Small, Green And Packed Full Of Culture - It's The Isle Of Man

By David Prudames | 10 December 2002
not as large, less stone, but just as grand as Big Ben - Tynwald, the original Manx parliament.

Ask yourself this, which of the world's many countries was the first to give women the vote? Which can boast the longest continuous parliament body?

Left: not as large, less stone, but just as grand as Big Ben - Tynwald, the original Manx parliament.

The answer, the Isle of Man. A Crown Dependency it may be, but with its own laws, language and parliament, fiercely proud and independent it most certainly is.

Despite its size the Isle of Man has consistently punched above its weight, not least when it comes to acknowledging and appreciating a deeply felt and greatly impressive national heritage.

St German's Cathedral - Peel Castle.

Set in the middle of the Irish Sea, equally distant from Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales, Man has soaked up cultural influences from the many nations that have at one time called it home.

Over the last two decades Manx National Heritage has undertaken to preserve and celebrate the identity of this unique place for visitors and natives alike.

Right: St German's Cathedral - Peel Castle.

Far from just motorbikes and cats with no tails, the fruit of their labour is a living cultural archive. An island-wide museum of castles, archaeological sites and working communities, which, as the judges naming them European Museum of the Year pointed out, is a great model for anyone wanting to show off their heritage.

So, here is a brief round up of some of the places on the Isle of Man culture hounds just shouldn't miss.

early Christian carved crosses not only demonstrated devotion, but recorded the lives of those that created them.

The best place to start is at the beginning, so why not take in the concise round up of Isle of Man history that is the Manx Museum.

From its geological make-up, to the arrival of early inhabitants, - the Great Deer or Irish Elk 12,000 years ago - prehistory, and First and Second World War internment camps, the museum offers an encyclopaedic tour of the island.

Left: early Christian carved crosses not only demonstrated devotion, but recorded the lives of those that created them.

anyone for candy floss? Tourism brought the Victorian English to Man.

The experience is fully interactive and there is something here for everyone. Social historians can listen to natives conversing in Manx, day-trippers can explore the island's influx of tourists from the Victorian to the T.T. and art-lovers can peruse the National Art Gallery.

Right: anyone for candy floss? Tourism brought the Victorian English to Man.

A film theatre screening the epic Story of Mann forms the centrepiece, not only explaining the evolution of a culture, but also acting as a cinematic signpost, ushering viewers in the direction of the island's many heritage sites, which continue the tale.

With so many different people calling the island home at one point or another, Man is understandably littered with sites where footprints of the past are very visible.

the Viking burial boat at Balladoole revealed a great deal about early Manx history.

There's Balladoole with its Bronze Age, Viking and Christian burials, the Iron Age fort at Cronk Ny Merriu and a Neolithic passage grave on Meayll Hill to name but three.

I recommend you deploy a map, a full tank of petrol and an enquiring and imaginative mind alongside some pretty stout footwear.

Left: the Viking burial boat at Balladoole revealed a great deal about early Manx history.

To say the Manx are democratic folk is one hell of an understatement and the evidence is there for all to see on the striking Tynwald Hill.

Tynwald Hill.

Once a year the world's longest continuous parliament leaves its Douglas home and comes to sit on the sacred steps, built using soil from the four corners of the isle.

With much ceremony and a national holiday, whatever gripe you've got be it a neighbour from hell or you fancy a law change, can be brought for judgement. Kind of puts Tony and the gang in the shade, doesn't it.

The £6 million House of Manannan was opened in 1996 and in many ways typifies the spirit behind The Story of Mann.

Manannan, the mythical god whose fog conceals the island from unwanted invaders, takes visitors on a journey through the ages, beliefs and working lives of the people of Man.

Raven, a replica of the vessel which brought the Norse to Man.

Recreations of the past reveal life in an Iron Age roundhouse, a Viking home, the 'Sea of Masts' that once filled Peel harbour and a kipper factory so realistic it smells of kippers - I kid you not.

Characters explain their lives, from Celtic New Year celebrations and early Christians whose carved crosses can still be seen on the island, to tales of smuggling and Captain Thurot who died in a naval battle with the English.

Left: Raven, a replica of the vessel which brought the Norse to Man.

With historical resources galore and a recreation of a Viking boat, which followed its Norse ancestors' journey from Norway to Man in 1979, the House of Manannan could easily relieve you of hours.

Nice, Bandol, St Cyr? No, it's Peel of course.

Within spectacular view of the House of Manannan is a site of great religious and political importance, St Patrick's Isle - so called on account of the patron saint of Ireland having allegedly set foot on it.

Right: Nice, Bandol, St Cyr? No, it's Peel of course.

the view from Peel Castle is not only spectacular, but is great for spotting advancing marauders.

This islet was the royal seat of the Norse Kingdom of Man and the Isles (including bits of Scotland) in the eleventh century and, being a natural point of defence, is a mine of archaeological wealth. Settlements have been discovered from Iron Age roundhouses and homes for early Christians, to the mighty Peel Castle, the remains of which can still be admired.

Left: the view from Peel Castle is not only spectacular, but is great for spotting advancing marauders.

The lofty curtain wall offers impressive views of a rugged coastline, while the various buildings within them each has a story to tell from the imposing tenth century round tower to the derelict, but graceful St German's Cathedral.

Standing guard over the island and its rulers since the thirteenth century, Castle Rushen bestrides Man's former capital of Castletown like a colossus.

Castle Rushen, what every good castle should look like.

One of the most complete medieval castles in Europe, Rushen has been gradually added to over the centuries, variously used as a home to kings, a fortress, the site of an English Civil War battle, a prison and now a pretty flash wedding venue.

Right: Castle Rushen, what every good castle should look like.

a photograph of a castle gateway with a walkway leading to it

Vivid recreations of life as it once was take the visitor through the ages of Castle Rushen, introducing the delights of banqueting, medieval building methods and military defence Manx style - watch out for the murder holes…

Left: want to take the castle? Cross the moat, battle through the first port cullis, dodge hot oil and arrows from murder holes, smash through the second port cullis ...then face an army.

Within site of the castle's imposing walls stands the most upright of institutions: a former bank, library and, between the years 1821 and 1874, the Manx equivalent of Westminster, the Old House of Keys.

the Old House of Keys - every inch the parliamentary establishment.

Man's legislative rulers once debated and passed laws here which, thanks to the spectacular restorative efforts of Manx National Heritage, visitors can relive today.

Right: the Old House of Keys - every inch the parliamentary establishment.

Lovingly recreated, the chamber offers the opportunity to listen to historical 'fors' and 'againsts' before voting on the isle's most important issues. You decide whether to publicly elect members of the House in 1866, extend votes to women in 1880 and introduce the TT in 1904… or not.

it may not look imposing, but the punishment doled out in this place would strike fear into the heart of even the toughest Manxman.

- While you're in the area, have a look at where these chaps learnt how to be so democratic.

Left: it may not look imposing, but the punishment doled out in this place would strike fear into the heart of even the toughest Manxman.

Set in the island's oldest roofed structure, the Old Grammar School is a loving recreation of an institution, which cultivated the minds of Man between 1570 and 1930. Complete with desks, a blackboard and punishment equipment to make your eyes water, the schoolhouse is a snapshot of education in a bygone era.

Another great Manx tradition is celebrated just down the road by the small, but fulfilling Nautical Museum.

Sat on Castletown's harbourside, the museum originates from the discovery in 1935 of the eighteenth century armed yacht, the 'Peggy', walled up in a boat cellar.

Upstairs, the loft of the building houses a reconstruction of a sail-maker's workshop and a gallery of models, equipment and photographs reflecting the importance of the fishing industry to the people of Man.

from chanting monks to jiving couples, these walls have seen it all.

Whether as a nightclub, boarding school, country hotel, farm or religious retreat, Rushen Abbey has been in some sort of use since 1134.

When saved for the nation in 1998, the Abbey was a virtually indecipherable pile of ruins, but now it's a fascinating guide to an archaeological work-in-progress.

Right: from chanting monks to jiving couples, these walls have seen it all.

Manx National Heritage has worked tirelessly to recreate life as it was, not only for the twelfth century Cistercian monks, but also for the people who learnt to dance, socialise and wolf down strawberries there in the early twentieth century.

a historical resource and great place to while away the hours.

Take the opportunity to see how the monks used herbs, plants and flowers to treat their ills, how they fed themselves and produced texts such as the famous Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles, now in the British Library.

Left: a historical resource and great place to while away the hours.

With prehistoric, early Christian, Viking, democratic, maritime and scholarly history nailed, what could possibly be left to celebrate on such a small island? Why, life in a crofting village of course.

A detailed preservation of one of Man's last strongholds of traditional skill and custom, Cregneash Village is home to several Manx cats, some Loghtan Sheep (with two or even three sets of horns) and residents who up until 1900 celebrated Christmas day on January 5.

More than just a museum, the village is a living portal to a bygone age. The land is farmed as it would have been more than a hundred years ago and its cottages, thatched the traditional way, show the comforts created to protect life in a harsh environment.

Above: perfectly restored crofters' cottages with native Loghtan sheep as standard.

Left: a cottage once belonging to Harry Kelly, a famous Manx speaker who died in 1938.

Cregneash typifies the efforts of Manx National Heritage to record and preserve the island's way of life not just for tourists, but also for natives whose grandparents used the same tools, spoke the same language and lived in the same manner.

The Calf of Man, just across the swirling Sound, replicates the dramatic landscape of its larger neighbour and can now be viewed from the comfort of the new Sound Visitor Centre.

The Sound Visitor Centre.

It's the ideal spot from which to view local wildlife of sharks, seals and birds, or to read up on the myths and true stories of the sea over a cup of something hot or glass of something cold depending on the weather.

This whirlwind tour takes in a mere slice of Man; there's also Laxey Wheel and Mine, the Grove House and gardens, the Camera Obscura as well as countless outdoor archaeological sites, churches and not to mention the TT route for all racing pilgrims.

In fact, the only way to see the whole thing, eat a native Queenie scallop and perhaps a real kipper, is to follow in the footsteps of many a marauder and make the trip for yourself.

All images: David Prudames, © 24 Hour Museum.

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