Keeill number nineteen.

Ballawoods Keeill sits just off the Raad ny Foillan public footpath at Santon Gorge.

Santon Gorge is where the Santon Burn enters the Irish Sea, its steep sides mean that the rather lovely beach is visited mainly by kayakers but it is possible to climb down (not with young children) and is a great place to spend a summer afternoon.  Sitting at the entrance to Santon Gorge looking out to sea is a promontory hill fort at Cass-ny-Hawin (Foot of the River) thought to date from Viking times, sitting inland just a five minute walk from the hill fort is the Ballawoods Keeill.

As you can see, the area has a lot to offer.


You can get to Santon Gorge and the keeill either by following the Raad ny foillan (Way of the Gull) footpath from Douglas in the direction of Castletown or by following the public footpath on the left hand side between The Blackboards and Ballasalla and crossing a couple of fields past Ballawoods Farm.  When you arrive at the very picturesque river, if you follow the footpath to the right, you will find the keeill just over a wall sitting on the west bank of the Santon Burn. Those early Christians knew how to pick a good location – easy access, a water supply with good fishing nearby, a site with great visibility and a lovely view.


We visited on a day when the sun shone high in the sky, the sea was aquamarine and the gorse a golden yellow, the area felt vibrant.  I have to say that not every day is like that on the Isle of Man, it made a pleasant change.



The Ballawoods Keeill (called ‘Ronaldsway’ in the Sixth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey), sits in the Treen of Kyrke Mychell which suggests a possible dedication to St. Michael (Place Names of the Isle of Man, J. J. Kneen, 1925).

The chapel is a large example at about 28ft by 12ft, although the remaining walls are only about 2ft high at most, the footprint of the structure is still visible as is the entrance in the west gable facing what would have been the altar.  Unfortunately, someone has been enjoying a BBQ in the corner of the keeill, I’m hoping the stones used to make this were taken from the wall alongside and not from the structure itself!


The Sixth Report tells us that there is no early mention of the keeill and its burial ground with the earliest record being its inclusion in the 1870 O.S. map when it was marked ‘chapel and Burial Ground (remains of)’.  Having read and re-read the account of the visit to the Arbory and Malew ancient monuments by the Archeological Commission in 1877, they seem to have completely missed the Ballawoods Keeill even though they walked out to visit the nearby fort at Cass-ny-Hawin which seemed quite an oversight.  It gets even more strange when you start reading the section on ‘Ronaldsway Keeill’ in the Sixth Report published in 1966:

An excursion of N.H.A.S. visited the site in September 1917 (Proc. N.H.A.S. II, No. 2. p. 97) when the leader, P. M. C. Kermode, pointed out the ‘keeill on the Treen of Kyrke Mychell, which had just been excavated… it contained an almost perfect altar built of limestone ashlars’.  No other mention or account of this excavation has been traced, though a photograph of the work in progress is in the files of the Manx Museum Library.  It is surely an oversight that Kermode in his next reference to the keeill (List, 1930, p.74) speaks of it as a buried ruin.

…On the new O.S., 6in., 1957, it is unfortunate that some details of the site have been omitted in order to accommodate lettering, but the relative archaeological field card reports the site as a grass covered mound, with gorse on its eastern (sic) part; some walls forming the remains of the chapel, are 3 ft. high.  In addition, there are stated to be signs of ‘some industrial activity’, but these are not further described and cannot now be identified.

Mr J. R. Bruce visited when preparing the Sixth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey(1966) and describes the condition he found it in.  He found the burial ground to be about 150 ft. by 80 ft., much of the groundwork, if any remained, was hidden under the thick cover of gorse but he did find a low ridge of earth 30 ft. to 40 ft. in length running north to south and marking a boundary of the burial ground.


He found the keeill to be ‘constructed in the usual way’ with walls of earth and stones faced on the inside with roughly dressed blocks.  The interior of the keeill was 28 ft. by 12 ft. although he thought that a number of lengths of stone had been ‘robbed’ over time.  Bruce thought that the excavations in 1917 by Kermode had been responsible for the levelling of the floor of the keeill, the walls stood to around 2 ft. in places.  The altar, built of limestone blocks, stood around 10 inches high by 4 ft. 3 ins. wide and sat ‘off centre’ towards the south.  The entrance was found in the west gable.

It was mentioned that many stones had slipped down the steep slope towards the river and that although there was an obvious marked burial ground, there were no records of burials having been found on the site.  There was a well shown on the old OS map but this had become only a ‘wet place at the head of a little tributary stream’ by the time of the visits by J. R. Bruce.

Two photographs taken from the Sixth Report show the site looking very similar to how you find it in 2016:


I wonder where the information from the Kermode survey from 1917 went to and if it will ever come to light.  I could find very little information on this well visited site.

Update, 30th August 2016.

I have had a real bee in my bonnet over where the Ballawoods survey by Kermode had vanished to so when I was offered the chance by Wendy at MNH to look through the private papers of P. M. C. Kermode (currently catalogued) for that survey and a couple of other bits of information, I was very excited.  I am pleased to say that I found the excavation report, hand written in a booklet (uncatalogued but in box MS08979) and it has shed a bit more light on the keeill.  There is one part of the report that I found the handwriting particularly difficult to read and so I have left a couple of words out, apologies if there are any errors in the transcription.

The ruins of this keeill, the dedication of which is commemorated in the name of the Treen on which is stands, are to be seen in a sheltered hollow by the Santon River and clse to the old Douglas road which here descends abruptly with an easterly turning.  It is 300 yards south of Ballawoods House and 20 yards west of the stream which forms the boundary between the parishes as well as between the sheadings.

The keeill measures 29ft. by 13ft. The foundations of all the walls are in position.. built with undressed stones with kneaded red clay for mortar and outer face of rather small stones (limestone of the district).  The west and north are 3ft. wide, east and south 4ft.  About a half of the north wall from the east end is on the rock and the foundations go deeper towards the south.

The doorway is in the west gable, about 4ft. from the south corner, measures 4ft.6ins… internally.  It is splayed for a depth of 21ins. where there is a rebate of 6ins. from which it extends outwards square with the wall.  The angle of the splay on the north side is was less; unfortunately, the building here is so ruined that the precise line is not shown, but it looks as though the external opening had been reduced to 2ft. 6ins.  The embankment against the wall is here 4ft. wide but continues sloping to the boundary for another 8ins. and this has been resetted with stones and crossed so as to … cobbled path of entrance with a step of 4 to 6ins. down into the keeill.  Many of the floor paving stones were in position.  25 white shore pebbles were found at the east end and also 8 or 10 roofing slates which seem to show that the keeill has been in actual use until comparatively recent times.

The most interesting feature was the altar at 3ft 6ins. from south wall and 3ft. 7ins. from north wall, which was almost perfect and built of large blocks of limestone carefully fitted; it measured 5ft. 9ins. long by 2ft. 6ins. to 3ft. wide and stood above the floor; it must have been covered by one or more large slabs of which no trace remained.  On the south side the foundations went deeper, to the rock which sloped rapidly in this direction.  The white pebbles found here rather suggest a burial at the south side but if so, no other evidence of it was found.  Above the altar, a stone set across the wall looked like a part of the jamb of the east window but the sill stones had been removed; there had apparently been a splay inwards; the north jamb being about 5ft. from the north wall – there had been a fall inwards as shown by the bedding for the sill stones rising for a height of 3ft. 6ins. above the floor.

Outside, at a distance of 10ft. from the outer face of the south wall taking a line from a point 9ft. from the east end, was found a grave, the top of which (was) at a level of about 12ins. below the floor of the keeill.  It was not coursed by flags or lined with lintels but seemed to have been marked out by small stones, the two largest of which measure 10 by (?) by 2ins., and 12 by 7 by 3ins., over 50 white shore pebbles came from this. 

The little cemetery, like the floor of the keeill, had as regards the southern area had been raised artificially to a level and in a line 15ft. from the outer face of the south wall, taken from a point 18ft. from the east corner, we found a retaining, the foundations extending to a depth of 6ft. below the level of the keeill floor.  This was built of surface stones, the largest being about  10 by 6 by 7ins.; 16 by 7 by 12ins. and 18 by 8 by 12ins.  Eighteen small white pebbles met with in this digging suggested that there had been another burial close to the boundary.  The boundary of the cemetery could be traced round the east, south and west walls, where it was artificially raised to points respectively to 14ft., 15ft. and 9ft.with retaining walls.

Although Bruce writes that burials had not been known on this site, the Kermode survey is important for documenting that some tombs had been found.  I also found it interesting that Kermode thought that the building had been used until relatively recent times.  More information is given in a letter from P. Ralfe (from the IOMNHAS) to Kermode (uncatalogued but in box MS8979 2 of 2), the letter mentions that P. Ralfe had been speaking to a Mrs Kennaugh from Ballasalla who lived when young in the house (perhaps Ballawoods Farm?).  Mrs Kennaugh told him that the ground where bones had been found at the time of the excavation was used as a garden by her father.  Mrs Kennaugh also told Ralfe that the condition of the enclosure on the northern mound, was in ‘just the same condition as now all her life’ and that people considered it to have some connection with the church.

The walls have reduced substantially in height from the time of the Kermode survey and it’s hard to tell if the altar is still in place under some of the loose stones or whether the floor paving is under the grass.

A keeill without much structure left to look at but sitting in an area where there really is so much to see.

Bring some cake and don’t have a BBQ!


What is a keeill?



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