As a change to the annual picnic day this year, it was agreed to enhance the SCA visits programme by accepting a long-standing invitation from SCA members Tom and Sylvia Ashton to visit the Isle of Man.
The Isle of Man (colloquially Mann) has an unusual status politically. It is a self-governing Crown dependency within the British Isles, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, but not part of the United Kingdom or the European Union.
Located between Ireland and Great Britain, Mann has been inhabited for well over 7000 years, and progress was much as for the rest of the British Isles. It was under Viking control from AD798, part of the Scottish Kingdom from 1266, and English from 1344.
In 1405, the Lordship of Mann was granted to the Stanley Earls of Derby, and later to the Dukes of Atholl. The Atholl rights were eventually bought out by the Crown in 1829, when the Lordship became vested in the British monarch.
The Manx Parliament is the oldest parliament in continuous existence in the world, officially 1079, but possibly dating from the 9th century. It is bicameral; the upper house (Legislative Council) consists of the President of Tynwald, the Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Attorney General, and 8 members elected by the House of Keys. The lower house (the House of Keys) is popularly elected and consists of 24 members.
The three-legged triskelion symbol can be traced back to 6th century BC Greece; the legs should be shown running clockwise.
The Manx language is related to Scots and Irish Gaelic.
As there are few castles on the island, we anticipated that this would be a more varied but more relaxed weekend – we were half right. Those flying in from Edinburgh were met at the airport by our hosts, who took us to our hotel. We then went into Castletown, the old Manx capital, for a relaxed afternoon, where we bumped into other members who had travelled separately. We were able to have a good look round the town, and fitted in a brief visit to the Nautical Museum, which was well worth the time, before walking back to our hotel.
In the evening, we were collected by Tom and Sylvia for a reception at their home, overlooking Castletown harbour, to celebrate our arrival and Sylvia's birthday. Although the weather prevented us from making the most of the views, it was an excellent occasion, and thoroughly enjoyed by all.
On a dull, but dry, day, our first stop was St Michael's Isle, by Derbyhaven. Connected to the mainland by a short causeway, St Michael's Isle has the remains of an 11th/12th century stone chapel, probably built on the site of an earlier keeill, which would have been of wattle and daub construction. A short walk from the chapel is Derby Fort, a circular fort of 1540, built as a defence for the harbour.
We returned to Castletown via Hango Hill, site of the execution in 1660 of Illiam Dohne ("Brown-haired William"), a Manx patriot, and a member of the Christian family, which later included Fletcher Christian, of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame.
First stop in the town was the Old House of Keys, first home of the Manx Parliament, until Douglas became the capital in the 1820s. We were able to take part in a "special" sitting of Parliament in the Debating Chamber, as part of an excellent audiovisual presentation. In doing so, we also learnt much of the political history and progress of Mann from the 18th century onward.
Across the road from the Old House of Keys is Castle Rushen, one of the most complete medieval castles in the world. It is a limestone structure, fortifying a strategic point guarding the entrance to the Silverburn River. The oldest parts of the castle are the central square keep and inner courtyard, probably dating from the time of Magnus, the last Viking King of Mann, who died here in 1265. Besieged and taken by Robert the Bruce in 1313, though not held, the castle was extended and embellished in succeeding centuries. It gradually decayed in the 18th century, becoming for a time the island's prison. The decay was arrested at the turn of the 20th century, when restoration work began under the eye of the then Lieutenant Governor, Lord Raglan. The castle was handed over to the Manx Government in 1929.
Leaving the castle, we headed for Cregneash, a small hamlet near the south-western tip of Mann, where we were booked in for lunch. The crofts here look much as they did in the 19th century, although it may have been settled for thousands of years before.
Some of the crofts have been restored as a folk museum, and there are native Loghtan sheep grazing in the fields nearby. More native sheep, and over 260 species of birds, can be seen on the nearby Calf of Man, an islet and wildlife sanctuary off the south west coast.
After lunch we headed for Peel, travelling via Tynwald Hill, the site each July for the Tynwald Court. This was an assembly point in Norse days, and is used today for the annual proclamation of new laws, in English and Manx.
On St Patrick's Isle, in Peel, are the substantial ruins of Peel Castle. The 14th /15th century curtain wall, with a number of watchtowers, encircles the whole of the isle, although the first fortification here was probably built by Magnus of Norway at the end of the 11th century, after he destroyed the existing monastery. Only the ruin of St Patrick's Church and the belfry tower, dating from the 10th /11th century, remain from this earlier period. Entering through the 13th century gatehouse, the visitor (or intruder) is faced with17th century loop-holed walls at right-angles to each other, defending access to hall and armoury. St German's Cathedral, named for the traditional founder of the monastery in the 5th century, is the largest complex of buildings within the castle walls, and was built in 3 stages, from the 12th to 14th century.
Near to Peel Castle is the House of Manannan, an internationally acclaimed museum of the history of the Isle of Man, built in Manx vernacular style on the harbourside at Peel, and opened in 1997. The format is a walk-through history of the island, from early Celtic times to the modern day. One of the exhibits is a two-thirds scale replica Viking ship, "Odin's Raven", built in Norway and sailed to Peel in 1979 to mark the official millennium of Tynwald. At he time of our visit, there was also a small display covering the history of the TT motorcycle races.
After a busy day, we returned to our hotel, before joining with our hosts at The Abbey restaurant, adjoining the ruins of Rushen Abbey, for a convivial evening meal.
Cool, breezy weather was just what was required to clear the cobwebs as we made our first stop at Chapel Hill. Excavation on the site has revealed evidence of prehistoric, Iron Age, Bronze Age and early Christian habitation, including the foundations of a keeill, or chapel, dedicated to St Michael. The most spectacular find was a late 9th/early10th century Viking Ship Burial. When dug out, the boat contained the richly adorned body of a Viking warrior, accompanied by the remains of a woman, plus those of a horse and other livestock.
Windswept, we made our way to Port Erin, where we boarded the Victorian Steam Train to Douglas, the present-day capital of Mann. Established on 1874, this line once formed part of an island-wide network, and at 17 miles is the longest 3ft narrow-gauge railway in the British Isles. A pleasant and relaxing journey in smart, period coaches, which departed and arrived on time (other train operators, take note!).
Driving past Douglas harbour, we saw the remains of the Scottish scallop dredger Solway Harvester, which sank in the Irish Sea in January 2000, with the loss of all on board. The boat was raised in an operation funded by the Manx Government, and is likely to remain in Douglas until continuing legal tangles are unravelled. A sobering moment.
Arriving in the town centre, we boarded the Horse-drawn Tram for a trip along the 2-mile sweep of the Promenade. The service is the oldest of its kind in the world, and has been running continuously (apart from war years) since 1876.
A total of 42 horses, working no more than 2 hours a day, pull one of 23 tramcars.
On retirement, the horses go to a Home of Rest on the outskirts of Douglas.
Most of the buildings past which the tram travels are now hotels, restaurants or private apartments. During the war years the whole Promenade area was fenced off, and residents were given 72 hours to vacate the buildings, so that it could be converted into an internment camp.
Lunch at "Sir Norman's", a restaurant on the Promenade filled with mementoes of a well-loved resident of the island, Sir Norman Wisdom, was followed by a visit to the Laxey Wheel. "Lady Isabella" is the largest working water wheel in the world. Built in 1874, it was designed to pump water from the Glen Mooar section of the Laxey Mines. "Lady Isabella" has a circumference of 227ft, a diameter of 77ft, and was named after the then governor's wife (who may have been less than flattered at the measurements!).
It can pump 250 gallons of water per minute. When in use, the mines were the main British source of zinc blende, and also produced lead ore rich in silver. The mines closed in 1929.
Leaving Laxey, the next stop was King Orry's Grave. This is the largest megalithic monument in the Isle of Man, and is a 170ft chambered burial cairn of Neolithic chieftains. Most of the covering cairn was removed when a roadway cut the site in two long ago. Although it pre-dates him by some 4000 years, it is named after King Orry, or Godred Croven, who conquered Mann in 1079, and reigned for 16 years. His dynasty ruled until the death of Magnus, in 1265. The following year, Mann and the Scottish Isles were formally ceded to Alexander III of Scotland.
Last visit of the day, and the weekend, was for a welcome afternoon tea in the sunshine and a gentle walk round the gardens at the Milntown Estate. The estate was originally created in the early 15th century by John McCrystyn (later Christian) who merged his existing estate with an adjoining one, and renamed the new holding Milntown. The Christian family is said to have descended from Gillochrist, an associate of King Godred Crovan, and a later descendant was William Christian, or "Illiam Dhone" (see earlier reference). Fletcher Christian, of "Bounty" fame/notoriety, also came from a branch of the family. The estate passed from the Christian family in 1886, and in 1963 was bought by Lady Kathleen Edwards. It is now owned and managed by the Milntown trust, formed in 1999 on the death of Sir Clive Edwards, Lady Kathleen's son.
The house is largely Gothic revival in style, from the 1830s, but some parts date back to the early 16th century. The house, and a watermill on the estate, are gradually being refurbished for visitor access.
We returned to our hotel via the mountain section of the TT Course, route of the world-famous motorcycle event, and run on the present road circuit since 1911.
Profuse and grateful thanks go to our hosts, Sylvia and Tom, for a thoroughly enjoyable, varied and exhausting tour of their home island, and for their personal hospitality. There were many thoughts voiced for returning, to revisit some places we wished we had had more time for, and those we had not been able to include.
Many of the places we visited (Old House of Keys, Castle Rushen, Cregneash, Peel Castle, House of Manannan, Laxey) are in the care of Manx National Heritage. Reciprocal arrangements with the National Trust for Scotland allow NTS members free access to these properties.