[From Proc IoMNH&ASoc vol 3]
By WILLIAM CUBBON, F.R.S.A.I.
21st February, 1932.
Adjacent to the celebrated "Holy" well in Kirk Malew, called Chibbyr Unjin ("the well of the Ash"), there has recently been found a remarkable bog-oak object which, for convenience, may be termed a "vessel."
The Quarterland on which the well existed-for it is now filled up-is called Ballabeg, and it stands upon the Treen (or family territory) of Grenaby (Sc. Graenbyr, "green farm"). It lies on the. gentle slope below South Barrule mountain and a little more than a mile to the N.W. of Rushen Abbey. (Plate I.)
It will be seen from the plan that the district has many features to interest the archaeologist In the same field wherein the vessel was found, seventy yards to the N. is the site of the Sixth Century, Celtic Chapel:1 its walls were destroyed by the tenant farmer in 1899. The same man filled up with earth the Chibbyr Unjin. The usual prediction came true, for, to use the words of an ancient neighbour, "Kewish wasn't himself when he came for to die."
Chibbyr Unjin is the source of the "rivulet" which is mentioned in the Chronicon Manniae as the boundary between the Land of the Monks and the Land of the King.
The discovery occurred as the result of a visit of the Natural History and Antiquarian Society to the district. Being the leader on the occasion I showed the site of the Early Celtic Chapel, from the foundations of which forty years ago a 6th century cross was taken.2 We examined the common avenue which had been used in primitive times by each farm to reach the chapel. Then about seventy yards below we came to the site of Chibbyr Unjin:3 (Plate II. )
Under the shadow of an' Ash, which still persists in growing upon an ancient root, there was, in the corner of the field where two old sod hedges meet, a sloping depression, covering a score of square feet, containing a mass of 'black mud. The members of the party, when upon the grassy bank examining this interesting spot, were actually standing upon the ground under which the hollowed oak log, a few weeks later, was found.
1 P. M. C. Kermode: Manx Antiquities, p. 74.
2 P. M. C. Kermode: Manx, Crosses, p. 102.
3 P. M. C. Kermode: Manx Antiquities, p. 75.
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It would be idle for me to offer a serious suggestion as to the purpose of the makers of this hollowed oak log. But, in coming, to any sort of conclusion one must consider these features: (a) Its proximity to the sacred well; (b) its being found at the source of a stream which, in early times, was a very important boundary; (c) that the Early Christians took over the pagan site and used it for a chapel and burial ground.
I can only suggest that the vessel may have been formed for service of a pagan nature in connection with the worship of the Ash: perhaps a votive offering. It has been suggested too, perhaps. not unreasonably, that its purpose was sacrificial; but this is mere speculation.
It should be added that the actual work of excavation was financed by the Manx Museum Trustees. We are indebted to the, late Mr G. P. Quayle, the owner of Ballabeg, for kindly granting full permission to excavate; for allowing the recovered vessel to be taken to the Museum; and for his generosity in bearing a proportion of the cost of the illustrations accompanying this paper. To his tenant, Mr J. J. Crellin, thanks are due for his assistance in various ways. To Mr T. G. Moore, of Billown, for the transport of the Log to the Museum. The co-operation of Mr Charles Garrett has been of great value. Mr J. Ronald Bruce, M.Sc., besides giving useful advice, has taken photographs as the work proceeded; and Mr A. J. Davidson, A.R.I.B.A., has made the plans. Messrs P. Bregaazi, W. C. Cubbon, and Harry Cowley also helped in the excavation.
It. will be of service if I put on record, for future reference, one or two facts relative to the Keeill and the Chibbyr.
According to Mr Kermode s List of Antiquities, the Keeill, which is nameless, was destroyed by Kewish, in the year 1898. This is corroborated by Mr Ralfe, to whom the late Mr Kewish, of Ballavell, in 1899, described the destruction of Chibbyr Unjin. The well, he said, had run dry, owing to the making of a drain which took away its water. He emptied loads of mould into it. He destroyed the sacred Ash-tree, which used to be decorated with rags, but now was rotten. He carted away the stones of the Chapel adjacent, which others had been afraid to meddle with: it was a "superstition." Some used to drink the water; others to carry it away in bottles.
In the year 1873 the Chibbyr was in good order according to a coloured drawing 'made in that year by Mr J. M. Jeffcott, High-Bailiff of Castletown. He had been secretary of the Archaological Commission appointed by Governor Loch in 1876, so that his sketch must be considered reliable (Fig. II.)
When Kewish destroyed the foundations of the Keeill in 1898, he found in the walls a cross cut in a granite boulder. It measures 23ín. long and 18in. wide. Mr Kermode thinks it may be of the 6th century or perhaps a little later. The original is in Kirk Malew Churchyard, and a cast is in the Museum.
It is interesting, too, to note that some years ago Canon Quine got at Grenaby Farm the Holy Water Stoup,- also in the Museum. It was presented to the Museum by the late Mr G. P. Quayle.
According to Mr A. W. Moore and other writers, Chibbyr Unjin was formerly much venerated. . This well, and the sacred tree which overshadowed it, were reverenced long before Christian times.
Chibbyr Unjin was supposed to be presided over by the divine Spirit of the Ash. The well was known all over the Island, and devotees came from all the parishes to practise certain rites.
Over and above tradition, there are many references to the well, both in manuscript and in print. An unpublished Diocesan Registry MS. in the library of the Manx Museum records that in the time of Charles I. there was a Bishop of Sodor and Mann named Foster, who wished to do away with all Romish practices which remained from pre-Reformation times. In the year 1634 he put a number of questions to the Church Wardens of Kirk Malew, in which parish the well lies. One of the replies to the Bishop reads:
Alsoe we heere vat many from other Dishes doe ropayre and resort unto a wel,1 yt is in our pish, to what intent or purposte we know not.
1 This referred to Chibbyr Unjin.
Feltham, in 1798, writes: "A short distance to the east of Ballatrollage, about three miles from Castletown, is a famous well visited for medical aid."
Cumming, in his Guide, 1861, p. 104, calls the Well 'Chibbyr Vondy.'
In the "Place-name" books of the Ordnance Survey, dated about 1868, there is a reference which is of great interest concerning this well:
Patients wishing to he cured must visit the well on :Midsummer Day, bringing with them a. rag, which they must slip in the water and walk round the we'l three times, taping a drink at the completion of each circuit, and finally depositing the rag on the thorntree.
The reference to Midsummer would appear to indicate the heathen Festival of the worship of the Sun.
Mr- J. J. Kneen thinks that the mention of Midsummer would :suggest that the Keeill may have been dedicated to St. John.
As to the fascinating subject of well worship, wells have been at all times held in veneration in Ireland. It appears from the Lives of St. Patrick and from other authorities, that before the introduction of Christianity, they were not only venerated, but actually worshipped, both in Ireland and Scotland.*
Thus, in Adamnan's Life of St. Columba, we read: 'Another time, remaining for some days in the country of the Picts, the holy man (Columba) heard of a fountain famous amongst this heathen people, which foolish men, blinded by the devil, worshipped as a divinity. . . . . The pagans paid divine honour to the fountain.' And Tirechan relates in the Book of Armagh that St. Patrick, in his progress through Ireland, carne to a fountain called Slan (Slaun), which the Druids worshipped as a god, and to which they, used to offer sacrifices.
After the general spread of the Faith, the people's affection for wells was intensified: most of the early preachers of the Gospel established their humble foundations. . . besides those fountains, whose waters supplied the daily wants and served for baptism of the, converts.
Professor R. A. S. Macalister, perhaps the, highest authority, says
'Of the worship of the powers of Nature (the agricultural and pastoral deities) we have the clearest evidence in the periodical assemblies, which were not impossibly of pre-Celtic origin.
They took place, as a rule, at or near cemeteries,, and were thus% bound up with a cult of the dead; but the .fact of their incidence on the critical days of the year proves that they were also connected with the annual phenomena of seasonal change.
The frequent traces found, in ancient legend and modern custom, of uvell-worship and sprinng-worship, most probably have their Toots in the pre-Celtic period; though doubtless there are imported Celtic accre tions which it would be difficult now to disentangle. And especially is it probable that river-worship was an essential element of pre-Celtic religion, but not so distinctively (except as a matter of survival) of the religion of the succeeding Celtic-speaking people. +
In the Teutonic Mythology, written by Grimm (Stallybrass edition) vol. ii. 796, it is recorded that 'The tree most usually found at these wells is the Ash., formerly held to be sacred. . . . a World tree which links Heaven, Earth, and Hell together; of all trees the greatest and holiest.'
As one goes round the remoter parts of the Island, as I have done for many years, one is impressed with the vast amount of legendary lore connected with the cult of spring worship and well worship. And in the Isle of Man we find close to most of our Iieeill and Parish Church sites a 'Holy' Well. In Early Christian times a spring of pure water was essential to the early missionary for the regeneration of the newly-made converts. Hence it is, so large number of holy wells are found close to the chapels which were afterwards built.
*Joyce in "Names of Places," 3rd Ed., p. 434.
+ Macalister's 'Ireland in Pre-Celtic Times' p. 290. The Professor writes in reference to Chiibibyr Unjin: 'My best thanks for letting me see the account of your magnificent discovery. I don't know anything of the kind so complete. I wish I could get over to see it.'