Keeill number twelve.
With kind permission of Mr John Cannell, Ballacarnane.
On yet another wet Manx morning, we made our way out to Ballacarnane Farm, a site sitting high above the Peel to Kirk Michael Road with a magnificent view down the coast to Peel. We were there to visit the remains of the Ballacarnane keeill but we were in for a very pleasant surprise, being fortunate enough to have a guided tour from Mr John Cannell, the landowner himself.
Mr Cannell’s family have farmed Ballacarnane for over 500 years (one of only three families in the Island who have farmed the same land for that length of time). He was a wealth of knowledge and an anthology of stories, spoken in a guttural Manx dialect that is so rare these days, his use of dialect words in conversation was worth the visit alone! We were a willing audience and could happily have stayed all day.
Mr Cannell told us of a relative, also a Mr John Cannell, who had been the focus of a press gang attempt in Peel in the early part of the 19th century. Mr Cannell was stronger than the men from the press gang and threw one of them in the harbour, he ran back to Ballacarnane and spent a month living in the scrub in a field with views across to Peel, waiting for the boat of the press gang anchored in the harbour to leave. The injured party from the press gang found of his whereabouts and came to Ballacarnane to give Mr Cannell his comeuppance, however, it didn’t pan out the way he had wanted to and it is said that this poor gentleman came off worse and is buried under the foundations of the ‘new’ farmhouse! The murder weapon is still in the possession of the Cannell family, carved with the initials and the date. You can imagine, it was easy to forget why we had come to visit in the first place.
The farm itself is full of history; there are carvings of ‘Nickeys’ (Manx slang for a fishing boat) in the door of one of the outbuildings, etched by the fishermen generations ago who came to work on the farm in exchange for their board and lodging when the fishing wasn’t in season. Mr Cannell was kind enough to take us to see the second ‘chapel’ on his private land, Kerrowglass Wesleyan Methodist Church which was built by John Cannell (an ancestor of the current Mr John Cannell), in 1833 on Ballacarnane land. Although it appears very isolated in 2016, it originally served quite a large community with many more families living on the uplands: in 1851 it had an average attendance of 60. When the chapel closed in 1963, the family locked the doors, leaving it as it was at the last service. We really did enjoy visiting this little chapel as much as we did visiting the keeill itself.
So, let’s get back on track, there are too many wonderful diversions at Ballacarnane.
The Keeill, what do we know about it?
The keeill at Ballacarnane is one of just six that are known to have existed in the parish of Kirk Michael, only two of these have visible remains in 2016, the other is Cabbal Pherick at Spooyt Vane. The remains sit very close to the current farm house on an outcrop of rocks 200ft. above sea level, known as Cronk ny Killey (Hill of the Keeill).
The keeill is one of many that have no known dedication and it is surrounded by a burial ground. In 2016, little stonework is visible except for one large stone at the entrance to the ruin which had at one stage been removed and put in a hedge but was replaced by the current owner’s father in as close a position as he could get to where it was originally.
Mr Cannell told us that many years ago, the owner of Ballacarnane, a distant relative, decided to destroy the burial ground surrounding the keeill by pulling up the large stones and his seven sons assisted him in this, his one daughter and her mother were very against the idea. Within a year, all seven sons and the father had died.
The farm was left to the remaining child, the daughter, who married a Cannell from the adjoining farm and continued the family line at Ballacarnane. There are many stories of similar happenings in connection with these ancient holy sites; exactly the same story was said of Keeill Coonlagh at Ballachonley Farm, in the parish of Jurby, it is told that the seven sons died after completely destroying the keeill and the daughter was left the farm (Third Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey, Kermode), it’s always the women with the common sense!
Alan Radcliffe from Ballayockey Farm, Regaby, told me recently that after the Ardonan Keeill was destroyed in the 1950’s, the gentleman who had taken the structure apart was badly injured by his own tractor. Even in the mid twentieth century it was blamed on his part in the destruction of the keeill.
It seems that superstitions such as these were a real problem for the survey team. In the Third Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey it is written:
It is unfortunate that the superstition which prevents the orderly examination of some of these Keeills for the purpose of placing on record, for the information of those who come after us, such particulars as may still be gleaned of their character, structure and appearance, and of bringing to light any monuments buried in their ruins, has in no case availed to prevent their total ruin and subsequent destruction. These monuments and remains are all the evidence which has come down to us of the history of the people by whom they were erected, and of the conditions under which they lived, and even if the refusal to allow of their proper exploration were likely to preserve them, which it certainly is not, to keep them buried beneath the surface, and forbid their examination for the purpose of record, is as useless as to cart them away. We can only hope that in course of time, as the results of our work become better known, we may meet with more general support in this respect, and that a more active interest will be taken in the proper preservation of the little that does remain.
The Cannell family are determined that the keeill should not be disturbed (and can you blame them?). I was surprised to find that it had been archaeologically surveyed for the Third Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey around 1911. Many thanks to Ean Cannell who kindly shared with me a photo showing the survey team alongside Mr John Quirk Cannell who farmed there at the time:
What did they find?
P.M.C. Kermode and his team found the foundations in a ‘ruinous state’, most likely not helped by the attempts to destroy the site made by the ‘doomed’ sons and father a couple of centuries earlier! Only the south east original corner remained although the dimensions were ascertained through following the lines of the walls which were still traceable, the inside measurements were around 12-12ft. 9in. by 9-10ft. The walls were between 30in. and 48in. high and built of undressed shore boulders without mortar, the lower course internally were faced with slabs set on edge, some of which remained in situ. The doorway was in the west wall and there was a step down to the paved floor, of which only two or three stones remained, a sill stone of a window in the east wall was found at 3ft. 6ins. from the floor height. Hundreds of white shore pebbles were also found.
Mr John Quirk Cannell had no recollection of the enclosure which was gone before his time.
Ballacarnane was visited by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1956 and more recently as part of an excursion for the Praying the Keeills event. We should be glad that Mr John Quirk Cannell was able to put his superstitions behind him to allow Kermode and his team to excavate for the benefit of recording the keeill for the nation.
Nicola and I really enjoyed our visit to Ballacarnane, Mr Cannell’s stories told us of an area of land rich in history and his connection to it was felt by both of us. Culture Vannin filmed Mr Cannell talking to myself in the summer of 2018 at Ballacarnane, telling his stories in the way that only he can, it was a wonderful day and one I won’t forget! Characters like Mr John Cannell are few and far between and it was pleasing to be part of preserving something well worth preserving, thank you Culture Vannin (www.culturevannin.im).
Whatever happened to the poor seven sons at Ballacarnane; epidemic? bad luck? or the consequence of destroying a sacred site?! We will never know..
but just in case, if you have a keeill on your land – take good care of it!
Please be aware that these sites are, unless noted as being otherwise, on private land and can only be accessed with permission from the landowner.