From Manx Soc vol 11]

A Description of the Isle of Man

G. Waldron 1731 - pages 40 to 53

[Temporal Power – Nunnery – Customs – Fishery]

Having been so copious in my description of the spiritual power, it will be expected I should say something of the temporal jurisdiction, which is perpetually in opposition with the other, and is arbitrary but in two things, viz. That in the cattle markets(56) no person be he of ever so great condition is permitted to cheapen or bid money for any beast till the lord's steward has had the refusal of it: and that if any man or maids servant be esteemed extraordinary in their way, either he, the Governour, or the two Deempsters have the power to oblige such a servant to live with them for the space of a year, and receive no more than six shillings for their service during the said time. This they call yarding,(57) and the ceremony of it is performed in the following manner: An officer appointed for that purpose, called a Sumner, lays a straw over his or her shoulder, and says, " By virtue of this, you are yarded" for the service of the Lord of Man in the house of his steward, governour, or deempster, which-ever of them it is that has given this commission. But this is a law of no force in bishop's lands; for which reason, all servants who have any apprehensions of being yarded, hire themselves, if possibly they can, to those who rent the abovesaid lands; or failing in that, as soon as they perceive an officer coming near them, run to that asylum, on which, when they have set their feet, they are safe for that time.

In all things else the people are treated with the utmost lenity by the Government. The officers and soldiery, who recei~heir commissions and pay from the Lord of Man, are extremely courteous and civil, rather endeavouring to do all the good offices they can, than in the least exerting any authority. 'Tis to their compassionation (58) alone, that the poor criminals sentenced by the spiritual court to that loathsome dungeon under the chappel at Peel are not really confined there, but have the liberty of the castle. In fine, they are not only the best-bred, and most conversable men in the Island, but likewise, generally speaking, the least vicious, in spite of the little regard they pay to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

As to their law-suits, they are neither expensive nor tedious, but that draws on a misfortune of as bad, if not worse consequence than either of the others; which is, that the over-cheap ness renders them frequent. When a person has a mind to com mence a suit against his neighbour for debt, he has no more to do than to take out a token,(59) which is a piece of slate marked with the governour's name on it; and it is the same thing with an arrest in England: the price of these tokens is no more than two pence, and every man being allowed to plead his own cause, there is no occasion for counsellors, attorneys, or solicitors. The ignorance, however, of the people, and their incapacity of speaking for themselves in publick, have given an opportunity to some men to set up for a kind of lawyers,(60), who take fees, and argue on both sides, as in the courts of justice elsewhere.

Their Sheeding courts,(61) the same with our Terms, are held but twice a year; but then they have a court of Chancery(62), wherein the Governour is sole judge, which, if there be occasion, he may hold once every week; and this gives so easy and speedy a dispatch to all differences, that there is little to do at their Grand Assizes.

I know nothing in their statutes nor punishments particular, but this; which is, that if any person be convicted of uttering a scandalous report, and cannot make good the assertion, instead of being fined or imprisoned, they are sentenced to stand in the market-place on a sort of scaffold erected for that purpose, with their tongue in a noose made of leather, which they Call a bridle,(63) and having been thus exposed to the view of the people for some time, on the taking off this machine they are obliged to say three times, Tongue thou hast Iyed.(64) As whimsical as this punishment may seem, I know not but if introduced in some places that I could name it might put a greater stop to malice than any private punishment whatsoever; because, that the a person who has once suffered this shame should be tempted to commit the same crime a second time, it would be to little purpose, because whatever he said would be sure to gain no credit, after having been once recorded as a lyar.

And now having given as full a description as I think can be expected from me of the courts of judicature, both spiritual and temporal, and the punishments decreed for offenders in this Island, I shall proceed to say something of the place itself, which may be called, properly enough, a rocky, mountainous desert; little space being left for either arable or pasture, and nothing of a wood or forest in the whole Island. You may ride many miles and see nothing but a thorn-tree, which is either fenced round, or some other precaution taken, that so great a rarity shall receive no prejudice. Hedges they have none (65), but what are made with clay; but as they have great quantity of fern and goss, that serves them to bake their bread with instead of wood.

Yet, notwithstanding the present scarcity of timber, the natives tell you, it was once a very woody country; insomuch that Peel, which was originally called Pile castle, took its name from being at first no more than a huge pile of logs of wood, laid in so regular a manner, as to form distinct apartments, and make it a dwelling-place. But this is supposed to be before the flood, and if we may give credit to Doctor Burnet's Theory of the Earth, that the world was then one vast continent, without any division of the lands by sea or rivers, 'tis easy to believe that universal flow of waters might, on leaving it, have thrown up the earth in such mountains, and buried the trees beneath their monstrous weight.

'Tis certain that they have no timber but what they find in bogs or sloughs when they dig for turf, and there is seldom any found in less than fourteen or fifteen foot deep. In searching for it they sometimes meet with greater prizes: I myself saw a very fine silver crucifix: and many pieces of old coin, not only of copper but also of gold and silver. They were got into hands which would not be prevailed on to part with them, tho' they knew neither the age nor meaning of them; otherwise I would have sent some to our learned and ingenious antiquaries in England, who, perhaps, might by the inscriptions and figures, have been able to judge more truly of the former government and rulers of the people, than any of those traditions which with them pass for historical truths, but according to my notion of things are no letter than so many fables. But as I could not obtain the real medals, I had the privilege of taking a draught of some which I looked upon as the most curious of them; and having done it with tolerable exactness it is possible the gentlemen above mentioned may discover by them what I must acknowledge myself unable to comprehend, tho' I have spent a great deal of time and pains in the endeavour.

The first of these were of gold, the next silver, and all the others brass. But there were many which I believe of greater antiquity, but so much impaired that it was impossible for the nicest eye to take the impression.

Having mentioned these curiosities, I must not omit one, which, if true, was a much greater, and afforded more matter of speculation to the age it was found in than any I have named It was a man perfect in all his limbs and features, and what is yet more wonderful, in his habit; tho' by the make of it, he must have lain under-ground upwards of an hundred years. This extraordinary discovery, they say, happened no longer ago than in the reign of king Charles the First: there are persons now living, who assured me their fathers saw it; and from hence they infer the wholesomeness of their climate, since the earth of itself, only by being kept close, could preserve a human body, unembowelled, unembalmed, from being corrupted, or even his clothes from rottenness or decay. But as greatly as I have heard this story averred, I do not set it down, either here, or in my own mind, for undoubted verity, but leave it to the pleasure of my reader to believe as he thinks most reasonable, concerning this, as well as the many other prodigies of nature which no man can give a full account of this Island without mentioning.

Among others, I know none which more justly may be called so, at least, of those which I am convinced of the truth of, than that of the water-bull.(67), An amphibious creature which takes its name from the so great resemblance it has of that beast, that many of the people, having seen him in a field, have not dis tinguished him from one of the more natural species: nor have the cows any instinct to avoid him, tho' if any happen to copu late with him, as they frequently do, the creature they conceive never has life nor any due formation, but seems a rude lump of flesh and skin without bones, and is seldom brought forth without the death of the cow.

A neighbour of mine who kept cattle had his fields very much infested with this animal, by which he had lost several cows; he, therefore, placed a man continually to watch, who bringing him word that a strange bull was among the cows, he doubted not but it was the water-bull, and having called a good number of lusty men to his assistance, who were all armed with great poles, pitch-forks, and other weapons proper to defend themselves, and be the death of this dangerous enemy; they went to the place where they were told he was, and run altogether at him: but he was too nimble for their pursuit, and after tiring them over mountains and rocks and a great space of stony ground, he took a river, and avoided any further chase by diving down into it, tho' every now and then he would show his head above water, as if to mock their skill. I heard of a person, however, who being perplexed in this manner by one of these water-bulls, had more cunning and taking a gun with him, charged with a brace of bullets, shot him as he was going into the river.

As to any buildings of great antiquity in this Island, there are now no remains, after Castle Russin and Peel Castle, with the churches about it, but the Nunnery and the Fort at Duglas, each of which I shall describe in a particular manner.

That which is called the Nunnery,(68) is situate in a good pleasant part of the country, about half a mile from Duglas; and the' now entirely out of repair, except one small part of it, where the present Major has his residence(69), shows in its ruins,-that few monasteries once exceeded it either in largeness or fine building. There are still some of the cloysters remaining, the ceilings of which discover they were the work of the most masterly hands, nothing in the whole creation but what is imi tated- in curious carvings on it. The pillars supporting the arches are so thick, as if that edifice was erected with a design to baffle the efforts of time; nor could it, in more years than have elapsed since the coming of Christ, have been so greatly defaced, had it received no injury but from time: but in some of the dreadful revolutions this Island has sustained, it doubtless has suffered much from the outrage of the soldiers, as may be gather'd by the niches yet standing in the chapel (which has been one of the finest in the world) and the images of the saints reposited in them being torn out, which could not have happened but by force.

Here has also been many curious monuments, the inscriptions of which, tho' almost worn out, yet still retain enough to make the reader know the bodies~of very great persons have been deposited here. There is plainly to be read on one of them,

Illustrissima Matilda filia * * * * *

and a little lower, on the same stone,

* * * * Rex Merciae * * * *

I think there is great probability that this was Matilda, the daughter of Ethelbert, one of the kings of England, of the Saxon race, since both Stow and Hollingshed agree that princess died a recluse: but as there is no certainty, the date being .; entirely erased, I shall leave it to my reader to think of it, according to his pleasure.

But I am entirely of opinion that Cartesmunda, the fair nun of Winchester, who fled from the violence threatened her by king John, took refuge in this monastery,*( i. e. Nunnery) and was here buried; because there is very plainly to be read, -. .

.Cartesmunda Virgo immacu1ata.

 These words remain so legible, that I doubt not but the whole inscription would have been so too, had not some barbarous and sacrilegious hands broke the stone, leaving only one corner of it, which is supported by a column, and on the base the date is yet perfectly fresh.

 Anno Domini 1230.

Several fine figures, which seem designed by way of hiero glyphics, have also been both the ornaments and explanation of these tombs; but now so demolished, that one can only know by the fragments they have been too excellent not to have merited a better fate.

In the midst of a small square court behind this chapel is a sort of a pyramid of reddish stones cemented with clay, on which formerly stood a cross; and near it have been many fine monuments, tho' not so magnificent as those within the chapel. From this place you may go down by a gradual descent to a cell, built all of white stone, where stood the confessional chair; but this also lies now in ruins; as does a great gate, which, they say, was once exceeding fine, and was never opened but at the initiation of a nun or the death of the lady abbess. Some pieces of broken columns are still to be seen up and down the ground, but the greatest part have been removed for other uses. There are a vast number of caverns underground, some of which were built for places of penance, others for convenience In some there are narrow stone benches, which, by the excessive dampness, are overgrown with moss, but all are dark, and the very entrance to them chocked up with weeds and briars; so little veneration do the present inhabitants of this Island pay to antiquity, or the memory of what was so precious to their forefathers, who were

Formerly so very religious, that when they went abroad, they put on a winding-sheet, to show they were not unmindful of death

Tho' the rivers in this Island afford great plenty of excellent water, a well belonging to this Nunnery is said to have exceeded them all; but has been, notwithstanding the many extraordinary properties ascribed to it, of late suffer'd to dry up.

Here have also been many spacious gardens for the conveni ence and pleasure of the nuns, but I have heard a melancholy account of the severe tryal put on those who were suspected to have been guilty of falsifying their vow of chastity.

Over a place called the How of Duglas, which is the extent of the Earl of Derby's dominion on the sea, there is a rock vastly high and steep, about the middle of which is a hollow not very different from the fashion of an elbow-chair,(70) and near the top, another much like the former. Whether these are made by art or nature, I cannot pretend to determine, nor did I ever hear: but on the slightest accusation, the poor nun was brought to the foot of this rock, when the sea was out, and obliged to climb to the first chair, where she sag till the sea had twice ebbed and flowed. Those who endured this trial, and descended unhurt, were cleared of the aspersion thrown upon them. But in my opinion, the number of the fortunate could not be great, for besides the danger of climbing the ragged and steep rock, (which now very few men can do above thirty or forty paces) the extreme cold when you come to any height, the horror of being exposed alone to all the fury of the elements, and the horrid prospect of the sea, roaring thro' a thousand cavities and foaming round you on every side, is enough to stagger the firmest resolution and courage, and has without all question been the destruction of many of those unhappy wretches.

The Fort of Duglas,(71) which commands the bay, is a very ancient building, but kept in good repair. They say that the great Caratack, brother to Bonduca, queen of Britain, concealed here his young nephew from the fury of the Romans, who were in pursuit of him, after having vanquished the queen and slain all her other children. There is certainly a very strong and secret apartment underground in it, having no passage to it but a hole, which is covered with a large stone; and is called to this day, The Great Man's Chamber.

The ancient inhabitants of this Island seem to have taken a great delight in subterranean dwellings, for there is no one old building in it, which has not at least an equal number of rooms underground as above, and sometimes as much, if not more, richly ornamented with carvings, and the floors covered with stone of different colours, which makes them appear as if inlaid, and are very beautiful to the eye. This therefore one may be bold to say without injuring the truth, that however impolite and savage those who now call themselves the natives of Man may be, it had in it, in some ages of the world, persons of the most delicate and elegant taste, and who in all their customs savoured of a disposition rather inclined to the romantick than the rustick, as they are at this time degenerated, even to the greatest degree that can be imagined.

My reader will easily perceive he little I derogate from the genteelness of their manners when I shall tell him that knives, forks, or spoons,(72), are things in so little use with them, that at those houses which are counted the best, (excepting the governour's, the bishop's, and the lord's steward's) you shall not find above three or four knives at a table, where, perhaps, there are twenty guests, and as for forks, they seem not to know what to do with them; for if a Manks man, or woman, happens to be invited to an English family, nothing can be more awkward than their attempting to make use of them. They are admirably dextrous in dissecting a fowl with their fingers, and if the operation happens to be more than ordinarily difficult, they take one quarter in their teeth, and with both their hands wrench the limbs asunder. This, I have seen done among very wealthy people, and who would not deny themselves these conveniences, if they thought them of any consequence. Nay, so incorrigible "are they in this humour, that tho', whenever invited by the English or Irish? they find these utensils at every plate, they will not return the complaisance at their own entertainments. This behaviour, at my first coming, put me in mind of Aesop's stork, who invited the fox to dinner on viands in long-necked bottles; for I found good provision, but no means to come at it. But on my growing better acquainted with the custom of the people, I carried for the future a knife, fork, and spoon in my pocket.

In their sports they retain something of the Arcadian simplicity. Dancing, if I may call it so, jumping and turning round at least, to the fiddle and base-viol, is their great diversion. In summer they have it in the fields, and in winter in the barns. The month of May is every year ushered in with a ceremony which has something in the design of it pretty enough, andj I believe, will not be tiresome to my reader in the account.

In almost all the great parishes they chase from among the daughters of the most wealthy farmers a young maid, for the Queen of May.(73), She is drest in the gayest and best manner they can, and is attended by about twenty others, who are called maids of honour: she has also a young man, who is her captain, and has under his command, a good number of inferior officers. In opposition to her, is the Queen of Winter, who is a man drest in woman's clothes, with woollen hoods, furs tippets, and loaded with the warmest and heaviest habits one upon another: in the same manner are those who represent her attendants drest, nor is she -without a captain and troop for her defence. Both being equips as proper emblems of the beauty of the spring, and the deformity of the winter, they set forth from their respective quarters; the one preceded by violins and flutes, the other with the rough musick of the tongs and cleavers. Both 'companies march till they meet on a common, and then their trains engage in a mock-battle. If the Queen of Winter's forces get the better, so far as to take the Queen of May prisoner, she is ransomed for as much as pays the expences of the day. After this ceremony, Winter and her company retire, and divert themselves in a barn, and the others remain on the green, where having danced a considerable time, they conclude the evening with a feast: the queen at one table with her maids, the captain with his troop at another. There are seldom less than fifty or sixty persons at each board, but, as I said before, not more than three or four knives.

I must not here omit that the first course at a Manks. feast is always broth, which is served up, not in a soup-dish, but in woollen piggins, every man his mess. This they do not eat with spoons, but with shells, which they call sligs, very like our mussel shells, but much larger.

Christmas(74) is ushered in with a-form much less meaning, and infinitely more fatiguing. On the 24th of December, towards evening, all the servants in general have a holiday, they go not to bed all night, but ramble about till the bells ring in all the churches, which is at twelve a-clock; prayers being over, they go to hunt the wren, and after having found one of these poor birds, they kill her, and lay her on a bier with the utmost solemnity, bringing her to the parish church, and burying her with a whimsical kind of solemnity, singing dirges over her in the Manks language, which they call her knell; after which Christmas begins. There is not a barn unoccupied the whole twelve days, every parish hiring fiddlers at the public charge; and all the youth, nay, sometimes people well advanced in years making no scruple to be among these nocturnal dancers. At this time there never fails of some work being made for Kirk Jarmyns; so many young fellows and girls meeting in these diversions, nature too often prompts them to more close celebra tions of the festival, than those the barn allows; and many a hedge has been witness of endearments, which fear of punish ment has ' afterwards made both forswear at the holy altar in purgation. An Twelfth-day the fiddler lays his head in some one of the wenches laps, and a third person asks, who such a maid, or such a maid shall marry, naming the girls then present one after another; to which he answers according to his own whim, or agreeable to the intimacies he has taken notice of during this time of merriment. But whatever he says is as absolutely depended on as an oracle, and if he happens to couple two people, who have an aversion to each other, tears and vexation succeed the mirth. This, they call, cutting off the Fiddlers head ; for after this, he is dead for the whole year.

This custom still continues in every parish, and if any young lad or lass was denyed the privilege of doing whatever came into their heads, they would look on themselves as infinitely injured. This time is indeed their carnival, and they take, and are allowed more liberties, than methinks is consonant with their strictness in other cases.

The young men here are great shooters with bows and arrows.(75) There are frequently shooting matches, parish against parish, and wagers laid which side shall have the better.

As for public shows, there are none of any kind exhibited in this Island, so that the only diversion of the better sort of people is drinking, which indeed they have an excellent opportunity to indulge; the best wines, and rum, and brandy, being excessively cheap, by reason, as I before observed, of their paying no custom for it, and a man may drink himself dead without much expence to his family.

They have no fairs(76) worth mentioning, except two, which are kept at Kirk Patrick, the one at Midsummer, and the other just after Michaelmas. To these the good housewives bring thread and worsted of their own spinning to be wove, and here alep you may buy any sort of linen and woollen cloth the country produces, but none else. They sell no trinkets at these fairs,- as at the English ones, nor much eatables, besides butter and fowls, which commodities are' brought in creels, a sort of baskets made of straw, which they hang over their horses necks, in the manner of panniers, and will contain a great quantity.

As to their horses,(77) they are generally fleet, but small, and very hardy; they wear no shoes, eat no corn, nor ever go into a stable: but when they come off a journey, tho' the weather be ever so bad, are only turned loose to graze before their doors, o'r in an adjoining field.

Nor are their owners of much less hardy constitutions; the greatest part of them, of both sexes, go barefoot, except on Sundays, or when they.are at work in the field, and have then only small pieces of cows or horses hide at the bottom of their feet, tyed on with packthread, which they call carrans. Their food is commonly herrings and potatoes, or bread made of potatoes; for, notwithstanding the great plenty of salmon, cod, eels, rabbits, and wild fowl of all sorts, the ordinary people either can not, or will not afford themselves any thing else. They are, however, exceeding strong; I have seen a little woman tuck up her petticoats, and carry a very lusty man on her back thro' the river, and this they frequently do for a piece of money, the water being too deep for any but the natives to pass on foot.

Angling and shooting would be agreeable diversions for gen tlemen here, were not the air so extremely cold and aguish. 'Tis certain that there is not a place in the known world which affords finer fish: I have seen eels of six foot long, and salmons(78) of between four and five foot, and wonderfully sweet and luscious: nor is their wild fowl inferior to any, especially the woodcocks and teal. They have also a kind, which I never heard of anywhere else; it is called a puffen,(79) and is of a grey colour, with a white breast, somewhat bigger than a tame pigeon, and is good food to be eat fresh, only is too fat, and has something of a fishy taste; but is excellent when potted or pickled, and will last good for a whole year. These birds are taken in a place, called the Calf of Man, where they breed in great quantities in the holes of the rocks. They both fly, and swim and dive in the water like ducks. The best time for taking them, is in the latter end of July, and the beginning of August.

Rabbits(80) are in such plenty, especially in the months of August and September, that they may be bought for a penny a-piece, returning the skins, which are the perquisite of the Earl of Derby, and given to his steward, who sends them to England and Ireland by persons who come over every year, on purpose to import them.

But see the herring fishery(81) is the most talked on abroad of any thing appertaining to this Island, I believe my reader will be surprised that I have so long been silent on that head: To comply therefore with his expectation, and discharge, as well as in me lies, the duty of an historian, I shall give as perfect an account of it as possible.

Tho' herrings are taken all round this Island, yet the main body of the fisher-boats goes out from Port Iron, where the fishermen are attended by a clergyman, who joins with them in a solemn form of prayer, on the sea-side, to Almighty God, that he will be pleased to favour Their undertaking, and bless their nets with plenty. 'Tis the opinion of many learned men, that there is no created being on earth, of which there is not a similitude in the sea, and the creatures which I have sometimes seen brought up with the herrings, seem to confirm the truth of this conjecture, Nothing is more common than for their nets to be broke with the weight of a fish, which they call a sea-calf; and, indeed, in the head and all the upper parts, differs nothing from those we see in the field. But what does them the most damage is the dog fish, which, by reason of its largeness, tears the nets in such a manner that they lose the herrings thro' the holes, and bring up no other prize than that of which nothing but the skin is of any value. This was so great a grievance, that formerly they put up publick prayers in all the churches, that the dog fish might be taken from them; after which they lost their whole trade, for the dog fish was taken from them, but with it the herrings also, neither of them coming near their seas all that season: on which they changed their tone, and prayed with more vehemence for the return of the dog-fish than they did before for its departure. God was pleased, they say, to listen to their complaint, and on their next going out, sent them both herrings and dog-fish, tho' not in such abundance as before. Whether this is fact or not I will not pretend to say; it how ever, affords a good moral, that we ought not to expect only blessings from the hand of Heaven: some evil must be mingled with the good, to the end we may be more dependent on divine providence; we should else be too apt to forget our duty, and perhaps, look on the comforts we receive as our due, and the just reward of our actions.


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