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Nan Wade – Manx Wise Woman

by Bernadette Weyde
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‘Nan Wade’ was a well-known Manx wise woman whose gifts of healing and charming were held in high esteem and much sought after.  She specialised in producing herbal remedies and charms for people and animals at a time when there were potentially high levels of infant mortality, low life expectancy and contagious diseases.  From the records we have about Nan, her work was both trusted and relied upon and people came to see her from all over the Island.

“I remember being brought to Nan’s once when I was very young, because I was what they called “donsay,” (delicate).  Silver was given by the woman who took me to her and Nan covered it with salt and threw the salt into a saucer containing something like pinjean (junket). She then rubbed her forefinger on the earthen floor just under where I stood, and, dipping it into the saucer, crossed my fore-head, chin, palms of the hands, and tip of the tongue with her wet forefinger, muttering low in Manx to herself all the time. I think this crossing was repeated three times – more than once, anyhow. Before she began the charm everybody in the room was turned out, just leaving myself – a trembling mite – and her together, and I was stiictly enjoined not to utter a word during its performance. When she had finished she threw the contents of the saucer over the turfs burning on the chiollagh.’

“We had a horse once that took sick, all coming out in a sweat, and wouldn’t eat nothing. It was like a thing witched. So himself went to Nan’s to see if he could get a cure. ‘Go your ways to the cross of four roads,’ she said to him, ‘and get some of the dust there, and throw it over the base, and then cover the craythur (creature) well up,’ she said. Well, he done this, and in the morning the beast was better.”

“Nan Wade was brought years ago to cure my mother, who suffered from rheumatism. When Nan came she asked for a piece of butter fresh from the churn and a plate. The butter was given to her on a plate.  She drew a short cutty-knife out of her pocket and divided the butter with it into three pieces wiping the knife under her left foot after each division, and muttering a charm in Manx while so doing. This was repeated twice – three times altogether. Then she produced a small parcel of finely chopped herbs and ordered my mother to pour boiling water over them and wash herself well in it, and then to be sure to throw the water away at midnight in a running stream.”

“I remember one day we could not get the churning dune at all at all, and we were clean bet working at it; so we sent to Nan’s about it.  She said, “Someone has cast an evil eye on it and I’ll tell you how to find her out. Take the tongs and shove them half way, head first, into the fire, and, when they are red hot, put them down the churn, and you’ll soon find out who has done the jeel (damage). Well, to make a long story short, this was done, and, behold ye, all at once we heard a running on the street, and in came a neighbour woman, panting with the breath just out of her. “Hoh, huh, huh,” she was going.  “I thought I would run in and tell you that some of your washing has blown off the hedge into the road.”  It hadn’t at all but she had come, you see, and that was the excuse she made. The butter came with us all right after that.  Aw, Nan was a terrible clever woman and only sixpence she was asking.”

One day I entered into conversation with an old man…We were exchanging confidences, and he said, ‘I don’t say as how I believe in witches, and I don’t say as how I don’t; but I’ll tell you something ‘at’s true, and you can judge for yourself. There’s my missus inside the house, and she’ll tell you same as I do. Many years ago, when we’d been man and wife some time, the missus had a baby, and after two or three weeks she got so bad that the doctor gave her up. I called in another doctor, and the two of ‘em were very attentive to her; but they said she was past cure. My friend kept saying to me: ‘Why don’t you go and consult Nan Waid, in St John’s?’ but I said I didn’t believe in that sort of thing. At last I thought to myself, thinks I, ‘If the missus do die, and I ha’ left a stone unturned, I shall never forgive myself as long as I live.’ So I made up my mind to go.

 

‘Well, I must tell you that about two years afore that, I was coming home from fishing late one night, and the road was lonely and dark. When I got to the cross roads, a sudden pain seized my arm and went down my side and down lea so I couldn’t move scarcely. I could hardly reach home. From that time a pimple came on my arm where the pain was , and it grew and grew until it got as big as a cherry, and it was constantly running. You see, I was the only man in our boat who could pull in the cod lines, nearly five miles of’ em; and the moving of my arm chafed the sore and made it warse. I plastered and poulticed and bathed it, all to no use.

 

‘When I called to see Nan Waid and told her about the missus, she said she had an evil influence on her, and that she could remove it. So she gave me some herbs to make tea of for her, and then I asked her whether I could consult her about anything else, and she said ‘Yes, as many things as you like, though only one at a time.’ So I came away. The missus sipped the herb tea, and began to get well. There she is – go you inside and look at her – strong and hearty, and she’s brought up a big family since then.

 

‘I went again to see Nan Waid, and then showed her my arm. She shook her head and said it was past all herbs, and that I was bewitched.  Could I remember anything special about it? I told her about the pain striking me that dark night two years afore, and she said that was when the spell worked. She could counteract it; but herbs were no good at all.’ Then he told me what she instructed him to do when he got home. He obeyed. The sore at once began to heal, and he had no trouble with his arm afterwards. Then, doubling his mighty fist – when a young man he was called ‘big-bones,’ because he was so strong – he shook it ominously, and said that after that there was no man who dare say anything against Nan Waid in his presence.

Another instance of clairvoyance…may be given here, although no cure was in question. A dog, valuable because well-trained and intelligent, disappeared from the Northside farm where he was employed, and nothing could be seen or heard of him. The farmer went to Nan Wade, the famous witch or wise woman, then living at Poortown near St. John’s, for help in solving the mystery. After she had got a detailed description of the missing animal, but without making any inquiry as to the man’s name or where he came from, she retired into the adjoining room for a short while. When she came out she said: ” Your dog is not alive on the Island.” He then asked her where it was, and whether it was alive or dead. She retired for a further space of time. On coming back she described the situation of his house with regard to its immediate surroundings, and told him to go back home and walk straight from the house to a river which ran, she said, on the West side of it, and then follow the current along the East bank. He went home and carried out her instructions, forcing his way for a hundred yards or more through brambles and undergrowth, until, on a ridge of gravel cast up by the stream, he found his dog lying dead under a bush. It had, he concluded, been killed by a neighbour with whom he was at loggerheads, and the body hidden there. The Rushen man (well known to me) who told me this story was of the opinion that Nan could not possibly have known by natural means who her visitor was or the situation of his farm, because the river in question was the Agneash river, which is ten or eleven miles from Nan’s home by the nearest road and on the other side of the mountains. The querent had never had any dealings with her before.

Herb charmers never speak of “picking” herbs, but always say “lift,” and the herb must be lifted with a charm. Each sick person must have the herb “lifted” especially for him, and for him only as the one lifting will not serve two persons, for then neither would benefit. The full name of the person, with the disease which the herb is intended to cure, must be said when it is lifted, and three, six, seven, or nine pieces of it picked from different places. Nine different pieces of the herb are thought to be the most potent; then seven; six is good; and three will also serve if it is scarce and no more can be obtained; but the herb will do no good if picked in less or greater quantities than the above, or if all pieces are lifted from the one root.  The lifter can foretell from the plants as they are lifted whether the person who is to use them will get better or not, and if the sickness will be long or short.

So who was ‘Nan Wade’ and what else do we know about her?  Well, it seems that there has been some uncertainty as to who she actually was.  I have seen reference that she is Ann Crellin (c.1768-1844) from Michael parish who married Robert Wade but this does not seem right to me and I think it is more likely that Nan is their daughter Ann (or another Ann Wade born in Michael parish) who married John Boyde.  Ann is shown in the 1851 and 1861 census records as living at Poortown, a place repeatedly mentioned as Nan’s later home and in both instances she is listed as a herbalist; likely widowed by now, she is registered as living with her daughter Ann, son-in-law William Christian and their family.   Elsewhere there is also mention that Nan’s daughter did similar work after Nan’s death in December 1866 and I think this references Ann Christian who died 13 years after Nan in 1879. 

Recently I came across an article from a 1936 edition of the Isle of Man Times and decided to see if I could find Ann Boyde’s/Nan Wade’s grave:

…Yet it is doubtful whether any of them live more surely in popular remembrance than the inhabitant of the grave immediately on the north-west corner, the first to be seen when entering the graveyard by the stile nearest the town. Under an inconspicuous dark-grey stone rests none other than ‘Nan Wade,’ seller of herbs and charms. She will not be identified by that name; she married and was buried in December 1866 – as Ann Boyde. To this day fishermen will pluck leaves from Nan’s grave and only a few months ago the writer of this article heard from a Douglas woman how she feared she had come under a neighbour’s evil eye and was minded to go to a field at St John’s and pick what she called ‘a bit of Nan Wade.’

The grave of Ann Boyde/Nan Wade has now been located at Peel and I have included two photographs of it.

There is also a photograph of a doll  which is supposed to be of Nan Wade and was on display at the Manx Museum in Douglas (I am not sure if it is still on display).  The catalogue reference for it on the imuseum states:

A dressed doll, said to have been modelled from life on the seller of traditional Manx charms, Nan Wade, of Poortown, German. The doll is wearing handmade clothes and appears to show an elderly female wearing late 19th century clothing.

I think it is a lovely thing to see!  I notice the doll is both wearing spectacles and has a pair hanging from her chatelaine but isn’t that the way as you can never have too many of them. 

On a final note, I came across an unusual and very interesting reference in relation to Nan on the internet which appears to be from a book by Lionel and Patricia Fanthorp, The World’s Most Mysterious Objects (2002).  I sourced a photograph on the internet of a labyrinth slate (aka a troy stone) held by the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle but do not know for sure if it is the one referred to below:

Rocky Valley is a unique and spectacularly beautiful spot near Tintagel in Cornwall. Carved into one of its steep sides is an ancient maze design that has defied the passage of time. At the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, not far from Tintagel, there is another stone that is closely connected with the Rocky Valley carving. This one is a sheet of slate forty-five centimetres long and fifteen centimetres wide carrying a typical labyrinth design very similar to the one at Rocky Valley. This fascinating old slate came from a field in Michaelstow, south of Boscastle. It had for many years done duty as a ritual object and been used by several local wise-women. The stone was actually donated to the museum in the 1950s by the daughter of Kate “The Seagull” Turner, who had enjoyed a great reputation as a local wise-woman during the first half of the twentieth century. Kate Turner, herself, had received it from Nan Wade, the Manx wise-woman. Sarah Quiller from Ballaveare, Port Soderick, Isle of Man, had given it to Nan. But Sarah was far from being its maker: she had simply received it from an older wise-woman. It appeared to have been handed down over many generations. This type of stone, carved with a maze or labyrinth design, is popularly known as a Troy stone and is traditionally used to facilitate an altered state of consciousness. The myths and legends associated with the ancient city of Troy – and with the far older capital city of Atlantis – the basic layout and plan of the city as seven concentric circles. If, as some researchers have suggested, Troy was modelled on Atlantis, then the maze carved onto a Troy stone (traditionally credited with so many strange, magical powers) has very ancient and mysterious origins.

The grave of Ann Boyde/Nan Wade at Peel
The grave of Ann Boyde/Nan Wade at Peel
Nan Wade doll
Slate labyrinth/troy stone by Jeff Saward

 


Donsay – delicate
Pinjean – junket, a dessert dish made with milk
Chiollagh – open hearth

Source:  wikitree; Yn Lioar Manninagh Vol 4 from A Manx Notebook; Isle of Man Times, 3 October, 1936, p.3; Nan Wade doll text; photgraphs of grave by Ber Weyde; Nan Wade doll photograph © Manx National Heritage; photograph of slate labyrinth/troy stone at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic by Jeff Saward from a PDF titled The Rocky Valley Labyrinths by Abegael Saward.  I also recommend Manx Folkways A Gleaning of Writings by Chiollagh Books/Stephen Miller as part of the wikitree articles may be sourced from here.

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