Early ramblers on the Isle of Man

Thomas Denton[1] in his perambulations around the Island in the late 1680s, makes little mention of the state of the roads or tracks, perhaps they were similar to those he encountered in Cumberland, and elsewhere, and therefore unnoteworthy. David Robertson[2] who toured the Island in 1791, is likewise uncritical, however he did notice ‘the bevy of country-lasses, going at that early hour to Douglas-market’. They were seated on small horses with panniers; one side of which were filled with the produce of their little farms[3], and the other generally balanced with pebbles.’ This at least proves that even the young women from ‘little farms’ used horses to transport their goods to market. Whether the lack of a cart is due to insufficient produce, poverty, or the unsuitability of the roads is perhaps open to question.

Perhaps the most interesting of the early 19th century visitors was the somewhat eccentric Miss Weeton[4], a Lancashire based governess, who visited the Island for five weeks from 23rd May through June in 1812. She was unusual in that she travelled alone, and her main pleasure was walking long distances and climbing steep hills. She commented on the typical Manx hedges[5] which she accurately described as being made ‘of earth and sods entirely’, and remarked that ‘it is no uncommon thing to see people walking upon the fences, which are quite broad enough, and path-worn. Walls prevail everywhere, particularly on the hills and mountains.’ She commented also that ‘the commons are not so extensive as in many parts of England.’ Using a map which she had purchased in Douglas as her guide, she set off on a long walk to ‘some mountains seen at a distance’ from Douglas Head. Her preference was always to walk alone ‘in places unfrequented by those of my own species, that my thoughts, as well as my feet, may ramble without restraint’. This is a very early usage of the word ‘ramble’, the earliest use according to Hugh Westacott[6] being only 2 years previous. On arriving at the foot of Greeva[7] she asked permission to go through a garden, so that she might ‘ascend the rocks’, and although meeting an old man and a young woman gathering furze, she did not enquire if there was any path up or down the mountain, although this may have been because she preferred to make her own way. Alternatively it may have been a language problem – as the locals would have been Manx[8] speakers, or shyness on her part.

Her next walk was from Douglas to Kirk Santon, which was an ‘uninteresting road’, although she admitted that she seldom went directly onwards ‘without swerving occasionally from the road, to ascend some eminence for a better view’. On the 5th of June, Miss Weeton set off on a 35 mile walk to Peel via Castletown, and back to Douglas. Having walked a ‘full 5 miles beyond Castletown’, she turned for Peel, going ‘over a mountain road’[9] which she preferred to the high-road’. Just three days later she set of to explore the north of the Island. She choose to go via St. John’s to Sulby, a distance of 22 miles, rather than via ‘the mountain road’, which would have been ‘only about 16.’ Although she mentions the ‘deep vale’ of what is now called Glen Helen, there are no comments about the steepness of any climbs, problems with crossing streams or rivers, or the stoniness or otherwise of the route. Perhaps her most astonishing journey was her trek to the top of Snaefell, the highest mountain on the Island, at 2034 feet[10]. Unfortunately she does not describe the first six miles of the route. Her first comments come ‘in the midst of a dreary moor’. She walked on ‘a mountain road’ which terminated at the foot of Snaefell, which sounds like a description of the route of the modern ‘Mountain Road.’ These perambulations prove that there were a large number of roads around the Island, suitable for walking on at the very least. There are no mentions of passing vehicular traffic, so perhaps the Island was a rambler’s paradise at this time.

George Borrow[11] visited the Island in the autumn of 1855. He described ‘the old road to Ramsey’ from Onchan, as ‘broken and stony.’ The broad rounded hill of Bank’s Howe (Howstrake) to the east of Onchan appealed to his exploratory instincts, and he set off along a path in a field to investigate. Passing through one gate, he walked towards the summit of the hill, where he found himself in a field of barley surrounded by a stone wall five feet high. The path was perhaps little more than the route the farmer took between his fields. A few days later he returned to the area to explore Groudle Glen, but decided not to descend the ‘little path that led to the mill’ in case he were ‘considered an intruder’. This would suggest that Borrow was fearful of being accused of some sort of trespass, perhaps a reflection of the times, when many large estates were springing up around the Isle of Man, complete with their ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ signs[12]. In the end Borrow did take the path down to the Mill, and asked if he ‘might go up this path to the hill above’. He was politely informed that he might, as that ‘is the way to Douglas’. As a stranger, it was probably assumed that that was where he was heading to. His stories suggest that his walking about the countryside might have been perceived as somewhat eccentric by the locals, and his difficulties with navigation were due to a lack of clearly sign-posted, or well  maintained, footpaths or minor tracks available to the rambler. Borrow’s main interests were in history and people, and unlike Miss Weeton he sought out every opportunity to talk to people, and generally he walked from town to town keeping to the populated lowland areas, thus avoiding the lonely tracks over the moors.

[1]  Winchester & Wane, 2003, 494-512.

[2]  Robertson (1794) 40.

[3]  Farms in the Isle of Man were generally small, being between 50 and 150 acres in size. Quarterland farms were often larger, but rarely above 200 acres. [Quayle & Quayle (1992) (10).]

[4]  Details extracted from the Manx Note Book website.

[5]  A resident of England might consider a hedge to be something made entirely out of small trees such as hawthorn, privet or beech, and probably incorporating the odd mature Elm or Ash. In the Isle of Man the word is used to describe what might otherwise be called a sod hedge or bank.

[6]   Westacott (1991) 118.

[7]  Greeba Mountain near Crosby (c422m).

[8]  Manx Gaelic, the general speaking of which had virtually died out by the end of the nineteenth century.

[9] This is probably a reference to the ‘Sloc’ road, from near Port Erin to ‘the Round Table’.

[10] 620 metres.

[11] Details extracted from the Manx Note Book website where it is copied from Mannin Vol. 4.

[12] trespass notices issued in the insular press for the Nunnery Estate during the period 1810 to 1821.


2 thoughts on “Early ramblers on the Isle of Man

  1. As regards the roads at the end of the 19th century these are worth reading:

    @ Isle of Man Government. Highway Board. Report and Abstract of Accounts from November 12th, 1895, to November 12th, 1896. n.p. [but Douglas]: n.pub. [but Isle of Man Government], n.d. [but 1897]. D151/15x #25

    [3] “The Board have personally inspected most of the main roads of the Island, and find them in a good state of repair.”

    [4] “A report having been laid before the Board, asking for repairs to be undertaken on numerous bye-roads, copies of the same have been submitted to the various members of the Board, who are making inquiries as to the roads in their respective districts.”

    @ Isle of Man Government. The Insular Highways: Report of the Highway Board as to what Improvements are required in the Roads of the Island. n.p. [but Douglas]: n.pub. [but Isle of Man Government], n.d. [but 1898]. D151/15x #53

    Due to a resolution of Tynwald, 30 March 1897:
    [1] “The Board, accompanied by the Surveyor-General and their Secretary, have personally inspected the whole of the main roads and all bye-roads of any importance throughout the Island, including the whole of the bye-roads brought to the notice of His Excellency by certain members of the House of Keys—the list of such roads prepared by them having been handed by His Excellency to the Board.”

  2. This afternoon I picked up the following book from the library shelves:
    Woods, C.J. Traveller’s Accounts as Source-Material for Irish Historians. Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History: Number 15. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009.

    Besides a valuable and extensive introduction on the topic, the volume of course features a (selective) listing of such accounts. This is not a bibliographical listing otherwise probably all of the accounts could have listed but rather an annotation of the most important ones.

    The author sets up a template for his annotations so:
    (1) Dates
    (2) Itinerary
    (3) Mode [of travel]
    (4) Contents
    (5) Persons

    I think it would be valuable for a similar guide to the Island to be compiled along the same lines. First, though, we need to list out the descriptions of the Island.

    I put together a somewhat linked list many years ago:
    “An Interim Checklist of Historical Accounts of the Isle of Mann to 1850.” Manx Notes 7 (1993): 1–2. [X]

    The title is somewhat of a misnomer as it does include traveller’s accounts; what was contemporary of course has now become historical. Also it was time limited as seen to 1850.

    The main headache of such a fuller and expanded listing would be the inclusion of the relevant material from the guidebooks of the nineteenth century. Still, a listing in itself would still prove to be of value.

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