[From Folklore of the Isle of Man, A.W.Moore, 1891]
the Isle of Man, as elsewhere, a number of curious customs and
superstitions have naturally grouped themselves about the important
events of Birth, Marriage, and Death.
From the birth of a child, till after it was baptised, it was customary to keep in the room where the woman was confined, a peck, or wooden hoop, about three or four inches deep, and about twenty inches in diameter, covered with a sheep's skin, and resembling the head of a drum, which was heaped with oaten cakes and cheese, of which all visitors may freely partake, and small pieces of cheese and bread, called blithe meat, were scattered in and about the house for the Fairies. The woman who carried the infant to church for baptism, was also supplied with bread and cheese, to give to the first person she met on the way, in order to preserve her charge from evil influences. After returning from church, the remaining part of the day, and often a great part of the night, was spent in eating and drinking, to which "the whole country round" was invited, and they, in return, gave presents to the child. If, after childbirth, a woman did not recover her usual strength as soon as expected, she was then declared to be the victim of an "Evil Eye." (See p. 78.) Some neighbour is soon suspected of having given the envenomed glance; and to counteract its malignancy, a square piece was secretly cut out of some part of her garment, and burnt immediately under the nose of the afflicted woman. This was considered an infallible cure. -Train.
The baby, also, was supposed to be especially liable to be affected by the "Evil Eye" before baptism, and it was considered that the best way to prevent this was to keep it constantly within the same room in which it was born. Children were also supposed to be much more liable to abduction by Fairies before the same ceremony. (See p. 34.) From the time that a woman was delivered of a child, till thanksgiving for her safe recovery was offered up by some divine, or until the consecrated candle* - which was kept in her room at this time - was burnt, it was deemed requisite, as a protection for herself against the power of evil spirits, that she should keep her husband's trousers beside her in the bed, to prevent her infant being carried off by the Fairies, before being secured from their grasp by baptism. A person was invariably appointed for its special protection, and when she had occasion to leave the child in the cradle she would place the tongs, which must be made of iron, across it till her return.
Another specific to ward off evil from babies was to put salt in their mouths as soon as possible after their birth. In connection with this it may be noted that, as it was once the custom to expose infants in order that they might die, this practice may have been resorted to as a means of prevention. For, if the child had once partaken of any food, it could not be exposed. It was deemed most unlucky to cut their hair or nails before they were a year old, and, if it was done, the fragments were carefully burned. A posthumous child was supposed to have the gift of second-sight (see p. .162); and the seventh son of a seventh son, and a child born on Hallowe'en had powers of intercourse with the unseen world.
A child born with a caul a thin membrane covering the head would probably be notorious in some way. This caul was supposed to be a preventive against shipwreck and drowning, and was accordingly purchased by sailors. This idea of the value of a caul was widespread, as would appear from numerous advertisements in the newspapers. One of these, which appeared in the London Times in 1835, was as follows
"A Child's Caul to be disposed of, a well-known preservative against drowning, &c., price 10 guineas." And a caul has been advertised for sale in a Liverpool paper in this year (1891).
* The churching of a woman, in the Manx language, is called lostey chainley, from the practice of burning a candle, in former times, during this service.
Waldron describes a Manx Wedding in his time, 1726, as follows : " The match is no sooner concluded than besides the banes (sic) of matrimony being publicly asked in the Church three Sundays, notice is given to all friends and relations, tho' they live ever so far distant. Not one of these, unless detained by sickness, fail coming, and bring something towards the feast; the nearest of kin, if they are able, commonly contribute most, so that they have vast quantities of fowls of all sorts. ** *
They have Bride-men, and Bride-maids, who lead the young couple, as in England, only with this difference, that the former have ozier-wands in their hands, as an emblem of superiority, they are preceded by musick, who play all the while before them the tune The Black and the Grey,* and no other ever is used at weddings. When they arrive at the Churchyard, they walk three times round the Church, before they enter it. The ceremony being performed, the return home and sit down to the feast; after which they dance in the Manx fashion, and, between that and drinking, pass the remainder of the day." This Marriage-Feast was a lavish if not a sumptuous repast, and is described by the same writer as follows : "Broth is served up in wooden piggins, every man having his portion allowed him. This they sup with shells called sligs, very much like our mussel shells, but larger. I have seen a dozen capons in one platter, and six or eight fat geese in another; hogs and sheep roasted whole, and oxen divided but into quarters." These customs have now fallen into disuse. But the blowing of horns, the day before and the morning of the wedding, is still continued. It was formerly usual for the lover to employ a go-between called a dooinney-moyllee, "a praising man," to court and win over his mistress to accept his addresses. It was also part of his duty to get the parents to consent to the match, and to arrange the marriage portion with them.
Train, writing about marriages fifty years ago, says that "when two persons agreed to become united in matrimony, and this had been proclaimed in the parish church on three several Sundays, all the relations and friends of the young people were invited to the bridal, and generally attended, bringing with them presents for the 'persons about to begin the world.' Their weddings, as in Galloway, were generally celebrated on a Tuesday or a Thursday. The bridegroom and his party proceeded to the bride's house, and thence with her party to church the men walking first in a body and the women after them. On the bridegroom leaving his house, it was customary to throw an old shoe after him, and in like manner an old shoe after the bride on leaving her house to proceed to church, in order to ensure good luck to each respectively; and if, by stratagem, either of the bride's shoes could be taken off by any spectator on her way from church, it had to be ransomed by the bridegroom. On returning from church, the bride and bridegroom walk in front, and every man, with his sweetheart, in procession, often to the number of fifty. The expenses of the wedding dinner and drink are sometimes paid by the men individually. It was formerly the custom after the marriage had been performed for some of the most active of the young people to start off at full speed for the bridegroom's house, and for the first who reached it to receive a flask of brandy. He then returned in all haste to the wedding party, all of whom halted and formed a circle. He handed spirits first to the bridegroom, next to the bride, and then to the rest of the company in succession, each drinking to the health of the new-married couple. After this, the party moved onwards to the bridegroom's house, on their arrival at the door of which the bridecake was broken over the bride's head, and then thrown away to be scrambled for by the crowd usually attendant on such occasions. The girls present were especially anxious to secure a piece to place under their pillows, that they might dream of their future husbands, as this ceremony is supposed to strengthen the dreaming charm." The writer has heard this ceremony some what differently related by men still living, who have taken part in it. They say that there was a race among the young men from the church to the house, and that the first to arrive got the cake, and broke a portion of it over the bride's head when she reached the threshold.
In his notes on Customs and Superstitions in Vol. XXI. of the Manx Society, William Harrison adds the following particulars to Waldron's account of Weddings, which, he says, obtained about 20 years before the time he wrote (i.e., about 20 years after Train's account) : " After the ceremony, on coming out of the church, money is thrown amongst the idlers, who generally congregate about, for which they scramble. This is also done in passing any public place on the way home. On returning home, some of the most active of the young people start off at full speed for the bride's house, and he who arrives there first is considered best man, and is entitled to some peculiar privilege in consequence. Occasionally, when the wedding party is attended by their friends on horseback, some severe riding takes place, and it is well if all ends without an accident. After the feast the remainder of the day is spent with the utmost hilarity in dancing and other amusements."
* This was a popular tune in the time of Charles II. and it continued in vogue till the end of the last century.
Many were the omens which preceded the solemn event of death. If the dogs howled more loudly than usual, if the death-watch* was distinct in the sick person's room, if his or her wraith was seen by anyone, and if the strains of the funeral psalm were heard, then death was near. When death ensued the corpse was laid on what was called a "straightening board," a trencher with salt + in it and a lighted candle were placed on the breast, and the bed, on which the straightening board lay, was generally strewed with strong scented flowers. It was then waked, as we shall see, and carried to the grave, wrapped in a winding sheet and on an open bier (carbad, in Manx). With regard to this winding sheet, Merick, who was Bishop of Man from 1577 to 1600, and who supplied Camden with a brief account of the Isle for his Britannia, made the extraordinary statement that the women of the Island wore them during their lives to remind them of their mortality. This was contradicted by later historians, who pointed out that these so-called shrouds were merely the blankets, plaids, or shawls which the women habitually wore. Waldron wrote about death and funerals in Man 160 years ago as follows
"When a person dies, several of his acquaintances come and sit up with him, which they call the Wake1 (Farrar, in Manx). The Clerk of the Parish is obliged to sing a Psalm, in which all the company join; and after that they begin some pastime to divert themselves, and having strong beer and tobacco allowed them in great plenty. . . . As to their Funerals, they give no invitation, but everybody, that had any acquaintance with the deceased, comes either on foot or horseback. I have seen sometimes at a Manks burial upwards of a hundred horsemen, and twice the number on foot: all these are entertained at long tables, spread with all sorts of cold provision , and rum and brandy flies about at a lavish rate. The procession of carrying the corpse to the grave is in this manner: When they come within a quarter of a mile from Church, they are met by the Parson, who walks before them singing a psalm, all the company joining with him. In every Church-yard there is a cross round which they go three times before they enter the Church. But these are the funerals of the better sort, for the poor are carried only on a bier,2 with an old blanket round them fastened with a skewer."
There were formerly crosses on the roads leading to the Parish Churches. When funerals passed, "the corpse," says Train, "was usually set down at these stones, that all the people attending might have an opportunity of praying for the soul of the deceased." He also tells us that "one of this description was lately to be seen at Port-y-Vullin, on the wayside leading from Ramsey to St. Maughold, and another near Port Erin." It would seem that before 1594, when it was forbidden by Statute, it was customary to carry bells and banners before the dead. Colonel Townley, who visited the Island towards the end of the eighteenth century, describes a funeral entertainment as follows : "The concourse of people, upon the occasion, was wonderful, and the quantity of provisions prepared was as wonderful; but not more so than the speedy mode of dispatching them; for the people of this Island (I mean the country farmers and their good wives, together with many handicraft-people) esteem a funeral attendance as one of their very first entertainments."
Lord Teignmouth, when in the Isle of Man in 1835, was informed that persons walking in the neighbourhood of a churchyard sometimes found themselves entangled in a crowd, which suddenly vanished a sign that foreboded a funeral. It was supposed that when the funeral hymn was sung in a low key that it was a sign of another death.
It is a practice at the present day for the relatives of the deceased to attend the parish church the next Sunday but one after the funeral and to sit down throughout the service.
* This sound was really produced by a small wood-moth.
+ Sometimes earth as well as salt was laid on the corpse, the former being an emblem of the corruptibility of the body, the other of the incorruptibility of the soul.
1 Watching with the dead was an ancient custom of the Church. Pennant, in his Tour of Scotland, speaks of it as follows: "The evening after the death of any person, the relations or friends of the deceased meet at the house, attended by bag-pipe or fiddle; the nearest of kin, be it wife, son, or daughter, opens a melancholy ball, dancing and greeting (i.e., crying) at the same time."
2 Burial in coffins, as a universal custom, did not begin in England before the end of the seventeenth century.
Closely connected with death is the curious superstition about Second-sight, because it is with reference to death that its visions almost always occur. It may be defined as the faculty of seeing future events by means of a spectral exhibition of the persons to whom such events relate, accompanied with signs denoting their fate. This superstition is more prevalent among Gaelic peoples than others. Dr. Johnson, when on his tour in Scotland and the Western Isles, remarks upon it as follows : "Second sight is an impression made either by the mind upon the eye, or by the eye upon the mind, by which things distant or future are perceived and seen as if they were present. . . . Things distant are seen at the instant when they happen. This receptive faculty, for power it cannot be called, is neither voluntary nor constant. The appearances have no dependence upon choice they cannot be summoned, detained, or recalled the impression is sudden, and the effect often painful." People who have a hairy cross on their breasts, or whose eyebrows meet, often have the faculty of Second-sight, and so, as we have already seen, had those of posthumous birth. Such people if they go into a, churchyard on the Eves of the New Year, of St. Mark's Day and of Midsummer Day can tell who will be buried in it during the ensuing year. A child whose eye touches water in baptism has no chance of becoming second-sighted.
The belief in the faculty of Second-sight was formerly very prevalent in the Island. According to Higden, it was the reputed prerogative of Manxmen, for he says, "There, ofte by, daye time, men of that Islande seen men that hey dede to fore honde, byheeded or hole, and what dethe they dyde. Alyens setten there feet upon feet of the men of that londe for to see. such syghts as the men of that londe doon."* Sacheverell, who was Governor of the Isle of Man from 1692-1696, says. that this power was sometimes derived by inheritance, and transmitted from father to son, and he remarks that there were people who would attest to having seen apparitions of funeral solemnities on the large barrow called' "'Fairy Hill" in Rushen. He does not altogether believe in this, however, "but as to the light being generally seen at. people's deaths, I have some assurances so probable, that I know not how to disbelieve them; particularly an ancient man, who has been long clerk of a parish, has affirmed to me that he almost constantly sees them upon the death of any of his own parish; and one Captain Leathes, who was chief magistrate of Belfast, and reputed a man of great integrity, assured me that he was once shipwrecked.on' the Island; 'and lost the greater part of his crew; that when he came on shore the people told him he had lost thirteen of his men, for they saw so many lights going. toward the church, which was the just number lost. Whether these fancies proceed from ignorance, superstition, or prejudice of education, or from any traditional or veritable magic, which is the opinion of the Scotch divines concerning second sight; or whether nature has adapted the organs of some persons for discerning of spirits, is not for me to determine." This belief is' not yet extinct, for "corpse-lights"' seen about the bed of the patient are still supposed to be the certain forerunners of death.+
Bishop' Wilson gives, in 'his Pocket-Book, the following instance of a supernatural warning " Mar., 1721. Two boats of Ballaugh, being at sea, but not any distance without hearing each other, ye men in each boat heard a voice very distinctly repeating these words " Churr hoods," a term used by fisher men to raise the anchor. They immediately did so, and well it was for them, for a violent storm arose in 'half-an-hour's time, so yt as it was they had enough to save their boat and their lives. This is well attested. N.B. Mr Corlett assured me yt the very same thing happened once to the boat he was in, only with the addition yt ye master of ye boat saw ye appearance of a man." 1
It was formerly supposed, as already stated, that families had Second-sight by succession, and it was also supposed that the only way to be freed from it was by a man who had it marrying a woman affected in the same way. Waldron, who gives several instances of the possession of this faculty, was evidently much impressed by them, as he declared himself "positively convinced by many proofs " He stated that the Manx consider that the warnings caused by these mock funerals were the work of friendly demons, who even condescended to warn a host of the arrival of an unexpected guest, and servants of the return of a master who had not been expected. "As difficult as I found it," he says, "to give any faith to this, I have frequently been very much surprised, when, on visiting a friend, I have found the table ready spread and everything in order to receive me, and been told by the person to whom I went, that he had knowledge of my coming, or some other guest, by those good natured intelligencers. Nay, when obliged to be absent some time from home, my own servants have assured me they were informed by these means of my return, and expected me the very hour I came, though, perhaps, it was some days before I hoped it myself at my going abroad."
* Polychronicon, A. D. 1482, Rolls
+ Its frequency in earlier times may be reasonably attributed to the greater prevalency of marshy ground over which such phenomena as the ignis fatuus, or 'Will-o'-the-wisp, would often be seen.
1 Manx Note Book, Vol. II., p. 87.
He then gives the following account of
"The natives of this Island tell you that before any person dies, the procession of the funeral is acted by a sort of beings which, for that end, render themselves visible. I know several that, as they have been passing the road, one of these funerals has come behind them, and even laid the bier on their shoul ders, as though to assist the bearers. One person, who assured me he had been served so, told me that the flesh of his shoulder had been very much bruised, and was black for many weeks after. There are few or none of them who pretend not to have seen or heard these imaginary obsequies (for I must not omit to say that they sing psalms in the same manner as those do who accompany the corpse of a dead friend), which so little differ from real ones that they are not to be known till both coffin and mourners are seen to vanish at the church doors."