One of the greatest masters of English literature, George Henry Borrow, visited Man in the year 1855 and wrote a diary of his experiences during the ten weeks he made the Island his home. He had published in 1844 ‘The Bible in Spain’ and in 1851 what is considered to be his greatest work, ‘Lavengro’. After touring Cornwall, in which country he was born, he took an extended walking tour through the most romantic parts of Wales. The literary results of the Welsh holidays were many notebooks from which ‘Wild Wales’ was subsequently written.
He chose the Isle of Man in the year 1855 because, as he said, it attracted him ‘as a land of legend and quaint customs and speech.’ Accordingly on the morning of the 22nd August he set sail in the steamer Tynwald for Douglas. Keenly inquisitive as usual, he could not forbear questioning the sailors about the Manx language during the passage. Being one of the most proficient linguists ever known – he was a master of some thirty or forty languages – he at once set about comparing the Irish with the Manx spoken by the sailors.
He was always on the scent of the language and meeting an ‘old fisher-looking man’ on the quay discussed the subject. ‘I said that many people were ashamed to speak Manx…he said that no Manxman need be ashamed of speaking the language of his country and that Manx would be spoken as long as Man…’
His host in Douglas was Mr John Goldsmith, one of the most cultured men then engaged in the commercial life. Both men discussed Celtic literary and linguistic affairs. They talked about Ossian’s poems, Illiam Dhone, the translation of the Bible from the original tongues, the runic monuments and the derivations of place-names. Borrow was charmed with the combination of knowledge and modesty he found in his new friend.
Day after day he tramped the countryside visiting in turn Kirk Braddan, Tromode, the Baldwins, Sulby, Jurby, Kirk Santan, Ballasalla, Castletown, Port St Mary and Port Erin. As all students of Borrow are aware, he was a magnificent walker and loved the open road and the mountain paths. He explored every place where he thought he might learn something of the language, conversing with the people in Manx, collecting ballads and old smoke-stained carval books, of which he was proud to secure two examples.
On the 17th September, Borrow undertook a journey to the north on foot ‘in quest of runes, Manx books, barrows, cairns and what not.’ On the next day he found a native man after his own heart in James Skillicorn who told him about the local bean ny varast (Ben ny varrey i.e. mermaid) and phynnodderee that lurk in the bays or roam over the hills. Skillicorn took him up to the top of Snaefell and on the way, presented him with the ‘genuine carval-book’ previously mentioned.
When in the south Borrow determined to examine casts of the Scandanavian crosses which the Rev JG Cummungs, the Vice-Principal, had placed in King William’s College a few years earlier. The story is told not by Borrow, but by Mr Wilmot Dixon, then a scholar at the school. The lad was only 12 years old when Borrow came, and felt very timid when, lying full length on the grass in front of the school, he and his companions saw ‘a very big man, dressed in black, wearing a tall hat, and carrying a huge umbrella, coming across the field and exclaiming, “Boys! Is there anyone alive that building?”
“I think there must be somebody about Sir,” said the boy.
“I tell you boy, there isn’t…Do you know any museum in that big barracks where there are plaster casts of runic monuments?”
I (Dixon) procured the key, unlocked the museum and he was soon absorbed in studying the inscriptions on the runic crosses, which were in a rather dusty and neglected condition.
Young Dixon was much struck by the unconventional stranger. “I sat on the window ledge,” he continues, “and studied him…with one exception, the notable vicar of Kirk Braddan (Parson William Drury), I had never before seen so big a man, and there was an impressiveness about his mien and stature to which my experience could afford no parallel. The massive breadth of his figure seemed to be colossal. His hair was snow white, but he did not look very old. His face was smooth as an egg…his features were large and bald, his expression resolute, almost truculent, his eyes dark and piercing, his voice deep, sonorous, authoritative. His black coat and trousers were plentifully besprinkled with dust. He wore low shoes and white cotton socks, which gave an untidy look at his feet. Although I had not the slightest idea who or what he was, I felt in awe of him.”
“Nearly three months later,” continues Dixon, “my father announced at breakfast one morning that George Borrow, the celebrated traveller, had accepted an invitation to visit us,” and he found to his astonishment that the visitor was the big man whom he had conducted to the College museum. “Borrow at once recognised me…he came forward and laid his hand on my shoulder, and turning to my father said…”
“This boy was the only living creature that wasn’t asleep…when I came to see your Museum. I walked into your town with the grand castle, called on the High Bailiff, and asked him if he could tell me anything about the Museum at the College: he could tell me ‘nawthing’. I went to your Government Chaplain, from him I could get ‘nawthing’. I went to your leading advocate: he could tell me ‘nawthing’. I came to the College. I could get ‘nawthing’. I could get ‘nawthing’ until I happened to come across this boy!”
From Port Erin he visited the mine at Bradda and proceeded to walk by the Sloc and South Barrule to Peel, no easy task even for an accomplished walker. He climbed the summit of the mountain and exclaims: ‘The scenery was grand, yet beautiful: there was mist and sunshine. The Isle of Man is a very noble Isle.’
Proceeding along the northern slope of Cronk ny Irree Laa, he sees opening in front of him in the sunshine, the coast of Dalby and the Niarbyl. When he got to Peel he bathed off the beach and stayed at the Castle Hotel for the night. The next day he walked to Douglas. When he came to St Johns, which interested him greatly, he wrote in his Diary on the top of the Tynwald mound, which he described well. He noted the significance of the round hill and the round yard of the Church, joined by an avenue and described it as a ’round Greek cross.’
It would appear that on the morning following his return to Douglas he sat down and penned an account of some of his experiences at St John’s. The actual document is given below in full.
DUST AND ASHES: A TALE OF THE TYNWALD
After having deciphered the Runic stone by the door of the Tinwald Church in the best manner that its dilapidated condition would permit me I crossed the road to the little public house on the green on the south. I entered a passage, a kitchen on the left, and a kind of parlour on the right.
I went into the kitchen in which was a fire and sat down by a table. There were two women, one old and the other young in the kitchen. These were the woman of the house and her daughter. An elderly man sat at the same table at which I had placed myself with a mug before him. I asked for some whiskey and water, which the old woman brought me.
The man presently began to talk to me, and I instantly perceived by his voice that he was in a state verging on intoxication. He seemed to be aware that I had been in the church yard looking at the stone, and asked me some half unintelligible questions about it, and what was written upon it. I told him that the stone was put there by the old Danes and what was written upon it was in their language.
He said that a great many wonderful things had been found in the neighbourhood and that very stone had been found under the foundation of the old church. “I was once seated at home when a man came running from a field to ask me to come and look at something. I followed him and found a plough and two oxen standing still by a hole or grave. In ploughing, the sock of the plough had come against the stone and (partly raised) removed it. The man told me then to look in. I did so. And there I saw bones and the skull of a man, and what do you think was on the skull? Why the hair, looking as fresh as if it were on a head that was alive – I had been taking a drop too much, as I have been now – so I felt no fear – and what did I do but put my hand on the hair and then O Jee! I felt afraid then, and became sober at once, for in a moment all was gone, skull and hair all had crumbled to dust, and looked as white as those ashes in the grate.”
“What colour was the hair?” said I, “when you first saw it.”
“What colour?” said the man? “O quite black when I first saw it, but in a moment it was white – all ashes. White as the hair on your own head.”
“What became of the grave said I?”
“O the stone was put over it again, and the earth over the stone, and the dust of the dead was left alone.”
I drank my whiskey and water, asked where the road to the south led to and was told to Castletown. Then getting up I paid for my whiskey and water and departed. I had a beautiful moon-light walk to Douglas where I found my wife and daughter quite well.
I ate a hearty supper, drank a bottle of ale and then went to bed. I had strange dreams that night in which Runic stones, skeletons and corpses of gigantic Danes, and cripples on crutches were strangely blended.
Borrow’s holiday in Man resulted in two quarto notebooks, closely written in pencil and comprising 96 pages. He planned to write a book but never did so.
(source: The Journal of the Manx Museum Vol IV, June 1939, No.59; portrait of George Borrow is by Henry Wyndham Phillips)