Keeill number thirty six.
With kind permission of Mr Chadwick, Cronkbreck Farm.
‘..from the South her heath-land, fall to the marshy waters of the Awin Dhoo and the rock-sheltered fields about Greeba and St. Trinian’s of old the men of the Church and the Abbey, and the solitary followers of the religious life, made this a sacred ground. Possession by bishops and abbots is attested in history and historical documents, and in place-names. Folk-lore reaches further back, and murmurs vaguely of saints and hermits.’ (‘A Second Manx Scrapbook’, Gill, 1932)
The Cronkbreck Keeill is on the land of Cronkbreck Farm in Greeba (from a Scandinavian word, Gnipa, meaning ‘rocky peak’). For many people, Greeba is just a name along the busy road between Douglas and Peel or a part of the famous TT course, somewhere to drive through. Greeba and the surrounding area are, in fact, particularly rich in Celtic and ecclesiastical heritage.
‘…however important Greeba was from a military point of view, its chief interest lies in the Ecclesiastical side. It was the centre of the religious life in the district in Early Christian tunes-even before the community attached to St. Ninian’s Barony came into existence in the 12th Century.’ (‘The Boundary between Kirk Marown and Kirk German’, W.Cubbon, Proc IoMNH&ASc vol 3).
There are three known sites of keeills very close together at Cronkbreck, Kerrowgarrow and Greeba Mill and of these three, only the foundations of the chapel at Cronkbreck remain in 2016; these chapels have not been precisely dated so we don’t know that they were all in use at the same time.
There have also been burials found in the surrounding area, some pre-Christian, there is a large Cairn at Kennaa close by.
St. Trinians, the impressively intact remains of a church from the 12th century sits on the other side of Greeba Mountain, The Priory of St. Bees had around 420 acres in Greeba which included a church and a ‘hospice’, St. Trinians Church has its own folklore which would be a post in itself!
Another example of the significance of Greeba in the early Christian period on the Island is the folklore appertaining to the presence of hermits:
Nor will any one deny there can be a place more proper for a hermit, because here are no temptations to allure him from his cell, but he may pass his nights and days entirely uninterrupted; and as there are still many of those pious men in the world, it must be thro’ ignorance of this Island, that none of them made choice of it at present: I say at present, because I have been shown a hole on the side of a rock, near Kirk-Maroan mountains, which, they say, was formerly the habitation of one who had retired from the converse of mankind, and devoted himself entirely to prayer and meditation.
What seems to prove this conjecture is not without foundation, is, that there is still to be seen a hollow, cut out on the side of the rock with a round stone at one end in the shape of a pillow, which renders it highly probable to have been the hard lodging of one of those holy persons who have forgone all the gaieties and pleasures of life, and chose to mortify the body for the sake of the soul.
Every thing, indeed, conspires to prove that religion was once in very great splendor in this Island, but there are now little remains of it, except in that blind obedience paid to the clergy, of which I have already fully treated, and the implicit faith they give to every thing delivered from a man in sacred orders.’ (‘A Description of the Isle of Man’, Waldron, 1732)
‘It is unlikely that what Waldron saw was far from the road, and the only rocks near the road are those of Greeba. His mention of a stone in the shape of a pillow suggests that the legend then attached to the spot belonged to the bed (so-called) of a hermit who lived in the contiguous ” hole ” or cell. This sort of ” bed ” (Manx lhiabbee — actually a tomb), is not uncommon in Ireland, where it is often explained by a story about its supposed occupant, particularly in the case of dolmens called “the Bed of Dermot and Grania.” (The Manx Scrapbook, Gill, 1932)
Nic and I used the 1869 OS map to find the ‘cave’ mentioned above, it is less of a ‘cave’ than a rocky outcrop with a slab of stone just big enough to lie on, these hermits must have been tough!
Close by to the ‘cave’ is a group of stones known as ‘St Patrick’s Chair’ (not to be confused with the better known St Patrick’s Chair near Ellerslie). It is described in ‘List of Manx Antiquities’ (Kermode, 1930) as ‘a large boulder of local slate five to six feet long by three to four feet high, weighing some eight tons, having a flat top, and built into position with upright stones at the back of it’
St. Patrick’s Chair is more difficult to find in 2016 as the area is very overgrown.
My personal favourite story of an ‘antiquity’ in this area is the one of ‘Lhiaght y Kinry’, a mound of stones marking the grave of a man of the name/surname of ‘Kinry’ who made an attempt to run from Douglas to Bishop’s Court and back in around 1760 whilst stark naked for a ‘trifling sum of money’ (Feltham’s Tour, 1798). According to tradition, the poor fellow was buried on the spot where he died, the stones still mark the spot many hundreds of years later, a reminder to us all to dress for the weather and possibly not partake in alcoholic beverages.
It would seem that this little place in the middle of our Island held a lot of importance to our Celtic forefathers and their predecessors.
Cronkbreck means ” Speckled Hill ” literally ; but breck, at any rate in its Gaelic form breac, seems to have had a secondary meaning approximating to ” sacred,” or devoted to special use in some way, and such may have been its original implication in the present case. ” (A Manx Scrapbook, Gill, 1929)
The keeill at Cronkbreck sits up a farm track behind the farm and has no known dedication, it is the largest known example of a keeill on the Island, measuring 25ft. by 14ft. Kermode thought it to be one of the later examples, possibly on the site of an earlier chapel, and the large size (along with the suggested ‘sacred’ association with the name as suggested by Gill) could signify that this site was considered particularly important.
P. M. C. Kermode and his team visited the keeill at Cronkbreck for the ‘Second Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey’ (1910), he found the enclosure to measure 90ft. east and west and 120ft. north and south, the ‘fence’ of the enclosure was still in place on the north and east sides which was as we found it in 2016. The enclosure bank looks to be made of large stones covered with earth and grass, there were some thorn trees in the central section. This reminded me of an article I had come across from the Isle of Man Examiner from 1953;
‘There is another keeill on the right, a little further on at Cronk Breck. A legend connected with it is that an irreligious character lopped some tramman and thorn trees which stood on the holy ground of the keeill and in doing so cut his thumb. Infection set in and he lost his whole hand.’
There is not an awful lot of information on this little chapel so finding even that bit of folklore from before the days of antibiotics was a bit of a gem.
I found a mention of the keeill at Cronkbreck in a letter in the private papers of P.M.C. Kermode from W. Lewis at Kirk German Vicarage, Peel to Kermode written in 1910 (uncatalogued but in box MS08979), an extract from it is copied below;
‘… The little service which we held in the Keeill on the Tuesday in Rogation Week was extremely simple and brief – I had intended giving a short address but the weather was so cold and stormy that we had to content ourselves with just a hymn and Rogation prayers for blessings on the crops and for missions. It was our first halt on our perambulations.
I feel that these spread little sparks and am only too glad of an opportunity of showing my regard for them. Last autumn we had a little service in the Keeill at CronkBreck, I hope we may visit Lag ny Keeilley one day.’
I was surprised to find the Anglican Church of 1910 holding simple services and reflection inside the foundations of old keeills. For some reason I had assumed that they hadn’t held the ancient keeills in high regard so I found this letter rather interesting – the concept of the ‘Praying the Keeills’ event that has been held for the last eleven years was started a long time ago!
Kermode described the keeill at the time of his visit as ‘unusually large’ and built from local surface stones which were ‘undressed’. The walls were between 3ft. and 4ft. wide and stood 3ft. 6ins. on the north end to 5ft. 6ins. on the south end, similar in height to how we found it in 2016. There was a raised platform at one end which extended for five feet and which was paved opposite the doorway, the floor pavement was complete and formed from stones laid flat. No windows could be traced, however, the jamb stones for the doorway in the west gable end were set on edge but had slipped out of position.
The base of the altar remained at the east gable, sitting slightly off centre and measuring 4ft. 3ins. by 21in. to 24in., the altar sat about 12in. above the pavement at its highest point. At the front of the altar was a ‘fine slab set on edge’ that measured 3ft. 11in. long by 9in. above the floor and 5in. thick.
Quartz pebbles are frequently found at these sites and Cronkbreck was no exception with forty eight being found scattered throughout the keeill along with an upper stone of a granite quern (used for grinding corn).
Cronkbreck was our forty first keeill site visit, we had intended to visit earlier but there had been a bull in the field so we decided to wait! We left the farm track and as we crossed the field we spotted the remains of an embankment separating the keeill from the rest of the field. Entering the enclosure through a gap in the embankment, we came across the keeill which was very overgrown with bracken. We were surprised at the height of the foundations and by just quite how large it was, the walls were high enough that we felt we were entering an actual building.
Unfortunately although some sections of wall were visible the keeill site was very overgrown. The ground was uneven inside the building but we were unable to tell whether this was from paving, the ‘raised area’ around the altar or just loose stone that had fallen down as the grass was so high which was a real pity. Although the keeill was visited at least once by the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society, unfortunately I was not able to find a write up of their visit which may have given us more information.
The keeill is under the protection of the Manx Museum and National Trust, Mr Chadwick told us they visited the keeill annually to cut the bracken down and strim the grass until around ten years ago when unfortunately they suddenly stopped coming and it has now become overgrown.
We have learned over the course of the year that just as you can’t view all ‘modern’ churches in the same way, the keeills have to be looked at individually as there could possibly be 700 years difference in age between different examples. We sat inside this considerable structure and we were impressed, we ate some orange and sultana cake.
William was with us and also Nicola’s puppy ‘Paaie’, it was her first keeill visit and she seemed to enjoy it.
The keeill wasn’t the only site of interest at Cronkbreck, a field away sits an enchanting tholtan which, according to Mr Chadwick is known as ‘Tommy’s House’ after a man named ‘Tommy’ who lived and died in the house.
The remains of a building with a fireplace sit in the trees, one gable wall has fallen down.
The large area of grounds surrounding the tholtan are walled off and just above the tholtan on the right is a site known as ‘The Crosh’;
‘A few chains North-East of Cronkbreek Cottage the remains of a mound are still visible ; on its summit was a stone cross. The mound has been used as late as the early part of the last [18th] century for legal purposes, such as the proclamation of Chancery and other decrees, announcements of Coroners’ sales, fodder juries, and Foresters’ fines. So says Mr. C. Crellin of Cronkbreck.” — (O.S. Name Books.)’ (A Manx Scrapbook, Gill, 1929)
When the Ancient Monument team used to cut down the grass around the keeill, they also used to trim the grass at this tholtan and I can only assume that this was because the mound known as ‘The Crosh’, sited just above the tholtan, was also under the guardianship of the Manx Museum and National Trust and they had responsibility for its upkeep. The mound is also mentioned by Kermode;
‘At a distance from the Keeill of 130 yards N.N.W., on high ground by the side of a roadway from the old farm buildings to the fields above, is a mound from ;o to 40 ft. diameter, which may at least in part be artificial. The O. S. marked this (2974) “site of stone cross,” but the proprietor, Mr. C. Crellin, who has lived all his days at Cronkbreck, says that he never heard of an actual cross having been there, though the place was always known locally as “the crosh,” and it was supposed that the people assembled there in the old days to hear proclamations and announcements. He thought that a Mr. Jackson had at one time broken and removed carved stones found at the Keeill. In the garden at Cronkbreck he has besides the upper and lower stones of two querns, a roughly rectangular granite boulder 1 Sin. long by 11 to 12 in. wide, and from 10 to 13 in. high ; it has a rectangular hollow, slightly undercut, 8½in. by 5½ and 5in. deep. This cannot have been a Font, and may in fact have been the base of a cross. If it came from the mound, it may have suggested to the O. Surveyors that there had at one time been a cross there set up, and this may have been confirmed by inquiries made by them at the time. Such a cross might have been contemporary with the present ruined Keeill, which from its unusual size and style of building seems not to have been of very early date, perhaps having taken the place of an.older one.’ (‘Second Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey’, Kermode, 1910)
We weren’t able to tell if the mound still existed as the area above the keeill was overgrown, however, the whole area around the tholtan is very interesting and was well worth the visit.
Mr Chadwick the current landowner quite obviously has a lot of respect for the antiquities in his care and has protected them by leaving these areas uncultivated, however, I do often wonder when these structures are sited where animals graze that they shouldn’t be fenced for their own protection. Too many keeills have been damaged or lost in recent times, some would have been preserved by just the erection of a fence and it is hard not to question why this has not happened in many cases.
It was great to find a keeill that had survived in a similar condition to how Kermode found it at the time of his visit over one hundred years ago. Next time you’re driving through Greeba, give a thought to the wonderful history in this area.
Please be aware that these sites are, unless noted as being otherwise, on private land and can only be accessed with permission from the landowner.