[From Mannin #6]

Manx Coast Sketches


THE contrast is great between the features of the Fleshwick and Dalby coastline lately dscribed, and those of the tract now to be sketched; yet the distance from one to the other is short and, from the height of the former, one constantly overlooks the latter. The lofty western brows, with their grandeur and picturesqueness, have little of human interest, while the coast of the lowlands, inferior in scenic charm, is rich in historic association. Nor is it really deficient in beauty; the low green edges of the fields merge in miniature cliffs and deep-cut gullies with much variety of form, and of more than usual geological interest. Everywhere there are fine sea and land views. Instead of the lofty line of heights usual in Manx coast-scape,shut ting out the inland prospect, the land here lies wide open to the comparatively distant hill range—a country green with grass or yellow with corn, its many villages and farmsteads reaching, one behind the other, far up toward the dark heathery summits.

For the purpose of this sketch we will begin our survey at Cass-ny-Hawin, the 'Burn-foot' of Santon River; the prettiest spot, perhaps, on this shore line between Douglas and Port St. Mary. The stream, which rises in the moorlands near Foxdale, for its last half-mile has forced its way through a narrow rocky gorge, and flows to the gravelly beach through a passage so confined and steep that at high water it is not possible to cross except by making a considerable detour up the glen. At low water it is crossed on the strand by stepping Stones of a more or less precarious and temporary nature.

The insignificant stream of midsummer can swell to quite a formidable torrent after winter rains. It is the ' Cona' of the Chronicon Manniae, a name which, but for a passage in that work, would have been completely lost. We learn also from the allusion in the 'Chronicle' that the public road in the middle ages crossed it by the same ford as at present,—on the 'old Douglas road' at Mulleny-Quinney.

Cass-ny-Hawin is seen at its best at high water in summer, when the little estuary forms, in its setting of white gravel, a deep long pool of the purest sea-green, with precipitous crags on either side. On each side of the inlet stand also the vestiges of primitive forts, the southern one a semicircle of well-defined earthen mound on the brink of a perpendicular rock, the northern, further from the sea, also on the edge of the brow, but almost hidden by bushes. A little inland, on the heights of Arragon which extend toward Santon Church, are two tumuli, one of them of large proportions and set with unhewn stones of considerable size.

From Santon River it is a short walk through the fields of 'Turkey Land' ! along green margins of the limestone rock, (for which the slate is now exchanged) with a lowering coast-line, to Ronaldsway at the north horn of Derbyhaven. Everyone has heard of Ronaldsway as the home of Wm. Christian; the house (I do not know if any part of the present building is as old as Illiam Dhoan's time) is close to the sea, a feature very unusual in Manx farms and mansions. Indeed it is remarkable that in an Island with so many miles of sea-coast the farm houses immediately on the coast-line can almost be counted on one's fingers. Poolvash Farm, later to be visited, is another example, and there are a few in the North, but in general the Manx country proprietor has avoided the exposure of coast sites, and the coast line is also very difficult of access by road.

Illiam Dhoan's garden, according to the Manx ballad makers, was 'magnificent,' and his house 'noble'; the present surroundings of Ronaldsway, though pleasant enough, hardly bear out this eulogium, but conditions of living have changed since Christian's time.

Somewhere here it was that in 1651 800 men gathered to take the oath administered by Sir Robt. Norris, Vicar of Arbory. to defend the rights of Manxmen in the difficult crisis brought about by the Invasion of the Parliamentary forces. The policy of the revolutionaries, faithless and unchivalrous as we may perhaps think it, but completely successful, seems to show an energy and capability in the Manxmen of that day, with which we should otherwise hardly have credited them.

The estate, one of the largest in the Island, was forfeited at the Restoration, but restored by Royal order to the heir. The hostile party on the Island, however, contrived to make the position of the Christians very unpleasant. For many years legal forms were employed against them, and they were twice expelled, on the first occasion with considerable violence, Henry Nowell, the Deputy Governor, who had sat in judgement on Illiam Dhoan, being himself present. Finally they parted with the property by sale about 1719.

Ronaldsway Farm was named from the bay, of which Ronaldsway, found in old forms as Ronaldswath and Rognalswath, the 'wade,' i.e. the shallow of Ronald or Reginald, was the old title; which of the various Reginalds known to Manx history gave this name to the most famous of ancient Manx landing places, we do not know. Derbyhaven was a complimentary name of the days of the great Earl. The same Earl, James, whether by treason or by accident, nearly lost his life in the bay by the discharge of a cannon from a vessel which he was visiting, officers being killed on either side of him.

It would scarcely be in keeping with the scope of a sketch like this to describe at length the earlier events with which the lagoon~like sheet of water, round whose curving beach the modern village is built, is associated. But one cannot quite pass over the two battles, one in 1250, when the Manx beat off with great loss the aggression of John, Lord of the Isles,—the other in 1275, which seems to have been the Waterloo of the strange little Manx kingdom, when the Scottish forces sent to reduce the Island gained an easy victory with the slaughter of more than 500 of their opponents.

By this time Castle Rushen had apparently become the chief strength in Mann, and Ronaldsway its chief landing-place, and until comparatively recent times Derbyhaven had an importance much greater than its insignificant population would have warranted. In spite of its large new hotels, and the little fleet of pleasure-boats on its quiet waters, the prevailing impression of the Derbyhaven landscape is one of lonely simplicity. The country behind is very open, South Barrule stands out finely behind, and a prominent object, closing the bay on the eastward, is the little ruin-crownedislandof St. Michael, now usually called Fort Island.

The Fort, again recalling the great Earl and the days of the Civil War, is in fairly good preservation, and some old cannon have been molmted on its walls. It looks across to a long picturesque reach of coast ending in Santon Head; beneath it flows a strong tideway, one of the worst bits of the well-known Langness current. Here, on a stormy August afternoon some fifteen years ago, a Derbyhaven pleasure-boat on its way round from Castletown foundered with the loss of three lives.

More ruinous, but more interesting, is that 'chapel nigh the sea, that stands on a dark strait of barren land,' the ancient S. Michael's. Built perhaps in the eleventh century, its roofless walls and little bell-turret are of a rude simplicity befitting the surrounding scenery. In its green enclosure, still easily traceable, the inscription on a single broken grave-stone, a Catholic one, is yet legible.

Fort Island is an outlier of the far-stretching and narrow peninsula of Langness,2 a feature unique in the Isle of Man. In general, Langness is formed of the usual Manx slate rock, whose strata are here much tilted and have edges of a sharpness most unpleasant to the feet; on the east it has little foreshore and is much broken into narrow 'gullets,' but on the more interesting and sheltered west side, low water leaves a considerable belt of reef and weed; the fringe of bladder wrack, which at high tide is to be seen floating all along here, is of great length and thickness. On this side is found the prettiest scenery of Langness; patches of red pebbly conglomerates forming arches and fantastic pinnacles, and among these one or two pretty little beaches, which, when covered with the pure green waters of our coasts, have a charming appearance. Langness ends in three or four outlying bits of rocks, the last of them at high-water an island, and requiring quite a rough scramble to reach it; it is rich in grass, and, in the season, in rosy-Howered sea-pink.

Beyond are the rugged tide-rocks of the Skerranes seldom without their party of silent cormorants, and perhaps a solitary great black-backed gull. Past and about the Skerranes seethes and whirls the formidable Langness tideway; in stormy weather a scene of startling agitation, even in calm a terror to small craft, which need the utmost exertion of their rowers to escape if once unwarily caught in its grip.

The greater part of Langness is cultivated, but there are now no inhabited houses on it except the Golf Links Hotel at one extremity, and the lightkeepers' cottages at the other. On a piece of waste land near the middle stands the 'spire,' which strangers often take for a very ancient structure, but which is really a comparatively modern landmark erected before a lighthouse was contemplated.

Langness is not a bad ornithological observatory; the reefs and pools of its west side are frequented by great numbers of waders, especially curlews, oystercatchers and redshanks, and in hard weather by many mallard and widgeon. The most conspicuous bird here, however, is, for much of the year, the sheldrake, visible far off by the white of its plumage, basking in pairs about the tidal pools, or swimming in the open sea with a little fleet of ducklings. Along the coast from Santon the carefully-concealed breeding of this bright-plumaged duck is carried on in holes among the rocks and gorse covers. Herons, too, haunt Langness, especially its outliers; a party of a dozen will often rise from some sequestered nook among the crags, where it has apparently been dozing away the noontide hours.

Altogether, Castletown Bay is very rich in bird-life; everywhere and at all seasons comes from its reefs and sands, by night and day, the fluting of the curlew, and the squeaking whistle of the oyster-catcher; for most of the year great parties of ringed plover and dunlin ply forward and backward along the tide-edge with arrow-like swiftness; flocks of black-headed gulls desert it only at breeding-time, leaving and returning with the dark hood complete, which so well sets off the grey and white of their plumage.

As the sheldrake is to the eye the most observable of birds, that which perhaps most forces itself upon the ear is the vociferous redshank, whose startling outcries rouse the motley assemblage of shore-birds on the tidal reefs under the Golf Links, or far up the shallows of the harbour call attention to its long red legs and shooting flight.

The Town itself has rookeries among its houses, and starlings by thousands perch on its high old roofs, but ornithological consideration must not carry us too far from the neighbourhood of the sea.

Langness, before the building of its lighthouse, had an evil name for wrecks; now such occurrences are rare.

Notable disasters here were those of the East Indiaman James Crosfield in 1867, and the sloop-of-war Racehorse about half a century earlier. Names like 'Tobacco Gullet' and 'Grave Gullet' tell their own tale; at the latter are some slight vestiges said to be graves of the shipwrecked.

The view from the extremity of Langness is a noble one. Not only the coast from Douglas Head to the Chickens Lighthouse is displayed; not only the Southern mountain range with all its summits and slopes; but the line of the northern hills is visible in a long receding perfection,—the whole chain of heights reaching from the Calf and the Mull to the far off North Barrule. Perhaps no point on the Island surpasses this view in its impression of space, and its revelation of the fine flowing outlines of Manx mountain forms.

1 This curious name represents the 'villa Thorkel,' Thorkel's Land, of the Chronicle.

2 The well-known corruption 'Langlish' is as old as 1673.

{To be continued. )


Back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2001