Keeill number twenty one.

Keeill Vartyn sits on the land of Ballakilmartin Farm in Onchan, there is a public footpath up through the farm and although the keeill sits off the footpath, it is visible from it.

Ballakilmartin is a farm just off the Whitebridge on the way out of Onchan, it has a wonderful selection of outbuildings that are untouched by the modern day and walking up through them really does feel like you’re stepping back in time.  Ballakilmartin was farmed until recently by Harvey and Laura Briggs.  Harvey, who sadly passed away in 2015, was a Captain of the Parish of Onchan, a real character with a great love for agriculture and the Manx way of life, he is missed by many.


The first and only other time I had visited the keeill at Ballakilmartin was about 15 years ago with the Manx Methodist Historical Society and Mr Briggs himself, it was an interesting visit although I wish I could remember more, at that age I was probably thinking of other things than keeills, and most likely also of the cake to be had at the end of the visit!

We walked up from the Whitebridge along the public footpath to Ballakilmartin and past the house on to a path known as ‘Keym Mom’ or ‘Great Path’ (Manx Scrapbook, W. Gill, 1929) which leads from the farmhouse to the remains of the ancient chapel.  I didn’t think the visit would take us long as I’d been before and thought I knew where we were going (we were on our way to Skyhill Keeill that day too) so we didn’t even take the map (or cake!), this was a mistake!  We looked around the area we thought it was in but couldn’t see anything so we extended our search and looked for over an hour.  In the end we had to use good old Google Maps to confirm that the overgrown patch of scrub in a fenced off niche of field surrounded by bee hives was in fact the remains of Keeill Vartyn.


Keeill Vartyn (or Keeill Vartin or Keeill Mertin depending on where you look) is the only Manx keeill that we know was dedicated to St. Martin, bishop of Tours and who is said to have been St. Patrick’s maternal uncle.  The farm road had cut through the burial site and the sod hedge itself had cut through the keeill diagonally, leaving about half of it.  Below is a photo of the remains of the keeill taken in 1935 (Fifth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey), as you can see, the walls were still fairly substantial, it is also obvious in the photo where the road has cut right through the middle of the keeill:



Interestingly, in a description of a visit to the Keeill Vartyn by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1961 taken from the ‘Ramsey Courier’, they mention that:

In 1863 a writer, Thwaites, said that services had been held there occasionally “until recently”.

Keeill Vartyn was surveyed for the Fifth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (1918); from what remained they estimated the keeill to have measured around 18 ft. by 9 ft.  The burial ground is marked on the O.S. as 059 acres but in the survey, they suggested it must have been about four times as large at one time as lintel graves had been found in the field across the road.

The foundations of the east wall in 1918 were still 3 ft. high with the south wall 2 ft. high and 4 ft. wide with a facing of stones inside and out, there was also a skirting of stones on end along the south wall, of which four remained.   They found traces of the north east corner in the hedge itself and foundations of the west wall, there was a gap in the south end which they thought may have been the doorway.  The base of the altar remained at 2 ft. from the south corner and some of the floor paving was still in position.  They came across many white pebbles which is common in the remains of these ancient buildings, they also found what they thought was an Cinerary urn.

What we found in 2016 was a mass of brambles and rough grass so thick that we weren’t able to see any stones at all but who knows what might be lurking there beneath the undergrowth.  The farm has been empty for a number of years (although it has recently been sold) so it is possible that the remains may have been more visible a few years ago, we were a bit wary of the buzzing coming from the hives so we didn’t want to explore further.


Harvey and Laura Briggs generously donated much of the land that makes up Molly Quirk’s Glen which is just below Ballakilmartin, a pretty glen that is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.  There was also a Methodist chapel on Ballakilmartin land between the Glen and the keeill, the chapel closed in 1902 although I’m not sure if any of the structure remains in 2016 (photo from Manx Notebook):


I’d like to finish this post with a poem by ‘Cushag’, Josephine Kermode the Manx Poet (sister of P. M. C. Kermode), in memory of Harvey Briggs (1920 – 2015) who loved Ballakilmartin so much.


THE days of my life! They flow on like a dream,
And I’m nearing the waves of the dim silent stream,
Adrift in the darkness — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy shall follow me still.

The bright days of Springtime, the sunshine and flowers!
No thought then of shadow, of storm-cloud or showers,
Long, long have they left me — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy have followed me still.

There were dull days in Summer when sullen and gray
The thunder clouds broke on the upland way.
Though idols were shattered — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy have followed me still.

There were fair days in Autumn, when troubles took rest
When harvests were garnered, and trials were blest,
They have gone like the shadows — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy have followed me still.

The dark days of Winter! The storm and the rain,
The joys that have vanished, the hopes that were vain;
Their shadow remaineth — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy have followed me still.

So the days of my life shall flow on like a dream
Till the Light glimmers far on the dark silent stream,
Though dimly I see it — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy will follow me still.


What’s a keeill?



3 thoughts on “Keeills and Cake; Keeill Vartyn, Onchan.

  1. This is a lovely write up, and photo footage my Late Uncle would have been very proud of that next time I go and see my Aunt I will read this out to her, tears in my eyes had as I had loads of lovely years growing up on this farm under my Late Uncle and Surviving Aunt eyes too, Many people used to want to metal detect up the Keeil, in my Uncles reply I don’t know why there will be no shackles up there as peeps didn’t have anything only the clothes they virtually stood up in, There is also Chapel Remains to no doubt in years before our time they were used to build up a ole dry stone wall, The Keeil in my memory off at least 40 years was only stones in soil, as so the Chapel. Hope this helps.
    Thank You
    Karen xxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Karen for your lovely words, I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post! It would be so nice if you can read it to your aunt, they are a lovely family and Harvey’s memory will live on. xx


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