[From Letters from IoM 1846]
" These superstitions may be fairly imputed to a native melancholy, cherished by indolence, and heightened by the wild, solitary and romantic scenes to which the Manx pea sants are habitually accustomed."-JEFFERYS.
THE Manks men are many of them believers in second-sight, and there is an ancient practice of kindling large fires on the hills, and keeping them perpetually blazing from the 1st to the 14th of May as a preservative against witches ! The following is an account of an apparition seen at Peel Castle, called the " Moddey Doo, or the Dog Black:"
" It is said that an apparition, called in the Manx language the Moddey Doo, in the shape of a large black spaniel, with curled shaggy hair, was used to haunt Peel Castle, and has been frequently seen in every room, but par ticularly in the guard chamber, where, as soon as candles were lighted, it came and lay down before the fire in presence of all the soldiers, who, at length, (by being so much accustomed to the sight of it,) lost great part of the terror they were seized with at its first appearance. They still, however, retained a certain awe, as believing it was an evil spirit which only waited permission to do them hurt, and for that reason forbore swearing and all profane discourse while in its company. But though they endured the shock of such a guest when altogether in a body, none cared to be left alone with it; it being the custom, therefore, for one of the soldiers to lock the gates of the castle at a certain hour, and carry the keys to the captain, to whose apartment the way led through the church, they agreed among them selves that whoever was to succeed, the ensuing night, his fellow on this errand, should accom pany him that went first, and by this means no man would be exposed singly to the danger. I forgot to mention that the Moddey Doo was always seen to come out from that passage at the close of clay, and return to it again as soon as the morning dawned, which made them look on this place as its peculiar residence.
One night, a fellow being drunk, and, by the strength of his liquor, rendered more daring than ordinary, laughed at the simplicity of his companions; and, although it was not his turn to go with the keys, would needs take that office upon him, to testify his courage. All the soldiers endeavoured to dissuade him, but the more they said, the more resolute he seemed, and swore "that he desired nothing more than that the Moddey Doo would follow him as it had done the others, for he would try whether it were dog or devil." After having talked in a very reprobate manner for some time, he snatched up the keys, and went out of the guard-room. In some time after his depar ture, a great noise was heard, but nobody had the boldness to see what occasioned it, till the adventurer returning, they demanded the knowledge of him ; but, loud and noisy as he had been at leaving them, he was now be come sober and silent enough, for he was never heard to speak more ; and, though all the time he lived,. (which was three days,) he was entreated by all who came near him to speak, or, if he could not do that, to make some signs, by which they might understand what had happened to him, yet nothing intelligible could be got from him, only that, by the distortion of his limbs and features, it might be guessed that he died in agonies more than is common in a natural death. The Moddey Doo was, how ever, never after seen in the castle, nor would any one attempt to go through that passage; for which reason it was closed up and another way made.1
You may remember Sir W. Scott's allusion to this Moddey Doo in "The Lay of the Last Minstrel:"
" But none of all the astonish'd train,
Were so dismay'd as Deloraine;
His hlood did freeze, his brain did burn,
'Twas feared his mind would ne'er return;
For he was speechless, ghastly, wan,
Like him of whom the story ran,
That. spake the spectre-hound in Man."
"In almost all the great parishes, in the month of May," says Waldron,2 "they choose, from among the daughters of the most wealthy farmers, a young maid for the Queen of May.
She is dressed in the gayest and best manner they can, and is attended by about twenty others, who are called maids of honour; she has also a young man who is her captain, and has under her command a good number of inferior officers. In opposition to her is the Queen of Winter, who is a man dressed in woman's clothes, with woollen hood, fur tippet, and loaded with the warmest and heaviest habits one upon another; in the same manner are those who represent her dressed; nor is she without a captain and troop for her de fence, both being equipped as proper emblems of the beauty of spring and the deformity of the winter. They set forth from their respec tive quarters ; the one preceded by violins and flutes, the other with the rough music of the tongs and cleavers. Both companies march till they meet on a common, and then their trains engage in a mock battle. If the Queen of Winter's forces get the better so far as to take the Queen of May prisoner, she is ransomed for as much as pays the expenses of the day. After this ceremony, Winter and her company retire and divert themselves in a barn, and the others remain on the green, where, having danced a considerable time, they conclude the evening with a feast-the Queen at one table with her maids, the captain with his troop at another. There are seldom less than fifty or sixty persons at each board, but not more than three knives."3
You may remember the allusion to this custom in Tennyson's song of the "Queen of the May :"
" If you're waking, call me early - call me early, mother dear,
To-morrow is the happiest day of all the glad new year;
Of all the glad new year, mother, the maddest, merriest day,
For I'm to be Queen of the May, mother-I 'm to be Queen of the May.
" I sleep so sound all night, mother, that I shall never wake,
Unless you call me loud when the day begins to break,
And I must gather knots of flowers, and buds and garlands gay,
For I'm to be Queen of the May, mother-I 'm to be Queen of the May," &c.
There is a legend common among the peasantry, that at a grand assembly of all the birds of the air, it was determined that the sovereignty of the feathered tribe should be conferred upon the one who would fly highest. The eagle, in full confidence of victory, comrnenced his flight towards the sun. When he had vastly distanced all competitors, he proclaimed, with a mighty voice, his sovereignty over all things that had wings. Suddenly, the wren (who had secreted himself under the feathers of the eagle's crest) popped from his hiding-place, flew a few inches upwards, and chirped out as loudly as he could, "Birds, look up and behold your king!" This is probably the origin of the custom in this island, of hunting the wren at Christmas. Vallancy, in his " Collectanea de rebus Hibernicis," speaking of the wren, says, " The Druids represented this as the king of all birds. The superstitious respect shown to this little bird gave offence to our first Christian missionaries, and by their commands he is still hunted and killed by the peasants on Christmas day, and on the following (St. Stephen's day) he is carried about, hung by the leg in the centre of two hoops, crossing each other at right angles, and a procession made of men, women, and children, singing an Irish catch, imputing him to be the king of all birds:
The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's-day, was caught in the furze,4 &c.
In a book entitled " Six Pastorals," &c., by George Smith, published in 1770, the following lines occur :
I found a robin's nest within our shed,
And in the barn a wren has young ones bred;
I never take away their nest nor try
To catch the old ones lest a friend should die.
Dick took a wren's nest from his cottage side,
And in a twelvemonth past his mother died.
This day is, in some instances, still superstitiously regarded here. No one is allowed to put any iron in the fire on Good Friday, and the tongs are placed aside, for fear any one should use them to stir the fire, and a stick of the rowan tree is substituted; and even a griddle is not suffered to hang over the fire, but the bannock or soddag is made with three corners, and baked on the hearth.5
Collins the poet printed the following account of a mermaid: " There is a tradition in the Isle of Man, that a mermaid, having be come enamoured of a young man of extra ordinary beauty, took an opportunity of meeting him one day as he walked on the shore, and opened her mind to him ; but her proposal6 being received with much coldness, occa sioned by his horror and surprise at her ap pearance, was so misconstrued by the sea lady, that, in revenge for his treatment of her, she punished the whole island by covering it with a mist, so that all who attempted to carry on any commerce with it either never arrived there, or were, upon a sudden, wrecked upon its cliffs, till the incantatory spell or " pishag" (as the Manks say) was broken by the fisher men stranded there, by whom notice was given to the people of their country, who sent ships, in order to make a further discovery. On their landing, we are informed that they had a fierce encounter with the fairies, and having got the better of them, took possession of castle Rushin, and, by degrees, of the whole island. Waldron the historian also relates another mermaid story.
"No person," says Waldron,7 " will go out on any material affair without taking some salt in their pockets, much less remove from one house to another, put out a child or take one to nurse, without salt being mutually inter changed; nay, though a poor creature be almost famished in the streets, he will not accept any food you will give him, unless you join salt to the rest of your benevolence." The reason assigned by the Manks for this superstition is absurd enough-viz., " The account given by a pilgrim of the dissolution of an enchanted palace on the island, occasioned by salt spilled on the ground."
Ranulpt Higden says " that the witches in the Isle of Man anciently sold winds to mariners, and delivered them in knots, tied upon a thread, exactly as the Laplanders did."
" There is," says Waldron, " in the Isle of Man, the ' fairy saddle,' a stone termed so, I suppose, from the similitude it has to a saddle. It seems to be loose on the edge of a small rock, and the wise natives of Man tell you it is every night made use of by the fairies; but what kind of horses they are on whose backs this is put, I could never find any of them who pretended to resolve me.''8
The Manks confidently assert that the first inhabitants of their island were fairies, and that these " little people" have still their residence among them. They call them the " good people," and say " they live in wilds and forests, and on mountains, and shun great cities, because of the wickedness acted therein." All the houses are blessed where they visit, for they fly vice. A person would be thought impudently profane who should suffer his family to go to bed without having first set a tub or pail full of clean water for these guests to bathe themselves in, which the natives aver they constantly do, as soon as the eyes of the family are closed, wherever they vouchsafe to come. If anything happen to be mislaid and found again, they presently tell you " a fairy took it, and returned it;" if you chance to get a fall and hurt yourself, a fairy laid something in your way to throw you down, as a punish ment for some sin you have committed."9
These Manx fairies are also supposed to be fond of hunting, for we are further told " There is no persuading the inhabitants but that these buntings are frequent in the island, and that these little gentry, being too proud to ride on Manx horses, which they might find in the field, make use of the English and Irish ones which are brought over and kept by gentlemen. They say that nothing is more common than to find these poor beasts, in a morning, all over sweat and foam, and tired almost to death, when their owners have be lieved they have never been out of the stable. A gentleman of Balsa-fletcher assured me he had three or four horses killed with these noc turnal journeys."10
" As to circles in the grass," says Waldron, " and impressions of small feet among the snow, I cannot deny but I have seen them frequently; and once I thought I heard a whistle as though in my ear, when nobody that could make it was near me."
The fairies here seem to be responsible for everything.
The skin off your knees should you rub,
By falling down cellars or areas,
Or break your shins over a tub,
It's placed in your way by the fairies.
If showers of gravel are thrown,11
Or you miss milk and cream from your dairies ;
Or find your horse all over foam,
It's sure to be laid to the fairies.
In short all the evils of life,
And when everything goes by contrÓries,
To yourself, or your children, or wife,
It's laid to the charge of the fairies.
'Tis a famous excuse, I'll be bound
For the Bettys, and Sallys, and Marys ;
If things have been lost and are found,
They 've been taken away by the fairies.
These specimens of Manx superstitions, &c., must suffice, though I could fill a volume with the exploits of the Shiannan Shees, the Horn Mooars, the Mannanan Begs, the Phynnoddcrees,12 &c. &c., but cui bono ? " Tales of goblins, ghosts, and spectres, legends of saints and demons, of fairies and familiar spirits, in no corner of the British empire are told and re ceived with more absolute certainty than in the Isle of Man."13
1 Waldron's " Description of the Isle of Man."
2 " Description of the Isle of Man;" p. 154.
3 " There can be no doubt that the Queen of May is the legitimate representative of the goddess Flora, in the Roman festival."-Douce.
4 Vice Hall's " week at Killarney," where a full description is given of wren-hunting in the 'South of Ireland. Sonniui, in his Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, gives an account of a similar custom there.
5 Many of these superstitions appear to have been derived from the Druids.
6 An offer of marriage, probably.
7 "Description of the Isle of Man," p. 187.
8 "Description of the Isle of Man," p. 176.
9 Ibid. p. 126.
10 Ibid. p. 133.
11 "A man named Laxey, somewhat intoxicated, met a party of fairies, and began forthwith to abuse and curse them as the Devil's imps; they wreaked their vengeance upon him by piercing his shin with a shower of gravel."-Lord Teignmouth's " Isle of Man."
12 A Wesleyan preacher, named Corjaig, declared some years back, that he witnessed the departure of all the fairies ofthe island, from the Bay of Douglas, in empty rum puncheons, and saw them scudding away, as far as the eye could reach, in the direction of Jamaica.
13 Sir W. Scott.