotch and Irish vessels, being the nearest to them.

Ramsay is the next town of note, and the inhabitants, as the buildings, are a degree genteeler than those of Peel; but has no great matter in it, worthy the observation of a traveller, except an excellent harbour and a good fort.(30)

Nor has Ballasalli any thing to boast of, besides a fine river running thro' it, a good air to whiten cloth, and a market for fowls, where you may have the greatest choice of any place in the Island.

Macguires or New-Town,(31), was a waste piece of ground, till after his late Majesty's accession to the crown; when one Macguire, a native of Ireland, and tenant to Lord Derby, built a large house on it for himself, and several little ones to let out at yearly rent. 'Tis yet, however, no more than a village, but in compliment to him is called a town and after his name: it is in a pleasant and convenient part of the Island, for which reason, 'tis believed, 'twill hereafter be enlarged.


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