Keeill number twenty.
With kind permission from Claire and Brian McKendry, Upper Sulby Farm.
On a bright but windy morning we headed out to Onchan to visit the keeill at Upper Sulby, one of two keeills with foundations still remaining in the Parish of Onchan. In 1892 the IOMNHAS visited this site and found this;
’The chapel lay almost East and West, and measured inside about 24ft by 12ft.; the walls, about 3ft thick, 3.5ft high inside. Traces of a mound surrounding the chapel could be detected. The extent of the ruins had been reduced by a former proprietor when ploughing the “flat” or “Big Meadow”; several “old stones or portions of a sepulchre” had been removed and utilised in building.’ (Y.L.M, 2, p.4)
I had seen a photo of the keeill from the Fifth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey taken in 1935 so we were expecting visible remains:
The landowners had explained how to get to the remains so we made it to the field and started to search, we could see where the boundary hedge was recessed and knew it must be in the vicinity as it had mentioned in the survey that the boundary hedge followed the ancient line of the enclosure or cemetery. The only thing was, we couldn’t see anything resembling a keeill, just one large stone on its own sitting suspiciously near to where my map reference placed the keeill site. So we kept looking.
After fruitlessly searching through the long grass, I gave Brian McKendry a call to see if he could point us in the right direction. Brian has owned the farm for four years and told us of his excitement when he saw he had ‘remains of chapel and burial ground’ on his property, followed by his disappointment when he realised all that remained was a recessed hedge and a large solitary slate stone, he seemed like someone who would really look after an ancient monument so it was a real pity. We had noticed this stone and thought it probably had something to do with the burial ground but in fact it was all that remained of the Sulby Keeill.
The keeill was surveyed by P. M. C. Kermode for the fifth survey around 1918 and although they found a turf mound, they were disappointed to find very little left of the walling that remained:
Scarcely more than two courses being in position anywhere inside, while, of the north wall, even the foundations had been carried away. Outside was rather better, the south wall reaching a height of four feet.
… the measurements were shown to be about 21 ft. by 8 ft. The eastern end of the north wall remained in parts from 2 ft. to 2 ft. 6 ins. high; the east wall, 3 ft. to 3 ft. 6 ins., the south about 18 ins. (inside), and the west at its north end up to 2 ft. They varied in width from 4 ft. to 4 ft. 6ins. on the south, and were built with an inner and an outer facing of stones with a core of earth and rubble.
There was definitely much more at the site 100 years ago! The survey then talks about some very large stones:
Some of the foundation stones remaining inside were of good size. On the south was on 44 inches (of which 8 ins. projected into the east gable) by 6 to 7 ins. wide and 10 ins. high; another 38 ins. by 2.5 to 5 ins. and 10 ins. high. Between these two a smaller one had fallen forwards which was of the same height, so that we may regard 10 ins. as the level of the skirting on the south.
I’m assuming the remaining stone standing in the field is one of those that are mentioned above or one of the large stones he mentions later in the survey that marked the entrance to the enclosure. There are no visible remains of a mound so it looks like some time over the last 80 years, the keeill has been completely ploughed in to the ground. As the other stones from the site seem to have been removed (perhaps they were also built in to some nearby outbuildings), I can only assume that this stone has been placed on end to mark the site.
Thanks to a plan from the archaeological survey, we can see what the Sulby Keeill would have looked like:
The survey tells us that the doorway was in the south end of the west wall and that a small flagstone remained across the entrance outside, and there had been a step down in to the interior. The altar had the lowest course still in position and was 32 ins. long by 18 ins. wide, it might have been a few inches larger if it had a facing of flags. Further visible groundworks are also mentioned:
Outside were traces of the customary bank against the walls 4 ft. wide and on the south 6 ft. wide… From the eastern corner of this northern fence (of the enclosure), a line of about 37 yards would reach a low ridge which looks like that of the south fence of the enclosure extending to a point about 26 yards from its west boundary. Some large stones may even mark the position of the original entrance. The area enclosed does not appear to be definitely marked, the Keeill being set rather nearer to its south east end.
There was a lintel grave found 2 ft. from the outer face of the keeill and 75 white stone pebbles were found above the graces, some were also found near the altar.
In what appears to be a summary of the Fifth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (uncatalogued but in MS08979 box 2 of 2) there is an interesting write up of the Sulby Keeill from around 1918. The author writes about the time of the excavation giving interesting insight:
‘I well remember it, on account of the distance I had to walk in the evenings, three miles out from my office at the library. Mr Kermode did this frequently: there were then no friendly motor cars. A lintel grave was found and several white pebbles were met with near to where the altar stood. The face of the north wall was stripped to its foundations. Taken altogether, it was, considering the facilities, a good examination.
I visited the site a few weeks ago, and found the keeill to be in much the same state as when Mr. Kermode finished his examination. Sulby Farm is owned by the Rev. W. J. Karran. He is proud, as was his father before him, to possess this interesting relic of past. The keeill is the best preserved in the parish of Onchan.’
What a pity the future owners of Upper Sulby didn’t feel the same way!
So, the keeill at Upper Sulby no longer has any visible remains in 2016 but it still has a stone to mark the site and a recessed hedge to show us where the burial site ended. If anyone knows any stories, history or folklore about this keeill or any of the others then please let us know by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is an important part of our Celtic past and although it is gone, it shouldn’t be forgotten.