Keeill number thirty seven.
Lag ny Keeilley (meaning ‘Hollow of the Chapel’) is a remote keeill sitting at the foot of Cronk ny Irree Laa (Hill of Daybreak) and is accessed by public footpath past the house at Eary Cushlin on the west coast of the Isle of Man. The footpath is over a mile long and is very narrow in places, I would suggest that it’s probably not a good idea to take children or anyone unsteady on their feet as there is a steep drop down to the sea.
‘But perhaps the best byway of all is the coast way to Lag-ny-Keeilley in the west. You must follow the road south from Glen Meay and Dalby, both attractive places, but not to be lingered in if you desire even better things. Down into the great Dalby Lag dips our track, and then climbs steeply along the high savage cliffs to a deserted farm on the seaward side of Cronk-ny-Irree-Lhaa. Thence we follow a narrow path for almost two miles along the bare seaward face of the mountain, which drops almost sheer to the sea from the height of some 1,500 feet.
At last the track descends, ending in a tiny green plateau some 300 feet above sea level, where are the remains of an ancient keeil chapel and hermit’s cell. Here, centuries ago, lived a holy anchorite, and to his tiny church came thee folk from far Dalby and scattered communities along the wild cliffs. A pleasant place it is wherein to spend a summer’s afternoon, with the blue, clear water sounding below and the faint forms of the Irish mountains lifting across the channel, and the tall Cronk brooding above; a place worthy of pilgrimage and full of deep peace.
It is no great distance round the coast to Port Erin, but there is no track, so when you leave the Lag you must either retrace your steps or climb the face of the mountain, a fairly difficult feat, but not unduly dangerous. From the summit there is a fine view of the whole south of the Island, and behind the dark peak of South Barrule in the north are seen the far off middle mountains.
Here at last you may perhaps glimpse the true spirit of the Isle, a spirit at once remote and intimate; springing from a vast antiquity yet warmly living and magical to-day. Far below the grey hill-road winds away to the towns and highways and railways, and we may follow it contentedly, for we have trodden our byways into quieter paces, and penetrated, if only for a moment, the secret of the brooding hills.’
(Isle of Man Examiner, 1926,’Afoot in the Isle of Man’. www.imuseum.im)
Lag ny Keeilley represents a true example of the monastic solitude that was an important feature of the early Celtic Christian church.
I first walked out to Lag ny Keeilley as a child in the Girl Guides when staying in the nearby house at Eary Cushlin. Eary Cushlin, which means ‘Cosnahan’s Shieling’, (Cushlin being the Manx pronunciation of ‘Cosnahan’) is named after the Cosnahan family who were well known in the area. Eary Cushlin was occupied in the early to mid twentieth century by an eccentric gentleman named Colby Cubbin who lived there with his mother. He originally moved there out of fear of being hit by bombs at the family home on Strathallan Road in Onchan during the Second World War. Ironically, while he was living there, a German bomber dropped its load and set fire to the top of Cronk ny Irree Laa, just missing Eary Cushlin!
After Colby Cubbin’s death, followed shortly after by his mother in the 1950s, the house at Eary Cushlin and 320 acres of land surrounding it was bought by Manx National Heritage. The house has been let out by Manx National Heritage over the years and is currently in the process of being renovated.
Lag ny Keeilley is a stunningly beautiful and emotive spot and the keeill there is one of the most well-known of the Manx keeills. The earliest keeills are thought to have been built entirely from sods (Moore, 1900, ‘History of the Isle of Man’) so the current foundations may be from a slightly later building. Early carved stone grave markers have been found at the site that are thought to predate the existing keeill. P. M. C. Kermode introduces the keeill in the First Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (1909):
This most interesting of our ancient keeills, set on a ledge forming a small natural platform near the foot of a lag or hollow torn out of the almost perpendicular western face of Cronk- ny-Irree-laa, can be reached by boat, but the landing — a mile and three-quarters south of Dalby beach — can only be effected within about an hour of high water on a calm day, and the upward climb of about 200 ft. is steep and not easy. The proper mode of access is by the old pack-horse road through Eary Cushlin, which passes onto the Sloc by foot tracks, and so to the south of the Island. This roadway in itself is of great interest as the best existing survival of our pack-horse ways before the modern system of highroads, and a walk along it, — about three-quarters of a mile from the farmstead, — calls up a picture of the condition of our Island in the centuries long ago. The latest funeral to pass this way appears to have been little over a century ago, as it was remembered by an aged parishioner born and brought up at Eary Cushlin, who went to her rest some forty years ago at the venerable age of ninety. The body, wrapped in a winding-sheet, was strapped on the back of the old mare, supported by the ” burliagh” or bundle of straw which served for a saddle, and the horse was led down the long track to the little Burial ground surrounding the ruined keeill.
Lag ny Keeilley is said by some to be the traditional burial place of King Orry and the Danish kings although Kermode did not think this to be the case. In ‘A Manx Scrapbook’ (1929), Gill suggests that this place may be even more ancient as a burial place than a chapel; certainly the burial ground has always been an important feature, and he also talks of a connection with Ireland:
It is also linked therein, in various ways, with Ireland towards which it looks, and which it sees across the waters in clear weather. “The Irish used to come over to be buried there, thinking they’d get to heaven quicker.” ” A monk came there from Ireland, and he was preaching and reading prayers to the people, and converting them.” ” A persecuted monk used to live there and take offerings from the people.” ” People used to worship there because it was safe and out of sight.” (Do these beliefs, volunteered by separate individuals, refer to the dissolution of the Irish monasteries? There was no religious persecution in Man at the time of the Reformation and such traditions, however perverted from the truth they may be, can hardly reach back to the influx of Scandinavian paganism.) Interments have been made at Lag ny Keeilley without prejudice on the score of race or sex. A mermaid which was found dead on the shore below was buried here. An unchristened baby buried here haunted the spot with a light in its hand until the ghost was sprinkled with sea-water and given a name. (According to Miss Sophia Morrison the ceremony was performed near Gob yn Ushtey a mile away, and not, as would have been more convenient had fresh water sufficed, at Chibber y Vashtee, the Well of Baptism, close to the keeill.) A woman who died at Eairy Cushlin (the nearest dwelling-place) was buried at Lag ny Keeilley half a century ago or more ; the bier was carried by the bearers along the narrow and difficult path, and was rested according to custom on a certain rock which those who know the path will recall as almost barring the way at one point. I have not been fortunate enough to hear the name of this rock, but trust someone will rescue it in time. When the brig Wilhelmina was wrecked on the Calf, some of the bodies, which had drifted Northward, were buried here ; a place was levelled outside the keeill, and they were ” put under without any stones at them.” And so on. Strange lights which are seen from the sea to be moving about the cliffs of this part of the coast, especially in bad weather, are vaguely connected with its interments.
Unfortunately, Gill doesn’t often give his sources so I’m not sure where all his information came from but what a wonderful picture he paints of a site rich in history and folklore. In an article about the Quirk family from the wonderful Manx Notebook, mention is again made of a more recent burial at the keeill:
An old lady, over eighty years of age, named Quirk, and who lived in Dalby, was visited by some folks who made enquiries as to her origin. The old lady replied: “I am one of the proud race of MaeQuyrkes which at one time held sway over half the parish of Patrick.” She pronounced the name “MacKurrik.” Before her death she expressed a wish to be buried in the Rullick of the old Keill -Lhag-ny-Keilley.
When she died, her wish was granted, and the funeral procession went along the narrow road by Eary Cushlin, through the stream at Gob-yn-Ushtey, over sheep tracks and rough stones, the old grey mare carrying the body wrapped in a white sheet, until it reached the ancient graveyard where her fathers for centuries before her had been buried. She was the last to be buried in that old graveyard.
Gill describes the burial ground having been excavated by Sir William Boyd Dawkins the geologist, around 1880, Dawkins dug trenches through the keeill and burial ground and found nothing to suggest burials. In one of the many contradictions I came across in the information on this keeill, at the time of the Kermode excavation (1909), lintel graves were found inside the walls of the keeill along with a number of graves outside of it. Nearby to the keeill can be found the associated holy well, Chibbyr-y-Vashtee, used for baptisms and for the consumption of the incumbent hermit.
In an article by Dr. Oliver in ‘Antiquitates Manniae’ (Cumming, 1868), Oliver suggests that Lag ny Keeilley is dedicated to St. Luke (St. Leoc) but Kermode in his much later report on the keeill, considers this name as a misapplication. Oliver describes it as a mortuary chapel and says that only a portion of its walls remained at the time, however, he calls the cemetery ‘very picturesque’ and describes it as being bisected by a pathway fringed with ‘boulder quartz of dazzling whiteness’ which terminated at the outer enclosure of the chapel. Kermode is rather scathing of Oliver’s findings, in the First Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey he describes the burial site:
It was in fact a carefully formed, drained, and protected area ; it certainly was not bi-sected “by a pathway fringed with boulder-quartz,” as described by him and figured in his fanciful plan.
In his ‘Vestigia Insulae Manniae Antiquiora’ (1860), Oswald spoke of the keeill having been examined by ‘Dr Simpson and others’ in 1849; they found the keeill to be well constructed from stone with no cement and estimated that it must have been very small in size, they reckoned that it would not have exceeded eight feet in height to the peak of the roof. They measured the keeill to be 11ft by 9ft, they found the walls to be 3ft wide and buttressed with sods, the floor was ‘paved with smooth round pebbles about the size of eggs’ and that there were several stones inside with rough crosses on them. They also found no graves. Kermode talks of Simpson’s findings;
As they only give the measurement as 12 ft., and make no mention of the altar, their examination would appear to have been superficial, and their statement that ” the floor was paved with smooth rounded pebbles,” probably merely a surmise to account for the number they saw, though, as the number is unusually large, it is possible that some may have been so used, as well as the ordinary small paving stones. (Kermode, 1909, First Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey)
The Council of the Manx Society had requested reports on the keeills from the incumbents of the parishes in the mid 19th century, unfortunately not all responded, but thankfully the Rev. Holmes, the then Vicar of Kirk Patrick, wrote a report on the keeills in Patrick and he is quoted by Oliver;
At the foot of Cronk-yn-irrey-lha, a mountain about three miles distant from Dalby, in a valley called Lhag ny Keeilley are the ruins of a chapel, the walls not more than two feet high; in the burial ground adjoining lie the ashes, it is said, of many of the nobles who fell in battle. The road leading to it is wild and romantic, but appears to have been carefully constructed. It is reported that a priest occasionally came over from Ireland, and celebrated there the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church at a period when that religion was proscribed. A few years ago a medical gentleman from Scotland stumbled on a venerable stone, figured over with devices, but in his anxiety to remove it, it fell over the precipice and was broken in pieces on the rocks beneath.
What did Kermode find at the time of his survey?
What is thought to have been a ‘culdee’s cell’, the living place of the hermit, is below the keeill closer to the edge of the cliff. It really is very small. It is unusual to find a priest’s cell and the only other known example on the Island is at Cabbal Pherick at Spooyt Vane. Here is a drawing of Lag ny Keeilley taken from Kermode’s report, showing the keeill, the culdee’s cell and the enclosure:
At the time of the Kermode survey, they measured the keeill at 13ft by 8 to 8ft 6 ins with the doorway in the middle of the west wall with an inner stone about 2ft high from the floor, standing on edge, a sandstone socket stone was also found; this was very unusual and showed the early use of a working hinged door. The inner face of the eastern wall of the keeill had fallen in but when the debris was cleared, the outside wall remained at two feet high, the same height that Oliver had found fifty years earlier. Under the debris they discovered the base of the altar which measured 3ft 5ins by 2ft 3ins and 12ins at its highest existing point and made up of small slabs laid length ways with a narrow stone forming a step in front, an unusual pear shaped stone was found lying outside the east gable and was thought to be one of the altar pillars. In the east end of the south wall, the sill of the window was still in position at a height from the floor of 3ft, along with two jamb stones which had slipped out. The window was estimated to be approximately 14ins wide, a second window was found in the east wall with a sill stone bearing an engraved cross; this stone is now displayed at the Manx Museum. Outside the wall, they found the sandstone head of the east window which interestingly had a rude and early form of moulding. Some flat floor paving remained which was found to be a similar style to that found in other keeills. Kermode’s team refaced the internal wall with the stones that had fallen but otherwise left it as they had found it.
The mode of building the keeill was evident ; an excavation had been made in the slope of the hill and the side walls faced with unhewn stones set in the banks, but the excavation had been carried sufficiently far to enable the builder to work at the east end from the outside as well as the inside. Most of the stones appear to have been picked off the face of the hill, but several had evidently been brought up from the beach. They were of fairly even size, built in random courses, their ends for the most part to the face of the wall, making them look smaller than what they really were ; those at the foundation were large and well fitted, the length of the north wall being occupied by four, and of the south, by three stones. A few of the paving-stones of the floor remained in position, of small size and irregular shape. (‘First Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey’, Kermode, 1909)
As you can see, there was a surprising amount of architectural detail found at Lag ny Keeilley compared to many of the keeills.
Inside the keeill and near to the altar, they found a ‘saddle shaped’ slab of slate with a cup-shaped hollow at one corner; this they thought to be a ‘cresset stone’, a stone that has been hollowed out to hold oil which when lit would have illuminated the little chapel. A number of cross slabs were found in and close to the keeill, and are now the care of the Manx Museum. At least one stone with a cross on it is still found at the site and is shown below (thanks to Sam Hudson for the photograph).
At the south west corner of the enclosure they found the remains of a small building, measuring internally only 9ft by between 5ft 6ins and 6ft 6ins, four or five paving stones remained inside. A doorway which was near the west end of the north wall formed a passage over 4ft long in to the building, this would have provided further protection from inclement weather, particularly useful when living on the edge of a cliff during a Manx winter. The building was built in a similar manner to the keeill and was thought to date from the same time period. It is supposed to be the living accommodation for the priest or ‘culdee’ (a person who lived a solitary life devoted to religion) who would have performed the services inside the keeill a thousand years ago. A granite quern (a simple hand mill for grinding corn) was also found. This may have used by the hermit to prepare food so many hundreds of years earlier, a real connection with the past and an interesting one as not much is known about the lives of these solitary Celtic Christians.
Andrew Johnson (Archaeologist at MNH) and his brother, Nick, climbed down the cliff at Lag ny Keeilley around twenty years ago, to retrieve a large slate lintel that Andy thinks is the one Kermode thought had come from above the door of the keeill. Unfortunately it would seem that since then, someone has once again thrown it over the edge of the cliff.
The whole of Early Cushlin and Lag ny Keeilley is owned by the Manx Museum and National Trust, so when a small area of the east wall of the keeill collapsed in late 1993, Andrew Johnson undertook some initial investigations. In May 1994 he then returned with a small team (the brilliant Ray Parsons and his team, plus a couple of volunteers) to rebuild most of the wall-tops, which had become infested with bracken. In the process, they found three crosses built into the masonry, all of which were recovered and brought to the museum. The photos of the keeill below were taken during the time of this remedial work:
The Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society have visited the keeill on a number of occasions, notably a visit led by Kermode in 1909 during his excavation for the archaeological survey: they often brought ‘lunch baskets’, something I can highly recommend.
Folklore relating to Lag ny Keeilley.
‘The traditions and legends of a nation illuminate its time and history in a light of their own that often throws into strong relief facets of bygone life which might otherwise be forgotten or unknown. Tradition may not always be true in literal fact, but it is true in the sense that it reveals the actual beliefs and thoughts of our ancestors, and also that poetic sense and vivid imagination of the common man which is the ultimate route of all great works of art. A nation which has forgotten its legendary tales is poor indeed, and it is good that we should sometimes be reminded of our own rich and varied store. For this reason we should be grateful to our ancestors for the preservation of the wealth of traditional tales that we possess.’ (1959, Cubbon,’Island Heritage’).
The keeill at Lag ny Keeilley seems to have been considered a place of particular significance to the Manx people. In ‘A Manx Scrapbook’ (1929) Gill talks about there having been a ‘protective Bible’ lying in a nook of the ruined wall of the keeill until recent times and that ‘an unusual degree of reverence’ was still being accorded to it; a stone or a piece of vegetation from the keeill having a sentimental value to the possessor ‘beyond that of a mere souvenir of an arduous journey. In more than one garden in the South grow descendants of the holly-bush and the other shrubs which add a natural grace to the sacred spot.‘ What a lovely thought. Gill mentioned a story of an unusual visit to the keeill:
A more circumstantial legend than any of these strikes me as being the queerest of them all, in its way. My informant had it from his grandfather, who often spoke of the affair. About eighty years ago, when one Phil Moore (who seems to have left his name on a small branch of Glen Rushen) lived in Eairy Cushlin, two strangers carrying knapsacks came up to him one day as he was. working in the fields ; they told him they were Irishmen, and had come a long distance to see the spot where the Irish kings were buried. He guided them along the cliff-track to Lag ny Keeilley. On the way thither they offered him their flask, telling him not to spare it, for there was plenty more where that came from. He was not a man who was teetotal. When they got to the keeill the two strangers began digging with the little shovels they had brought with them, but Phil, whether the liquor was naturally potent or had been drugged, fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke he saw they were still digging, and, so far as he could make out in his drowsy state, were putting something into their two satchels from time to time. When they noticed he was awake they gave him more drink, which sent him to sleep again for the rest of the day ; but before it quite overpowered him he saw them going away, and both their satchels were bulging full. Moore’s nephew, who saw the old man go off with the strangers and return late in the evening, added to this story the information, relevant or otherwise, that there was a stone (about two feet long by nine inches wide, according to my informant) ” with letters on the flat of it, both sides, which no person could read.” It used to lie about the fields near the house, and may be there still, overgrown with turf. The marks were shaped like letters, not like ogams or runes (which I figured for him) ; and the stone had come from Lag ny Keeilley. (‘A Manx Scrapbook’, Gill, 1929)
There are many stories about the place, Caesar Cashin wrote an article for ‘Mannin’ (vol. 5, page 180) where he spoke of ‘fairies’ at the spot:
Now Lag ny Keeilley is said to be the burial place of the Kings of Mann. Some say it was the worshipping place of the ancient monks. Strange place to bury, stranger still to worship. There are many stories about the place. I heard one quite lately. It was told to me by Robert Quayle, of Peel, who vouches for the truth of it. ‘About twenty years ago,’ he said, ‘we were at the spring fishing, and one night we went into Purt lern to spend part of the night. About two hours before day we got ready to return to Peel; I happened to be steering, and when off Bradda Head, being a fine night, I told the rest of the crew to go below and have an hour’s sleep. When abreast of Slock, being left alone, I was suddenly startled to see a light spring up in the valley of Lag ny Keeilley. I watched, thinking it was strange, another and another appeared. until I am sure there were fifty lights, about forty yards apart. Then I heard the beat of a drum and music—wonderful music. At last I called the crew from below. When they came on deck and saw it the same as I did, one said to the other, “It is the Little Chaps making merry.” And as the music played the lights moved to and fro. It continued until the day broke, and the lights disappeared one by one and the music died away in the distance. I remembered the tune they had for months afterwards.’
Caesar wasn’t the only one who wrote of fishermen seeing and hearing unusual sounds coming from the keeill, the most well-known of all the tales of Lag ny Keeilley is the story in Sophia Morrison’s book, ‘Manx Fairy Tales’. Sophia Morrison, amongst many other things, was a collector of folklore and instrumental in preserving stories such as this for future generations. ‘The Child Without a Name’ is the tale of the heiress to Eary Cushlin who had a child that died. No-one knew of the child’s birth and she buried it at the keeill at Lag ny Keeilley. When boats were fishing close to land there, they would see a light and hear the crying of a child, they became so frightened that they wouldn’t fish nearby after dark. An old man named Illiam Quirk went to see for himself, he was known to be very brave and to have ‘power in his prayer’, on the moonlit night he heard a child crying. He made out the words in Manx Gaelic:
“Slee lhiannoo beg dyn ennym mie,” meaning “I am a little child without a name.” Old Illiam replied “God bless me, bogh, we mus’ give thee a name!” He threw a handful of water towards the child, crying out : “If thou are a boy, I christen thee in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Juan ! If thou are a girl, I christen thee in the name of the Father, Son . and Holy Ghost, Joanney !”
The crying was never heard again. (Morrison, 1911, ‘Manx Fairy Tales’)
I often used to sit out at Lag ny Keeilley on my own when I needed time to think and often this melancholy tale crossed my mind as I looked down the coast. The Manx had a real belief in the fairies which seemed to happily sit alongside their religious faith. Sophia Morrison illustrates this belief with the following story told to her by a Bill Clarke and written down in a chapter on the Isle of Man that she wrote for ‘Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries’ (Evans-Wentz, 1911):
‘Once while I was fishing from a ledge of rocks that runs out into the sea at Lag-ny-Keeilley, a dense grey mist began to approach the land, and I thought I had best make for home while the footpath above the rocks was visible. When getting my things together I heard what sounded like a lot of children coming out of school. I lifted my head, and behold ye, there was a fleet of fairy boats each side of the rock. Their riding-lights were shining like little stars, and I heard one of the Little Fellas shout, ” Hraaghyn boght as earish broigh, skeddan dy liooar ec yn mooinjer seihill shoh, cha nel veg ain ” (Poor times and dirty weather, and herring enough at the people of this world, nothing at us). Then they dropped off and went agate o’ the flitters.’
Morrison also contributes another piece of folklore on Lag ny Keeilley to the same book and one I particularly enjoy:
Sounds of Infinity.—’ On Dalby Mountain, this side of Cronk-yn-Irree-Laa the old Manx people used to put their ears to the earth to hear the Sounds of Infinity (Sheean-ny- Feaynid), which were sounds like murmurs. They thought these sounds came from beings in space; for in their belief all space is filled with invisible beings.’ ‘ (Evans-Wentz, 1911).
These are wonderful insights in to how the Manx people of old explained a confusing and difficult world. They are to me as much a part of Lag ny Keeilley as the lone hermit living a life dedicated to God on the edge of a cliff on the west coast of the Isle of Man.
Photos are mine and Sam Hudson’s.