The Secret History of the Isle of Man

storyThe Isle of Man possesses a rugged and beautiful landscape, and the culture is rich and appealing, but the isolated island offers much more than meets the eye. If you’re looking for that special place with a hidden and colourful history – here is where it is found. Desiree Anstey takes us behind the scenes.

Smuggling Tunnels
The Isle of Man’s independence from the Crown and free-trade policy became strained during the early 18th century when Britain placed custom duties on all goods. Manxmen called the policy protectionist and a few decided to take matters into their own hands. They built several tunnels or secret passages – many in the coastal town of Peel – under homes and surrounding cliffs. These passages became a hive of activity at night revolving around an underground malt and beer brewing industry. However, smuggling deprived the British government of valuable tax, and parliament eventually retaliated with the Smuggling Act in 1765. The enforcement of strict penalties caused the closure of the tunnels, many of which are now lost in time.

Castle Prisons
Forget death row. The Crypt at Peel Castle (1229-1780) was a cold damp hole, where guards chained prisoners to the walls in darkness. Not only was it the first prison on the Isle of Man, but anyone could be sent here for something as simple as not paying tithes. In the 18th century, the conversion of the Castle Rushen – located in the Isle of Man’s ancient capital – into a jail was meant to be a vast improvement from the Crypt. But for many years, the unfortunate prisoners were only kept alive by members of the public and the benevolence of the governor. Many starving prisoners reverted to eating rodents that scurried into their cells, and they suffered severely from the cold. Eventually the Castle was remodeled, serving not only as a prison but also as a lunatic asylum up until the late 19th century.

Behind Church Walls
Fourteen centuries of Christian worship can be traced to the former parish of Braddan, which was consecrated in 1876. Stones from the first Celtic Keeil (Chapel) are found here dating back to 4oo A.D., and include many Celtic and Scandinavian crosses. But the most remarkable story linked to old Braddan church dates back to 1832 when men came off the boat sick with typhus and cholera. Ultimately, more than 83 fell victim to the disease and ended up buried in the churchyard.

Towering Graves
On the top of Peel Hill stands a 50-foot high landmark. People from around the world climb the hill and admire the panoramic views of the ocean and the town below. They then chisel their names on the tower walls. Some of the names date back hundreds of years. However, the entrance to the tower is always locked to protect the Corrin family’s historical writing chiselled in the four chambers. The eccentric Mr. Thomas Corrin built the tower in 1806 in memory of his wife Alice. Before his death, Thomas spent a lot of time reading in the narrow chambers. But ships far out at sea mistook the flickering of his candlelight for a lighthouse. As a result, people complained to the government, resulting in the blocking up of the narrow windows at the top. The Corrin family was strongly associated with Athol Street Congregational Church, which believed in burying members in consecrated ground. Mr. Corrin, however, had alternative plans. He wanted to be buried on Peel Hill with his family, believing it would bring them “closer to God.” When Mr. Corrin passed away, his son decided to bury him with Alice in Kirk Patrick churchyard (because they lived down the road at Knockaloe Beg). Despite his son’s wishes, friends of Thomas exhumed the bodies of him and his wife and moved them to the tower on the hill. This resulted in a compromise. The graves could remain on the hill only if they were enclosed in a walled area. A walled area of earth was then built around the graves, and later a more permanent stone wall.

Internment Camps
The concern over spies infiltrating the government during the First World War (1914-18) and Second World War (1939-45), saw enemy aliens within Europe and the United Kingdom dispatched to the Isle of Man.  There, men, women and children were divided and placed behind the barbed wire of internment camps. The biggest and the worst internment camp on the island was Knockaloe, in Kirk Patrick. Originally designed for 5,000 German civilians, Knockaloe ended up housing more than 20,000 men in cramped, dirty conditions. A rail-link built from Peel carried food and supplies to the camp. Despite efforts, more than 200 died in captivity and many were buried in the grounds of Kirk Patrick church. After the War the remaining internees were deported. Those that were buried at Patrick church were re-interred at Cannock Chase in Britain, in 1962. But two Jewish and a few Turkish graves still remain at the church.  Although Knockaloe returned to its former glory as a farm, you can still see a section of the camp built from stone. And along the drive are a handful of small private cottages that were once used as meat sheds. According to the locals this area is also extremely haunted.

Hidden “Radars”
Round, peculiar land molds are scattered across the farmlands of Dalby. These moulds are actually bunkers that once formed part of a system of Radio Detection Findings (RDF) or pylons. The bunkers were built to draw away enemy fire during the Second World War. Also nicknamed “radars,” the pylons helped prevent German invasion by directing a small force of fighter aircrafts to their appropriate positions for attacking incoming aircrafts. These comprised the world’s first comprehensive radar system. Eventually, locals using explosives took out the pylons after the war and used the wood to build nearby farm houses.

Tailless Cats
The Manx cat is no secret. Bred on the Isle of Man, these gentle-natured tailless cats are the result of natural genetic mutation. Females weigh around eight to 10 pounds and males average between 10 to 12 pounds. Sadly, Manx cats are on the decline. The dominant Manx gene that causes the cat to be born tailless is also lethal. Known as “Manx Syndrome,” the gene causes a shortening of the spine, leading to damage of the nerves, bowels, bladder and digestive system. This lethal side effect is more common with the Rumpy breed that exhibits a dimple at the base where the tail should be. In order to prevent genetic defects, the Rumpy can be bred with the Stumpy, a variant of the tailless breed.

A story awaits around every corner on the Isle of Man. To unlock the island’s colourful history, which has helped shape its current culture and independent identity, leave the guidebook in the hotel and take the road less traveled.

With breathtaking natural scenery, storybook castles, ancient monuments, historic buildings, rare animal breeds, and heroic acts of kindness, there is an abundance of reasons exist as to why this emerald isle calls out to the hearts of everyone.