The Isle of Man
Created | Updated Jan 17, 2015
This little island in the far north of the Irish Sea is a separate country, with its own unique type of government, as well as its own type of cat. The Isle of Man is about 30 miles long and is only 17 miles from the southern tip of Scotland. The country and island are known by the name 'Mann' as well as the name 'Isle of Man'. People and things from the Isle of Man are 'Manx'.
The island is a 'Crown Dependency', which means that it is independent in some ways and dependent in others. The Isle of Man is not part of the United Kingdom or the European Union. It has its own government, its own laws, its own money. But it shares a ruler (Elizabeth II) with the United Kingdom (she is Lord of Mann as well as Queen of the United Kingdom), and the United Kingdom government is responsible for the defence of the island.
Due to its sunny climate and beautiful scenery, the island had specialised in tourism since the late 19th Century. In the 1970s, the industry was dealt a heavy blow when cheap flights to sunny Spain became available. Tourism now only accounts for about 5% of the island's economy, compared to 37% coming from financial investment. Nevertheless, the island is still host to about half a million visitors each year. Many of these come for the annual motorcycle race, the TT (Tourist Trophy). This takes place on public roads over a course of 39 miles and is one of the most famous and gruelling in the world. The tourists are also catered for by the Manx National Heritage organisation, which has many interesting museums and sites around the island, and by the four separate narrow-gauge railways, three of which are more than a century old, which make the Isle of Man a mecca for railway enthusiasts.
The people of the Isle of Man are a mixture of Celtic, Norse and English. Everybody now speaks English, but there are a few who can speak the old Manx language, which completely died out and was then revived. This was a Celtic language, a form of Gaelic closely related to Scots Gaelic and Irish. It can still be seen in place names; for example, Cronk-y-Voddy means Dog Hill. The Norse influence on the island can be seen in many other placenames: Laxey comes from Norse Laxá meaning Salmon River, while Snaefell literally means Snow Mountain in Norse.
The attitude of the Manx people is best summed up by a joke:
A tourist having a pint of Okell's beer in the pub is joined at the bar by a fisherman with a bucket of live crabs. The fisherman gets a drink and ignores the bucket. The tourist watches as the crabs skitter about, trying to climb out of the bucket. He says to the fisherman 'Aren't you afraid you'll lose your crabs?'
The fisherman glances down at the bucket and replies, 'No, those there are Manx crabs. As soon as it looks like one of them is going to get out, the others gang up and pull him back down to their level.'
Celtic legend has it that the Isle of Man was created when the giant Manannán Mac Lír picked up a chunk of Northern Ireland and flung it into the Irish Sea. The huge rock became the island and the hole left behind filled up with water and became Lough Neagh. The name of Manannán was given to the island, but shortened to 'Mannin' in the Celtic language and still further to 'Mann' or 'Man' in English.
Three Legs - the National Symbol
The symbol of the island consists of three legs radiating from a central point. The motto is 'Quocunque Jeceris Stabit' which is Latin for 'Whichever way you throw it, it stands'. Some say this is a representation of a caltrop, the spiked device thrown under horses' feet during battles to prevent them from charging. Others say it is a type of 'triskele', the ancient Celtic symbol closely related to the swastika. Whatever its origins, the symbol is everywhere, leading to the old joke 'What has three legs and flies? Manx trousers.'
The Isle of Man is ruled by a unique parliament called the High Court of Tynwald. It has operated unchanged (except in detail) for more than 1,000 years. It was set up by the Vikings when they first reached the Island. Initially, it met outdoors on the Tynwald Hill in the village of St John's at the centre of the island. Nowadays, the parliament carries out its duties from the Legislative Buildings in Douglas, but there is still one sitting a year on the Tynwald Hill, on 5 July, Tynwald Day, which is a national holiday.
The parliament is divided into two groups, the Legislative Council and the House of Keys. The Legislative Council consists of eleven members who are either indirectly elected or sit ex officio. The House of Keys consists of 24 elected representatives. Laws are considered by the House of Keys before being passed to the Legislative Council for ratification. The titular leader of the country is Queen Elizabeth II, the Lord of Mann, a position she holds independently of her rule of the United Kingdom.
Getting to the Island
Flights are available to Ronaldsway Airport, near Castletown, from Dublin and from all international and major regional airports in the UK, with the exception of London Heathrow.
If speed is not so important, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company operates conventional ferry services from Heysham, Liverpool and Dublin all the year round. In addition, fast ferries from all of these plus Belfast operate in the summer months.
Around the Island
Douglas - the Capital and Major Town
Douglas, with a population of about 25,000, is centred around the promenade - a two-mile road with the beach on one side and shops, houses and hotels on the other side. In the summer, horse-drawn trams operate along the prom. Most of the town is at the southern end of the promenade, with the port and the main shopping streets. Here you will find the Manx Museum, a treasure trove of the Manx culture. At the north end of the prom is the terminus of the Manx Electric Railway.
Castletown lies on the south coast. It was the old capital of the island, and is dominated by Castle Rushen, a medieval castle in very good state of repair. This is a must for anybody who enjoys a fairytale or is a student of the arcane art of fortification.
Castletown is also home to a Nautical Museum and the Old House of Keys, where the government used to sit.
Peel is the only major town on the west coast of the island, and is technically the only city on the island, with its own cathedral. The Peel Castle is in ruins but it is well worth a visit. It stands on a headland overlooking the harbour.
The picturesque village of Laxey was once home to one of the deepest mines around, mining mainly zinc. To pump water out of the mine, the force of a nearby stream was harnessed by a giant waterwheel. With a diameter of 72½ feet (22m), it is believed to be the largest waterwheel in the world, and is Laxey's star attraction. The wheel bears the name Lady Isabella.
Laxey can be reached by the Manx Electric Railway and is the starting point of the Snaefell Mountain Railway.
Curraghs Wildlife Park
In the flat north-west of the island is the Curraghs Wildlife park, with lots of exotic animals including llamas and sea lions.
In the north-east of the island lies the town of Ramsey, the second biggest town on the island. Styling itself 'Royal Ramsey' because of a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the 19th Century, the town features a long promenade, pleasure pier and beach. The town has little to offer the tourist: the cast-iron pier, the only one of its kind on the island, is decaying and the whole town has the air of somewhere that has seen better times. Ramsey is the northern terminus of the Manx Electric Railway.
Whether you are a railway enthusiast or just somebody who likes a bit of nostalgia, you will enjoy the railways on the Isle of Man. There are four separate narrow-gauge railways, with three of them over a hundred years old.
The Manx Electric Railway
This operates from the north end of the Promenade in Douglas and travels northwards through Laxey to Ramsey, a distance of seventeen miles. The railway was built in 1893 as far as Laxey and extended to Ramsey in 1899. The gauge is three foot and almost all the rolling stock are more than 100 years old.
Carriages are either enclosed or open. The open carriages give a great view, but you might prefer the comfort and safety of the enclosed ones if you have small children or if it looks like it might rain.
The Snaefell Mountain Railway
The mountain railway is also electric, with a three and-a-half foot gauge. Built in 1895, it runs from Laxey to the highest point on the island, Snaefell mountain, a distance of only four miles. The track is steep, with a gradient of 1 in 12, and a special third 'fell' rail is used for braking on the way down.
The Isle of Man Steam Railway
Operating from the south end of Douglas through Castletown to Port Erin, a distance of fifteen miles, this delightful railway has a number of steam engines. It operates on a three foot gauge track.
The Groudle Glen Railway
Groudle Glen is a few miles north of Douglas. A two-mile stretch of two-foot gauge was built here at the end of the 19th Century and a steam train service was operated for tourists, but fell heavily into disrepair over the years. Now it has been restored by volunteers with some of the original rolling stock and some replicas.
The Isle of Man's biggest event every year is the TT (Tourist Trophy), the world-famous motorbike race. There has been long-running controversy in the motorcycling world, as it remains, for some, an unacceptably dangerous course. Normal life on the island comes to a standstill as roads are closed and thousands of enthusiasts arrive on the island. The course is a difficult one, with a lap of 39 miles, featuring such interesting features as Ballaugh humpbacked bridge, where bikes fly into the air, and the hairpin bend as the course leaves Ramsey to climb into the mountains.
The TT had a hiatus of a year while there was the foot and mouth epidemic in the UK in 2001, but has been running as normal since 2002.
Walking on the Isle of Man
The island offers many walking opportunities which certainly throughout the summer are a tourist attraction. There are numerous glens (generally offering paths through wooded valleys following a stream or river to the sea) as well as more ambitious walks such as:
The Millennium Way, the first long-distance footpath (25 miles), officially established in 1979 to celebrate the Millennium year of the Manx Parliament, the Tynwald. The path links Ramsey to Castletown through the centre of the island. The route was once known as the Royal Way and is recorded in the 13th Century Chronicles of the Kings of Mann and the Isles. An experienced walker could do it in a single day, but for those not up to the challenge the trail can be broken down into three sections.
Raad ny Foillan (Road of the Gull), which is a rugged path circling the whole island offering excellent cliff top views and coastal walks. The trail is 90 miles long and was created to mark the Heritage Year Celebrations in 1986.
The Heritage Trail, 10 miles between Douglas and Peel along the former railway line.
The Herring Way, 14 miles between Peel and Castletown, following a route formerly taken by the fisherman travelling between the ports.
Details on all these (with maps) can be found at the IOM Guide Site.
There is also the annual Parish Walk run in June, a gruelling 85-mile walking race in 24 hours, covering all 17 parishes of the Island. About 1,000 people start, but typically, only 100 complete the course in the time limit.
Wild and Domestic Animals
Due to its isolation, the island has only a limited population of wild animals: there are no native foxes, badgers, moles, squirrels, toads or snakes, although there are frogs and lizards. (Some foxes have managed to somehow get onto the island from Great Britain). There are rats, but the islanders hate to use the word, preferring to call them 'long-tails'. But the most celebrated animal is a domestic one.
The local breed of cat has an amazing feature - it has no tail. Other features distinguish the Manx cat - it has a large rounded rump and long back legs, giving it what to some is an ungainly look. These are known as 'Rumpies'. But not all Manx cats are tail-less: many cats of the Manx breed have short stumpy tails and are known as 'Stumpies'. Offspring of two stumpies may give rise to a 'cabbit' - a deformed cat with missing vertebrae and spinal curvature that looks like a cross between a cat and a rabbit. Manx cats are said to be very docile and affectionate.
Not all the cats on the island are of the Manx breed - there are 'normal' cats with tails as well, although some may be carriers of the tail-less gene.
Legends tell that the tail-less cats were brought from Japan by Phoenician traders thousands of years ago. It's unlikely these stories have any basis in fact. It's true that there is a breed of tail-less cat in Japan, but it is quite different. The complete absence of tail-less cats in nearby Scotland suggests that this is a spontaneous mutation which arose on the island and never died out.
As well as unusual cats, the island boasts a distinctive breed of sheep, the Loghtan. Both rams and ewes have four or sometimes six horns.
Kippers are fish, but you won't find them swimming in the sea. They are herrings that have been filleted and cured by a special smoking process. The Isle of Man is famous for its kippers. For many years, due to an absence of herrings in the Irish Sea, the fish were imported from Norway, treated and exported worldwide. Since 2001, however, there are a couple of boats being subsidised to provide a 100 tonne herring quota to support the island kipper industry.
The Island in Films
The earliest film set on the Island was No Limit, made in 1935. Starring George Formby, it revolved around the hapless ukulele-playing hero competing in the TT races. The title refers to the fact that outside of built-up areas there is no national speed limit.
The landscape may not rival the extravagant views of New Zealand seen in the film version of the Lord of the Rings, but Manx locations have also appeared in numerous film and TV productions since 1995, due in part to the support provided by the Manx Film Commission.
The island appearing as itself is rare though, with most productions using Manx scenery to recreate some other place, from the reasonable portrayal of Ireland (in Waking Ned) or Channel Islands (Island at War) to the surprising - a suburban London street (Serious and Organised).
Often forgotten about, often assumed to be just another remote part of the UK, this little country with its unique traditions is worth a look, whether you are a railway enthusiast, interested in the motorbikes or just like to sit in a glen and listen to the water flowing past.