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’)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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’)
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 (www.asmanxasthehills.com) 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; www.manxnotebook.com, www.imuseum.im and www.manxliterature.com, 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.