Keeills and Cake; Ballacarnane Keeill, Kirk Michael.

Keeills and Cake; Ballacarnane Keeill, Kirk Michael.

Keeill number twelve.

With kind permission of Mr John Cannell, Ballacarnane.


On yet another wet morning, we made our way out to Ballacarnane Farm which sits high above the Peel to Kirk Michael Road where we were fortunate enough to have a guided tour of the Ballacarnane Keeill by Mr John Cannell himself.  This was a real highlight of our visits so far for us as 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, and he was a wealth of knowledge.

Mr Cannell was full of wonderful stories about the keeill and the surrounding area including the Manx field names spoken in a guttural Manx dialect that has become so rare these days, he also used many Manx dialect words in conversation that we hadn’t come across before, we were a willing audience and could happily have stayed all day.

Mr Cannell told us of a relative that had been the focus of a press gang attempt in Peel, he 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 his whereabouts and came to fight him, unfortunately he came off worse and it is said he is buried under the foundations of the ‘new’ farmhouse!

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, carved by fishermen who came to work on the farm for their board and lodgings 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 (a relative of the current Mr John Cannell) in 1833 on his farm land, although it seems very isolated there must have been quite a community as 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 enjoyed visiting this chapel as much as we did visiting the keeill!


The Ballacarnane Keeill is one of six that are known to have existed in the parish of Kirk Michael and one of only two that have visible remains in 2016, the other is Cabbal Pherick at Spooyt Vane.  The keeill at Ballacarnane sits 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 chapel has no known dedication and is surrounded by a burial ground which is 200ft above sea level and has a panoramic view all the way down to Peel Castle.  Not much stonework is visible except for a large stone at the entrance 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 around 200 years ago, the owner decided to demolish the keeill and burial ground and his seven sons assisted him in this, the one daughter and the mother were very against the idea.  Within a year, all seven sons and the father had died and the farm was left to the remaining child, the daughter, who married a Cannell and continued the family line at the farm.  We have come across a few stories like this in our research, exactly the same story was said of Keeill Coonlagh at Ballachonley Farm, also in the parish of Michael where it is said 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).  Alan Radcliffe from Ballayockey, told me that after the Ardonan Keeill was destroyed in the 1950’s, the gentleman involved was badly injured by his own tractor and even at that time it was blamed on his part in the destruction of the keeill.  It seems that superstitions  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 have been determined that the keeill should not be disturbed since that time but I was surprised to find that it had actually been surveyed for the Third Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (Kermode) around 1911.  Many thanks to Ean Cannell who kindly shared with me a photo of the survey team with Mr John Quirk Cannell who farmed there at the time:

ballacarnane ean cannell

Kermode and his team found the foundations in a ‘ruinous state’ most likely due to the damage done by the ‘doomed’ sons and father about a century 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 measurement 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 inside with slabs set on edge, some of which remained.  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 an enclosure which was gone before his time.

Plan of keeill at Ballacarnane-Beg with figure of stone pillar at the door and probable position of corresponding pillar at the other side (taken from the Third Report of the Manx Archeological Survey).

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.

Nic and I really enjoyed our visit to Ballacarnane, Mr Cannell’s stories told us of an area of land rich in history and I hope someone has recorded them as they are more than worthy of it.

Whatever happened to the poor seven sons at Ballacarnane, we will never know but just in case, if you have a keeill on your land – take good care of it!


Another place of interest very nearby is the ‘Carnane’, an unhewn stone pillar or Menhir set upright on a little crag facing the sea just before Ballacarnane.  At the base of the rock are some cup marked hollows cut in the rock and a little below, on the face of the crag, is a larger, shallow hollow.  No-one is quite sure what these were for as they are so old but it is suspected they may be something to do with sacrifices for a good harvest or good fishing, the rock is quite imposing sitting right on the crag, so many interesting stories in the landscape (visited with permission from Pherick Curphey).


Find out more about our visits to Manx keeills in 2016.

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.



Keeills and Cake; Keeill Bow, Lezayre.

Keeills and Cake; Keeill Bow, Lezayre.

Keeill number eleven.

With kind permission from Mr Julian Edwards, Ballakillingan.

Skyhill is the modern spelling of Scacafel which is Norse for wooded hill.  This hill near Ramsey was the scene of one of the most famous battles in Manx history where Godred Croven fought the Manx men and took a victory in 1079 that made him Ruler of Man and the Western Isles.  It is hard to be exactly sure of when the keeills date from but it is thought that they were built between 600AD and 1200 AD,  I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a hermit living in the keeill at the time of the battle.

If only the stones could tell stories.

Skyhill and the surrounding areas have played an important part in the history of the Island, in George Quayle’s wonderful book, ‘Legends of a Lifetime’, he talks of the people who lived in the hills around there as if they were a different, much hardier breed, he thought they were:

‘For the most part, a deeply religious people.  To quote the Ettrick shepherd, “a people who saw God in the clouds.”… they were a people of fine physique, their environment saw to this address it required fully developed lungs and stout hearts to wrest a living from these steep and rugged slopes.’

He wasn’t the only one, the Manx poet, T. E. Brown describes them in a similar way in his poem ‘Kitty of the Sherragh Vane’:

 “…for the air is thin
And fine up there, and they sucks it in
Very strong,
Very long,
And mixes it with the mould
Of all their body and all their sowl.”

Kitty of the Sherragh Vane, T. E. Brown.

For a hermit over 1000 years ago, the lifestyle was probably a lonely and uncomfortable one, the Keeill Bow site is very exposed with little shelter as you can see from the windswept trees.  If the intention was to isolate yourself so that your life could be concentrated on a simple existence and feeling closer to God then Skyhill was a pretty good choice of location.  A ‘thin’ place, a ‘thin’ living.

The keeill and surrounding burial ground sits in a field known as ‘Magher ny Hoarn’ meaning ‘field of the graves’ and has been newly fenced by the Manx Museum and National Trust as it is in their guardianship, I found a mention of it in a letter from C. Radcliffe, published in the ‘Manks Advertiser’ in 1826, lamenting the state of the Island’s ecclesiastical antiquities.  In the letter, Radcliffe says;

On the top of Sky-Hill are the remains of Keeill Bow.  From the formation of the word, I should suppose Bow to be the name of some saint Manksified, – but whether St. Buan, or some other, it is impossible to say.

I have found no other mention of this name associated with the keeill but we can assume that was its common name at the start of the nineteenth century so I have decided to use it in this post.

The keeill is quite small measuring only 15ft x 7ft and not so much is visible above ground except for the large stones at the entrance way.  We could see the remains of the lintel grave that was mentioned in the archaeological survey.


The Keeill and burial ground were surveyed as part of the Fourth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey in around 1915.  A read of the survey really helps with understanding the site as it is visually quite confusing.  They found the keeill sitting inside a pear shaped cemetery measuring 23 by 16 yards to the outside embankment which was 6ft. wide at the base.  An entrance at the south is marked by upright stone and a step between them, a path leads from here to the keeill entrance.  There is a similar entrance at the north end of the enclosure also paved with large slabs, another pave leads diagonally from the east side to the centre of the cemetery.  There was a grave found in the centre but nothing was found inside, the grave is marked on the map below and we were able to see it in 2016 (see earlier photo).


At the time of the Kermode survey, the lines of the walls of the keeill were visible although with only two or three courses remaining, it measured 15 by 7ft. and the door was in the south wall.  The original jamb stones in the doorway remained and the base of the altar had survived as two heavy slabs lying on the ground at the east end.  The usual bank of stone and earth against the wall was still visible in places.

skyhilllllllA enjoyable walk up Skyhill in the sunshine, a couple of homemade scones and the wonderful views made this visit a very pleasant one.



What are keeills?