Then as an afterthought he added, “But it must be bound with sheep’s wool.”
I wanted to ask why, in particular, sheep’s wool, then thought better of it. “Do all the islanders do this?” I asked.
“Aye, most of us have experienced the fairies, so we know what to do.”
He nodded knowingly then disappeared into his office.
The indescribably beautiful Isle of Man lies in the untamed waters between Ireland and England. It’s a landscape patchwork in shades of willow green, lime and sage; sprinkled with azure and indigo waterways; punctuated with snowy white sheep on its hillsides.
The 227 square mile island is the guardian to much of the region's history. Like the standing stones left by the Vikings, which protrude from the earth like daggers; the Celtic forts, which predate Christ, along the shores serrated edges; and the primeval burial sites which have frowned over the valleys for four thousand years. Such history undeniably influences folklore and the mystique surrounding the Isle.
“At the end of the lane”, I had been told, “the little white cottage, overgrown with wild fuchsia, that’s Uncle Neil’s.” Uncle Neil, as he prefers to be called, is a mystic. It’s said that he has contact with the underworld.
After much coaxing, he agreed to meet for a drink and divulge some of the island’s fables, like the saga of the tailless Manx cat, the burning of the gorse bushes on the Eve of May Day, and why he thinks it necessary for a traveller to carry the ‘lucky bone’ of a sheep.
When my car rolled onto the stone drive of the fuchsia encased cottage I had to stop to catch my breath. Before me was a setting of incomparable splendour — a quilted countryside in hues of moss, pine and mint and interspersed with mauve heather and lemon coloured gorse.
I unfolded myself from the driver’s seat and rang the ornate brass bell. The door opened a crack. When I introduced myself the crack widened and I made eye contact with a single, dark iris.
“He’s gone the pub, he has,” the eye croaked.
I enquired as to which direction the pub lay and was directed by a spidery hand waving vaguely towards Ireland.
I eventually found the remote pub in the little hamlet of Niarbyl – a location made famous when filming ‘The Waking of Ned Devine’.
The Ballacallin Hotel’s patrons fell silent when I walked in and watched as I strode towards the proprietor, enquiring after Uncle Neil. He gestured with an incline of the head towards the sole figure sitting by the window, looking towards the Cronk-ny-Irree Laa — the Manx version of California's Great Sur. I sensed a whispering in my wake.
I approached what appeared to be a shrivelled hunched frame nursing an empty beer glass. Uncle Neil appeared sunken and hairless with blue-veined, papery skin exposing his domed cranium; he seemed nearly devoured by his clothing. His face sat low on his shoulders, pitched forward, as if deprived of support. His upper lip protruded like that of a turtle’s beak and his cheeks were sunken.
We kissed and agreed how good it was to finally meet, exchanged a few pleasantries and soon settled down with fresh drinks and ‘let’s get comfortable’ smiles.
“Those are Northern Ireland’s Mourne Mountains on the horizon,” he boomed in a walrus-type voice. He contemplated them for a moment.
“The old books say that a warring Irish giant threw a fistful of earth at his Scottish rival but that it fell short and landed in the Irish Sea; that is how the Isle of Man happened.”
Island life is undeniably influenced by folklore and pagan rituals as today the revered Celtic Magician-King, Manannan, is still honoured by the natives. On Midsummer Eve they carry green meadow grass to the top of Barule in payment for renting the sea. It is said that some folk still pray to Manannan, asking for a blessing on their boats and a good catch.
“What can you tell me of the Crosh Cuirn?” I asked.
He crooked a crescent of skin where his eyebrow should have been. “Aye, the Crosh Cuirn dispels evil spirits. It’s a wooden cross positioned above an entrance door. Naught mischief enters a household where a Crosh Cuirn hangs.”
He nodded gravely. “Some folk put a Crosh Cuirn in the cowshed to protect their animals; and some fishermen use it on their boats.”
He nodded some more. “It’s a cross of twigs trussed together with sheep’s wool found in hedgerows. To be effective though the twigs must be of the Rowan tree — they have magical powers, and they must be broken by hand, never cut.”
He gazed across the sea then added, “Legend and superstition is widespread on the island. But there is more than a grain of truth in many of these tales.”
Directly behind Uncle Neil, sitting at the bar, was a rugged, amiable looking fellow, bundled into some type of heavy barn jacket. He had a handsome peasant look about him.
Whilst my host fumbled with his pipe I observed the barn jacket grab a small cup of something and thrust it deep into his beard. Evidently it found his mouth. He eyed me suspiciously; a biscuit then disappeared into the depths of his beard.
Uncle Neil shot a cloud of pipe smoke across the table; it hung there, suspended for a while then slowly rose to the ceiling. He took a long pull on his pint, emitted a lung shaking cough then sat quietly, contemplating life.
We spent the next few hours discussing the Isle’s mystique and folklore, such as the ghostly black dog of Peel Castle and the Water Bull with fiery eyes. At the mention of Gef, the talking mongoose, the barn jacket ambled across and introduced himself as ‘the fellow who knew about Gef’.
He told that Gef took a fancy to the Irving farmhouse and hid in their walls. At first all Gef did was make strange noises then he began speaking to the family. He would disappear for weeks at a time claiming, on his return, that he had travelled around the Isle by clinging to the underside of buses. He would relay details of what happened in other households elsewhere on the Isle which was later verified by numerous journalists.
“One American theatrical agent offered a large amount of cash for Gef’s film rights,” the barn jacket claimed. “But this was not to be, as a local farmer reportedly shot and killed a mongoose, and the disturbances ceased.”
A myriad such Manx fables have been passed down through the generations, including those relating to the sea. Everything feasible was done to cite good fortune in search of a bountiful catch. The sea received offerings for the mermaids, boats were searched for witches and the mention of four-legged animals by name was sure to change the boat’s destiny.
I bid my thanks and farewell to my two new friends then returned to my hotel. As I crossed the Fairy Bridge, I recalled Uncle Neil’s warning about the Little People. “Should you cross the Fairy Bridge without saying so much as Laa Mie (good day) to the fairies, you cannot be sure of a safe and pleasant visit.”
I considered shouting a greeting out of the driver’s window but thought better of it, opting rather to smile inwardly at my own superstitions. Moments later my map hoisted itself out of the passenger side footwell and, having spent a moment wrapped round my face, blew away in time to show me the fast approaching ditch.
Besides being infused with nostalgia, history and mystique, the Isle of Man caters to good living. From concerts to clubs to casinos, from scuba to Salsa to Shakespeare, and whether you take your table at a charming country pub, a quayside cafe or a fine restaurant, every taste is catered for. Yet, as you’ll discover, there are many more compelling reasons to return. The fairy dust will make that a certainty.
Where to stay? I was particularly lucky to have a great recommendation.
Aaron House is a grand and sympathetically restored 12-bedroomed Victorian home, built in 1897, with truly splendid views across Chapel Bay. Owned and managed by the Kath and Reg Berrie, Aaron House was re-created in authentic Victorian flavours, complete with staff dressed in period costumes, bringing an authentic nineteenth century atmosphere into the home. Up to ten people can be accommodated in five double bedrooms, with en-suite or private bathrooms and Victorian roll-top baths.
Kath takes great pride in creating food made from superior locally-sourced foodstuff’s — free range this, corn-fed that, organic the other. Her guests receive continuously varying menus; by way of example, just for breakfast there is an assortment of remarkable fruit compotes, caramelized grapefruit and peaches poached in wine, home-make mueslis, breads, scones and muffins, served with an assortment of preserves and marmalades. There is also a vast selection of cooked dishes such as creamy porridge, smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages.
See also the companion guide on the Isle of Man.