Memorials at the Isle of Man TT Races

Guy Martin. ©Fran Caley

Raced over the 37¾ mile ‘Mountain Circuit’, where speeds reach in excess of 200mph, where the lap record stands at 17m 12.3s and where participants pass within inches of stone walls, lamp posts and other street furniture; the Isle of Man TT (or Tourist Trophy) Races remain one of the oldest and most prestigious events in the motorcycle racing calendar. The danger associated with racing at such high speeds over what are essentially public roads has seen as many column inches within the press devoted to reporting accident and injury to any other aspect of the event, or its results. To date over  136 competitors have been killed in the events 105 year history (with a total of 239 killed if those killed at the Manx Grand Prix (MGP) are included). It is no wonder, therefore, that there have seen repeated calls for the event to be scrapped. Yet, while death and danger are pervasive realities at the TT Races; fans, residents and competitors vehemently defend the event as one of the last bastions of personal freedom, indeed the event has been hailed as ‘the greatest motor sport event in the world’.

Following fatality the bereaved often feel compelled to mark the location of death, feeling a close connection with the place where the deceased was last alive. The scene of the accident may be marked by memorials that can last from a few hours to a matter of weeks, whilst sometimes these ‘temporary’ monuments may be replaced by more permanent monuments that become the focus for successive visits. Initially these memorials are transient, comprising those objects close at hand (including programmes, beer or cigarettes laid by fans and locals), but are soon replaced by more ‘traditional’ tributes (cards, flowers or wreaths) laid by those closer to the deceased.Sometimes the bereaved feel compelled to construct more permanent memorials to the deceased; these vary considerably in form from simple plaques and benches, to more elaborate monuments, statues and gardens.

© Copyright Andy Stephenson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Whilst some of these memorials are placed in locations where they are obvious to those passing by, at Guthrie’s, for example, a monument to Jimmy Guthrie dominates the roadside and views of the northern plain. Others have been placed in locations where they are effectively hidden from direct view; at Black Dub, for example, memorials to Mark Farmer and Rob Vine have been positioned within a small commemorative garden hidden from view by a stone wall. Other’s are placed in locations which mean that whilst they are ‘theoretically’ visible, their size and position mean that only accessible to those taking time to seek them out. The size of the memorial to Dave Nixon at Glen Helen means it is almost imperceptible to the passing motorist, whilst, that to Steve Harding at Laurel Bank is placed on a rock face where it can not easily be seen.These monuments can be regarded as expressions of personal, community and national identity amongst the bereaved, racing and local communities. The construction of these memorials, in whatever form they take, give the deceased a ‘physical’ presence in the landscape, implicating them in complex narratives of remembering and forgetting amongst the bereaved, competitors, fans and locals. As Vaukins observes

‘[t]he Manx people cannot forget that the Isle of Man is the venue for the TT. Residents are reminded of this every day. The TT is written into the landscape’ (2007).

The large orange and white boards, for example, that signpost those places of significance around the circuit introduce narratives that embed the course and its history within the wider Manx landscape. Some of these place names are commemorative, created to memorialise deceased riders, part of a wider social and cultural convention that the action of saying the (place) name facilitated remembrance.

Death is an ever-present reality that is written onto the Manx landscape: place names, ‘spontaneous shrines’, plaques and monuments all attest to its pervasiveness. Despite its prevalence, death at the TT Races remains the ‘elephant in the room’, rarely openly discussed, often hidden from view, seldom debated within ‘official’ or documentary sources and under no circumstances publicized in histories or heritage displays. Yet it is manifest in the memorials erected to those competitors killed while competing at the event. Complex narratives of death, grief and memory are articulated on, and through, these memorials.

For a wider discussion of the TT memorials see Claire Corkill and Ray Moore (2012): ‘The Island of Blood’: death and commemoration at the Isle of Man TT Races. World Archaeology, 44:2, pp248-262. An on-line catalogue, Memorials from the Isle of Man TT Races, is available through the Archaeology Data Service.

Reference

Simon Vaukins (2007): The Isle of Man TT Races: politics, economics and national identityInternational Journal of Motorcycle Studies, 3:3. Available at:  (accessed 31 August 2011).

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