[From A Second Manx Scrapbook]

CHAPTER IV
DIVINATIONS AND OBSERVANCES

5. Other Customs and Beliefs.

The English custom of egg-rolling at Easter took root for a while in the Isle of Man, but it seems to have died out now. On Easter Monday the boys and girls of the Port St. Mary district boiled a supply of eggs stone-hard, coloured them in smoke, and took them to a certain hollow in the grassy slope just above Perwick shore, facing the Bon Rock. There they let them roll down from the top so that they fell into the shallow pit at the foot of the slope. It was done chiefly by girls ; sometimes the boys would put round stones among their eggs to crack those of the girls. The chief point of interest in this custom (which flourished thirty or forty years ago, a native told me when showing me the spot) is the selection of one particular place, year after year, for the purpose.

On the morning of a wedding it was a custom for young men to climb a neighbouring hill (Cronk Shammyrk in Lezayre and Slieu Chairn Gerjoil in Lonan are two which have been specified to me in this connexion), and blow cow-horns as long as their breath held out. This horn-blowing was also a feature of some of the wren-processions. The original intention of the wedding-day performance was, perhaps, less to announce an important occasion or to vent high spirits than to ward off the fairies, since the same music was performed on the morning of the Twelfth of May (Old May Day) to prevent their stealing children, according to Moore. Roeder says it was done on May Eve, which is more probable. Aubrey says, " At Oxford the Boyes doe blow Cows horns and hollow Caxes all Night" on May Eve.1 The same was done in Germany, according to Grimm.

The bygone Manx observance of St. Bride's Eve (1st February) has been recorded : how the inmates of cottages stood at the door with rushes in their hands and called to Bride to enter-" Open the door to Bride, and let Bride come in "-afterwards spreading the rushes on the floor to make a bed for her. What is missing from the accounts of the custom in its degenerate state may, perhaps, be gathered from the procedure in Ulster. At Tobermore the children who go out for the rushes (which must be pulled, not cut with a knife), on St. Bride's Eve to make crosses, ask at the door when they return, " May St. Bride come in ? " and are answered from within, " Yes, she may."2 Probably at an earlier stage in the decay of the ceremony they carried an image of Bride made of the rushes, which Church influence transformed in time into a cross ; and this image would be the Bride whom the Manx people invited to enter their houses. In the Hebrides, according to Martin, such an image was made of a sheaf of oats dressed up like a woman, and put in a basket which was called " Bride's bed." Thus the three accounts, if pieced together, make a coherent whole.3

Rushes were likewise spread at the doors and on the window-sills of Irish cottages, without reference to Bride, on Midsummer Eve, and on the Eve of Ascension Thursday.

In the parish of Lezayre a remarkable custom connected with farm-service was not entirely obsolete, I am told, so late as the latter half of the 19th century. When a manservant was engaged for the year he would sprinkle a little of the soil of the farm on the doorstep, on the flagstone of the hearth, and on his new master's chair. Sometimes the soil was first mixed with ashes from the hearth. The act, though not the occasion for it, resembles a Norse land-buying ceremony described in the " Gulathing." The purchaser, in the presence of witnesses, took mould, " as is mentioned in the laws," to the four corners of the hearth and to the owner's high-seat, to where field and meadow met, and to where pasture and stone-ridge met. The mould was afterwards preserved, along with the written conveyance, as a concrete token of the bargain. There is also a reminder in this Norse ceremony of the former Manx custom of handing over a sod when taking possession of a farm.

The same respect for the controlling centre of the estate figured in the old method of giving notice to leave. When a farm-servant wished to do this in the absence from home of his employer, it was prescribed that he should repair with a witness " to the usuall Place where the Master or Mistress did sitt, at the hearth or at meat, or . . . the Door where they usually enter " ; his verbal warning given at these spots satisfied the requirements of the law.4

The first making of the broth by the newly-married woman in her husband's house signified that she had taken up her position and duties in the home. Exactly the same observance has been found among the Haussas of East Africa.

AFTER DEATH.

Many significant observances and beliefs have clustered round the bodies of the dead. The knots on the grave-clothes should be loosened just before the coffin is closed, otherwise the soul cannot free itself for its flight to heaven. To be effective, some people think this office should be performed by a man if the corpse is a woman's and vice versa, or there is a risk that the loosener will be haunted by the ghost or spirit of the dead person. Others say that the loosener of the knots should always be a woman.

It is not very uncommon to hear of treasured articles or heirlooms being placed in the coffin and buried with it. A woman in East Foxdale mentioned to me last year that her mother had been buried with a linen apron woven by the dead woman's father. A part of it having knots of some kind was carefully cut off, and she was lifted by the bands into the coffin. I have heard of letters and photographs being buried with the body. A few leaves of the elder were sometimes strewn over it ; or two or three straws were snapped asunder and passed beneath the body as it lay on the bed, and afterwards placed with it in the coffin. This is still done sometimes. Is it to be taken as symbolical of the parting asunder of body and soul ? The latter, it is said, goes away at death, but on the third night it returns to where the body is ; so the body should not be removed or buried before then, for the homeless spirit would haunt the house afterwards. If it were seen after the third day people would be frightened by it, but not till then.

According to another account of the matter, for three days after the death the soul or spirit lingers about the places which are familiar and dear to it, and may then chance to be seen by its kindred, or by Sighted persons, as a bird, animal, or insect, and its voice may be heard. After the third day a change comes over the dead features ; it is a sign that the soul is no longer homeless, but has reached the end of its journey and found peace.

To pass for a moment beyond the limits of the Isle of Man, this idea that the dead may take the shapes of animals is one of the many fragments of ancient belief which have been adopted into witchcraft and its attendant magic ; but to the minds of savages, who are usually supposed to exhibit the most rudimentary forms of our superstitions, the passing of the soul at death into the animal is a natural process which owes nothing to magic. The taking of animal shape by living human beings, such as that of the hare by a witch, or of the wolf by a bewitched or magic-using man, cannot, I think, be dissociated from the belief in the dead as animals. Not only do witches, while alive, temporarily become hares, but a hare may represent the spirit of a deceased relative ; not only may a living man spend periods in wolf-shape, but a dead man may take the shape of a wolf and behave in the same manner as the were-wolf which is a living man.

FORETOKENS OF MISFORTUNE.

Minor omens having conventional interpretations are numerous. A rare one is the appearance of the Aurora Borealis ; it is understood to portend the outbreak of a war in some part of the world. There is said to be a Manx name for the Northern Lights, but I have not found anyone who knows it. If there is, it may embody the old belief that the strange glittering in the heavens is caused by the dancing fairies.

Portents of a more trifling character, foreshadowing either definite events or merely luck good or bad, are as common in the Isle of Man as everywhere else, and not very different. A cut loaf should not be left lying on the plate or table with the cut side downward. This is known in Cornwall also, and probably in other fishing centres, since the analogy is obviously a capsized boat. Herrings too, in the Isle of Man, should not be turned over when they are being eaten,

for the same reason. In the little volume of tales and sketches in the Anglo-Manx dialect published in 1895 by one of Ruskin's disciples, which conveys the tone and spirit of Manx country life with such truth, the English author's almost infallible knowledge of Island ways fails him for once when he makes one of his characters say, in this connexion, " When the mate is puk off arram at one side, they turns it over on the other, to gerrat the mate."5 The herring should be lifted, never turned over, and the " mate " shaken off or picked off with a fork.

Boots should not be placed on the table ; it is an omen of a death in the house.

The entry of a living wild bird of any kind into the dwelling-house has the same significance.

The " stranger " or flake of soot on the bar of the grate is an infallible token of a coming visitor, according to Manx housewives.

To kill the small, black, outdoor beetle called a " Greg " (carraig) is, as in England, certain to bring rain, and hence is an accident which is avoided so far as possible. For an account of a deliberate sacrifice of the creg, see page 285.

Another rain-bringer, and one belonging exclusively to the Isle of Man, was a man who, up to four or five years ago, went about the Island with a piano-organ. It was commonly said and believed that his arrival in a town would shortly be followed by wet weather. The first time I heard this-as a matter of detail I overheard a woman make the remark in a Douglas street-I thought I had come across a newly-coined piece of folk-lore passing current only in its own part of the world ; but I have since found its equivalent in the South of England, where the same influence was credited to the German bands which used to enliven our thoroughfares. At the bottom of both beliefs, perhaps, lies the idea that a loud noise, such as thunder or the firing of guns, will shake down the rain.

It has been suggested that the Manxman's objection to the presence of white stones in the ballast of his boat was due to their being found by excavators and ploughmen in old graves. In Orkney and Shetland, however, the objection is based on the ground that they are symbolic of white waves, and consequently of rough weather; and this, perhaps, lies at the bottom of the Manx superstition also.

As in many lands, the parson is unlucky to encounter by a man on his way to the fishing. His presence in a boat is unwelcome, notwithstanding the pleasure taken in Pazon Gale's company by Tom Baynes and his men in Brown's poem of " Betsy Lee." This instance must be considered as a special tribute to the affection in which Pazon Gale was held; and when such exceptional cases have occurred in real life it has been due to the minister's personal popularity having triumphed over the ominous colour of his cloth. Certain rare members of the clergy have, indeed, been reckoned lucky passengers to carry in a fishing-boat.

When the fishing-fleet was leaving harbour for Northern waters or the South-West of Ireland, the next two crews after the second were accustomed to lash their boats together, so that neither should be the fatal third. For local fishing it was not thought necessary to take this precaution-an illogical one in any case. To prevent there being a third boat the two which followed the first should have been united, unless the two which were bracketed third were expected to halve the bad luck. But that was not the case ; it was understood that there was no "third boat" when two went out at the same time. It would be interesting to hear the origin of this belief in the fatality of a number which is otherwise almost universally lucky in the British Isles. Almost—for we know how strongly the British soldier in the European War objected to being the third to light his pipe or cigarette from the one match. In modern Greece, however, "three, which in old times was lucky, is now universally unlucky."*

RESPECT PAID TO RELICS.

Not only books on Manx folk-lore, but works of an archaeological nature, bear witness to the disastrous, sometimes fatal, consequences of destroying, or even meddling with, the venerable relics of the country-side, and many similar stories circulate unrecorded. The time-limit usually assigned for the blow to fall is twelve months, or a year and a day. Its weight is held to correspond to the amount of damage done to the relic ; also, the longer the consequences are delayed the more serious they are expected to be. They may not be confined to the actual perpetrators, but may even fall on the neighbourhood at large. Looking at the matter in a rational light, it cannot be denied that misfortunes do follow such interferences within the specified time, often well within it. But are they greater than the normal amount of trouble which every man has to expect in any given period? Such things are not reducible to statistics. Admittedly, the tales grow more dramatic as they travel, and one will reproduce itself in several places ; but I should not care to say that there is nothing at the bottom of the belief. It would be difficult to state precisely who or what is supposed to avenge the destruction of the relic ; fairies-that is to say, the souls of the dead-might be deemed guardians of the tumuli, the old thorntrees and the elder-bushes, but they could not very well be held responsible for the walls of the ancient chapels.

More than one story bearing on this subject has been related in A Manx Scrapbook; those I will supplement here with a characteristic specimen which I met with half a dozen years ago. A neighbour of mine, when ploughing a field containing in the middle the remains of a small group of stones from which weapons and an urn had been disinterred eighty years previously, shaved the skirt of the mound more closely than any of his innumerable predecessors had dared to do. I think it was the first time he had ploughed this particular field since taking up the tenancy of the farm, but am not quite certain about that. At all events, he was a little reckless, in spite of a strong hint from his landlord, who knew the risk, for his ancestors had held the land for centuries. Being in a small way, the tenant possessed two horses only. A week or two later the more valuable of these, a strong, healthy young mare, fell sick and died without any visible cause. She was insured, but the man felt her loss so keenly that he shed tears over it. The only physical explanation he could think of was that a young lad who had had charge of her sometimes had ill-used her ; but his history of the loss was brought out by some remarks we had been exchanging on the subject of the stones and their significance.

Among the traditions of this nature mentioned in the Reports of the Manx Archæological Survey the most striking is that relating to Keeill Coonlagh and its burial-ground, in Jurby parish. About 200 years ago the farm on which they stand, Ballachonley, was owned by a family named Conoly, in which were seven sons and a daughter. " The sons destroyed the remains of the Keeill, and as a punishment they all died within the year. But the daughter had no part in the destruction," and was consequently spared to inherit the property ; and her descendants have inherited the tradition along with it. And the people living at Ballacarnane-beg in Michael have exactly the same tradition about the keeill on their land.

C., the tenant of Claughbane farm, near Ramsey, and two or three of his men, dug away a tumulus on his land in 1923 or 1924. He and all the men concerned contracted pneumonia within a couple of months ; all died but one of the men. I give the circumstances as they were given to me by local residents independently of each other ; without personally vouching for them as facts, I believe them to be true. A well-documented case, on which any reader can form his own judgment, is furnished by the late Dr. John Clague, of Castletown. On the last page of the printed extracts from his notebooks published under the title of Manx Reminiscences, he says : " On the twenty-first day of May, in the year nineteen hundred and eight, we were at Ballacross digging an old urn out of an old graveyard. . . . ' His sudden death occurred on 23rd August, 1908, in his 66th year.

Footnotes

1 Remaines, page 18.

2 Anderson, Ulster Folk-lore, page 17.

3 As much the best account of the Manx ceremony in former times lurks in the local Society's Transactions, its repetition here may be excused. " On St. Bridget's Eve the old farmers' wives used to sweep out the barn, and put a bed, and a chair, and a table in, and light a large mould candle that would burn all night, and set bread and cheese on the table, with a quart jug of good Manx ale, all in the hope that ' Breeshey ' would pay them a visit ; and used to say, at the open door, before going to bed, ' Quoi erbee vii thie hig oo, hum tar gys yn thie aynyn '-' W'hosesoever house you come to,come to ours.' " (C. Roeder, Lioar Manninagh, iii., i8t.)

4 Statutes, 1664.

5 Rydings, Manx Tales, page 24.

6 Lawson, Modern Greek Folk-lore, page 313. He gives instances.

6. Legal and Ecclesiastical Customs.

Many of the incidents and beliefs which have been collected into the present part of this volume as typical of their respective classes exhibit, I think, a national habit of mind more akin to that of a portion of the Breton race than to any other European people. In that country,however,the prevailing religion,though inimical to the fairy faith, has tended to foster the pagan belief in the nearness of the dead to the living, in the ease of communication between them, and in the equal actuality of both ; whereas in Man this feeling of their propinquity has been driven below the surface, not only by religious inhibitions, but by the effects of modern conditions on a much smaller population than that of Brittany. In old days it was as unashamedly a part of the Manx national life as the belief in the Holy Trinity and in the fairies.

An excellent illustration of the slenderness of the partition between living and dead in the old Manx conception of existence is provided by one of the ancient Insular law-customs. In its history can be seen also the irrepressible vitality of primitive ways of thinking and of the practices they gave rise to. When a claim was filed upon the estate of a dead man within a year and a day of his decease, and documentary evidence was wanting, the claimant stretched himself on his back along the grave of his alleged debtor, with a Bible on his breast, and his two compurgators (as they were inaccurately termed), standing on either side of him ; in this attitude he swore to the justice of his claim and the total amount of the debt. There can be little doubt that in early times, perhaps while the practice was still a part of the unwritten " breastlaw," it was confidently expected by all concerned except, perhaps, the deceased, that in the event of the claimant committing perjury the dead man's spirit would rise up to contradict him, and, either on the spot or soon afterwards, to punish him. By degrees the belief probably decayed to a vague feeling that bad luck would dog the perjurer's path, in addition, of course, to the penalty reserved for one who bears false witness against his neighbour.

Praying on the graves of the dead was one of the items of an inquiry recommended by the Governor to the Vicar-General at a Tynwald Court in 1594.

Although a temporal statute of 1609 denounced and forbade such a mode of testifying as unchristian, it continued to be looked upon with favour by the ecclesiastical authorities, as Moore shows, and it remained more or less in vogue during the succeeding century, when Bishop Wilson still held to it. So late indeed as the period of the Rev. B. Philpot, Archdeacon and Vicar-General (1827-38), the custom was observed, though in a modified form. " By degrees," writes Philpot in his Journal, " I abolished many old superstitious customs, such as swearing to the amount of the debts claimed on the grave of the deceased debtor, while standing at its east end."1 He may have abolished it from official recognition, but not from the hearts of the people; for a circumstance mentioned in a little work published in 1895 reveals strikingly how the identical habit of mind (which the reverend author regards in a ludicrous light) unofficially persisted among the lower classes until a much later era than Philpot's. " I know a churchyard in the North of the Island where . . , a man of the parish, when not quite sober, was apt to call at night at the grave of a former debtor with the request that the debt might be paid."2

Ecclesiastical Penance, it is well known, was performed in a white sheet, sometimes with an advertisement of the offence pinned to it, in the market-places of the four towns and at the door of the delinquent's parish church. When the tongue was the offending member, the sheet was replaced by a bridle of special construction. I have been told that the sinners of Arbory sometimes stood on the flight of stone steps at the side of the entrance-gate of Arbory churchyard. It has been denied that penitents were ever allowed to enter the church at all during their probationary period, but a statement by Bishop Wilson in his History of the Isle of Man seems to be conclusive. He says that the penitent, wearing a white sheet, was brought into the church immediately before the Litany, and after an exhortation by the minister was prayed for by the congregation. Offenders who relapsed were not permitted to do penance again until they had given proof of repentance and reformation ; they were obliged, thereuntil, to stand at the church door during the service. Fornication and adultery were the sins with which ecclesiastical authority chiefly concerned itself.

" In connexion with the subject of penance, a scrap of lore which clung to the Saddle Stone near Kirk Braddan sixty or seventy years ago is preserved in the Name Books of the Ordnance Survey. The stone was at that date " said to have been a penance-stone in olden times. It was removed from the ruins of the Camp at Braddan." This supposed use of it was probably communicated to the Ordnance officers by Dr. Oswald, who mentions the same tradition in his Vestigia. Apparently the meaning is that culprits were made to sit or stand on it as a punishment.

A legal observance or law-custom which has long gone out of use is noticeable in the course of an action for debt at a Sheading Court held in Rushen Castle in 1417. Translated out of its Latin the passage runs thus : " Because John (MacGilcallum, the defendant) would not place his hand in the hand of the Deemster to accept the verdict as the Court might afterwards deliver it, as was required by the same Bris (Bullok, the plaintiff), which he himself proved on the spot by legal witnesses then put on oath, judgment was given thereupon in favour of the plaintiff." The clasping of the Deemster's hand was, no doubt, a gesture of allegiance similar to that of the chieftain towards his overlord, and, in early medallions of Carausius and other rulers, the worshipper towards his deity.

The ancient legal penalty of Deodand, well known in England, by which an animal or object causing a death was confiscated and became the king's property, was enforced in the Isle of Man so late as the end of the 17th century, and probably later still. In 1694 a bull which killed John Cain, of Lhergy Dhoo, in the parish of German, was forfeited as Deodand to the Lord of the Isle.3

The obsolete Customary-law of the Ring, the Rope and the Sword, by which a single woman was given the choice of seeing her violater hanged, beheaded, or married to her, has already enjoyed publicity. Though first proclaimed at the Tynwald Court of 1577, it was one of a number of highly- interesting " Old Customes given for Law, which have never been put in Writing, but used and allowed of long Time heretofore." It is said (I have heard it from a Northside lawyer as a fact of local history) that the last occasion on which this option was exercised was after a ship's cargo of strong liquor had been cast up the North end of the Mooragh shore near Ramsey. The joyous tidings spread swiftly, and the people swooped down to the feast like vultures. As a sequel, a woman who had been raped while returning home along the Mooragh handed to the culprit, at the end of the trial which found him guilty, the symbolical piece of rope. My friend was unable to give this affair a date.

1 Our Centenarian Grandfather, ed. A. G. Bradley, pages 162 ff.

2 Rev. W. T. Radcliife, Ellan Vannin, page 68.

3 Enquest and Petition Files, Rolls Office. The 16th century enactments which formulated in picturesque terms the Manx law of Deodand are cited in Train's Historical Account, ii., 21.


 

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