Keeill number twenty two.

With kind permission from Mr M. Whipp, The Barony.

Keeill Vael, dedicated to St. Michael, sits right on the top of the Barony Hill in a hidden corner of Maughold with views right out to North Barrule and Keeill Woirrey in the Corony Valley on one side and the Irish Sea on the other.

We wandered up to the keeill through the Barony Farm on a slightly overcast day, still full from a delicious picnic at the Quaker Burial Ground (Rhullick ny Quakeryn) on the way.  We walked up the Barony Hill, the landscape was eerily empty and we did feel like we were away from civilisation! Arriving at the summit, we went through a gateway in to the Chapel Field.

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We found Keeill Vael a very confusing site.  There was what looked like an elongated mound in the middle of the field with piles of stones, large and small, spread over quite a vast area.  To the untrained eye (us!) there didn’t appear to be an obvious structure, we couldn’t even pick out for certain which part of the mass of stones was the site of the building itself.  I have used the descriptions and experiences that other people have shared over the years, to try and understand this very interesting and historically important site.

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The Barony estate has a rich history.  The possession of the estate in Medieval times entitled the owner of the property to be a Baron of the Isle with the privilege of holding a court of his tenants.  In a talk entitled ‘Saynt Maholde  and Saynt Michell’, Notes on Christian’s Barony, Maughold’ (IOMNHAS, v024 p.447) in 1924, W. Cubbon tells us that:

Christian’s Barony consisted of all the high land from Kione ny Hennyn on the south to the glen of Cornaa, and Rhenab on the north side.  It also includes the estate of Ballellin, consisting of half a quarterland to the west.

We know from certain documents that in the 12th century Christian’s Barony was in the possession of St. Bees Priory; and we find that in the 13th century the Bishop of Sodor grants this Church and that of St. Maughold to the Abbot of Furness.

Early in the 14th century it was again vested in St. Bees. In the year 1505 we know it became a part of the Bishop’s Barony.

In 1523 it is on record as again belonging to Furness; and on the dissolution of the religious houses in 1540 it became vested in the Kings of England, who farmed the leases to certain persons.

Some time in the 16th or early in the 17th century, by some unrecorded means, it came into the possession of the Christians of Milntown, to whom a small customary quit rent was payable by the tenants of Ballellin, who claimed to hold in fee under the Christians.

…In the Charter of the Bishopric of Man, dated 1505, Thomas, Earl of Derby confirmed the grant to the Bishop of Man, of certain Churches and Lands, in which this Church and its Lands were included.

The Charter confirmed the grant to the Bishop of the Lands of St. Maughold and St. Michael adjoining. St. Maughold was, of course, the Church which is now the Parish Church, and the St. Michael mentioned was the Keeill Vael on the Barony land.

In 1879, a Joseph Bradbury (I haven’t been able to find out who he was so far) visited the site and wrote a wonderful account of his visit in the Manx Sun (www.imuseum.im), it’s a long article but I’ve shared some extracts from it below as a description of this interesting and extensive site as it was almost 150 years ago:

…surmounting this we found ourselves on the open, uncultivated land of the Barony.  Directing our steps over the top of the hill, seaward, we soon espied a number of low tumuli and a few rocks which we supposed to be “the graves marked by upright stones” mentioned by Dr Oswald, and which stones I had heard were inscribed with runic characters… Surrounding the ruins and enclosing one of the tumuli we found an almost circular embankment, about 47 paces in diameter, some two feet in height and having an entrance on the west.  Another embankment within this outer work runs in a direct line eastward, and being joined at a right angle by another from the north, forms the “churchyard” proper of this old keeill, in the centre of this inner enclosure being the remains of the kheel itself, a rectangular mound about two feet high, 32 feet long and 15 feet in width, for the most part overgrown with bracken and short stunted gorse.  The southern wall appears to have fallen inwards in a mass and is now completely hidden by the overgrowth, but in what remains of the eastern wall we see the layers of thin, flat stones, of which the chapel was built, very distinctly, but there are no remains of an altar as in some of the old kheels.

Joseph Bradbury also mentioned a number of tumuli and two mounds nearby along with the ‘convenient pool of water’, Loughan Keeill Vael.  He also found a number of graves, one of which he opened, I can only hope his amateur archaeology caused no long term damage!  The account continued:

Speaking of this old chapel, Dr Oswald (Vestigia Monensis p.73) says: – “At the Cabbal Keeil Vael, on the barony of Maughold, the graves are marked by upright stones.  The bones are often found undecayed and laid longitudinally from east to west..” .. But the “upright stones” on the barony are not mere slates but rough unhewn rocks from two to three feet high and a foot or more in thickness, and I am of the opinion that they are the remains of an old Druidical circle, a portion of them being enclosed by the outer embankment mentioned previously, and which was probably connected with the circle in some manner originally.  As to the use of the combined structure it may have been devoted to one or all of nine purposes for which such structures were at one time erected, viz. – 1st as Tynwald Courts or places for the general assembly of the people; 2nd as special Courts of Law; 3rd, as places where kings were anointed; 4th, places where treaties were made; 5th, places where wars were declared; 6th, seats of judgement; 7th, places of execution; 8th, temples; and 9th, sepulchres.

As it was customary on the introduction of Christianity to erect a Christian temple on the site of a heathen one – the ground where their ancestors reposed being held sacred by the pagans – we may readily suppose that the Christians of the barony erected a chapel among the ruins of their heathen temple, but at what date the Cabbal Kheel Vael was built, we have no means of knowing, only that it was previous to 1505, in which year we find a “confirmation of churches, lands and liberties, given, granted and made by the most noble Lord Thomas, Earl of Derby, Lord Stanley, Lord of Mann and the Isles, to Huan Bishop of Sodor, and his successors,” in which charter mention is made of the lands of the church of “St Maughold and St Michael adjoining,” i.e. the Cabbal Kheel Vael. 

… The Rev J. G. Cumming in his “Guide to the Isle of Man” (Stanford, 1861) at p. 139, says :-“The hill called the Barony once belonged to the religious foundation of St Bee’s in Cumberland, but exchanged with the family of the Christians (to whom it now belongs) for property more convenient near to St Bee’s.  A ruinous Treen chapel, Cabbal Keeihll Vail may be seen on the Barony.”  Although this is the best antiquarians’ guide to the Island yet published, the reverend author is wrong in calling the Kheel Vael a treen chapel as it is probably of a much subsequent date. 

We are unaware of when it fell into disuse but the probability is that it would become neglected after the reformation, and if it ever belonged to St Bee’s it must have been since the dissolution of Furness Abbey, and the statement that the men of St Bee’s exchanged it for a more convenient possession seems to show that they cared so little for their insular property that they allowed it to fall into decay, and therefore, we may thank them for the present ruins of “the rectory of St Mighell,”alias the “Cabbal Kheel Vael”.

Large elements of Joseph Bradbury’s write up seem to be speculation but it makes for an interesting read, there were obviously many ways to spell ‘Keeill’ at the time!  I was particularly interested to see that he thought that Keeill Vael was a fairly ‘new’ keeill, relatively speaking, while P. M. C. Kermode when surveying the chapel for the Fourth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (1915) found it (in his opinion) to be one of the earlier keeills.

At the time of the Kermode survey, they found the building to measure 20 ft. by 11 ft., the East wall was 24 inches high and 4 ft. wide, made up of small surface stones faced inside and out with the middle space filled with soil and rubble.  The south wall was 3 ft. wide and remained for 13 ft. from the east end, the west end where the doorway appeared to have been was gone but they could see where it had been by the line of where the paving ended; the floor was paved with stones irregular in size and shape.  Only four to five feet of the north wall remained at that time and there was no trace of the altar, two lintel graves were found along with many white pebbles.  The plan of the keeill itself is from the survey:

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In the 1915 report, they found the embankment against the walls was two ft. high and four ft. wide, the boundary line of the cemetery was visible although not so obvious on the East and South sides.  They also mentioned the surrounding tumuli, one of which they opened to find it contained a lintel grave.

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These two descriptions, almost fifty years apart, describe what they found at Keeill Vael but I still found it difficult to understand that site as we found it.  It sits in a level field so I can assume that over time, the majority of the tumuli mentioned have been flattened, there are a huge number of stones scatted across the site, I don’t know where they all came from, the many large stones marking the graves seem to have gone.  I found a possible explanation for this in an interview for the Manx Folk Life Survey.

The Manx Folk Life Survey is a wonderful collection of interviews that took place in the mid twentieth century with over 800 people on the Island.  Some entries are an absolute delight to read and it has been a great way of preserving stories, history and folklore that would otherwise have been lost.  The names of interviewees and an idea of what their interview contains can be found on the iMuseum, the transcripts themselves can be accessed in the museum library by using the ID number from the iMuseum entry.  A Mr W. Robinson who lived near Cornaa and who had worked on the Barony, was interviewed for the survey in 1975 by Margaret Killip (FLS R/011-G).  In his interview he said that:

When Walker had it he would never allow this field  to be disturbed.  In about 1950 Tommy Beale went in to the farm and he set about ploughing and clearing the field although Walker had said that it must be left alone.  He ploughed it and got a lot of stones out of it, and piled them all up where they are now lying. 

Margaret Killip then said that Mr Robinson gave them impression that Tommy Beale was stopped in his work after a warning from ‘Walker’ and the work was left unfinished.  The interview continued:

…there used to be stones standing in this field ‘as big as bollards’.

Further on in the interview this was further confirmed by a Mr Lace from Thalloo Queen who recalled big stones ‘as big as himself’ standing in the field to the south of the keeill.  He said that:

Beale ploughed this field and removed a lot of stones from it – some of these he hauled out with a tractor and chains.  Harry Quayle, who farms the Barony said that Beale completed the work of ploughing the field and put crops in it afterwards and said the stones were taken out when this was done.

This Keeill Vael site today is very different to the one 150 years ago.

On the way up Barony Hill, we walked past the ‘holy well’, Chibbyr y Vashtee, at the side of the path, the well is said to be;

‘unfailing in its supply of water.  Presumably it was the baptizing well for the keeill above it, although there is a spring fed pool, called Loughan Keeill Vael, adajacent to the keeill site.  It is still called the “Christening Well’. (A Manx Scrapbook, W. Gill).

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When we arrived at the Chapel Field (as Mr Whipp called it) at the top of Barony Hill we could see what we thought was the previously mentioned Loughan Keeill Vael or ‘Pool of Michael’, to the side of the keeill.  The pool was was dried up as there hadn’t been any rain for a while but a perfect round patch of mud was very visible:

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However, on a second visit, we saw a much larger pool on the other side of the hedge in the next field to Keeill Vael, I looked at the 1869 ordnance survey map and the much larger one is ‘Loughan Keeill Vael’, it really is a very large pool and the top of Barony Hill was a very surprising place to find it!:

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We sat on top of the stones at this desolate spot and appreciated the beauty and solitary stillness of the place, it was surprisingly sheltered from the cold wind that had plagued us all morning.

This is a place steeped in history and long forgotten stories.

A small Island with a rich history; sometimes I think this blog could be called ‘Hidden Places of Mann’!

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What are keeills?

 

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