Picture of George Head

George Head

places mentioned

The west coast of the Isle of Man

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A Ride to Peel Town—Agriculture—St. John's Tynwald Mount—The Ceremony of Tynwald—The Fair—Peel Town—Fishermen—The Quay—Peel Castle—Old Tom—An ingenious Expedient—The Cavern.

THE perambulation of the Isle of Man is better performed, walking excepted, on the back of a horse, than in any other way. The mode usually adopted by strangers, is, joining in a party of three or four, to drive together in an open vehicle, by a route which is said to be, par excellence, round the island, but which route, from causes already adverted to, is very far indeed within its extreme periphery. At the present time, speaking literally and accurately, as to a road round the Isle of Man, there is no such thing. Two-horse stage coaches, starting three or four times a week, perform regular journeys between all the principal towns, and carriages as aforesaid are let out on hire; but the times are not yet ripe for the luxury of a Manx postchaise.

Having selected, from among a dozen or more tolerably good hacks, arranged together in a row in the stalls of the principal livery stable, the animal that pleased me best, I got upon his back at Douglas, and made my way quietly and at my leisure along the road to Peel Town, situated on the opposite coast, eleven miles distant directly in a straight line across the island. The road, which is all the way Macadamised, rises immediately from the town, and pursues its course over uneven hilly ground, although the altitude of the acclivities might easily be reduced were the pains and expense usually adopted in England here employed to that end; in fact, the whole of this tract, after all, in reality lies low, so as from a ship at sea, as before observed, to be hardly perceptible. On both sides of the road, is a range of low, round, grassy mountains, the land about their bases being divided by stone walls in fields, which are partially cultivated nearly to the top. Small as are the mountains, as regards the prospect, the country deserves the name of a mountainous district, since it makes little difference in ordinary cases, whether hills be high or low—whether the spectator comprehends the whole outline of a smaller range, or stands among the towering Apennines and views only a part. The grass, the farmers say, on these hills is sour, and so in fact it is, for want of sufficient stock; nevertheless the range is ample, and the breed of sheep small and hardy, although hitherto unassisted by winter keep, or encouraged to breed on the pastures in sufficient abundance.

Within the base of these mountains, on both sides of the road, is a considerable extent of cultivated land, whereof the soil is probably the poorest in all the island. The style of agriculture is consequently slovenly, so much so, that in many places the farmers merely scratch with the plough the middle of the field, and leave for a headland a space all round as wide as an ordinary turnpike road. Want of capital generally prevails; and the landholders, almost one and all, are induced to become the more careless, inasmuch as a great part of their time and care is devoted to the herring fishery. The hay is made as in the north of England, or in Ireland, and allowed, after being cut, to remain on the ground long enough to spoil by the evaporation of the juices; a miserable practice, whereby the poor cattle are the main sufferers. One excellent and striking example of good farming in the midst of this bad system, has been laid before the Manx farmers by a Scotsman. I observed one entire farm not far from Peel Town, where, solely by attention and good management, the aspect of the land is altogether changed, and the whole extent of the domain marked by very superior neatness and care. The fields are thrown open, the fences improved, and the ordinary quantity of live stock much increased; it were only to be wished that the land in this part were by its quality able, as for the present it is not, I fear, to repay this individual's exertions.

Nine miles from Douglas, and two miles from Peel Town, is the small village of St. John's, a point whence two roads branch off, the one to the north and the other to the south, being those before alluded to, that form what is incorrectly called the circuit of the island: at this spot the traveller necessarily finds himself while on his way, as far removed as two miles from the sea.

Here is to be seen the ancient Tynwald Mount, whereon, from time immemorial, the laws of the island have been at regular periods promulgated to the people; without which ceremony, the laws so promulgated, even at the present enlightened age, are not valid. The dimensions of the mount, and the proceeding altogether, is a remnant of Saxon barbarism, which it seems strange should have been permitted at all after the existence of steam navigation. At present the representative of royalty performs an exhibition in the open air, more in character with his majesty of Norwood; and a grave legislative body discharge primeval functions, better fitted to those related of the savages in the pages of Captain Cook. Such is literally the case; and though on these occasions a country fair is held at the same time and place, the days of Tynwald are regularly advertised in the provincial newspapers. The governor of the island proceeding thither in state, attended by the house of keys, his parliament, the deemsters or judges, and the bishop, the cortege, after attending divine service in a small adjacent chapel, an humble edifice, from whose gable a tiny, tinkling bell, such as is seen in remote places of worship among our mountain districts, swings iu the open air, take their places on the mount.

The mount is a sort of circular tumulus or mound, with concentric terraces rudely formed and overgrown with grass, rising one above another all the way to the top; that is to say, there are perhaps three or four, for the mount altogether is a mighty diminutive affair, such as might serve for a pedestal for the statue at Charing Cross, or answer the purpose of a pulpit for an itinerant preacher. However, the governor and the whole court, winter or summer, rain or shine, dispose themselves in state thereon. The governor sits on the top in his chair, the rest stand ranged below on the terraces around, and all are equipped in the proper paraphernalia of robes, wigs, and gowns. Keys, council and clergy there stand, if the weather be bad, exposed to the rain, while an ordinary canvass awning, and no more, is stretched between the inclement sky and the person of the governor. The newly made laws are then read to the assembled multitude, in English and Manx.

It must be confessed, that there can be few spots in the world better calculated to afford a prospect of whatever may be transacted thereupon, to a multitude, indefinite in numbers, than the Tynwald mount, for it forms the centre of an amphitheatre of surrounding mountains, that rise one above another in the distance, at the extent of a radius varying from one to two miles in length.

I intended, but was accidentally prevented, to witness the proceedings on the mount, one Tynwald day. When I arrived, the people were busy at the fair, though the authorities had all departed. The assemblage, from their dress and manners, reminded me of the ordinary class of visitors at a fair in the north of Ireland; and indeed, the male population bear much affinity to the Irish in disposition; they are alike kind, and hospitable, independent, and frugal; retaining one special advantage over their Hibernian neighbours, that of being less addicted to intemperance. Here was to be seen a crowd of quiet, decently dressed, country people, some with eggs and butter to sell, others leading cows here and there, backwards and forwards, by straw ropes in quest of a purchaser, or vending potatoes swung on the back of a horse in straw panniers; but all, if not looking on and acting the part of "a sweetener" in a neighbour's bargain, at least earnestly engaged in driving one of their own, or minding their own business. Matters nevertheless were being conducted on a small scale, for all the live stock in the fair might be comprised in a dozen rough yearling, or two year old colts, and a score of small horned cattle. "What of the laws that were read to-day?" said I to a peasant as he was grappling the nose of a calf and urging it forward through the crowd, at the same time twisting with the other hand the reeling animal's tail. "What of the laws?" said he repeating my words impatiently, and turning away his attention entirely to the calf. "Ay," said I, "I suppose you heard all that was read at the mount?" "Oh pack of stuff," said he, "'twas about potatoes." His tone of voice at the same time declared plainly that he troubled himself little in the concerns of the legislature; and. moreover, many the Manx rural swain at the present day, were he called upon to say whether England's prime minister were Whig or Tory, no doubt in like manner is unable to answer the question.

The awning on the mount, under which the governor had recently sat, was merely a rough piece of canvass supported on poles, certainly by no means so well fashioned, as in England is afforded to the spectators at a cricket match, or by the landlord of a rural pothouse to the frequenters of his skittle-alley.

On leaving St. John's, a prospect is within a short distance obtained of the broad sea, and on arriving at Peel Town, indications are at once manifest of a neat, lively, compact, fishing establishment. Whether farmers or fishermen, it is pleasing to see men existing in a state of full occupation, and here the inhabitants are so active and stirring, that each seems to think and act, just as if the town and all that is in it belonged to himself. One may frequently see, at the height of the fishing season, three hundred little fishing vessels at one time in the harbour, and on the present day, the quay was crowded with small craft of different descriptions. Here, side by side, were the single masted Manx boat, and the Cornish fisherman's sturdy two-masted lugger, which in piscatory excursions include within their ocean range the shores of Ardglass on the coast of Ireland; and soaring preeminent above these, the red vane of the Liverpool herring merchant's top masted sloop, floated in the breeze. By the latter vessels, the fish are taken to England to be cured, a practice which renders them inferior in the market, and which is likely to be discontinued, since curing houses, of which formerly there were none on the spot, are now in progress of being built.

Notwithstanding the appearances of business, the Manx men, like people in all parts of the world, find time for grumbling. They say the smoke and whizzing of the steam-boats has frightened away the fish, and owing to that cause alone they declare that the herrings are not near so abundant as formerly. But I think it may be presumed, that so long as the Cornish fishermen leave their own homes to fish on these distant grounds, their presence is in some wise a criterion towards an opposite conclusion. The life of a fisherman, notwithstanding all their hardships, so long as, poor fellows, they have capital, is independent and exhilarating; for at one and twenty he is his own commander, and the privilege of apprenticeship, is a roving commission over the British dominions. His boat his castle, self-will sitting at the helm, directs its course over the manor of the wide sea. In authority, moreover, over few subjects indeed, he enjoys at any rate supremacy, for even though three or four red worsted night-caps cover the heads of all his crew, no man on board dare dispute his will, more than were his commands uttered through the speaking trumpet of some tall admiral.

The boats in the river form a still more dense cluster, inasmuch as the very small stream, from its limited dimensions, contains little harbour space. On the opposite bank, the green hills above are converted to a drying ground for the nets, which generally are spread over the grass to a considerable extent, and cartloads are frequently arriving on the quay, to be ferried across for the same purpose. Seaward, the bold bluff coast to the north terminates by a headland not unlike that of Dungeness in Kent; but the magnificent rock at the mouth of the river, and the noble old castle that stands thereon frowning over the waters, engage one's whole attention. The aforesaid rock, the site of Peel Castle, celebrated by Scott in Peveril of the Peak, is an island, whereof the sea only a few years since washed every part of its base. For the protection of the harbour, a wedgelike wall, or mound of stone, has since been built, so as to connect it with the main land, and to form together with the rock a continued bank of the river. On the opposite side, the said wall forms the head of a sandy shelving little bay, where the sea, clear as crystal, and sheltered by the rock and castle on one side, and by the high land rising abruptly from the water's edge on the other, affords a spot as lovely for the purposes of bathing, were it to be so appropriated, as the imagination can conceive.

My chief object at present being to see the interior of the venerable castle, I had previously been in search of the personage entrusted with the keys, and the result of my expedition transported me to this spot for the purpose of being ferried across to the rock, whither the aforesaid functionary, whether governor, seneschal, or what not, but universally known throughout the whole town, by the name of "Old Tom," had already proceeded. As no admittance to the castle can possibly be gained without "Old Tom," I had gone in the first instance to his private dwelling, whence I heard he had only a few minutes before departed to the castle in charge of a party.

Stepping now into a boat, the boy, handling a single oar at the stern like the tail of an eel, sculled me in a few turns of the wrist across the river, whence I landed on the rude naked rock, the remnant of an ancient flight of steps, of which it is now difficult to distinguish those artificial, from the work of nature. Above, the ancient door of massive timber in good preservation, being wide open, I walked in.

"Old Tom" was at this time engaged in doing the honours of his vocation to some half dozen persons, male and female, whom he was haranguing with consequential demeanour, leading the way by turns to the ruins of the guard-room haunted by "the spectre hound," and thence to the sally-port whence "the Countess of Darby" as he said, "made her escape with her sarvant maid Fenella," and thence afterwards to the dungeon or crypt, an oblong vault, supported by thirteen pointed arches, now nearly filled up by earth and rubbish, within whose dreary walls, the Duchess of Gloucester ended her days under the gaolership of Sir John Stanley. Upon all these reliques of antiquity "Old Tom" dwelt with a precision that savoured of former military habits, and a prolixity, much increased by the too liberal aid of whiskey; and upon every point of authority, he quoted Sir Walter Scott, as if neither before nor since, there ever existed another historian. For himself, "forty years had he been" he said "in his Majesty's service," which assertion, as he wore an artillery coat on his back, and had only one eye in his head, was in point of fact the more likely to be true. Whatever became of his lost eye, old Tom never declared the story to his hearers; if not poked out by the enemy's bayonet, it probably perished suddenly by the explosion of gunpowder; indications of violence were however indisputably evident, of some sort or other, for the job was as it were after all only half performed, and done badly; that is to say, the empty socket looked as if the crows that plucked out part of the eye, had left the remainder.

Upon all matter of circumstantial narration, the visitors now present seemed to place implicit credence; neither are the means at hand available to counteract old Tom's testimony; no ancient inscription, not even a single letter remains on the walls, or on any part of the ruins to afford information; the entire building meanwhile, as regards the state of preservation, being rather more dilapidated than Rochester Castle in Kent. Within two unroofed chapels appertaining to the domain are several tomb-stones of modern date, in memory of shipwrecked persons, who, according to custom under such contingencies, have there from time to time been buried; obsequies, humble as they may appear, paid to the dead nevertheless at the expense of no little trouble and toil to the living; for not only is the ceremony performed in a spot particularly exposed to the wind and the rain in tempestuous weather, but the corpse, mourners, and clergyman, are all necessarily previously ferried thither across the river in a boat.

The aspect of the tilting yard covered by a light green carpet of vegetative sward, such as, though commonly seen within ancient castles, is never equalled by art either in the lawn or bowling green, fronts the western sea, on a spot elevated and unsheltered, based on the rugged rock, whose area is altogether about four English acres; whence the waves of the sea below, in stormy weather bounding far above the summit into the air, sweep across to windward in incessant clouds of mist and spray. Here in sunshine and in summer it is delightful to sit and listen to the roar of the waves, to inhale the fragrant freshness of the sea, and observe how upon the surface of the weather beaten ruins, the tempest and the hurricane have by degrees effected a change, which in somewise assists and cooperates with the destroying hand of time. The wind and the rain, acting upon the broken walls, as well as upon heaps of the fallen material, have here and there invested the surface with a coating of sand, shell, and soil, whereupon herbage has subsequently sprung, till the whole has become an indistinct mass, and almost indeterminable whether it be now formed of earth or stone. Sufficient probably by and by, after a lapse of years, to puzzle the antiquary. Of such examples there are many, but of one in particular, a sort of oblong, elevated grave-stone, surrounded on three sides by a rude continuous seat, I must take more especial notice; for the above structure, covered by a coating of herbage produced by the causes aforesaid, though it might very well be mistaken for an hundred years old, was altogether raised by old Tom himself only a few years ago, and is a striking instance, how, in matters of antiquity, trivial causes, if unknown and unrecorded, may in time possibly become confounded with more important agency.

From the site of this edifice or mound, salubrious and airy, only a few yards removed from the verge of the lofty rock, is had an uninterrupted view of the sea, and here is a spot long since chosen whereon to spread a table and display their viands, by the picnic parties who in the summer think proper to visit Peel Castle, on their tour round the island. For these assemblages of persons, consisting of various and different descriptions of company, Old Tom accordingly partly provided for the revelry, furnishing especially a deal table and chairs without delay to all who required them. Irishmen in particular were used here to congregate, and hold wassail amid clouds of tobacco, till becoming more and more elevated, owing to the thin air or the whiskey, or enlivened by early associations connected with the enchanting prospect in clear weather before them, of the shores of old Ireland, it invariably happened some how or other in the end, that they always grew riotous and noisy. Thence it followed inevitably, when the liquor was expended, and the fact is attested by woeful experience of the purveyor, the furniture being light, and the fists of the revellers heavy, that whatever consequences otherwise ensued, at any rate the wooden tables and chairs, as sure as a gun, were smashed at the close of the entertainment. Some choice spirit or other, whether John Bull, Sandy Anderson, or Paddy from Cork, no matter, somebody however, predestined, like Ascanius of old to demolish the tables,

"Heus etiam mensas consumimus inquit lulus"

with a big thump and a crash accordingly brought matters always to the aforesaid conclusion. Old Tom, merely by the help of his one eye, at once perceived that reform was necessary, and that to meet the wants of his company, and suit the interests of his pocket as regarded tables and chairs, wood was altogether too fragile a material. Thus driven to resources, he invented a substitute, such as I have already adverted to, whereby from the ruins of the castle, disposed in suitable array, he completed a table and seat of stone, and overlaid the same with turf, which, since pelted by the weather, already bears semblance of antiquity; and in after ages, long after old Tom's eye has ceased to wink, may perhaps be mistaken by the learned, for the tomb of some doughty warrior.

After viewing the castle, I returned to the boat, and rowing out of the harbour, entered a cavern, which perforates the rock for a long way under the foundations of the castle. This cavern is celebrated in Waldron's history of the Isle of Man, for emitting a hollow subterraneous sound, produced by the waves of the sea, which re-bellow within, and enter roaring at its mouth. Sir Walter Scott, in Peveril of the Peak, alludes also to the same property of the cavern, the site of which, by the way, he sometimes confounds with that of Castle Rushen, twelve miles distant. As the day was clear, and the sea particularly calm, I was enabled to enter the aperture, a low arch resting upon the sea, wherein the spring and buoyancy of the wave is so elastic, that it was with the greatest difficulty the boat was prevented from being beaten to pieces against the rocks. I should be sorry to repeat this experiment; and after all, when within there is little to see; however, the sound produced by the gurgling water within, was really extraordinary. The cavern is, perhaps, a score of feet in length, and a dozen feet high, ending in a chasm or channel, through which, as regards its size, one might drag the carcase of a dead bullock. Within this aperture, a volume of water, as the wave rises, rushes forwards for a long way with furious force, and as it falls, is disgorged back again, through the bowels of the rock; thus sobbing at intervals, like the sound of a multitude of animals, the roaring of an hundred lions. Far within, in the distance, and in a line, evidently reaching under the castle, a guttural sound, stifled as it were for want of egress, increases by degrees, till it bursts forth at its mouth like the crash of a falling forest, or the din of a cataract. During the short time I remained within the cavern, the boat was lifted up and down by an exceedingly violent motion, whence the sides of the rock, by the friction of the waves, and their continual action, are rendered as polished as marble.

George Head, A Home Tour through various parts of the United Kingdom (London: John Murray, 1837) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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