Exploring the Manx countryside in 2016 to find the thirty five keeills that still exist.
Firstly, an introduction to ourselves.
We are Katie and Nicola, two friends living on the Isle of Man who have always loved exploring the Manx countryside (usually with a flask of tea, a lump of cake and my two year old). Although we have visited these small Celtic chapels occasionally over the years, it was not until we went to a talk in 2015 by Andrew Johnson (the archaeologist for Manx National Heritage) that we understood what fascinating buildings they are.
What is a Keeill?
Not much is known about the arrival of Christianity on the Island but it is thought that it arrived with Irish missionaries around 500AD when the pagan Celts were gradually converted to Christianity. The earliest keeills are thought to date from this time. Keeills are often spoken about as being ‘thin places’, places where the gap between earth and heaven is especially fragile, having visited 32 of them at the time of writing this, I can say that certainly some of them have a very distinctive feeling of peace and are wonderful places for reflection. About fifty of the known keeill sits have recorded names, the most popular dedications being the eight keeills dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Keeill Woirrey), six to St. Patrick (Keeill Pherick) and three to St. Matthew (Keeill Vael). Most names were taken from the 1869 O.S. map and only a two or three were recorded earlier than this (‘Manx Church Origins’,Dugdale 1998).
I have taken the information below directly from an introduction to Andrew Johnson’s talk; ‘Manx Keeills: A Reassessment of the Physical Remains of Medieval Chapels on the Isle of Man’:
In all around 174 of these ancient chapel sites have been recorded across the island, although the remains of only 35 can be identified today, generally from the stone bases of their four walls with a gap for the doorway surviving within small enclosures which served as burial grounds.
The chapels themselves would have measured, on average, just 16ft by 10ft and often carved stones bearing crosses or other religious symbols have been found close by.
Their locations include the remote clifftop Lag-ny-Keeilley (‘chapel in the hollow’) near Eary Cushlin in Patrick, Keeill Woirrey (‘St Mary’s chapel’) high on the slopes of North Barrule above the Corany Valley in Maughold, Cabbal Pherrick (‘St Patrick’s chapel’) in the secluded, wooded glade next to the Spooyt Vane (‘White Waterspout’) waterfall in Michael, and no fewer than three sets of foundations in the churchyard at Maughold itself (with possibly two more lying under the present church).
The latter site is thought to have been the main monastery in the island in the early Christian era, though St Patrick’s Isle at Peel must also have been a monastic site as it has an Irish-style round refuge tower later adapted as part of the medieval castle.
Although we cannot be certain when Christianity arrived in the Isle of Man, it was probably by AD500 and during the period when the Celtic monks sometimes known as Culdees – from the Irish Gaelic Celi De, meaning ‘Companions of God’ and often written as ‘Kelidei’ in Scottish Latin sources – were setting off in their hide-covered currachs and coracles from monastic centres in Brittany, Ireland, Wales and Scotland in search of remote locations where they could feel closer to God through nature and by living a simple life without luxury and temptation.
There is also an introduction to Keeills from Professor C J S Marstander who wrote the classic paper on Keeills and Treens in the 1930’s:
Keeills is the standing term for the primitive chapels which once were scattered all over Man to a number of more than 200. The survey goes to show that about 160 such treen-chapels are known at present in the Isle. Even if no keeill now remains intact and as a rule only the foundations are left, one is able to form an idea of their original appearance. They were built of unhewn stones, slabs, earth and rubble, in ancient times, with no other kind of agglutinate than earth or clay, later, shell mortar or cement. The size varies vary considerably. The Ballachrink-keeill in Marown measures only 10′ x 6′ inside. Otherwise they may attain 23′ x 13′ (Keeill Vian, Lonan), even 57′ x 18′ (St; Patrick’s Chapel, Patrick’s Isle), and 75′ x 24′ (St. Trinian’s, Marown). The walls vary in thickness from 2′ 4″ to 4′ 8″ and are, on the outside, protected by an embankment of earth and stones, in height 2′-5′, in depth 4′-10′. The shape is rectangular with no division between nave and chancel. The door which is narrow and tapering towards the top, is usually situated in the western gable. The window—as a rule only one—is built at a height of 2′-3′ above the floor. The altar is invariably placed against the eastern wall, attaining a height of about 2′. Usually the keeill was built upon a natural or artificial elevation in the terrain and had attached to it a burial ground, surrounded by a mound, which in height could reach 5′-6′. The whole plan of the keeill recalls, on a small scale, a rath or a liss, upon which it was certainly modelled.
Andrew Johnson mentioned in his talk, that in the early 18th century, rural architecture in the Island, especially in the north, was very basic and rudimentary. Many houses were made from turf and had very small windows, if any. Often the doorways were filled with ‘gorse’ rather than an actual door.
Over 1000 years earlier, from surveys of the remains of the chapels, we can see that many of the buildings had attempts at useable windows and actual doors set in to hollowed out socket stones. This makes the keeills effectively more advanced architecturally than buildings that were being lived in 1000 years later, this idea which Andrew Johnson had put forward in his talk, made them far more curious places to me.
I found an interesting description of one in the south of the Island in ‘Vestigia Insulae Manniae Antiquiora’ (Oswald, 1860)
On the south aspect of the same range of the Cronk-ny-Eyrey-Lhaa, a mile west from Culby there was a similar ruin, called Keeil-pherik. It stood in the immediate vicinity of the circle of stones described at page 63, as remains of the heathen age. Outside of the entrance to this small chapel, on the south, two conical pillars about four feet high stood, as if pillars of a porch. They were six or eight inches in diameter, and worn quite smooth and round by attrition of some sort, as if from the handling of devotees or visitors.
From sections of windows that have been found at the sites, it would seem that some of these chapels had beautiful painstakingly carved windows, one was found with an opening carved in the shape of a cross. Many windows were situated in the wall to the side of the altar where the casting of light in the shape of a cross would have been very powerful.
Not such unsophisticated structures after all.
Andrew used some examples of vernacular architecture to show what elements of a keeill may have looked like when they were in use, obviously there is no known roof structure but it is assumed it was probably thatch. One of the buildings that was used as an example in the talk was a building from Leodest, Andreas (photo taken from the iMuseum):
We realised that these mysterious and often lonely places could lead us to areas of the Island that we would never see otherwise and we made the decision to attempt to visit the remaining keeills ourselves over 2016. Andrew kindly gave us a list of the keeills with map references and we started our research.
The majority of the keeills were surveyed by Mr P.M.C. Kermode and his team in a large archaeological survey that spanned many years at the start of the 20th century. Philip Moore Callow Kermode was a Manx antiquarian and historian who become the first director of the Manx Museum in 1922 and who had carried out an important study of Manx crosses towards the end of the 19th century. The concept of the Manx Archaeological Survey was to carry out analysis of all the antiquarian sites on the Island, starting with the keeills as he felt they were ‘extremely vulnerable to progress’. Many of the southern keeills were not surveyed until later and were published in the Sixth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey in 1966. Unfortunately, after the keeills, the survey ran out of steam and was never completed. Although many lament the damage done to the keeills due to the rough and ready archaeological methods used at the time, if it wasn’t for the archaeological survey we would have no records of the keeills that have since been damaged or lost. Evidence found at the time can also be re-evaluated using the advancement in knowledge and technology in the 21st century and for this, amongst many other things, we have to be grateful to Mr P. M. C. Kermode and his team of enthusiastic volunteers (photo from imuseum.im):
Although originally we were only doing this for our own interest, we decided to start this blog after a number of friends suggested that it would be a good idea to share our experiences to document the keeills as they are in 2016. We’ve also added information on the keeills themselves that we’ve found, mainly from the Manx Archaeological Surveys, Kermode’s List of Manx Antiquities, the wonderful Manx Notebook site, the iMuseum Newspapers and Periodicals, visits from the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society and various books, just to give a bit more information. I have also started going through the private papers of P. M. C. Kermode (which are currently uncatalogued) at the Manx Museum Library, in the hope of finding ‘new’ information and also solving some of the mysteries I have come across in the archaeological reports.
This is not academic research, we do not pretend to be experts on anything or know much at all about these wonderful places, we are doing this out of curiosity, a love for the Manx countryside, an interest in our Celtic past and for a challenge!
At least 174 sites of keeills have been recorded on the Isle of Man but only 35 can be identified today. Many of the buildings were raised to the ground to save ploughing around them as farming intensified, some were demolished as the stones were valuable building materials and were used in nearby buildings, one was destroyed to stop people visiting the keeill and nearby holy well and one keeill was allegedly demolished as Catholics met in it and the landowner didnt like Catholics (not recently)! Many are long gone but it is surprising the large number that have survived over 1000 years but have been destroyed in recent memory. Below is an extract from ‘A Second Manx Scrapbook’ by W. Gill (1932), that laments the loss of the keeills and mentions a few that were lost not too long ago;
PROGRESSIVE and energetic Manx farmers have done much to hasten the disappearance of fairy hillocks, earthworks of defence and of assembly, stone circles, avenues and alignments, cairns, monoliths, sculptured and inscribed crosses, sacred wells and ancient chapels. Road-makers and menders have lent a hand with the larger stones. It is sad to think that the memory of such conscientious levellers has perished more swiftly than that of most of the anachronisms they abolished ; for men who spent so much pains in improving their farms by clearing away these obstacles to agriculture deserved some permanent memorial of their names. ” James Clague of Ballanorris,” for example, ” removed from a small eminence on the farm the foundations of a small building known as an old chapel, and at the same time removed a dilapidated stone fence enclosing the above, in the interior of which were stone-lined graves containing human remains. The field is well-known as `the Keeilley.’ ” ” On a slight eminence in a field situated on the margin of Poyll Vaaish, Mr. William Taggart, tenant of Poyll Vaaish farm . . . turned up and rooted out the foundation stones of a building pretty well-known as an old chapel, and surrounding same many stone-lined graves containing human remains were also discovered. No remains can now be seen, but the eminence on which it stood is discernible from other parts of the field.” ” In the field immediately North of Rhyn farmhouse traces of a small quadrangular building and an irregular enclosure can be seen. Mr. Thos. Kewley, on becoming proprietor about ten years ago . . . removed the walls of what was pretty generally known as an old Chapel. He states that the ruin was then several feet high and enclosed by a rude fence, the track of which is still visible, forming a small mound.” No burials were discovered here, but ” about 2 chains East a stone cist containing human remains ” was removed.
Messrs. Clague, Taggart and Kewley are but mild types of many hundreds of Manxmen who preceded them, and of not a few since. Some must have done worse. The major antiquities are now protected by the Ancient Monuments Trustees, but only a right understanding can save the remnants of the lesser ones.
There were many superstitions associated with these places and it was often the superstitions that protected them, there are some wonderful stories about the terrible things that happened to people who removed stones or damaged them, so many stories they deserve a post of their own! Bishop Wilson (1798-1655) wrote:
“They have generally hated sacrileges to such a degree that they do not think a man can wish a greater curse to a family than in these words :–Clogh ny killagh ayns corneil dty hie mooar, i.e., “May a stone of the church be found in the corner of thy dwelling-house.” (‘Folklore of the Isle of Man’, Moore, 1891)
As the power of religion and superstitious folklore waned, so the number of keeills diminished.
The majority of keeills are on private land and for most we have had to find the land owners and ask their permission which has been quite a task, many people have helped us with this information and we are grateful to both them and to the landowners for allowing us to enjoy the monuments in their care. We have also had lots of advice from Frank Cowin, Dr Andrew Foxon, Dave Martin, Andrew Johnson and the patient staff at the Manx Museum Library and I’m very grateful to them all. I would also like to thank Bernadette Wyde (www.asmanxasthehills.com) and Sam Hudson for passing on any references and information on keeills that they have come across.
For some keeills there is plenty to write about, others not so much, they are all so very different! If you have any information we can add then please let us know by either commenting on the posts or emailing myself (Katie) at email@example.com. As we came to the end of the list of keeills with probable remains, we extended our visits to ‘sites’ of keeills. Although not expecting to find visible remains, we figure that visiting places you’ve never been before (especially ones with a story), is never going to be a disappointment. To our surprise, we have found remains at a few of these sites. I will be writing these up as posts, even a couple without remains – if there’s enough information on them to tell an interesting story of the land.
The following posts will hopefully be a documentation of the remaining keeills as they exist in 2016. We start with our first visit which was to Keeill Pherick at Ballafreer.
Peace of God and peace of man,
Peace of God on Columb Killey,
On each window and each door,
On every hole admitting moonlight,
On the four corners of the house,
On the place of my rest,
And the peace of God on myself.
Manx charm (‘Manx Church Origins’ 1998, Dugdale).
There is an annual event ‘Praying the Keeills’ that explores many of the Manx keeills each May. You can find more information at http://www.prayingthekeeills.org.
(Writing mainly by Katie, photos by Nic)