Keeill number twenty seven.
The keeill and Viking burial site at Balladoole have an access agreement in place and are under guardianship of the Manx Museum and National Trust. The location is a short walk, well signposted from the road leading to Balladoole House. The ‘Chapel Hill’ site was a perfect playground for my toddler as it’s a warren of pathways, it’s also a lovely place for a picnic on a sunny day.
Balladoole is the seat of one of the oldest landed families on the Isle of Man. The Stevenson family were first mentioned living at Balladoole in the early fourteenth century and were there until the end of the nineteenth century. Keeill Vael at Balladoole is one of eight known keeills dedicated to St. Michael and is one of the more frequently visited of the keeills, in part due to the other elements of the site; it is an array of interaction and settlement over six different time periods.
The keeill lies inside an Iron Age promontory fort, the outside banks of which can still be traced around the hill top, there are also the remains of a Viking ship burial which is said to be the most perfect example in the British Isles. The Viking burial was excavated in 1945 by Gerhard Bersu, a German archaeologist interned on the Island during WWII. Bersu was allowed by the authorities to excavate ancient sites during his time on the Isle of Man, Balladoole was the first of three Viking burial sites that he excavated on the Island.
It is interesting that the pagan Viking burial sits on top of a number of Celtic Christian graves, some of these graves were recent at the time of the burial and were disturbed when the boat was placed on them. The Norse invaders brought their own beliefs to this sacred site and had little respect at the time for the burial ground of the Christian natives.
Of course, not long afterwards the Norseman became Christians themselves.
There are no less than four known keeill sites and/or burial grounds within 100 yards of the border of the Balladoole estate (Sixth Report of the Archaeological Survey), there has also been evidence found of habitation here in the Neolithic time period. I mean, where do you start, this place has obviously been important for thousands of years.
The dedication of the keeill to St. Michael is thought to date from the 11th or 12th century but the keeill itself dates from much earlier. It is interesting that J. J. Kneen (in the proceedings of the IoMNH&ASoc vol.3) suggests that it is possible that the correct name in Gaelic was Cill Dhiorbhail, ‘ Dorothy’s church,’ with vael being a worn down form of the Gaelic, this is possible as the approximate pronunciation of the name would be Keeill Yorvael.
P. M. C. Kermode suggested that some five centuries after the chapel was built, it was of such importance that it was renovated. The doorway was enlarged, probably new windows were inserted, the outside rough cast and the inside plastered which is a feature not found in any other Manx keeills.
At the time of the Kermode survey, some small areas of plaster remained with a red colouring, Kermode suggested there may have been fresco drawings which have since been lost, the plaster is long gone in 2016 although a sample is in the Manx Museum. It would be most likely that it was at the time of this renovation that the dedication to St. Michael was formalised (IoMNHASVol 2 no.3).
Keeill Vael was visited by the Archaeological Commission in 1877, this was a group of people who were commissioned to report to the Lieutenant Governor on ancient and prehistoric monuments throughout the Island, unfortunately this survey ran out of steam early on. At Keeill Vael in 1877 they found graves surrounding the keeill and exhumed one wherein they found a body, there were so many other areas of interest on the site that the keeill building itself was only mentioned in passing. When Kermode’s team surveyed the keeill around 1918, the survey was not published at the time. However, an account of the survey was pieced together by J. R. Bruce in the Sixth Report of the Archaeological Survey (1966) along with a description of the remains which Bruce found in the 1960s’s; The keeill sits in the south west part of the Iron Age enclosure and measures 16 ft. 4 in. by 9 ft. 10 in. internally, the walls are wide for the size of the building measuring 3 ft. 6 ins. thick and dressed on both sides with limestone with infill of rubble between, no wall height was mentioned. The floor was ‘carefully paved with Poyllvaaish flags’ which are either long removed or hidden underneath the grass covering the floor in 2016. They found a boulder and some smaller stones forming what must have been the altar, this large boulder is still in situ and can be seen in our photographs. Kermode found the doorway to be blocked but he must have removed the blockage as a doorway is now evident in the south wall. The keeill sits in a flat rectangular area and Kermode found stones protruding in the turf that indicated that it was once surrounded by a wall, these remains were also mentioned in the 1877 survey by the Archaeological Commission and seem to have been more visible then.
The area surrounding the keeill has been excavated and many lintel graves have been found across the entire Iron Age enclosure, Kermode found in his excavation that the small cemetery surrounding the keeill was once paved all over by Pooillvaaish flag stones, only traces remained in the sections he excavated.
It was good to see that the remains of Keeill Vael in 2016 have changed very little since Kermode visited almost 100 years ago.
As is often the case with these Christian sites, they were associated with fairs and Balladoole was the site of the ‘Periwinkle Fair’ which was held close to Keeill Vael on 6th February each year. The fair was held as recently as 1834 and the items offered for sale were periwinkles, gingerbread and Manx ponies (information taken from the Sixth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey), oh, to be able to go back in time just to see that!
We didn’t have gingerbread, we had bonnag.
What are keeills?