Keeills and Cake; Keeill Vael, Arbory.

Keeills and Cake; Keeill Vael, Arbory.

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.

Viking ship burial, Balladoole.


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.

Plan taken from Sixth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (1966).


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?





Keeills and Cake; Eairy Moar Keeill, German.

Keeills and Cake; Eairy Moar Keeill, German.

Keeill number twenty six.

With kind permission from Lord Davis-Goff and tenant farmer of Eairy Moar Farm, Ray Griffin.

Spelled in various ways as Earey Mooar/Moar, Eary Mooar/Moar, Eairy Mooar/Moar, a name that translates as ‘Great Sheiling’, the Eairy Moar Keeill sits on the hillside above Glen Helen on the land of Eairy Moar Farm.

Glen Helen, previously known as ‘Rhenass’, was planted in the 1860’s and grew in to a well known tourist attraction where locals and visitors flocked to visit the ‘Swiss Cottage’ and enjoy trout fishing, skittles, swings and excellent cheese cakes amongst many other forms of entertainment (‘Jenkinson’s Practical Guide’, 1874).  Even in the 1920’s there was plenty of fun to be had with:

…an amusement park with gardens and lawns, an aviary, dancing floor and tea gardens, and a boating lake with fountains playing, but beyond, the long glen winds so far into the mountains that it is easy to get out of sight and sound of the merry-makers. The wide glen is one of the most richly and beautifully wooded on the Island, and the Rhenass Falls, about a mile from the entrance, are in an enchanting setting of woods and rocks. (Official Handbook Isle of Man, 1923)

Glen Helen in 2016 is made up of the recently closed Glen Helen Inn and Swiss House Restaurant and a child’s play park along with the glen and Rhenass Falls, it is most popular during TT and MGP week as a viewing and commentary spot but is fairly quiet the rest of the year especially now the businesses have closed.

Hiding in a field, just above the top footpath running through Glen Helen, is the Eairy Moar Keeill.  With all the visitors to the Rhenass Falls below and the keeill sitting just off the upper footpath which was popular with Victorian tourists heading for Little London, I was surprised that I couldn’t find any mention of the keeill in the tourism literature at the time, these chapels were often popular places to visit.  I did, however, find this mention of a stone circle which must have sat close by the keeill:

Paths lead down the glen, either high up the side of the hill or close to the stream, on the opposite side to that by which the tourist came. By following the higher track, a small but perfect stone circle will be found in a field at the back of the plantation, on the Eairy Moar farm, nearly half-way down the glen. It is evidently one of the many ancient burial-places met with on the island. (‘Jenkinson’s Practical Guide to the Isle of Man’, 1874)

I couldn’t find any other reference to this stone circle so I can only assume it did not survive in to the twentieth century.  To say the keeill is hidden is an understatement, you really could walk past it without knowing it was there as the undergrowth is so thick.  Our first attempt was on a very wet day in February, it was pretty grim and we got quite lost.


The second visit was in June 2016, kindly accompanied by Ray Griffin.  Ray has looked after the 300 acres at Eairy Moar for Lord and Lady Davis Goff for over twenty years, he is now 83 and still taking care of the land and his herd of highland cattle every day.


Ray was very pleasant company and a real character!  He didn’t know much about the keeill other than that Lord Davis-Goff was very respectful of it and intended to fence it at some stage.  Being so overgrown and hidden in the landscape, this little chapel could easily be forgotten so it was good to see that it is very much in safe hands.


I can find no mention of the keeill being visited by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society which is a pity as the write up of these visits in the local press often provides valuable information on the structure and associated folklore of these places.  However, the Eairy Moar Keeill was surveyed for the ‘Second Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey’ (1910) which does provide us with an explanation of what hopefully still sits beneath the undergrowth in 2016.

earey mooar1

The survey team found the building to measure 14 ft. by 7 ft. with walls that were between 3 ft. 6 ins. and 4 ft. wide and standing between 2 and 3 ft. high, the foundation is deeper on one side to make up for it being built in to the hillside.  Instead of the usual earthen bank faced with stone, the chapel at Eairy Moar is built from stone throughout with a high proportion of the stone being white quartz.  This is similar to the keeill at Ballahimmin which is just up the valley from here.  The proportion of quartz stone is very high although there was no mention in the survey of it having been built on an Iron Age site which is often the case when there is a large amount of quartz in use.

The doorway was found to be in the middle of the west wall, being reached by a step about 9 inches high.  There was no paving still in position but many stones were found with the corners chipped to make them more round and they could possibly have been part of the flooring.  The base of the altar remained and was 12 inches high, 2 ft. 10 ins by 2 ft. built from large stones and earth.  The skirting of upright stones round the walls had almost all been carried away.

We were not able to see if the altar still remains in place due to the thickness of the undergrowth unfortunately, hopefully its secluded position will have protected it.

Although there is now nowhere to buy cake in the vicinity, Glen Helen is still well worth a visit.  The Rhenass Falls are just as spectacular as they were when the Victorian tourists posed in front for their photographs and they have probably changed very little from when our Celtic ancestors climbed up the hill from Rhenass with the sound of the waterfall in the background to worship at the Eairy Moar Keeill over 1000 years ago.

You can almost picture the keeill as it was then, with the sun setting in the west and reflecting off the walls full of glistening white quartz; making the chapel so visible on the open hillside that it would be a landmark of the Celtic faith for miles around.


What’s a keeill?

Please be aware that these sites are on private land unless noted as being otherwise and are visited with permission of the landowner.

Keeills and Cake; Sulbrick Keeill, Santon.

Keeills and Cake; Sulbrick Keeill, Santon.

Keeill number twenty five.

With kind permission from Mr and Mrs Skillen, Sulbrick Farm.

There are six keeills that are known to have existed in the parish of Santon, of these, Sulbrick Keeill is the only one that has any visible remains in 2016.

Sulbrick Farm sits in the valley just below the Clannagh Road and is accessed by a long lane from Ballahowin, there are no footpaths nearby and the farm is isolated in a very pleasant way; the views over the rolling fields towards South Barrule are lovely.


Sulbrick is mentioned as early as the 1511 Manorial Roll, the name ‘Sulbrick’ originating from the Scandinavian for ‘Sandy Slope’ which is ‘Sandbrekka’ (‘Manx Place Names’, J. J. Kneen, 1925).   The Moore family lived at Sulbrick from the early 1600’s, long enough to be known as ‘The Moores of Sulbrick’ and were still there at the end of the 19th Century according to the business directories of the time.  The farm is very much off the beaten track in the 21st century but it would seem that this hasn’t always been the case.  According to Mrs Quine who lived at Sulbrick and who was interviewed for the Manx Folklife Survey in 1973 (FLS S/051), Sulbrick Farm sits on the old track to Santon Church, and that the track goes through where the current house stands, she believed that people occasionally used it in recent memory and cut around the outside of the house.  It can’t have been a coincidence that the track passed by the old keeill site.  The distance to the nearest road from Sulbrick is what makes it appear so isolated, it must have been a busy little thoroughfare when it sat on the track to the old church in the days before motor vehicles were invented.  You can see from the aerial photograph of Sulbrick below that the keeill walls are very visible in the field on the left.


Sulbrick has been farmed by Mr and Mrs Skillen for the past 21 years and they were good enough to take us down to show us the keeill which sits a couple of fields away from the house.  In 21 years, we were only the second set of people (other than MNH) to visit the keeill (in their knowledge), the Praying the Keeills event visited in 2010.  As always, being accompanied by the ‘Keepers of the Keeill’ made the visit much more interesting, they were able to point out old mine trials in the same field as the keeill and tell us a bit more about the area.  We’ve met some lovely people on these visits and Mr and Mrs Skillen were no exception.


The keeill is under the guardianship of MNH and was fenced off by them in 1938.  They are also responsible for cutting the grass and keeping the keeill tidy, this job is actually done by Mr and Mrs Skillen’s son who works for Manx National Heritage!  When we visited, the site was due its annual trim which was a pity as the detailing in the structure would have been more visible without the grass, however, Mrs Skillen was able to point out some paving stones and the remains of what is thought to be the altar, in the undergrowth.


The structure of the keeill was probably one of the best we had seen, with walls that must have been 3 to 4 ft. high, the only others that we found to be so intact were Keeill Vreeshey at Eyerton and Keeill Kickle, Jurby.  The walls were very thick and it was great to visit a keeill where wallking in through the doorway actually felt like walking in to a building, it gave a much better idea of what these ancient chapels would have looked and felt like.


Image taken from ‘A History of the Isle of Man’ by R. Kinvig (1950).


Mr Skillen told us that the site surrounding the keeill was surveyed by archaeological students from a university a few years ago but unfortunately Mr and Mrs Skillen were never told of the findings so the field around the keeill remains a mystery, to us at least.


The site wasn’t visited by the 1877 Archaeological Commission and I can find no records of any visits by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society, however, it was surveyed for the 5th Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (1918).  They found the keeill to measure 17 ft. by 8 ft. 6ins. with walls between 2 and 4 ft. in height and between 3 and 4.5 ft. in width, we found it in a similar condition 100 years later.  Here is a photo of the Sulbrick Keeill from the survey, taken in 1935, it looks very different without the grass and fence!


The keeill was built from boulders and stones of quartz, trap and slate, the east wall had a facing only on the inside whilst outside it was roughly built against the sustaining bank, they thought that above the bank it would most likely have had an external facing.  They found the south wall to have settled inwards at the west end and they found in this wall at a height of 4 ft. a projecting stone that they thought may have been a bracket on which to place a small lamp, it’s these small things that make these ancient buildings easier to relate to, we will have to go back later in the year and see if it is still in place.


The doorway in the west wall had been filled in but they found a lower jamb stone of white quartz and a sill stone, they also found the remains of what appeared to be a sill stone marking a window in the south wall at a height of 3 ft. 6 ins. from the floor.  There were small stones of irregular size and shape mostly near the entrance that marked the remains of the floor pavement, the base of the altar was 4 ft. 3 ins. by 2 – 2 ft. 6 ins and still in place.  They also found a support and possibly a covering stone for the altar .

The survey team found thirteen lintel graves inside and around the keeill, five passed under the walls suggesting that the current building may be an enlargement of the original structure, one grave had no lintels but was covered in white shore pebbles.

Outside, they found the usual bank of earth and large stones against the walls, between 3 and 6 ft. wide, this was possibly to support the weight of a thatched roof.  There was little left of the enclosure other tha a slightly raised area that seems to have gone completely in 2016.

An early cross slab was found by the side of a stream at the nearby Ballacorris Mill and it is assumed that it came from Sulbrick Keeill originally, it now sits in Santon Church.

There is known to have been a ‘healing well’ about 250 yards north east of the keeill, in the Kermode Survey it is told how, in recent times, the well was discovered by a man who had killed his dog with a stone, he threw it in to the well and the dog then recovered.  I asked Mr and Mrs Skillen about the well but they didn’t know of it so I don’t think it has survived. Great story though.

Unusually, we hadn’t brought cake with us, thankfully Mrs Skillen is a member of the WI and makes excellent cake.  We finished our visit with tea, delicious cake and a good chat in Sulbrick Farmhouse, that’s what it’s all about!


An Introduction to Keeills.






Keeills and Cake; Keeill Chiggyrt, Maughold.

Keeills and Cake; Keeill Chiggyrt, Maughold.

Keeill number twenty four.

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

Keeill Chiggyrt on the land of Ballafayle y Cannell, is one of six surviving keeills of the nineteen known keeill sites in the parish of Maughold.  The local tradition is that this was the burial place for ‘priests’ while the ‘locals’ were buried at Ballajora, the name of the nearby holy well ‘Chibbyr y Woirrey’ suggests the possible dedication of the keeill to St. Mary (information taken from the ‘Fourth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey'(1915).


Ballafayle y Cannell was once the home of William Cannell, probably the most well known of the Manx Quakers and the target of terrible hardship and persecution because of his faith.  In 1665, after spells in prison and years of maltreatment by the Bishop and particularly Illiam Dhone, he was banished from the Island, leaving his wife and young children behind.  In 1672, Charles II allowed William Callow and other banished Quakers to return to the Island and he was able to live his last short years at Ballafayle y Callow and was buried in a lonely sectioned off area of the farm, finally finding rest.  This tiny burial ground, ‘Rullick ny Quakeryn’ is thought to be on the site of an old keeill.  Opposite the Quaker burial ground is the Ballafayle Cairn and past that, the wonderful memorial to Sir Charles Kerruish with stunning views across Maughold.  This peaceful place is well worth a visit and a moment to reflect that religious persecution and intolerance is sadly nothing new.


From Rullic ny Quakeryn, Cashtal yn Ard isn’t far away, Gob ny Garvain, the remains of an earthen fort is on the coast to the east of Keeill Chiggyrt.  Also nearby is Maughold Church with its three, yes THREE keeills in the churchyard along with many Celtic crosses and Ballaglass Glen, above Cornaa, is (in my opinion) the finest glen on the Island.  For all its lack of public footpaths, Maughold is a veritable smorgasbord of heritage delights.

Anyway, I digress.  Keeill Chiggyrt was visited by the Archaeological Commission around 1877, they found that it had recently ‘suffered at the hand of time and the ill usage of rude and irreverent visitors’ and that the walls of the keeill, once 2 to 3 ft. high, were now ‘barely traceable’.  The enclosure of the graveyard remained but was in need of repair, and they suggested a ‘hedge of quicks with a few trees’ would be suitable protection.  A ‘sculptured stone, or cross, of a peculiar character’ had been removed from its original position in the west gable but had thankfully been recovered and had been placed in the vicarage garden.  This beautiful cross is now on display in Maughold churchyard.

keeill chiggyrrr.jpg

By the time Keeill Chiggyrt was surveyed by P. M. C. Kermode and his team for the ‘Fourth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey’ (1915), they found the keeill to measure 20 ft. by 11 ft. and the height of the walls to be between 1 to 2 ft..  They found the walls to be:

…well built, without lime mortar, of stone throughout and are of even thickness; the stones are unhewn and undressed but selected and well fitting, averaging from 14 to 15 ins. long by 4 ins. thick.

At the east end, they found some foundations 2 ft. below the floor along with the remains of a drain in the south east corner.  The doorway was towards the centre of the west wall with some larger stones curving outwards similar to the curved entrance at Ballahimmin Keeill.  The altar was gone but the remains of the platform on which it stood were partly visible, there were some paving stones and signs of digging or disturbance around the middle area.  The situation of a window in the east wall was just about evident, however, the survey mentioned that:

Mr Kerruish remembers the walls standing about 5 ft. high and Mrs Callow has recollection of recesses in the walls which, as children, they thought were cupboards, but no doubt were windows.

The enclosure by this time was only able to be ‘faintly traced’ so that had disappeared since the visit by the Archaeological Commission about 35 years earlier.  The Celtic cross had been replaced in the keeill after its sojourn in the vicarage garden and that was where the Survey team found it before its removal to the Maughold churchyard where it is to be found today.  I felt there were some conflicting points between these two surveys; Kermode found the walls to be between 1.5 and 2 ft. high around 1915 so it was strange that the 1877 commission described them as having once been 2 to 3 ft. and now ‘barely traceable’, also that someone around 1910 remembered them as having been 5ft. high and there having been windows in existence.  I have no idea of the age of the Mr Kerruish and Mrs Callow that spoke to P. M. C. Kermode but I’m assuming they were a good age to remember the Keeill Chiggyrt in that condition, it seems the majority of the deterioration must have happened some time between 1820 and 1870.

Certainly, when we visited in May 2016, we were quite pleased with what we felt to be a keeill whose structure was still fairly visible, we had just visited the single stone remaining of Sulby Keeill earlier that day so I think we were just relieved to find something recognisable, it is all relative.

The stonework of the keeill was quite distinctive and put together very neatly with the walls being around 1 ft. in height, the east wall was obscured by gorse so we weren’t able to see how much of that structure remained although some of the stones were displaced.

chiggyrt 7

By 2016, and with no hedge put in place as suggested in 1877, the outside boundary had gone completely.  The inside of the keeill was filled with gorse so we were limited as to what we could see of the interior but we could make out a very interesting stone with a fairly deep hollow carved in to it.  It didn’t look to us like a font or like anything we had seen before and we were interested to hear (from Professor Mark Noel who led a walk there with the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society in June 2016) that it could possibly be the base of one of the two crosses found at Keeill Chiggyrt*.  Professor Mark Noel and his students from Durham University have been carrying out geophysical surveys of a number of the Manx keeills and the areas surrounding them (the Kermode surveys only ever dealt with the keeill buildings), the findings of Prof. Noel and the “Keeills Research Project” will be published in due course and when they are, I’m sure they will greatly add to the understanding of these interesting sites.


There was just enough room to sit and eat our cake, a delicious bara brith that Nicola (the cake maker out of the pair of us) had made.  I think the ‘cake’ element of ‘Keeills and Cake’ has been underplayed, on some visits the cake has been the highlight!  I’ve shared the bara brith recipe as it was a particularly good one, you can find it at:bara brith recipe.

Wrap a couple of slices in foil and eat in the great outdoors.



*Of the two crosses found at Keeill Chiggyrt, the cross that is now in Maughold churchyard is numbered 79 on Kermode’s List, the second is 163 but isn’t on the list and I couldn’t find much information on it.

What are keeills?





Keeills and Cake, Ballahimmin, German.

Keeills and Cake, Ballahimmin, German.


Keeill number twenty three.

With kind permission from Mr J. Cannell, Ballahimmin.

To sing a song shall please my countrymen;
To unlock the treasures of the Island heart;
With loving feet to trace each hill and glen,
And find the ore that is not for the mart
Of commerce : this is all I ask.

(T. E. Brown, ‘Fo’c’sle Yarns’)

Little London is an small hamlet, quite remote and with few inhabitants in the 21st century but the many tholtans (ruined houses) in the area tell a different story of the past, this was once a thriving community with a chapel that had an average attendance of 48 (the chapel building was demolished in 2002).  Little London sits in a valley that is very dark and damp on a rainy day and as has been so often the case, that was just the kind of weather we encountered when we visited the Ballahimmin Keeill.

This keeill sits on the land of Ballahimmin Equestrian Centre, it is common to see surrounding hedges and boundaries recessed to fit around the keeill and burial ground but Ballahimmin is unusual as a hedge has been built in to it on both sides and when walking up to it, it appears as a rather conspicuous mound (measuring almost 50 ft. across in places) in the middle of a hedge.


We didn’t visit the keeill on our own, Nicola was standing on top of the keeill mound when a large goat sprung up and gave her a friendly nudge, he was very friendly and the mound of the keeill was his playground!  There were also some lovely horses in the field which I suppose is to be expected as it is an equestrian centre, they all added to the visit.


The field on one side of the keeill is known as “little chapel field” with the field on the other side being “the big chapel field” (Second Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey, 1910).

The existing mound is very high, between 6 to 8ft. and there is just one area of stonework visible to the rear side of the keeill:


I could find very little out about this little chapel other than a mention of a trip by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1959 which didn’t take place due to the weather (they obviously weren’t as hardy as us!).  The keeill has such a large mound that I assumed the structure below was quite substantial, however, when it was surveyed in the Second Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey, they found that nothing remained except for the foundations which were between 3 and 4 ft. high and made of local stones and much white quartz.  They thought the dimensions would have been about 15 ft. by 9 ft. with walls that were very wide, 5 ft. in places, with an earthen bank at the base faced with single stones, possibly to strengthen the building to support a thatched roof, this theory is likely as they found two ‘Bwhid Suggane’; items used to fasten the ropes that held down thatch from the roof, the only ones that have been found in a keeill excavation.


Photograph taken at the time of the Kermode dig.  From Kermode’s private papers (MS 08979)


They found the doorway and outer edge to be rounded and made entirely of glittering white quartz which would have been quite effective at making this building stand out and be visible from a distance.  The doorway was in the west wall but the jamb and sill stones were gone, there were a number of paving stones still in place along with an unusual feature:

A curious thing was that at the N.W. corner there appeared to have been another doorway.  The skirting of upright stones along the North wall, ended at about 2 ft. from the corner, and, upon clearing the foundations here to ascertain the width of the wall it was found to have come to an end.  Only two courses of stones remained, but they were distinctly built to form a face ending the wall, and had every appearance of being part of the original structure.  Between this and the corner, on a level with the floor, were stones having the appearance of a pavement, and this was found to have been continued at a slope, with steps, 18 in. wide for a distance of 8 ft. the sides being marked here and there by quartz boulders.  This paved path terminated at a height of 2 ft. above the level of the field where the fence had been built up against it.

The survey is starting to paint a picture of a building that would really have stood out in this bleak landscape.


There were a couple of large slabs that had formed part of the altar but they seemed to have been moved out of position.

The survey team, on excavating the mound, found evidence of Bronze Age burials beneath, they surmised that this was an earlier site that had been selected for a use at a much later date as a Christian church.  They found a large stone in the keeill which they think had remained in place since the earlier period and the large amount of white quartz found in the structure was probably from the Bronze Age tumulus.  A number of graves had been found in the surrounding area.

So we have another site telling stories of people living here in the Bronze Age and perhaps earlier, a sacred site protected inside a large mound and now visited mainly by livestock.

Secrets hidden in the landscape.


What are keeills?




Keeills and Cake; Keeill Vael, Maughold.

Keeills and Cake; Keeill Vael, Maughold.

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.


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.


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 (, 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:


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.


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).


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:


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!:


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’!


What are keeills?


Keeills and Cake; Keeill Vartyn, Onchan.

Keeills and Cake; Keeill Vartyn, Onchan.

Keeill number twenty one.

Keeill Vartyn sits on the land of Ballakilmartin Farm in Onchan, there is a public footpath up through the farm and although the keeill sits off the footpath, it is visible from it.

Ballakilmartin is a farm just off the Whitebridge on the way out of Onchan, it has a wonderful selection of outbuildings that are untouched by the modern day and walking up through them really does feel like you’re stepping back in time.  Ballakilmartin was farmed until recently by Harvey and Laura Briggs.  Harvey, who sadly passed away in 2015, was a Captain of the Parish of Onchan, a real character with a great love for agriculture and the Manx way of life, he is missed by many.


The first and only other time I had visited the keeill at Ballakilmartin was about 15 years ago with the Manx Methodist Historical Society and Mr Briggs himself, it was an interesting visit although I wish I could remember more, at that age I was probably thinking of other things than keeills, and most likely also of the cake to be had at the end of the visit!

We walked up from the Whitebridge along the public footpath to Ballakilmartin and past the house on to a path known as ‘Keym Mom’ or ‘Great Path’ (Manx Scrapbook, W. Gill, 1929) which leads from the farmhouse to the remains of the ancient chapel.  I didn’t think the visit would take us long as I’d been before and thought I knew where we were going (we were on our way to Skyhill Keeill that day too) so we didn’t even take the map (or cake!), this was a mistake!  We looked around the area we thought it was in but couldn’t see anything so we extended our search and looked for over an hour.  In the end we had to use good old Google Maps to confirm that the overgrown patch of scrub in a fenced off niche of field surrounded by bee hives was in fact the remains of Keeill Vartyn.


Keeill Vartyn (or Keeill Vartin or Keeill Mertin depending on where you look) is the only Manx keeill that we know was dedicated to St. Martin, bishop of Tours and who is said to have been St. Patrick’s maternal uncle.  The farm road had cut through the burial site and the sod hedge itself had cut through the keeill diagonally, leaving about half of it.  Below is a photo of the remains of the keeill taken in 1935 (Fifth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey), as you can see, the walls were still fairly substantial, it is also obvious in the photo where the road has cut right through the middle of the keeill:



Interestingly, in a description of a visit to the Keeill Vartyn by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1961 taken from the ‘Ramsey Courier’, they mention that:

In 1863 a writer, Thwaites, said that services had been held there occasionally “until recently”.

Keeill Vartyn was surveyed for the Fifth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (1918); from what remained they estimated the keeill to have measured around 18 ft. by 9 ft.  The burial ground is marked on the O.S. as 059 acres but in the survey, they suggested it must have been about four times as large at one time as lintel graves had been found in the field across the road.

The foundations of the east wall in 1918 were still 3 ft. high with the south wall 2 ft. high and 4 ft. wide with a facing of stones inside and out, there was also a skirting of stones on end along the south wall, of which four remained.   They found traces of the north east corner in the hedge itself and foundations of the west wall, there was a gap in the south end which they thought may have been the doorway.  The base of the altar remained at 2 ft. from the south corner and some of the floor paving was still in position.  They came across many white pebbles which is common in the remains of these ancient buildings, they also found what they thought was an Cinerary urn.

What we found in 2016 was a mass of brambles and rough grass so thick that we weren’t able to see any stones at all but who knows what might be lurking there beneath the undergrowth.  The farm has been empty for a number of years (although it has recently been sold) so it is possible that the remains may have been more visible a few years ago, we were a bit wary of the buzzing coming from the hives so we didn’t want to explore further.


Harvey and Laura Briggs generously donated much of the land that makes up Molly Quirk’s Glen which is just below Ballakilmartin, a pretty glen that is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.  There was also a Methodist chapel on Ballakilmartin land between the Glen and the keeill, the chapel closed in 1902 although I’m not sure if any of the structure remains in 2016 (photo from Manx Notebook):


I’d like to finish this post with a poem by ‘Cushag’, Josephine Kermode the Manx Poet (sister of P. M. C. Kermode), in memory of Harvey Briggs (1920 – 2015) who loved Ballakilmartin so much.


THE days of my life! They flow on like a dream,
And I’m nearing the waves of the dim silent stream,
Adrift in the darkness — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy shall follow me still.

The bright days of Springtime, the sunshine and flowers!
No thought then of shadow, of storm-cloud or showers,
Long, long have they left me — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy have followed me still.

There were dull days in Summer when sullen and gray
The thunder clouds broke on the upland way.
Though idols were shattered — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy have followed me still.

There were fair days in Autumn, when troubles took rest
When harvests were garnered, and trials were blest,
They have gone like the shadows — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy have followed me still.

The dark days of Winter! The storm and the rain,
The joys that have vanished, the hopes that were vain;
Their shadow remaineth — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy have followed me still.

So the days of my life shall flow on like a dream
Till the Light glimmers far on the dark silent stream,
Though dimly I see it — yet fear I no ill,
For Goodness and Mercy will follow me still.


What’s a keeill?



Keeills and Cake; Sulby Keeill, Onchan.

Keeills and Cake; Sulby Keeill, Onchan.

Keeill number twenty.

With kind permission from Claire and Brian McKendry, Upper Sulby Farm.

On a bright but windy morning we headed out to Onchan to visit the keeill at Upper Sulby, one of two keeills with foundations still remaining in the Parish of Onchan.  In 1892 the IOMNHAS visited this site and found this;

’The chapel lay almost East and West, and measured inside about 24ft by 12ft.; the walls, about 3ft thick, 3.5ft high inside.  Traces of a mound surrounding the chapel could be detected.  The extent of the ruins had been reduced by a former proprietor when ploughing the “flat” or “Big Meadow”; several “old stones or portions of a sepulchre” had been removed and utilised in building.’ (Y.L.M, 2, p.4)

I had seen a photo of the keeill from the Fifth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey taken in 1935 so we were expecting visible remains:


The landowners had explained how to get to the remains so we made it to the field and started to search, we could see where the boundary hedge was recessed and knew it must be in the vicinity as it had mentioned in the survey that the boundary hedge followed the ancient line of the enclosure or cemetery.  The only thing was, we couldn’t see anything resembling a keeill, just one large stone on its own sitting suspiciously near to where my map reference placed the keeill site.  So we kept looking.


After fruitlessly searching through the long grass, I gave Brian McKendry a call to see if he could point us in the right direction.  Brian has owned the farm for four years and told us of his excitement when he saw he had ‘remains of chapel and burial ground’ on his property, followed by his disappointment when he realised all that remained was a recessed hedge and a large solitary slate stone, he seemed like someone who would really look after an ancient monument so it was a real pity.  We had noticed this stone and thought it probably had something to do with the burial ground but in fact it was all that remained of the Sulby Keeill.


The keeill was surveyed by P. M. C. Kermode for the fifth survey around 1918 and although they found a turf mound, they were disappointed to find very little left of the walling that remained:

Scarcely more than two courses being in position anywhere inside, while, of the north wall, even the foundations had been carried away.  Outside was rather better, the south wall reaching a height of four feet.

… the measurements were shown to be about 21 ft. by 8 ft.  The eastern end of the north wall remained in parts from 2 ft. to 2 ft. 6 ins. high; the east wall, 3 ft. to 3 ft. 6 ins., the south about 18 ins. (inside), and the west at its north end up to 2 ft.  They varied in width from 4 ft. to 4 ft. 6ins. on the south, and were built with an inner and an outer facing of stones with a core of earth and rubble.

There was definitely much more at the site 100 years ago!  The survey then talks about some very large stones:

Some of the foundation stones remaining inside were of good size.  On the south was on 44 inches (of which 8 ins. projected into the east gable) by 6 to 7 ins. wide and 10 ins. high; another 38 ins. by 2.5 to 5 ins. and 10 ins. high.  Between these two a smaller one had fallen forwards which was of the same height, so that we may regard 10 ins. as the level of the skirting on the south.

I’m assuming the remaining stone standing in the field is one of those that are mentioned above or one of the large stones he mentions later in the survey that marked the entrance to the enclosure.   There are no visible remains of a mound so it looks like some time over the last 80 years, the keeill has been completely ploughed in to the ground.  As the other stones from the site seem to have been removed (perhaps they were also built in to some nearby outbuildings), I can only assume that this stone has been placed on end to mark the site.

Thanks to a plan from the archaeological survey, we can see what the Sulby Keeill would have looked like:


The survey tells us that the doorway was in the south end of the west wall and that a small flagstone remained across the entrance outside, and there had been a step down in to the interior.  The altar had the lowest course still in position and was 32 ins. long by 18 ins. wide, it might have been a few inches larger if it had a facing of flags.  Further visible groundworks are also mentioned:

Outside were traces of the customary bank against the walls 4 ft. wide and on the south 6 ft. wide… From the eastern corner of this northern fence (of the enclosure), a line of about 37 yards would reach a low ridge which looks like that of the south fence of the enclosure extending to a point about 26 yards from its west boundary.  Some large stones may even mark the position of the original entrance.  The area enclosed does not appear to be definitely marked, the Keeill being set rather nearer to its south east end.

There was a lintel grave found 2 ft. from the outer face of the keeill and 75 white stone pebbles were found above the graces, some were also found near the altar.

In what appears to be a summary of the Fifth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey (uncatalogued but in MS08979 box 2 of 2) there is an interesting write up of the Sulby Keeill from around 1918.  The author writes about the time of the excavation giving interesting insight:

‘I well remember it, on account of the distance I had to walk in the evenings, three miles out from my office at the library.  Mr Kermode did this frequently: there were then no friendly motor cars.  A lintel grave was found and several white pebbles were met with near to where the altar stood.  The face of the north wall was stripped to its foundations.  Taken altogether, it was, considering the facilities, a good examination.

I visited the site a few weeks ago, and found the keeill to be in much the same state as when Mr. Kermode finished his examination.  Sulby Farm is owned by the Rev. W. J. Karran.  He is proud, as  was his father before him, to possess this interesting relic of past. The keeill is the best preserved in the parish of Onchan.’

What a pity the future owners of Upper Sulby didn’t feel the same way!

So, the keeill at Upper Sulby no longer has any visible remains in 2016 but it still has a stone to mark the site and a recessed hedge to show us where the burial site ended.  If anyone knows any stories, history or folklore about this keeill or any of the others then please let us know by contacting us at

It is an important part of our Celtic past and although it is gone, it shouldn’t be forgotten.


What’s a keeill?



Keeills and Cake; Ballawoods Keeill, Santon.

Keeills and Cake; Ballawoods Keeill, Santon.

Keeill number nineteen.

Ballawoods Keeill sits just off the Raad ny Foillan public footpath at Santon Gorge.

Santon Gorge is where the Santon Burn enters the Irish Sea, its steep sides mean that the rather lovely beach is visited mainly by kayakers but it is possible to climb down (not with young children) and is a great place to spend a summer afternoon.  Sitting at the entrance to Santon Gorge looking out to sea is a promontory hill fort at Cass-ny-Hawin (Foot of the River) thought to date from Viking times, sitting inland just a five minute walk from the hill fort is the Ballawoods Keeill.

As you can see, the area has a lot to offer.


You can get to Santon Gorge and the keeill either by following the Raad ny foillan (Way of the Gull) footpath from Douglas in the direction of Castletown or by following the public footpath on the left hand side between The Blackboards and Ballasalla and crossing a couple of fields past Ballawoods Farm.  When you arrive at the very picturesque river, if you follow the footpath to the right, you will find the keeill just over a wall sitting on the west bank of the Santon Burn. Those early Christians knew how to pick a good location – easy access, a water supply with good fishing nearby, a site with great visibility and a lovely view.


We visited on a day when the sun shone high in the sky, the sea was aquamarine and the gorse a golden yellow, the area felt vibrant.  I have to say that not every day is like that on the Isle of Man, it made a pleasant change.



The Ballawoods Keeill (called ‘Ronaldsway’ in the Sixth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey), sits in the Treen of Kyrke Mychell which suggests a possible dedication to St. Michael (Place Names of the Isle of Man, J. J. Kneen, 1925).

The chapel is a large example at about 28ft by 12ft, although the remaining walls are only about 2ft high at most, the footprint of the structure is still visible as is the entrance in the west gable facing what would have been the altar.  Unfortunately, someone has been enjoying a BBQ in the corner of the keeill, I’m hoping the stones used to make this were taken from the wall alongside and not from the structure itself!


The Sixth Report tells us that there is no early mention of the keeill and its burial ground with the earliest record being its inclusion in the 1870 O.S. map when it was marked ‘chapel and Burial Ground (remains of)’.  Having read and re-read the account of the visit to the Arbory and Malew ancient monuments by the Archeological Commission in 1877, they seem to have completely missed the Ballawoods Keeill even though they walked out to visit the nearby fort at Cass-ny-Hawin which seemed quite an oversight.  It gets even more strange when you start reading the section on ‘Ronaldsway Keeill’ in the Sixth Report published in 1966:

An excursion of N.H.A.S. visited the site in September 1917 (Proc. N.H.A.S. II, No. 2. p. 97) when the leader, P. M. C. Kermode, pointed out the ‘keeill on the Treen of Kyrke Mychell, which had just been excavated… it contained an almost perfect altar built of limestone ashlars’.  No other mention or account of this excavation has been traced, though a photograph of the work in progress is in the files of the Manx Museum Library.  It is surely an oversight that Kermode in his next reference to the keeill (List, 1930, p.74) speaks of it as a buried ruin.

…On the new O.S., 6in., 1957, it is unfortunate that some details of the site have been omitted in order to accommodate lettering, but the relative archaeological field card reports the site as a grass covered mound, with gorse on its eastern (sic) part; some walls forming the remains of the chapel, are 3 ft. high.  In addition, there are stated to be signs of ‘some industrial activity’, but these are not further described and cannot now be identified.

Mr J. R. Bruce visited when preparing the Sixth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey(1966) and describes the condition he found it in.  He found the burial ground to be about 150 ft. by 80 ft., much of the groundwork, if any remained, was hidden under the thick cover of gorse but he did find a low ridge of earth 30 ft. to 40 ft. in length running north to south and marking a boundary of the burial ground.


He found the keeill to be ‘constructed in the usual way’ with walls of earth and stones faced on the inside with roughly dressed blocks.  The interior of the keeill was 28 ft. by 12 ft. although he thought that a number of lengths of stone had been ‘robbed’ over time.  Bruce thought that the excavations in 1917 by Kermode had been responsible for the levelling of the floor of the keeill, the walls stood to around 2 ft. in places.  The altar, built of limestone blocks, stood around 10 inches high by 4 ft. 3 ins. wide and sat ‘off centre’ towards the south.  The entrance was found in the west gable.

It was mentioned that many stones had slipped down the steep slope towards the river and that although there was an obvious marked burial ground, there were no records of burials having been found on the site.  There was a well shown on the old OS map but this had become only a ‘wet place at the head of a little tributary stream’ by the time of the visits by J. R. Bruce.

Two photographs taken from the Sixth Report show the site looking very similar to how you find it in 2016:


I wonder where the information from the Kermode survey from 1917 went to and if it will ever come to light.  I could find very little information on this well visited site.

Update, 30th August 2016.

I have had a real bee in my bonnet over where the Ballawoods survey by Kermode had vanished to so when I was offered the chance by Wendy at MNH to look through the private papers of P. M. C. Kermode (currently catalogued) for that survey and a couple of other bits of information, I was very excited.  I am pleased to say that I found the excavation report, hand written in a booklet (uncatalogued but in box MS08979) and it has shed a bit more light on the keeill.  There is one part of the report that I found the handwriting particularly difficult to read and so I have left a couple of words out, apologies if there are any errors in the transcription.

The ruins of this keeill, the dedication of which is commemorated in the name of the Treen on which is stands, are to be seen in a sheltered hollow by the Santon River and clse to the old Douglas road which here descends abruptly with an easterly turning.  It is 300 yards south of Ballawoods House and 20 yards west of the stream which forms the boundary between the parishes as well as between the sheadings.

The keeill measures 29ft. by 13ft. The foundations of all the walls are in position.. built with undressed stones with kneaded red clay for mortar and outer face of rather small stones (limestone of the district).  The west and north are 3ft. wide, east and south 4ft.  About a half of the north wall from the east end is on the rock and the foundations go deeper towards the south.

The doorway is in the west gable, about 4ft. from the south corner, measures 4ft.6ins… internally.  It is splayed for a depth of 21ins. where there is a rebate of 6ins. from which it extends outwards square with the wall.  The angle of the splay on the north side is was less; unfortunately, the building here is so ruined that the precise line is not shown, but it looks as though the external opening had been reduced to 2ft. 6ins.  The embankment against the wall is here 4ft. wide but continues sloping to the boundary for another 8ins. and this has been resetted with stones and crossed so as to … cobbled path of entrance with a step of 4 to 6ins. down into the keeill.  Many of the floor paving stones were in position.  25 white shore pebbles were found at the east end and also 8 or 10 roofing slates which seem to show that the keeill has been in actual use until comparatively recent times.

The most interesting feature was the altar at 3ft 6ins. from south wall and 3ft. 7ins. from north wall, which was almost perfect and built of large blocks of limestone carefully fitted; it measured 5ft. 9ins. long by 2ft. 6ins. to 3ft. wide and stood above the floor; it must have been covered by one or more large slabs of which no trace remained.  On the south side the foundations went deeper, to the rock which sloped rapidly in this direction.  The white pebbles found here rather suggest a burial at the south side but if so, no other evidence of it was found.  Above the altar, a stone set across the wall looked like a part of the jamb of the east window but the sill stones had been removed; there had apparently been a splay inwards; the north jamb being about 5ft. from the north wall – there had been a fall inwards as shown by the bedding for the sill stones rising for a height of 3ft. 6ins. above the floor.

Outside, at a distance of 10ft. from the outer face of the south wall taking a line from a point 9ft. from the east end, was found a grave, the top of which (was) at a level of about 12ins. below the floor of the keeill.  It was not coursed by flags or lined with lintels but seemed to have been marked out by small stones, the two largest of which measure 10 by (?) by 2ins., and 12 by 7 by 3ins., over 50 white shore pebbles came from this. 

The little cemetery, like the floor of the keeill, had as regards the southern area had been raised artificially to a level and in a line 15ft. from the outer face of the south wall, taken from a point 18ft. from the east corner, we found a retaining, the foundations extending to a depth of 6ft. below the level of the keeill floor.  This was built of surface stones, the largest being about  10 by 6 by 7ins.; 16 by 7 by 12ins. and 18 by 8 by 12ins.  Eighteen small white pebbles met with in this digging suggested that there had been another burial close to the boundary.  The boundary of the cemetery could be traced round the east, south and west walls, where it was artificially raised to points respectively to 14ft., 15ft. and 9ft.with retaining walls.

Although Bruce writes that burials had not been known on this site, the Kermode survey is important for documenting that some tombs had been found.  I also found it interesting that Kermode thought that the building had been used until relatively recent times.  More information is given in a letter from P. Ralfe (from the IOMNHAS) to Kermode (uncatalogued but in box MS8979 2 of 2), the letter mentions that P. Ralfe had been speaking to a Mrs Kennaugh from Ballasalla who lived when young in the house (perhaps Ballawoods Farm?).  Mrs Kennaugh told him that the ground where bones had been found at the time of the excavation was used as a garden by her father.  Mrs Kennaugh also told Ralfe that the condition of the enclosure on the northern mound, was in ‘just the same condition as now all her life’ and that people considered it to have some connection with the church.

The walls have reduced substantially in height from the time of the Kermode survey and it’s hard to tell if the altar is still in place under some of the loose stones or whether the floor paving is under the grass.

A keeill without much structure left to look at but sitting in an area where there really is so much to see.

Bring some cake and don’t have a BBQ!


What is a keeill?



Keeills and Cake; Cabbal Dreem Ruy, Arbory.

Keeills and Cake; Cabbal Dreem Ruy, Arbory.

Keeill number eighteen.

With kind permission from Alan Stott.

There is a public footpath running close to the Cabbal Dreem Ruy Keeill but it is on private land.

On an overcast afternoon in May, we wandered down the public footpath in Ronague to the keeill at Ballayelse.  Imagine our delight when on entering the field, we were greeted by pygmy goats, donkeys, geese and miniature ponies.  One particular bottle fed pygmy goat, ‘Juliette’, was extremely friendly and followed us round like a little puppy, the keeill itself is rather lovely but I do think that Juliette was the highlight of this trip for us!


Cabbal Dreem Ruy (Chapel of the Red Ridge) is a name that was only connected with this keeill when it was used by P. M. C. Kermode in a list of Manx antiquities in 1894.  It is often known as the Ballayelse Keeill as it sits on Ballayelse Farm land, it has no known dedication.  In the past journals of the IOMNHAS, I found a description of a visit to the keeill by the society in 1899:

The cars were in waiting at the Round Table, and, seats being resumed, the road was followed to Ballayelse. Here stands a good example of our ancient Keeils, almost all of which have unfortunately been allowed to fall so completely into ruin. It lies N.W. and S.E., and the internal measurement is 19 feet 6 inches by 10 feet 6 inches, the walls being from two feet nine inches to three feet thick. The inside height is six feet. An uncultivated space. around of five to six yards marks the ancient burial ground. A doorway appears to have been near the east end of the south wall; there is no trace of any window, nor were any signs of carving observed.

Eight years later in 1907, P. M. C. Kermode writes an article for the IOMNHAS on ‘An Introduction to the study of church buildings in the Isle of Man earlier than the eleventh century’, he mentions the keeill at Ballayelse:

‘The walls vary from 2 ft. 6 in. to about 5 ft. in thickness at the foundation. Ballayelse, in Arbory, is the only example remaining which shows their full height, and in that instance they stand 6 ft.’

Over 100 years later at our visit, the keeill is fenced off and appears well looked after, the structure seems comparatively good but the height is more like 3-4ft so we could see that there had been considerable deterioration over the past century.  All the same, we thought it was picture perfect with its striking white stones and bluebells and very uniform appearance, we later found out why!


There are very large quartz boulders at each corner and scattered throughout the walls which gave it quite a distinctive quality, we hadn’t come across many with such a large amount of quartz.  White stones are frequently found in large numbers when these sites are surveyed and their use can often be a sign of the keeill being built on an earlier Bronze Age site.  The white stones seem to have held religious significance to these early Christians, perhaps a continuation of their importance from earlier pagan times.  In an article from the Mona’s Herald from 1937 describing a visit to the keeill, it mentions that a large number of the white stones had been taken away and re-used in the farm buildings which would account for the depletion of the structure.

This is also mentioned in an extract from an article in the Ramsey Courier in 1953 describing a visit by IOMNHAS to the keeill (

byelse (2).jpg

Ballayelse Keeill was visited briefly by the Archaeological Commissioners in 1878 where they described the remains as ‘quite extensive’, at the time the walls were 6ft high and 3ft wide at the base, in their write up they thank the owner of Ballayelse, Mr Cubbon, for his preservation of such an ‘interesting monument’.  Unfortunately, it seems like his descendant didn’t have the same respect for the structure when he used the stones from the keeill for building a barn.

Canon E.B. Savage visited the site a few years later and wrote in 1885 that the measurements were 19ft 2in. x 10ft 2in. with a 2ft wide doorway, the walls were built of slate stones and quartz ‘presenting a curiously mottled appearance’, he found the remains of an enclosure, possibly a priest’s cell, about 7ft from the chapel walls.  Canon E. B. Savage also found a graveyard marked by a circle of large stones , 30 yards from the chapel.  Unfortunately, many of the stones from the burial site had been removed for re-use as building materials in the first half of the nineteenth century, a local told him that the death of many cows and calves that followed was attributed to  this ‘sacrilege’ and no more stones were taken away.

Sadly, the site was never surveyed by P. M. C. Kermode and his team and it was left to the Sixth Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey where it was visited by Mr J. R. Bruce in 1963-64 by which time the structure was very different.  Five years after P. M. C. Kermode died, in 1937, the Sixth Report tells us that:

…the Museum and Ancient Monuments Trustees, on the advice of their Inspector, undertook ‘a certain amount of renovation’… This involved the cleaning of the fallen stones and the replacement of them on the walls to a height of several feet, as well as the erection of a post and wire fence around the building.

This accounts for the neat and tidy look of the current structure, the Survey also says that:

Seen in the light of today’s more conservative approach to such problems, the work carried out in 1937 may seem unduly restorative, but care was taken to build only upon the old foundations and to retain the ‘mottled appearance’ noted by Canon Savage – the result is an attractive reminder that here was one of the older Churches in Man.  It is unfortunate that the opportunity could not have been taken, while this work at the keeill was in progress, to re-determine and perhaps to mark out the boundary of the burial ground, which seems to have possessed a striking appearance.  As it is, what is little more than a replica is fenced and preserved for posterity while an ancient graveyard, rich in archaeological potential, is lost to the plough.

Fair point.

When the keeill was visited in 1963-64, it would be in a similar condition to how we found it at our visit, Mr J. R. Bruce writes about its condition at the time;

The number of white quartzite blocks in its construction makes the keeill a conspicuous object, as seen from the vicinity of the Awin Vitchel Bridge at Ronague.  Reference has already been made to the ‘renovations’ of 1937, to which the present appearance of the site is largely due,  Two very large quartzite boulders, almost certainly in their original positions, mark the outer corners of the west end of the building, the long axis of which is east-south-east by west-south-west.  The entrance, unaccountably placed near the east end of the south wall, is on its originally described site but its narrow passage, obliquely traversing the wall in a north-south direction, is of doubtful antiquity.  It might be a window opening subsequently cut down to ground level.  As now rebuilt, the walls are stone faced on both sides, which may recall an original feature, since the majority of such walls are stone revetted on the internal face only. 

Bruce could find no trace of the altar or the ‘internal bank’, he mentioned that the mound that was shown on the 1869 O.S. wasn’t really visible but he thought it may follow the line of the current fencing.  The banks of the burial ground had been completely ploughed over along with the ‘enclosure’ that was mentioned by Canon Savage in his 1885 visit.

It is unfortunate that it wasn’t surveyed at the start of the twentieth century with the majority of the keeill sites as this would have given us more information on a fairly intact example before a large proportion of it was destroyed.  It only takes a read of the archaeological surveys to see that this is just one of a huge number of keeills that survived over 1000 years and have been destroyed in the last 150 years.

It would seem that this very attractive chapel is not quite all that it seems.

However, a picturesque keeill in an attractive location with a friendly pygmy goat – what’s not to like?




What are keeills?