Part Two: Clues from Cregneash
There are no speed limits on the Isle of Man. This could be simply because nobody that lives there is in a hurry. Even though the island hosts a week long motor-sport event each summer for speed enthusiasts on two wheels–this is not Manx. The island only measures sixty kilometers from north to south. Driving at a leisurely speed you can travel the whole length of the island, from Ayre to Cregneash, in just sixty-three minutes. There is no reason to rush. Traa Dy Liooar (there is time enough) is a widely used and lived local Manx-Gaelic idiom.
The locals are always eager to stop and chat, to ask about your visit, to tell you what they love about their homeland and share their knowledge about their history and folklore. After a few days on the island, I started referring to it as the locals do, calling it Ellan Vannin. Each autumn the locals celebrate the heritage of their velvety green island with a four day walking festival; hiking through lush, hidden glens, climbing the mountain they call Snaefell, and balancing along the tops of breathtaking coastal cliffs. To connect with Vannin, you must walk in it.
The Romans, when they first encountered this outpost of Celts and Vikings in the sea, called it Mona. The English, who came ashore and stayed, call it Mann, derived from the Latin name given by the Romans. But those who respect Manx culture and history refer to this island reverently as Vannin.
Vannin’s history is not readily accessible to the casual tourist; it is hidden. Vannin is found in a language that is no longer spoken in the modern cities built to house the miners and industrialists, and now the bankers. The authentic history of Vannin has been paved or grown over by colonists who came to exploit this peaceful place. To find the Manx composite you must dig in the ancient ground to sift through the strata of its first cultures, before the neighboring empire arrived, diluting the nation’s traditions, employing both the rod and riches to dull the potency of the people’s history.
The Earls of Darby took the island for their own and taxed my grandfathers for the right to live on their family’s ancestral lands. The Karran name was one of only a few family names that was recorded in each of Vannin’s parishes when the census was taken in 1511, as recorded in the Manx Doomsday book; a ledger of taxes charged and paid to the foreigners who claimed the island.
Cregneash, on the southern tip of Vannin, a farming village nestled into on a broad slope with a sweeping view of the sea below it, was a Karran stronghold for generations. We spent a slow, wind tossed Sunday afternoon visiting with Stanley Karran, a plumber, who for a man of ninety-five years, had an impeccable memory for dates, places and names linked with our family folklore. From him we learned what is truly Manx, and what is not.
“Douglas; the very sound of that town has a bad appearance!” Stanley grumbled shaking his silver head. “Douglas is not a Manx town. Its English. It’s the last place on earth…Peel! Peel is old Manx. Have you been to Peel yet?”
Stanley was right. In Douglas, the modern capital, the folklore is English. On the seaside promenade, a brave man is celebrated for his sacrifice and dedication for creating a rescue brigade to save scuttled sailors. (For King and Country!) In appearance, Douglas could be Brighton or Blackpool without a signatory pier trespassing into the sea. The front street overlooking the harbor is glum faced, lacking contrast or flair, unnaturally perched on the edge of the broad seashore.
“Before the jet planes, Douglas was filled with holiday makers from England. They just remade their typical places here on our island. What a bore! Thankfully they all go to the Mediterranean Sea now. Unfortunately, my cousins mostly left with them.”
A widower since 1970, Stanley had no children. He had served in the British armed forces during the second world war in the RAF (Royal Air Force) in a glider division. He was stationed for training on the Scottish islands. Vannin, being a crown dependency of the House of Windsor, defending the King’s empire was considered a national duty.
“The Karrans had a merchant trading fleet in the 1800s, a famous one. That’s all gone now too. The men would fish in the season, and the women would manage the farms, usually thirty acres, small farms called crofts. The women did it all here at home while the men worked elsewhere.”
Cregneash has since been made into a living, open-air museum. The Manx National Trust has taken ownership of the majority of the houses and farms, to create an idyllic picture of the life of the Manx crofters. The fields are separated by chest-high slate walls, the rams here have four horns and the cats have no tails. The villagers are employed to run the farms with nineteenth century technology; plowing with horses and spinning wool by hand. Stanley still lives in his family’s private home, one of the last ones, much like Stanley himself.
“Most of our farms don’t belong to the family any longer. The government has come in a changed things. They make the life of the farmers look so happy and restful. It’s just not how it was. My grandmother would say to me ‘It’s better to go to bed hungry than with debt.’ Life was tough for the crofters. Not much money in it.”
Stanley walked through the narrow, undulating streets with us to show us the best of the whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs. We stopped in front of a low stone wall, built with round rocks and looked onto low, round roof cottage with a sharp edge of precisely sliced hollow straw, packed tightly together to repel rain, which seemed to fall every day on Vannin. The outside of the house, like the other historic monuments, had been whitewashed a clear, brilliant white.
“This is the best example of the old houses. Not the restored ones. This one is called T’hai Thut Beg in Manx-Gaelic or ‘House-Thatched-Small’ in English.”
“Do you speak the old Manx language, Stanley?” I asked.
“No, my mother didn’t teach it to me and I rarely heard her speak Manx, but I know she could. The schools have just started teaching it again locally, but there are none left who grew up in a true Manx speaking home, but there are some recordings of the old-timers telling stories. The last of the real Manx speakers died about thirty years back. But no, my mother never it taught it me.”
“Does the family still own any of the land here?”
“After the war, the Karrans more or less disappeared from Cregneash. There is now more Manx blood in Cleveland, Ohio than on Vannin anymore. The government bought them out when they all left. But I still own twelve acres here in Cregneash, near to the old Karran farmstead here in the village.”
“Is this the oldest Karran farm on the island then?” I asked.
“No, if you’re wantin’ to see the first Karran farm, you’ll need to be in Marrown parish, out behind the new Runius church. It was called Ballacarran back then. I believe Bob Karran still owns the old place. It is one of a few farms that has remained within a family for as long as they’ve kept records. The Karran line actually comes from the center of the island, as far back as 1600 if I’m right.”
“Do you know where this farm is?” I asked.
“Marrown Parrish, on the Peel-Douglas road. But you’ll need to search to find the exact place yourselves. It’s got a new name, but I forget now…”
Our drive back to Douglas that evening was contemplative. With two days left in our visit we were doubtful that we would be able to find Ballacarran, the oldest Karren farm. I reviewed my notes, reading the highlights of our visit with the ‘old-timer’ aloud so that Dad could follow along while keeping the car on the correct side of the road.
From my scribbles and notes we realized that Stanley, in his nostalgic storytelling, had in fact given us several vital clues that we had not picked up on at first during the several rambling conversations. He had named a parish: Marrown; a land mark: Runius chapel; owner of the farm: Bob Karran; a date: as early as 1600; the original name: Ballacarran.
Early the next morning, we waited impatiently for the doors of the Manx national archives to open, hoping we would be allowed to dig though seventeenth-century land surveys from the cadaster, to locate the first records of the Karren ancestors and the exact location of the first (known) Karren family farm.
To be continued…
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If you’d like to read more from this author, V M Karren, check-out his new short story collection, The Tales of a Fly by Night, also about unique travel adventures throughout Europe, or his debut novel, The Deceit of Riches, set in Russia in the 1990s.