George Borrow's strange experiences in Man

One of His Manuscripts Secured for the Museum

ONE of the greatest masters of English literature, George Henry Borrow, visited Man in the year 1855, and wrote a diary of his experiences during the ten weeks he made the Island his home. He had published in 1844 The Bible in Spain, and in 1851 what is considered to be his greatest work, Lavengro. After touring Cornwall, in which county he was born, he took an extended walking tour through the most romantic parts of Wales. The literary results of the Welsh holiday were many notebooks from which Wild Wales was subsequently written. He chose the Isle of Man in the year 1855 because, as he said, it attracted him 'as , a land of legend and quaint customs and speech.' Accordingly, on the morning of the 22nd of August he set sail in the steamer Tynwald for Douglas. Keenly inquisitive as usual, he could not forbear questioning the sailors about the Manx language during the passage. Being one of the most proficient linguists ever known - he was a master of some thirty or forty languages - he at once set about comparing the Irish with the Manx spoken by the sailors.

He was always on the scent of the language, and meeting an 'old fisher-looking man' on the Quay discussed the subject. ' I said that many people were ashamed to speak Manx, . . . he said that no Manxman need be ashamed of speaking the language of his country and that Manx would be spoken as long as Man . . .

His host in Douglas was Mr. John Goldsmith,* one of the most cultured men then engaged in the commercial life of the town. He was one of the Goldsmiths of Balladoole in Kirk Christ Lezayre, and had become the agent in the Island for the Dublin Packet Company. He had formerly been a schoolmaster, and was a clever mathematician for a number of years he made the astronomical and other calculations for Jefferson's Almanack.

Both men discussed Celtic literary and linguistic affairs. They talked about Ossian's poems, Illiam Dhone, the translation of the Bible from the original tongues, the runic monuments and the derivation of place-names. Borrow was charmed with the combination of knowledge and modesty which he found in his new friend.

* He lived at No. 5 Albert Terrace, the house in which Dr. Lionel Woods now lives.


On the 26th of August, which was a Sunday, he attended St. George's Church, where he heard Bishop Powys. The service lasted nearly two hours and a half. 'The sermon was a good sensible one and the Bishop had all the appearance of an honest man.' Day after day he tramped the countryside, visiting in turn Kirk Braddan, Tromode, the Baldwins, Sulby, Jurby, Kirk Santan, Ballasalla, Castletown, Port St. Mary and Port Erin. From here he sailed to the Calf Island, and gives a graphic account of it. A man named McCooAib told him that the rent the owner asked for the Calf was .125. His thumbnail notes of an evening at Mrs. Clugston's Public-house, Port Erin, are tantalisingly brief : 'The public-house fire; the dinner; the seat by the kitchen fire at evening; the tipsy fiddler; Molly Charane, the company: the miners; the miner's tale; Mr. Curphey his tale; the Prayer Book; the comfortable bed ; the moaning of the sea.'

As all students of Borrow are aware, he was a magnificent walker, and loved the open road and the mountain paths. He explored every place where he thought he might learn something of the language, conversing with the people in Manx, collecting ballads, and old smoke-stained carval books, of which he was proud to secure two examples. It is a pleasure to record here that a photostat copy, of one of these precious books came into the Library of the Manx Museum a few weeks ago as a gift from the Librarian, of the National Library of Wales. The original is described as N.L.W. M. S. 409 in the collection of Sir John Williams, Bart. The dates in the book are 1835 and 1838, and the carvals were composed by John Skillicorn, a Kirk Lonan miner.

On the 17th of September Borrow undertook a journey to the north on foot ' in quest of runes, Manx books, barrows, cairns, and what not.' On the next day he found a native pal,* a man after his own heart, in James Skillicorn, who told him about the local bean ny varast and phynnodderees that lurk in the bays or roam over the hills. Skillicorn took him up to the top of Snaefell, and on the way presented to him the 'genuine carval-book ' mentioned above. In the title Borrow wrote a memorial inscription, an exact facsimile of which is given on plate 157.

* Knapp's Life, ii 146. + Ben ny varrey - mermaids.

Borrow was charmed by what he described as his 'discovery' of the carvals. Many, he claimed, 'possessed considerable merit, and a collection of them would be a curious addition to the literature of Europe. . . They are preserved in uncouth-looking smoke-stained volumes in lone farmhouses and cottages,' and this is a good description of many now in the Manx Museum.

The holiday in Man resulted in two quarto note-books, closely written in pencil,* and comprising ninety-six pages. Borrow planned to write a book, but never did so. Among his papers was found the following draft of a suggested title-page :-



It would appear that the manuscript books of the visit to Man are in the Knapp Collection now in the Hispanic Society's possession. + Borrow's notes on his expedition to Man remain a monument to his sympathy of the Manxman he has Ø good word to say, and for the language a singular affection. He was charmed with the beauty of the Isle, and was unmeasured in its praise. Referring to Anglesey as a contrast he says that although he is ` prepared to go the whole hog in lauding Anglesey for its brave men, its bards ' and so on, it is 'no more to be compared with its sister and namesake Mona or Man than a common pebble is to a diamond stone.'+

A story of George Borrow, hitherto unrecorded, was told to the writer by the late Mr. John Cowley, of Ballacraine, Kirk German. Mr. Cowley's father, like many of the small farmers in his day, went to the herring fishery, and one fine morning in September 1855, he was sitting on the steps of the Red Pier. Whilst awaiting the incoming of the tide he was reading a copy of the New Testament in Manx. Unknown to him, a big man was watching him from behind. Suddenly the arms of the big man stretched over his shoulder and took the book from his hand and, to Cowley's great astonishment, commenced to translate the Manx into very good English. With evident delight they conversed and discussed the peculiarities of the Manx Scriptures, and Cowley later received from the visitor many of the tracts issued from time to time by the Bible Society.

* Jenkin's Life of Borrow, 1912.

'} Clement Shorter's George Borrow and His Circle, p. 295, and Knapp, vol. if, p. 386.

# Borrow's Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings, 1928.

Space will not permit of a description of Borrow's keen search for the vernacular literature. The facilities were not favourable to travel, and he relied entirely upon his ability to get from place to place on foot. He interviewed the widow of one Mylecharaine in Jurby about the origin of the folk-ballad Mylecharaine, and a few days afterwards he went over the mountains to Kirk Arbory, where he visited the home of Archibald Cregeen, the compiler of the Manx Dictionary published in 1838. ` I reverence,' he declared, 'the very ground upon which the man trod, because he was one of the greatest natural Celtic scholars who has ever lived.*

When in the south he determined to examine the casts of the Scandinavian crosses which the Rev. J. G. Cumming, the Vice-Principal, had placed in King William's College a few years earlier. The story of this visit is not told by Borrow, but is very charmingly told by Mr. Willmot Dixon, then a scholar at the school. Dixon was born there, being the son of the Rev. Robert Dixon, who was Principal of the College from 1841 to 1865. The lad was only twelve years old when Borrow came, and felt very timid when, lying full length on the grass in front of the school, he and his companions saw ` a very big man, dressed in black, wearing a tall hat, and carrying a huge umbrella, coming across the field, and exclaiming "Boys! Is there anyone alive in that building?"'

' I think there must be somebody about, Sir,' said the boy.

' I tell you, boy, there isn't... Do you know of any museum in that big barracks where there are plaster casts of runic monuments? '*

I (Dixon) procured the key, unlocked the museum, and he was soon absorbed in studying the inscriptions on the runic crosses, which were in a rather dusty and neglected condition.


Young Dixon was much struck by the unconventional stranger. ' I sat on the window-ledge,' he continues, 'and studied him . . , with one exception, the notable vicar of Kirk Braddan,** I had never before seen so big a man, and there was an impressiveness about his mien and stature to which my experience could afford no parallel. The massive breadth of his figure seemed to be colossal. His hair was snow-white, but he did not look very old. His face was smooth as an egg . . . his features were large and bald, his expression resolute, almost truculent, his eyes dark and piercing, his voice deep, sonorous, authoritative. His black coat and trousers were plentifully besprinkled with dust. He wore low shoes and white cotton socks, which gave an untidy look to his feet. Although I had not the slightest idea who or what he was, I felt in awe of him.

'Nearly three months later,' continues Dixon, 'my father announced at breakfast one morning that George Borrow, the celebrated traveller, had accepted an invitation to visit us,' and he found to his astonishment that the visitor was the big man whom he had conducted to the College museum. Borrow at once recognised me. . . He came forward and laid his hand on my shoulder, and turning to my father said:

"This boy was the only living creature that wasn't asleep ... when I came to see your Museum. I walked into your town with the grand castle, called on the High Bailiff, and asked him if he could tell me anything about the Museum at the College; he could tell me nawthing. I went to your Government Chaplain, from him I could get nawthing. I went to your leading advocate; he could tell me nawthing. I came to the College. I could get nawthing. I could get nawthing until I happened to come across this boy!"

From 'Port Eirin' he visited the mine at Bradda, and proceeded to walk by the Sloc and South Barrule to Peel, no easy task even for an accomplished walker. He climbed to the summit of the mountain and exclaims : 'The scenery was grand, yet beautiful: there was mist and sun-shine. The Isle of Man is a very noble Isle.'

Proceeding along the northern slope of Cronk ny Irey Lhaa he sees opening in front of him in the sunshine the coast of Dalby and the Niarbyl, and exclaims in his Diary ' A lovelier Isle than Vennon never G. saw in his wide career! '

When he got to Peel he bathed off the beach and stayed at the Castle Hotel for the night. The next day, which was the 3rd September, he walked to Douglas. When he came to St. John's, which interested him greatly, he wrote in his Diary on the top of Tynwald Mound, which he described well. He noted the significance of the round hill and the round yard of the Church, joined by an avenue, and described it as a 'round Greek cross.' He finished his Diary (as given in Mannin), with reference to Slieau Whallian and Greeba.

It would appear that on the morning following his return to Douglas he sat down and penned an account of some of his experiences whilst at St. John's. The actual document, in Borrow's characteristic script, has been secured recently for the Manx Museum Library through Messrs. Bernard Quaritch, of London. It is given below in full. The words in italics were crossed out in the original.

* J. M. Jeffcott, Yn Lioar Manninagh.

* R. Thurston Hopkins Lord of the Open Road, pp. 141-149.

** Parson William Drury.



Document No. 218.

AFTER having deciphered the Runic stone by the door of the Tinwald Church in the best manner that its dilapidated condition would permit me I crossed the road to the little public house on the green on the south. I entered a passage, a kitchen on the left, and a kind of parlour on the right.

I went into the kitchen in which was a fire and sat down by a table. Th(ere) were two women, one old and the other young in the kitchen. These were the woman of the house: and her daughter. An elderly man sat at the same table at which I had (taken my) placed myself with a mug before him. I asked for some whiskey and water, which the old woman brought me.

The man presently began to talk to me, and I instantly perceived by his voice that he was in a state verging on intoxication. He seemed to be aware that I had been in the church yard looking at (this) the stone, and (and) asked me some half unintelligible questions about it, and what was written upon it. (I told him what it was and that which was written upon it.) I told him that the stone was put there by the old Danes and what was written upon it was in their language.

He said that a great many wonderful things had been found in the neighbourhood and that very stone had been found under the foundation of the old church, when it had been taken down (and was) I was once seated at home when a man came running from a field to ask me to come and look at something. I followed him and found a plough and two oxen standing stil(1) by a hole or grave. In ploughing the sock of the plough had come against the stone and (partly raised) removed it. (The man told me then to look in).

I did so) The man told me to look in, I did so and there I saw bones and the skull of a man, and what do you think was on the skull? Why the hair, looking as fresh as if it were on a head that was alive - I had been taking a drop too much, as I have (even) been now - so I felt no fear; (so) and what did I do but put my hand on the hair and then O jee! I felt afraid then, and became sober at once, for in a moment all was gone, skull and hair all had crumbled to dust, and looked as white as those ashes in the grate.

What colour was the hair? said I, when you first saw it.

What colour, said the man? O quite black when I first saw it, but in a moment it was white - all ashes. White as the hair on your own head.

What became of the grave said I?

O the stone was put over it again, and the earth over the stone, and the dust of the dead was left alone.

I drank my whiskey and water, asked where the road to the south led to and was told to Castleton. Then getting up I paid for my whiskey and water and departed. I had a beautifull moon-light walk to Douglas where I found my wife and daughter quite well - I ate a hearty supper, drank a bottle of ale and then went to bed. I had strange dreams that night in which Runic stones, skeletons and cor(p)ses of gigantic Danes, and cripples on crutches were strangely blended.

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