Keeills and Cake; Keeill Woirrey, Maughold.

Keeills and Cake; Keeill Woirrey, Maughold.

Keeill number thirty nine.

Keeill Woirrey was the forty third and final keeill site we visited in 2016 and at keeill number thirty nine it is the final post on this blog which now documents all the remaining Manx keeills.  Some would say with Keeill Woirrey we’ve saved the best until last.

‘Keeill Woirrey is the most remarkable of the Maughold keeills, not only on account of the state of preservation, but also on account of the wild and lonely nature of its surroundings, reminding us how the Celtic monks prized a solitary life of prayer and meditation, ministering to only a few adherents.  Seldom visited, and rather difficult to find, the keeill lies about a quarter of a mile beyond the farmhouse of “Cornaa in the fells”. (1979, Radcliffe, ‘A History of Kirk Maughold’)


1869 O.S. image showing ‘St Mary’s Chapel’.

Situated high up in the Cornaa Valley, this little chapel is on Crown land with public access via a path leading down from the public footpath running up the valley, the land is tenanted so always take care with livestock and make sure you close any gates after you.

Both Nicola and I have been walking and exploring the Island for many years but this wonderful spot had evaded us until this summer.  The valley is vast but hidden and seems a million miles away from modern civilisation, it is also stunningly beautiful.


Unlike the majority of the keeill sites on the Island, in this isolated and barren landscape with its rich colours of heather and bracken, it doesn’t take a vast stretch of the imagination to take yourself back to the time of the Ancient Celts and the early life of this little chapel.

‘..We must picture to ourselves the Island without houses, the clusters or small circular huts and rude cabins being hardly distinguishable from the surrounding surface of the land; without cultivation save for small patches laboriously tilled with forks and spades of wood, tipped, it may be, with iron; without hedges, roads or bridges.  There were no artificial banks to the streams, which contained a larger volume of water in these days, and, as there was no attempt at drainage, these must often have been greatly swollen, and their courses dammed by fallen trees and by fallen banks, so that floods would have been frequent and disastrous, while much land remained under bog and moss, several lakes continuing in existence even until the sixteenth century.  Undoubtedly, there were more trees than in our days, but self-planted and growing wild and unchecked… The whole Island formed a rich pasture land with climate sufficiently mild for their small and hardy breeds of cattle and sheep to remain out during the winter.

Such was the state of the land and the Celtic inhabitants must have closely resembled their fellows in Ireland, whence probably most, if not all of them, had first come to Man.’ (IOMNHAS Proc. Vol. 1, p.472)


Keeill Woirrey in the snow, photo by Sam Hudson.


The upper part of the Cornaa valley, also known by the more recent name of ‘Corony’, sits between North Barrule and Slieu Lhean leading up to Clagh Ouyr at the top of the valley just below the Snaefell mountain road.  In 1889, the Rev. S. N. Harrison, a chaplain at Christ Church, Dhoon, found a stone lying by the stream at the upper end of the Cornaa valley which mentioned an even earlier name for this valley, the stone had been used by people coming to collect water to rest their carriers on.  It is thought to have originally come from Keeill Woirrey which sits immediately above where it was found, one edge is smooth which is thought to be from sheep rubbing against it and it is very plain except for a runic inscription of two lines.

“Christ, Malachi and Patrick (and) Adamnan! But of all the sheep is John Priest in Cornadale”

The mention of Malachi dates the stone to a little after 1190 when he was canonised, and when John the Priest must have been exercising his ministry here.  Mr Megaw comments that although the Saints invoked are Irish, Malachi and Adamnan are known for their wish to bring the Irish Church closer to Roman thought and practice, and not to keep it apart as an independent entity.  John’s inscription, then, seems to stand for authority – the authority of a centralised Church, which would enfold even the wild Cornaa valley in Rome, and the authority of the parish priest over his scattered flock. (1979, Radcliffe, ‘A History of Kirk Maughold’)

This stone is now in the Cross House at Maughold Parish Church along with a second smaller stone which was found in the walls at Maughold church during renovations in 1900, this stone has written on it in runes (in which the Norse language was written) and ogams (the earlier Celtic language);

“John (the) Priest cut these runes”

‘The slab and the stone, if the finds are correct, were found at opposite ends of the parish and in different locations, the slab in an isolated valley inland and seemingly distant from an obvious flock, and the stone from an established church site some five miles to the east, on the site of a monastery and now the parish church’ (2004, M. Fargher, ‘Brother John? … A Source and the Scholar’ MS 11529)

Who ‘John the Priest’ actually was will remain a mystery but the beauty of the landscape of the Cornaa Valley and the link with someone who once lived and preached there lends itself to the voice of a storyteller, it inspired Josephine Kermode, known as ‘Cushag’ the ‘Manx Poetess’ to write a poem on the subject.  Her brother P. M. C. Kermode (author of the Manx Archaeological Survey) was also inspired by ‘John the Priest’ to write a story for the publication ‘Mannin’ in 1913 entitled ‘In Corna Dale’;

SEVEN hundred years ago and three added on to that, and on a midsummer day Corna Dale lay bathed in the morning sun. The thunder storm of the previous night had I left the air fresh and cool and in the rarefied atmosphere every feature was sharply defined, the most distant points appearing to be within easy hail. Away on the eastern horizon as viewed from the land below, the Cumberland hills stood out as though they bounded the other side of a still blue lake, but, through the windings of the dale, no outlet could be seen, nothing but a narrow green basin, seemingly set high up in the mountains far from the noise and struggle of life.

The fair, small valley, with its grassy banks steeply rising, then more gently sloping up to the hills on either side, seemed to open out and to be carried far beyond its three mile stretch to the purple haze which half concealed the Clagh Ard at its head. A gentle breeze was wafted in from the sea lifting the soft mantle of mist which still clung to the summit of Barrule, magnifying his stature and his massive bulk. No sound disturbed the stillness but the bleating of the goats and the almost human wailing of their kids. Small flocks of sheep were scattered over the slopes, and, lower down, were herds of mountain cattle. From high in the heavens the lark, a nearly invisible speck, poured forth his morning psalm of praise. Spirals of thin blue smoke rising here and there, spoke of human dwellings, but so small were they and so intimately harmonious with their surroundings, that their presence would not otherwise be revealed; Sights and sounds all told of peace; only from far up the dale, the hoarse bark of the ravens wheeling round Mull y Kerrey served to remind. of the tragedy which had passed. (1913, Kermode, Mannin vol.1)

The story describes the invasion of Mann and life at the time of Juan the Priest along with the carving of the stone and is continued in further issues of ‘Mannin’.

The Corony Valley was also the home to the legendary ‘witch’, ‘Berrey Dhone’.  It isn’t known whether she was a real woman living in the valley over two centuries ago or whether she was a memory of a much older legend, the story is beautifully told in the song ‘Berrey Dhone’, the words were first collected in the 1830’s and it is found in ‘Manx Ballads’ (1896, Moore). This recording is of Sue Woolley telling the story of Berrey Dhone and then Chloe singing one of the two versions of the song very beautifully, shared with the kind permission of Culture Vannin.  William Kennish, the Manx poet, engineer and inventor was born at the Corony Bridge, his parents lived and farmed at Upper Cornaa Farm just below the keeill.

An inspiring landscape to many people.


The public footpath that leads to Keeill Woirrey follows the old mountain road which runs along the side of North Barrule past ‘Park Llewelyn’, one of the most striking and well known tholtans (a Manx term for a ruin without a roof).  ‘Park Llewelyn’ was a piece of land, enclosed from the ‘Commons’ in the late 1700’s by John Lewhellin, who, in a letter to the Duke of Atholl (then Lord of Mann) in 1768, spoke about his plans for the land;

‘I have some thoughts of building a small lodge in some commodious place on the top of the mountain, where I shall yearly invite some of the principle people of this Island to meet me, & have the pleasure to drink your Graces, my Lady Dutchess’s & your noble familys health, & propserity’

Park Llewellyn was lived in until fairly recent times and stands impressive as a ruin against the rugged skyline.


There are many clues in the landscape to the interesting history of the Corony valley;  Almost opposite Keeill Woirrey on the south side of the valley is Cronk Aeradh (Hill of Sheilings), remains that are thought to be part of an early settlement.  Towards the head of the valley is a large earthwork known as Lieh Eayst (Half Moon) whilst in the bottom of the valley just below the keeill are the remains the North Laxey and Glen Cherry mines which were worked until the end of the nineteenth century.


Mine photos courtesy of Sam Hudson.

Keeill Woirrey is one of eight keeills on the Island that are thought to have been dedicated to the Virgin Mary; the most popular dedication.  It is also one of nineteen keeills that are known to have existed in the parish of Maughold, six of these have some form of remains in 2016.

Plan of Keeill Woirrey taken from the Fourth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (1915, Kermode).

The keeill was excavated by Kermode’s team for the Fourth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (1915) and from their measurements it seemed to be in a similar state of preservation at the time of our visit one century later.


At the time of Kermode’s visit, the building measured 13ft. 6in. by 9ft. 6ins., it sits on land sloping to the south which has been built up to make a level platform.  The structure is made of dry stone walls capped with turf that measure around 3ft. wide by 3ft. high which is around the same height that Kermode found them at the time of the survey, the walls were protected by banks of earth and stones up to the height of the windows, this is frequently found in the construction of Manx keeills.  Kermode found some floor paving but it is impossible to see if this is still in place in 2016 under the layer of grass.  There was a window in the east wall and there were found to be two doorways, one each in the south and the east walls, one of which had a drainage system under the flagged stones below it.  Kermode thought that rather than a ‘door’ the opening may have been closed by a:

‘ scraa’ or bundle of sallies, such as was in use for houses in remote country districts until quite recent times. This was made the full width of the doorway which narrowed inwards so that it should fit tightly. The sallies were held together by bands with a stouter band round the middle, made of heather. A stick twisted in this band would catch the wall at either side and so hold it fast. The top would be cut off straight at the height of the door lintel.’ (1915, Kermode)


Kermode found signs of an altar and gives the measurements as 48ins. by 44ins but we could see no sign of this.  The chapel is surrounded by a burial ground and enclosed by a bank made from sods strengthened with stones, the northern half of the enclosure bank remains although the southern side is on boggy ground and no longer defined, the enclosure was thought by Kermode to measure 42 yards by 30  yards.  Inside the enclosure are many stones set on edge that are thought to be grave markers;

‘Only seven white pebbles were met with in the Keeill ; outside are many graves almost all with headstones venerable in their extreme simplicity, consisting merely of large unhewn stones from the mountain side set on end. Some had stones at the foot also and some at each corner. None of these stones showed carving or dressing of any description’. (1915, Kermode)



An excavation between the altar and the north wall revealed a much earlier pavement with a heavy stone which passed under the keeill wall, between the stone and the pavement were found charcoal, pottery and a chip of red flint, it was thought to be the remains of a Bronze Age burial (1915, Kermode).  A number of cross slabs have been found in and around the keeill; Kermode’s team found a rough stone inside the keeill with a plain cross inside an oval ring incised on to it, this is thought to date from the sixth or seventh century.  It would seem that this keeill was another example of the re-use by the Celtic Christians of a much older sacred site.


Path leading down to Keeill Woirrey.


Often, these little chapels had fairs associated with them and their feast days and Keeill Woirrey is no exception.  J. J. Kneen in his wonderful book ‘Manx Place Names’ (1925) tells us that a fair was anciently held at the keeill site on March 25th, the day of the ‘Annunciation of the Virgin Mary’.  This was transferred to ‘Cornah Bridge’ in 1826 and then to Ramsey in 1835, it’s hard to imagine a popular fair being held in such a remote spot.

Our visit to Keeill Woirrey was a memorable day; it was our final keeill visit which we were a bit sad about but the sun came out, the landscape was stunning, the place was packed with history and we had Nic’s homemade cake and a flask of tea.  We were at the end of a ‘keeill adventure’ which has been great fun and has brought us to many rarely visited and isolated spots on our Island.

I was with my best friend in a beautiful place with cake, life does not get any better than that.

‘The sun went down, the evening breeze came softly off the land driving loose clouds before it, and curling and twisting in fantastic shapes the grey mist creeping to the tops of the hills on either side of the narrow dale,- and when the moon-beams silvered the thatch of the little Keeill, and sparkled in the dancing stream, it could not well be said which was land and which was mist and which was the sky above. Corna Dale was severed from the human world and given over to the night and the wind, to the Faeries and the Buggane.’ (1913, Kermode, ‘Mannin vol.1’)


More information on the Manx keeills.

At the end of this final blog post, Nicola and I would like to say a big thank you to people that have helped us complete ‘Keeills and Cake’.  The majority of keeills are on private land and we have had to find the land owners and ask their permission which has been quite a task, many people have helped us with this information and Nic and I are grateful to both them and to the landowners for allowing us to enjoy the monuments in their care.  We would like to thank Frank Cowin, Dr Andrew Foxon, Dave Martin and Andrew Johnson for their help and advice and I am grateful to the patient staff at the Manx Museum Library for all their help over many hours of research, it was invaluable.  I would also like to thank Bernadette Wyde ( and Sam Hudson for passing on any references and information on keeills that they have come across.  Along with many wonderful Manx books, there are a number of excellent websites that have been useful;, and, the description of keeill visits from over the past 130 years in the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society Proceedings has also been invaluable.  The IOMNHAS is still relevant today with visits and talks on Manx history and the landscape, their programme of events can be found here.

The Manx keeills are now all documented as they are found in 2016, ‘Keeills and Cake’ are signing out.



















Keeills and Cake; Speke Keeill, Braddan.

Keeills and Cake; Speke Keeill, Braddan.

Keeill number thirty eight.

It may also be remarked, that besides Barrows, other reliques of antiquity of a different kind, are thickly scattered all over the Island, namely, the Kihls or small Kirks of the early Christians. These are merely small enclosed spaces, containing some mounds or rubbish, and are so numerous that it is said that every treen anciently possessed one. They appear to have been a kind of domestic chapels, and are said to have been visited occasionally by itinerating monks. To this day, tradition affixes the chaplaincy of one in Braddan named Kiel-Albin, to the proprietor of a neighbouring farm, Awhallyon. But in general, they are now entirely forgotten, and only superstitiously venerated as containing the remains of the dead, for they have all been used as burying places. As an example of one, Kiel-Vael, or Michael, which signifies Kirk Michael. situated on the top of Balladoole hill, may be pointed out as occurring on this road.  Another, near the Douglas road, may be seen on passing Bulreinny hill, Mount Murray. (Oswald, 1831, ‘Isle of Man New Guide’)


1869 O.S.


I have put off writing this post for a while as unlike the other posts I have only one photo of the keeill site, somewhere I found myself particularly uninspired by, especially as it took us two attempts to find it.  I think we were expecting more than the solitary stone on the edge of a golf course which is all that marks the location in 2016.  The stone is thought to have been in place for many years and was possibly placed there to keep the plough away from the site, either to preserve it or to preserve the plough from large stones that may cause damage.

The purpose of this blog is to document all the ‘Keeills’ on the Isle of Man with existing remains in 2016 and under that description, ‘Speke Keeill’ does not warrant a post.  However, what was found during an investigation by Time Team and Wessex Archaeology in 2006 makes Speke Keeill very much deserving of a mention.


The keeill site is on the land of the Mount Murray Golf Club, sitting very close to the Speke Lane boundary, the burial site continues on the other side of the lane on Speke Farm land.  Marstrander in ‘Treen og Keeill’ (1937) mentions Speke in his list of keeills on the Island but gives no measurements of the building or a known dedication.

Mount Murray is a hill just outside of Douglas, in the past it was sometimes known as ‘The Mount’ and earlier as ‘Cronk Glass’ meaning ‘Green Hill’ (Gill, 1929. ‘A Manx Scrapbook).  The earliest name for the hill seems to have been ‘Ais Hólt’ which means ‘Holt’s Hill’, Holt was a Norse surname (Kneen, 1925, ‘Place names of the Isle of Man’).

In 1717, a Dublin Merchant, Richard McGwire, applied to enclose an area of common land known as ‘being the mountain called Ash hold’ and started to build a house there.  Unfortunately, he got in to debt and the estate was sold a couple of times and rented out (at one stage to Sir Wadsworth Busk, attorney general of the Island 1774-1797′) before it was bought by Lord Henry Murray in 1793 (information taken from Manx Notebook).

‘The house is elegant: and Sir Wadsworth’s fine taste endeavoured to embellish some of the neighbouring fields; but the sterility of the soil, in a great measure, has frustrated every attempt. Yet, in this retirement Sir Wadsworth devotes himself to the pursuits of literature and the enjoyment of domestic virtues.

At a little distance from Newtown, on the top of a mountain, Sir Wadsworth erected a pillar inscribed to the Queen, in commemoration of his Majesty’s recovery in 1789; which has little to recommend it to a traveller’s attention, except the loyalty it expresses. To the fishermen on this side of the island, it however proves, from its elevation, an excellent sea-mark.’ (Robertson, 1794, ‘A Tour Round the Isle of Man’)

The mound where Sir Wadsworth erected his pillar still exists although the pillar seems to have gone.


Thanks to Sam Hudson for the photo of the Wadsworth Busk mound.


The ‘Braaid Circle’, a stone circle site with the remains of a Norse farmstead was also on the land of the Mount Murray estate until it was divided up in the last half of the 19th Century.


The first mention of the keeill at Speke, is on a Mount Murray Estate map (1800) which shows a small rectangular east-west aligned building in an enclosure marked as ‘old chapel’, this information comes from the Wessex Archaeology report for Time Team although I have had no luck trying to find this map myself in the MNH library.  It is thought that John Murray (1755-1830), Fourth Duke of Atholl and a keen antiquarian, may have made a double ditched enclosure around the keeill site, possibly to protect it, in the process the enclosure cut through one of the graves.  In recent times, the Mount Murray estate has become a golf club with a large housing estate in the grounds.

In the Ordnance Survey particulars on the site, it states;

‘ In a field to the immediate S.E. of Speke is pointed out the site of an ancient Chapel and Burial Ground. A number of stone lined graves are to be seen in the road running past the E. end of the field, and during the construction of the road a large quantity of human bones were found. There is no tradition regarding the spot.’ Authorities quoted are: Mr. John Corris; Mr. Hog g; Mr. Quine; Dr. Oliver, Douglas.’

At the time that Kermode was surveying the keeills, there were no visible remains at the site.  In the Fifth Report (1918, Kermode), it mentions that Mr Richard Lace had examined fourteen lintel graves at the site and found them ‘of the usual character’ although he had found two adult bodies in one grave which was unusual, he estimated from the burials that the cemetery would have been around 200 yards in diameter.  Richard Lace was headmaster at Santon school and an enthusiastic antiquarian who completed a number of surveys at Kermode’s request including the Sulbrick and Ballawoods keeill sites.  There are a number of letters between him and Kermode in Kermode’s private papers and we are reminded that many others share the credit for the wonderful work of the Manx Archaeological Survey.  Other than the mention of the lintel graves, there is no other information in the Kermode report.

In 1992 when the area was being developed there was a survey of the keeill site but unfortunately the records of this were not lodged with the MNH library so I wasn’t able to access it, the connected planning applications were unfortunately unable to be found.  So, very little was known of this seemingly long ploughed over site and the stone could have become little more than a marker in a round of golf.

Until Time Team happened!


Photo used with permission from Wessex Archaeology.


The Speke Keeill was excavated by Time Team and Wessex Archaeology and the results were aired on television in 2007.  The following information on the Time Team dig I have used with permission from Wessex Archaeology and all quotes are taken from the full report on the dig which can be found here.  The project had three aims;

To characterise the archaeological resource at the site;

To provide a condition survey of the site;

To determine the extent of the site.

Underneath the layer of turf covering the site, the team found the four walls of the keeill, built in Manx slate and granite blocks which had all fallen inwards, the wall had originally been supported by a layers of turf banked up against it on the outside.  Underneath the collapsed walls, they found the original altar from the keeill, built of thin slabs of Manx slate and with the familiar white pebbles found both inside and around the altar that are often found at these sites.  No floor covering was existent which may have meant the floor of the keeill could have been hardened earth instead of the frequently found stone slabs and the door was found to have been in the south west corner of the south wall.  A roughly shaped square structure was found just outside one of the walls and was thought to be a ‘reliquary’, the inside was lined with white quartz stones;

‘This deposit was either packing for the lining (106) or positioned around whatever had been placed within the feature, perhaps a small box containing a piece of the founder’s remains. Following the abandonment of the keeill, the reliquary may have been opened and the relic removed to another location.’

It was found that after the keeill had been abandoned as a chapel, there was a period of disuse before the walls were possibly intentionally demolished or collapsed naturally.  A slate slab incised with a cross was found which may have originally been a grave marker before being reused in the structure of the keeill itself.  In one of the ditches was found an Ogham marked stone;

Ogham originated in Ireland in the 4th and 5th centuries where it continued to be used until about the 7th century.  It continued in use longer in Scotland, well in to the 10th and 11th centuries, particularly in the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland where there was a mixing of the Norse and native Gaelic cultures along the Atlantic west coast of Britain. Ogham is notoriously difficult to date although the development of the script is known. The earliest form of ogham was written down the arris edges of stones or timber with lines or letter strokes scribed either side (Type I ogham). Later it was written on flat surfaces with a central line or stem used to imitate the arris edge, with lines scribed above and below this stem creating bundles of letter strokes (Type II ogham).

The Ogham stone at Speke is written in a form of Gaelic particular to the Northern Isles and dates from between the 8th century and the 12th century, the inscription reads;

‘BAC OCOICAT IALL’ meaning ‘corner/angle, fifty, throng/group’


Image of the Ogham inscribed stone at Speke used with permission from Wessex Archaeology.


It appears to have been doodling or graffiti rather than a formal inscription but was a very rare find.  A number of slate slabs with crosses on have been found at the site of the years; an incised cross was found by an Officer Cadet Training party camping at the site in 1941 and Ross Trench-Jellicoe found a slab marked with a cross at the site when conducting a study of Manx crosses on the Island in 1981.

The graves were excavated and one was found to hold a small plait of hair; an unusual find as hair is rarely preserved from that date.  Samples from three graves were sent for radiocarbon dating, these were found to all date from between the 6th and 7th centuries which made them pre-Norse and much earlier than the keeill itself.

The report suggests that the history of events at Speke Keeill is similar to that at Balladoole with a keeill being built within an earlier cemetery following the arrival of the Norse around the 9th century.  This is a situation found in several other keeill sites on the Island including Ballameanagh Keeill, Upper Sulby Keeill and Keeill Woirrey, Maughold (Lowe 1987, 78-9).  They were unable to find out the extent of the site due to time constraints but it is thought that Richard Lace’s estimate of the cemetery measuring 200 yards in diameter may have been pretty fair.


An image showing the layout of the keeill and some of the finds including the ‘reliquary’, used with permission from Wessex Archaeology.


This excavation of the Speke Keeill by Time Team and Wessex Archaeology has brought life to this site and much has been learnt from their findings.

Modern technology and archaeological practice have advanced so much from the time of the Kermode surveys and one has to wonder what else would be learnt about early Celtic life on the Island if there was an unlimited resource of archaeologists and time to excavate the many ancient sites on the Island to this level.  Wishful thinking of course.

So, next time you’re playing a round of golf at Mount Murray, consider those graves you’re walking over; in the Isle of Man, there is history everywhere.



More information on the Manx keeills.