The Isle of Man and its People

Though modern communications with the Mainland are usually via Liverpool, 70 miles away, there are only 21 miles of water that separate the Point of Ayr from the Mull of Galloway, and 16 from Burrow Head. The town of Kirkcudbright is only 24 miles distant, and Whitehaven 28. Strangford Lough in Ireland is 27 miles from Peel. So even when ships were relatively primitive, communications were always possible, and when neighbouring parts of England, Scotland or Ireland were the theatres of political or military activity, the Isle of Man was likely to be involved.

The Island is some 30 miles long and 11 wide. It consists of some 140,000 acres, of which about one fifth are mountain and moor. A chain of mountains, reaching 2,000 feet at their highest, runs from south of Ramsey in the north-east to the south-western tip. This backbone is broken by a central cross-valley with Douglas at the east, and Peel at the western end, once a strait dividing the two islands. Today the Manx regard the valley as distinguishing Northside from Southside. but historically it was the mountain chain that separated what was called South from North, a fact to be born in mind by historians, when old South might mean modern East, and old North, West.

There are 17 parishes in the Island, rather more extensive than the English ecclesiastical parish, and they have a political and civic origin. They are grouped into 6 Sheadings, and boundaries run from the mountain crests down to the sea. These ancient divisions give each parish access both to the mountain resources of peat and grazing and to the wrack and fish of the seas. Only one parish, Marown, has no coast, and Bride, Jurby and Andreas, the parishes of the northern alluvial plain, do not touch the highlands. Marown was probably once linked with Santon, and the northern parishes contain `curragh`, i.e., bog, with its own peat deposits.

The climate has been called mild and genial. The mean annual summer temperature is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the mean winter one only some 8 degrees lower, and so is one of the most equable climates in Europe, and some of the physical and psychological characteristics of the Manx may reflect this. A 17th century description of the land reads:

'The soil in the north parts is very healthy, sandy and gravely, and the north-east has a large part of meadow, called Curraghs, which was formerly under water, but is now drained and well-improved; but in the South there are good meadows and pastures . . .

'All parts will produce store of wheat, barley, rye and oats of late since they have learned the art of liming their lands, and manuring them with sea-weeds; and some places have plenty or honey, flax and hemp, and export yearly some fish-oil . . .

'They have cattle of all sorts; but their meat and horses are small and poor. Their sheep thrive well, are fat and well-tasted; and their wool is very good, especially that which they call Laughton wool, which when carefully dressed makes a cloth near a hare colour, which is one of the greatest natural rarities of the country . . .

'They have plenty of goats and hogs of the ordinary sort, besides a small kind which live wild on the mountains, called purs, which are admirable meat; and some red deer on the mountains, but they belong to the Lord of the Isle, the Earl of Derby. They have no wood on the Isle, nor is there a tree to be seen, though in former times there was plenty, and timber is to be found in their bogs. They have not yet discovered any sea-coal for firing in their soil, yet they have plenty imported. The poorer sort make use of gorse, heath, ling and broom, and a coarse sort of turf or peat in digging'.

A century later another visitor put it :

'The place itself may be called properly enough a rocky mountain; little space being left either for Arable or Pasture, and nothing of Wood or Forest in the whole Island. You may ride many miles and see nothing but a Thorn Tree, which is either fenced round, or some other precaution taken, that so great a rarity may receive no Prejudice. Hedges they have none, but what are made of clay; but they have a great quantity of Fern and Goss that serves them to bake their bread instead of wood . . . Yet notwithstanding the present scarcity of timber, the natives tell you it was once a very wooded country . . . but this is supposed to be before the Flood . . the Flow of waters might on leaving it, have thrown up the Earth in such mountains and buried the Trees beneath their monstrous Weight . . .'

Facts are that in 1629 Whipping was the enacted penalty for breaking trees or quick-sets, a penalty which later became to plant 5 trees for every one hurt for the first offence, and 10 for a second. The third meant prison. The preciousness of timber is often revealed in the records of sales annexed to Wills in the inventories of 18th century deceaseds` effects. Far instance at the Kella farm, Lezayre, in 1770 a spinning-wheel sold for 4/6d., while a `piece of Cedar` brought in 13/6d.

In such an environment how did the Manx of the last three centuries live? Again let us hear our 18th century Waldron in 1731 :

'The Island being very rocky, the buildings are mostly of stone : I mean those which are inhabited by the Gentry; as for the others, they are no more than Cabins built of sods and covered with the same, except a few belonging to the better sort of farmers, which are thatched with Straw . They have two Conveniences . . . the finest Brooks in the world continually running near them, and Turf, which makes very sweet firing at their doors.`

A visitor in 1820 found Manx life as :

'They are not a gracious people; they are slow in their apprehensions, and somewhat cold-hearted in manner, if not in reality, towards strangers . . What an English peasant would consider as a state of actual starvation is scarcely regarded by a Manxman as including any particular deprivation. From birth they are habituated without effort or design to live very hardily. Herring, potatoes, oatmeal, and these in very moderate quantities, are the general fare, equally of the small farmer and the labourer .

'The latter resides contentedly in a cottage of mud, under a roof of straw so low that a man of middling stature can hardly stand erect in any part of it. If to the common necessaries above stated the good people add a stock of turf for the fire, and a cow fed in the lanes and hedges, they enjoy the utmost abundance of which they have any idea. A chaff bed for the whole family, a stool and a wooden table constitute the furniture of the mansion; And here they vegetate in heaps.`

And again :

'Their horses are generally fleet, but small and very hardy. They wear no shoes, eat no corn, nor ever go into a stable, but when they come off a journey, though the weather be never so bad, are only turned loose to graze before their doors or in an adjoining field. Their owners, or the greater part of them, go bare foot except on Sundays, or when they are at work in the field, and have only small pieces of Cows` or Horses` hide at the bottom of their feet, tied on with packthread, which they call 'carrans'.

'Their food is commonly Herring and Potatoes or Bread made of Potatoes : for notwithstanding the great plenty of Salmon, Cod, Eel, Rabbits and Wild Fowl of all sorts, the ordinary people either cannot or will not afford themselves anything else. They are however strong. 1 have seen a little woman tuck up her petticoats and carry a very lusty man on her back through the river.`

We can gain some idea of their dress from so me 17th century prints of Castletown. In the then administrative capital of the Island the bourgeois civil servant mixed with the countryman. These last can be detected as figures draped in sleeveless wraps like Highland plaids, a form of dress the Manx would once have shared with the Gaelic peoples of Ireland and Scotland, though they had neither tartan or kilt. Their plaid would be of plain wool. A 1629 document refers to `the farmer`s Sunday blanket`, which would normally be white, and presumably he would have had a work-a-day one too. Beneath would be trews or breeches, waistcoats and stockings, sometimes footless, sometimes looped round the toe. Footwear was, of course, those carranes of untanned cowhide with the hair outside, and worn mostly as protective footwear while at work. Town and better class dress took its style from England, and garments were treasured for more than one generation of wearer.

William Kissag, dictating his will in 1683 leaves to his brother Hugh his 'best serge coat and undercoat, his white stockings and hat'. Isabel Kissage enlivened her deathbed by awarding her dresses to eager and anxious cronies. In February, 1732, John Kissag left to his step-son Thomas Corlett 'all his shaped clothes', but not his shoes. These, he said, would not do him good, and 'so his loving wife should take 'em'.

By the 18th century, a Manxwoman would wear a petticoat of homespun, often dark red, drawn in at the waist with large pleats, worn with a linen broad-collared bodice. A small checked linen apron was worn over the skirt, a white kerchief round the neck and a mob cap or sun bonnet. Outdoors she wore a long semi-circular cloak of homespun with a wide hood.

These commentators of past centuries remark on two national characteristics of the Manx - longevity and litigiousness. When Feltham did his mammoth task of recording the monumental inscriptions in Manx churchyards at the end of the 18th century he expressed amazement at some of the ages recorded: 'In Lezayre churchyard are buried 32 persons between 71 and 80, 7 between 81 and 88, and one of 96. A poor woman of the parish had entered her 100th year.'

And our 18th century commentator writes :-

'The longevity of the inhabitants is proverbial: but it is chiefly confined to those only who pass their lives in rural occupations, breathing the mountain air, habituated to early hours, living on a simple diet, remote from the populous towns, and unsophisticated by the refinements and luxuries of high life.'

As for lawsuits :

" . . . they are neither expensive nor tedious, but that draws on a Misfortune of as bad, if not worse, consequence than either of the others : which is that over-cheapness renders them frequent".


"The love of litigation is almost wholly confined to the lower orders. The peasant has been accustomed from infancy to consider the deemster as the guardian of his rights and an infallible decider of all disagreements.

The Manxman feels that this officer has a close and local knowledge of the character, family history and circumstances of every client in his little district".

It was not unknown for men in dispute to waylay the deemster and have him settle their case by the roadside.

On the whole Kissacks seem to have been more litigated against than litigating. They did however in Lezayre have neighbours notoriously the other way inclined, and would occasionally feature as witnesses. Michael Kissage found himself in 1770 in a battle royal between two such ferocious local litigists of the day, as Standish Christian (of the family that produced the Pilgrim`s captain) and Margaret Brew, over a family will of john Cowle of the Kella. Standish claimed that Margaret (the deceased`s sister) had unduly influenced him against the interests of his other sisters, one of whom Standish was married to. Michael who wa s the miller of the Kella was asked whether Margaret had not besotted him with drink, only to reply that on the contrary, on his daily visits he had heard John constantly complain that she would be putting too much water in his spirits. This case cost Standish some £13 in costs.

Perhaps the most significant feature of Manx society was its absence of class. The Manx have never had any hereditary nobility. In the 17th century an observer remarked how a common outlook

' . pervaded all classes, or rather the one great class; for with the exception of the officers sent over by Lord Derby . . the residue of the population were alike subject to the sudden depression of poverty.'

True, as the 18th century went on certain families, notably the Christians, the Castletown Quayles and the Moores, worked up great wealth through trade, intermarried with each other and with the squirearchy of the north of England, and established an aristocracy of wealth. There was also an indefinable status division that shows itself in the rough working documents of the period - parish assessments, auction accounts, etc., - between those who were given a Mr. or Mrs. to their names, and those who were plain John Corlett or Mark Kissag. The only branch of Kissacks that I know of who attained this accolade was the branch who went into commerce in Ramsey about the end of the 18th century. But William I of the ilk needed to be worth £10,000 at his death in 1813 before he and his wife were so referred to, and his son William II after him. But Standish Christian and Margaret Brew had been in that bracket for a generation.

Waldron, our 18th century observer, was an English civil servant sent to keep an eye on the Revenue interest of the British government in an anomalous fiscal situation which could be exploited by Manx smugglers very profitably. He writes of the Manx manners and way of life (perhaps with a jaundiced eye):

" . knives forks and spoons are Things in so little use that at those houses which are accounted the best you shall not find above 3 or 4 knives at a table where perhaps there are 20 guests, and as for forks nothing may seem more awkward than their attempting to make use of them. They are admirable dextrous in dissecting a Fowl with their Fingers, and if the Operation happens to be more than ordinarily difficult, they take one quarter in their Teeth, and with both their Hands wrench the Limbs asunder. This I have seen done among very wealthy People, and who would not deny themselves these Conveniences if they thought them of any Consequence.

...The only diversion of the Better sort of People is Drinking; the best wines and rum and brandy being excessively cheap, by reason of their paying no Custom for it, and a Man may drink himself dead without much expense to his Family . . .

. . . The Poor and the Parsimonious may live as cheap and as miserable as they wish: and People who have full Pockets and excellent Taste need want nothing to indulge the luxury of the most Epicurian appetite."

The great social occasions were weddings and christenings, the celebration of Christmas and the Queen of the May. He says :

"£20 is a good Portion for a Mountaineer`s daughter. Notice is given to all friends and relations. None fails except in case of sickness to come and bring something for the Feast . . . a dozen of Capons on one Platter, and 6 or 8 fat geese on another. Sheep and hogs are roasted whole, an ox divided into quarters . "

Waldron writes of the Amusements and Pastimes of his day:

'The young men are great shooters with Bows and Arrows with frequent shooting matches, parish against parish'.

Of indoor activities he is less complimentary:

'Dancing, if I may call it so - Jumping and Turning round at least, to the Fiddle and Bass Viol - is their great diversion'.

Funerals too stinted nothing; it all came out of the estate. It cost £8-18-9d. to lay John Cowle away in Lezayre in 1770. £1-18-6d. went on brandy at 5/6d a gallon, and 21/- on ales. There were 31 lbs of sugarloaf at 8d a pound, 12 lbs of Ham of Bacon at 3d per lb., 24 fowls at 2d each, 4 loaves at 7d, and 'a Lamb for the Funeral' 3/6. So much for a "Mister". At the other end of the scale, Hugh Kissag (brother of John of the Curragh) who died young and poor in 1718, cost only 15/3.5d to bury. His account reads: "Candles 5d, Sheet 5/10, Ale 3/6, Shirt 2/9, Tobacco 7.5d, Buriall 2/-'.

Please note that the copyright of the 'Seed of Isaac' and 'The MacIsaacs' remains with the family of Rex Kissack and no part may be reproduced from this site without their permission.

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