A Description of the Isle of Man

G. Waldron 1731 - pages 54 to 64

[Superstitions– Mermaids –Bridges ]

AS at my first coming to the Island, I was extremely solicitous In diving into the manners and humour of a people, which seemed ad altogether new, and different from all the other Europeans I had ever seen; I went to Port Iron, the first season for fishery after my arrival: where, falling into discourse with some of the inhabitants, I had an account given me, which I think, would be doing something of injustice to the publick to conceal.

I believe there are few people who have not heard of mermaids and mermen, tho' I never met with any who looked on them as any thing more than the chimerical Tritons and Amphitrites of the poets, till accidentally falling in company with an old Manks man, who had used the sea many years' he told me he had frequently seen them, and endeavoured to make me believe his assertion true, by a thousand oaths and imprecations. I happening to mention this at Port Iron, they seemed to wonder at my incredulity, and gave me the following narration;

In the time, said they, that Oliver Cromwell usurped the Protectorship of England, few or no ships resorted to this Island, and that uninterruption and solitude of the sea, gave the mere men and mermaids (who are enemies to any company but those of their own species) frequent opportunities of visiting the shore, where, in moonlight nights, they have been seen to sit, combing their heads, and playing with each other; but as soon as they perceived any body coming near them, jumped into the water, and were out of sight immediately. Some people who lived near the coast having observed their behaviour, spread large nets, made of small but very strong cords, upon the ground, and watched at a convenient distance for their approach. The night they had laid this snare, but one happened to come, who was no sooner set down, than those who held the strings of the net, drew them with a sudden jirk, and enclosed their prize beyond all possibility of escaping(82).

On opening the net, and examining their captive, by the largeness of her breasts, and the beauty of her complexion, it was found to be a female; nothing, continued my author, could be,more lovely, more exactly formed, in all parts above the waist resembling a compleat young woman, but below that, all fish; with fins, and a huge spreading tail. She was carried to a house, and used very tenderly, nothing but liberty being denied. But tho' they set before her the best provision the place afforded, she would not be prevailed on to eat, or drink, neither could they get a word from her, the' they knew these creatures were not without the gift of speech, having heard them talk to each other when sitting regaling themselves by the sea-side. They kept her in this manner three days; but perceiving she began to look very ill with fasting, and fearing some calamity would befall the Island if they should keep her till she died, they agreed to let her return ta the element she liked best, and the third night set open their door; which, as soon as she beheld, she raised herself from the place where she was then lying, and glided with incredible swiftness on her tail to the sea-side. They followed at a distance, and saw her plunge into the water, where she was met by a great number of her own species, one of whom asked what she had observed among the people of the earth; nothing very wonderful, answer'd she, but that they are so very ignorant as to throw away the water they have boiled eggs in. This question and her reply, they told me was distinctly heard by those who stood on the shore to watch what passed.

As I had not yet attained a thorough knowledge of the super stition of these people, nor the passionate fondness for every thing that might be termed the wondlerful, I was excessively surprized at this account, given with so serious an air, and so much and solemnly averred for truth. I perceived they were not a little disgusted at my want of faith, but to make a convert of me, they obliged me to listen to another, as odd an adventure as the former, which they assured me was attested by a whole ship's crew, and happened in the memory of some then living.

There was about some forty or fifty years since a project set on foot for searching for treasures in the sea; accordingly vessels were got ready, and machines made of glass, and cased with a thick tough leather, to let the person down, who was to dive for the (in my opinion, dearly purchased) wealth. One of these ships happening to sail near the Isle of Man, and having heard that great persons had formerly taken refuge there, imagined there could not be a more likely part of the ocean to afford the gain they were then in search of, than this. They therefore let down the machine, and in it the person who had undertaken to go on this expedition; they let it down by a vast length of rope, but he still plucking it, which was the sign for those above to encrease the quantity, they continued to do so, till they knew he must be descended an infinite number of fathoms. In fine, he gave the signal so long' that at last, they found themselves out of cord, their whole stock being too little for the capacious inquisition. A very skilful mathematician being on board, said that he knew by the proportion of the line which was let down he must have descended from the surface of the waters more than twice the number of leagues that the moon is computed to be distant from the earth. But having, as I said no more cord, they were obliged to turn the wheel, which, by degrees, brought him up again; at their opening the machine, and talking him out, he appeared very much troubled that his journey had so soon been at a period, telling them, that could he have gone a little farther, he should have brought discoveries well worth the search. It is not to be supposed but every body was impatient to be informed of what kind they were; and being all gathered about him on the main deck, as soon as he had recruited himself with a hearty swill of brandy, he began to relate in this manner.(83),

 After said he, I had passed the region of fishes, I descended into a pure element, clear as the air in the serenest and most unclouded day, thro' which, as I passed, I saw the bottom of the watery world, paved with coral, and a shining kind of pebbles, which glittered like the sun-beams reflected on a glass. I long'd to tread the delightful paths, and never felt more exquisite delight than when the machine, I was enclosed in, grazed upon it. On looking thro' the little windows of my prison, I saw large streets and squares on every side, ornamented with huge pyramids of crystal, not inferior in brightness to the finest diamonds; and the most beautiful building, not of stone, nor brick, but of mother of pearl, and embossed in various figures with shells of all colours. The passage which led to one of these magnificent apartments being open, I endeavoured, with my whole strength, to move my enclosure towards it, which I did tho' with great difficulty, and very slowly. At last, however, I got entrance into a very spacious room, in the midst of which stood a large amber table, with several chairs round of the same. The floor of it was composed of rough diamonds, topaz's, eme ralds, rubies, and pearls. Here I doubted not but to make my voyage as profitable as it was pleasant, for could I have brought with me but a few of these, they would have been of more value than all we could hope for in a thousand wrecks; but they were so closely wedg'd in, and so strongly cemented by time, that they were not to be unfastened. I saw several chains, carcanets, and rings, of all manner of precious stones, finely cut, and set after our manner; which I suppose had been the prize of the winds and waves; these were hanging loosely on the jasper walls by strings made of rushes, which I might easily have taken down, but as I had edged myself within half a foot reach of them, I was unfortunately drawn back, thro' your want of line. In my return I saw several comely mermen and beautiful mermaids, the inhabitants of this blissful realm, swiftly descending towards it; but they seemed frighted at my appearance, and glided at a distance from me, taking me, no doubt, for some monstrous and new-created species.

Here, said my authors, he ended his account, but grew so melancholy, and so much enamour'd of those regions he had visited, that he quite lost all relish for earthly pleasures, till continual pipings deprived him of his life; having no hope of ever descending there again, all design of prosecuting the diving project being soon after laid aside.

With the same confidence the truth of these narratives were asserted, did I hear a sailor protest that it was a common thing when they were out at sea, and too far from shore for the voice of any thing on land to reach their ears, for them to hear the bleating of sheep, the barking of dogs, the howling of wolves, and the distinct cries of every beast the land affords.

As nothing is got by contradicting a fictitious report unless you can disprove it by more convincing arguments than right reason can suggest, but ill words, and perhaps worse usage; I contented myself with laughing at them, within myself, and attempted not to lay before people, whom I found such enemies to good sense, any considerations, how improbable, if not impos sible, it was that any body should give credit to what they said.

I should however, have doubtless heard many other accounts of the like nature, if, by my saying little in answer to them, and a certain air of ridicule which they observed in my countenance, and which, in spite of my endeavours to the contrary, I was not able to refrain, they had not perceived that it was vain to attempt bringing me over to their side.

And now having given as full an account as I am able of the wonders they relate of the subterranean and subterraqlleous worlds, let me proceed to what is to be found by those who ven ture not such rash expedients in the search of curiosities. And first of their mountains.

They have many of a very great height, but there are three much superior to the others; the first is called Snafles, from the top of which you may see England, Scotland, and Ireland; the next, Barool; and the third, Carrahan. Under these, they tell you, lie the bodies of three kings, from whose names the moun tains take their denominations, as they had their rise from their burials: for having in those days no notion of architecture, or erecting monuments, the only way of perpetuating the memory of the dead,: was to throw a huge pile of earth over them: every body in passing, for a great number of ages, thinking themselves obliged to contribute towards the pious work, and throwing on a little, according to the strength or time they were masters of, has raised them to the stupendous height they are now arrived, especially that of Snafies, under which, we may suppose, either the greatest, most ancient, or most beloved monarch lies. These rude mausoleums seem, methinks, to shame the pride of modern architecture, being likely to continue when those built of marble with all their vain infinity of-expence and art will be crumbled into dust, and driven into the air the sport of every wanton wind.

The bridges of any consequence in this Island are nine in number, and called, Castle-Town bridge. This is built of stone, kept in good repair, is of a handsome breadth, and so high, that a boat with a mast may sail under it.

Ballasalli bridge. This is the oldest bridge in the Island, and built also of stone.

Kirk-Braddon bridge. This is a strait stone bridge; a fine river runs under it, called the Dark river. Here is great plenty of fish, especially eels. 

Duglas bridge. This is lately broken down by the rapidity of the river. A woman who was going over it, with a bottle of brandy in her hand, just when the accident happened, was saved by the stiffness of her hoop petticoat which kept her above water.

Nunnery bridge. This bridge has a stone foundation, but is boarded over, and rail'd in, by reason of the turbulence of the river, which sometimes threatens to overflow it. Here they bring their leather to soak.

Laxey bridge. This is the most beautiful of any in the Island, has handsome seats to sit on, and is built over a fine river, which runs between two great hills.

Peel bridge. Under this is the most famous river in the Island; it comes from Kirk Jarmyn mountains, and runs into the sea by the great rock on which stands Peel castle.

The Millaroats his Mill bridge. This is a small bridge, but built of stone, and much frequented.

Kirk Maroan bridge. A fine river, coming from Kirk Maroan mountains, rims under this bridge to Kirk Santon.

There are, besides these, several small bridges, but not the twentieth part sufficient for the convenience of the inhabitants; yet, notwithstanding a proposal was made for building as many as were wanted, on every housekeeper's paying the sum of one pelmy per year for nine years, it was not complied with.(84)

 Having spoken of the Manks frugality, or rather sordidness, in the way of eating, I must not omit making an exception to this rules at three several times, which are their weddings, their christenings, and their funerals.

 As to the first, twenty pounds is a good portion for a mountaineer's daughter, and they are so exact in the marriage bargain, that I have known many, who have called themselves hot lovers, break off for the sake of a sow or a pig being refused in the articles. Yet, notwithstanding this, a stranger cannot be invited to one of these nuptial feasts, with'out believing himself in a land of the utmost plenty and hospitality. The match is no sooner concluded, than besides the bands of matrimony(85), being publickly asked in the church three Sundays, notice is given to all the friends and relations on both sides, tho' they live ever so far distant. Not one of these, unless detained by sickness, fail coming, and bring something towards the feast; the nearest of kin, if they are able, commonly contribute most, so that they have vast quantities of fowls of all sorts. I have seen a dozen of capons in one platter, and six or eight fat geese in another; sheep and hogs roasted whole, and oxen divided but into quarters.

They have bride-men and bride-maids who lead the young couple, as in England, only with this difference, that the former have ozier wands in their hands as an emblem of superiority: they are proceeded by musick,(86), who play all the while before them the tune, the Black and the Grey, and no other is ever used at weddings. When they arrive at the church-yard, they walk three times round the church before they enter it. The ceremony being performed, they return home, and sit down to the feast; after which they dance in the Manks fashion, and between that and drinking pass the remainder of the day.

Their Christenings are not less expensive, the whole country round are invited to them, and after having baptised the child, which they always do in the church, let them live ever so distant from it, they return to the house, and spend the whole day, and good part of the night in feasting.

When a person dies, several of his acquaintance come to sit up with him, which they call the Wake. The clerk of the parish is obliged to sing a psalm, in which all the company join; and after that they begin some pastime to divert themselves, having strong beer and tobacco allowed them in great plenty. This is a custom borrowed from the Irish, as are indeed many others much in fashion with them.

As to their funerals, they give no invitation,(87) but every body that had any acquaintance with the deceased comes either on foot or horseback. I have seen sometimes at a Manks burial, upwards of an hundred horsemen, and twice the number on foot: all these are entertained at long tables, spread with all sorts of cold provision, and rum and brandy flies about at a lavish rate. The procession of carrying the corpse to the grave is in this manner: When they come within a quarter of a mile of the church, they are met by the parson who walks before them singing a psalm, all the company joining with him. In every church-yard there is a cross, round which they go three times before they enter the church. But these are the funerals of the better sort, for the poor are carried only on a bier, with an old blanket round them, fastened together with a skewer.

Having mentioned that there is no church-yard without a cross, I cannot forbear taking notice, that there is none which serves not also for a common to the parson's cattle; all his horses, his cows, and sheep, grazing there perpetually: so strangely is religion and rusticity mingled together in this Island !

Here, in justice to these poor people, I must acquaint my reader, that however strange their tradition may seem of the Island being once inhabited by giants, my own eyes were wit ness of something which does not a little keep it in countenance. As they were digging a new vault in Kirk-Braddon church-yard there was found the leg-bone of a man very near four foot in length from the ancle to the knee: nothing but ocular demonstration could have convinced me of the truth of it, but the natives seemed little to regard it, having, as they said, frequently dug up bones of the same size.

They told me, that but a few months before my arrival, there was found, under Kirk-Carbra church-yard, a human head of that monstrous circumference that a bushel would hardly cover it; and that nothing was more common, when they were digging, than to throw up ribs and hands conformable to the leg I had seen.

As it is a received opinion that the antediluvians infinitely exceeded the stature of mortals since the flood, I can reconcile these prodigies no otherwise to reason' then by judging them to be the remains of those who lived in the first ages of the world; and that by a virtue, peculiar to this earth, have been preserved thus long unperished; as they seem to make evident in the example before recited, of the man whose very flesh and clothes remain'd uncorrupted for the space of more than an hundred years.

As no stranger coming to this Island can avoid being very much surprised at the little care they take to repair those ancient and fine buildings I have described, so must he also think them very careless both of interest and reputation, in not erecting any new ones, which might be of present service to themselves, and future glory to their posterity.

Besides the new Town I have mentioned, built by Macguire of the kingdom of Ireland, there has no edifice been erected, since, about thirty years ago, a small College in Castle-Town(88) for the education of young gentlemen design'd for the pulpit. But how much it deserves the name they give it of a College, may be gathered from what I have said concerning the learning of their clergy in general.

Their markets are kept on Saturdays, but there is little butcher's meat to be bought by single joint; most of the house keepers, who do not bring up cattle themselves, join three, or four, or more of them together, according as their families are in largeness, and buy a carcass; but as I before observed, they are persons of consideration who eat any at all, the natives in general, both rich and poor, and all the Irish who inhabit in the Island, living almost wholly on herrings and potatoes; the former of which are pickled up in the season and last the whole year.

 This Island, therefore may be said to fit all conditions and all dispositions, the poor and the parsimonious may live as cheap, and as miserably as they wish; and people who have full pockets and elegant tastes need want nothing to indulge the luxury of the most Epicurean appetite.

Nor does the eye want its entertainment too; tho' there are no plays nor magnificent sights to dazzle it, here is every charm that nature can bestow, rocks, vales, mountains, rivers, gardens, scatter'd promiscuously in the most beautiful, tho' wild, variety imaginable. The groves indeed, in which lovers are said so much to delight themselves, they cannot boast of, having, as I said before, no trees; hut then there are a thousand agreeable shades from the mountains, and every where, except in towns, the most charming solitude imaginable.

They have also one very great happiness here, which is, the not being infested with robbers: here are neither highwaymen nor housebreakers, and a man may leave his doors unbarr'd,(89), or travel the Island round without the least danger of losing his money or his life.

Silence, solitude, and security, being the friends of contemplation, I fancy, if some of our great poets would take a trip hither sometimes, they would find their account in it, and confess the improvements their genius's would receive in passing a few months in a place so retired, and, at the same time, so romantick, would very well compensate for a short absence from those noisy pleasures, which rather serve to distract than any way to inform the mind.

Nor will any one deny there can be a place more proper for a hermit, because here are no temptations to allure him from his cell, but he may pass his nights and days entirely uninterrupted; and as there are still many of those pious men in the world, it must be thro' ignorance of this Island, that none of them made choice of it at present: I say at present, because I have been shown a hole on the side of a rock, near K:irk-Maroan mountains, which, they say, was formerly the habitation of one who had retired from the converse of mankind, and devoted himself intirely to prayer and meditation.

What seems to prove this conjecture is not without foundation, is, that there is still to be seen a hollow, cut out on the side of the rock with a round stone at one end in the shape of a pillow, which renders it highly probable to have been the hard lodging of one of those holy persons who have forgone all the gaieties and pleasures of life, and chose to mortify the body for the sake of the soul.

Every thing, indeed, conspires to prove that religion was once in very great splendor in this Island, but there are now little remains of it, except in that blind obedience paid to the clergy, of which I have already fully treated, and the implicit faith they give to every thing delivered from a man in sacred orders.



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