Home Celtic The ‘Seven Mollys’ of the Isle of Man

The ‘Seven Mollys’ of the Isle of Man

by Bernadette Weyde
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Old Manx people will tell you, even today, that the oldest Manx families all originated with the ‘Seven Mollys’ – that is the names beginning with ‘Myle.’ But like many such traditions it is true only up to a point, for as we know the names which have – or had – this prefix, whilst certainly very old, are hardly likely to date back to pre-Christian times for all of them seem to have been associated with Christ Himself or with one of the early Christian saints.

‘Myle’ is the modern form of ‘Mac Gilla’ meaning ‘son of the servant or devotee.’ The name Mylechreest for instance, was originally Mac Gilla Chreest – son of the servant of Christ – and in course of time the prefix was whittled down to common speech to the easier ‘Myle’, now generally pronounced ‘Molly’ or even ‘Mill’ without the more graceful final syllable.

Today only four of the old Manx names survive in use in something like their early form – Mylechreest, Mylecraine, Mylrea and Mylroi – but it is still possible to recognise the others under their modern form. MyleYessey (servant of Jesus) has become Leece, Mylvoirrey (servant of Mary) is now Morrison, Mylevreeshey (servant of Bride or Bridget) is Bridson.

Besides the ‘Mollys’ there are however, many other old Manx names, some of them Norse in origin, some Celtic, which go back even to pre-Christian times and are still borne in modernised form by Manx people of today. And some of them are names which have borne a part in Manx history which is still on record in our national archives, sometimes even still remembered in oral tradition, though perhaps vaguely. When mention is made of a Manx rebellion the thoughts of most people, even those who are reasonably familiar with Manx history, turn immediately to Illiam Dhone.

But more than two centuries before he was born, there was a rebellion (in 1422) against Sir John Stanley and his Governor, John Walton, who had made himself extremely unpopular with the Manx people by extortionate taxation and an attempt to do away with Manx customary law and other institutions. A Tynwald Court was summoned at Kirk Michael within the octave of Corpus Christi in 1422 by Walton – but only the Governor and his officers took their places. The rebels, led by their Captains of Parishes and representatives, gathered in a great crowd, beat up the Governor and his officers and chased them down into Kirk Michael churchyard where they claimed sanctuary.

But the rising was not so successful as the Illiam Dhone rebellion; it was followed by a cruel reprisal for Sir John Stanley sent over an overwhelming number of veteran troops who hunted down the rebel leaders and had some 20 of them executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered and others dragged by wild horses while their estates were confiscated and their families had to go into hiding. Names of some of these men which still survive are Cannell, Christian, Craine, Cowin, Cowley, Curphey, Kaneen, Kaighen and Kissack.

With the rebels was a man of Irish descent whose family name has been lost but who was known as Donald Waterford because his forebears came from that part of Ireland. This name survives today but in the changed form of Wattleworth. It became first Waterfoorth, then Watleforth and finally Wattleworth. Donald himself was executed but some of his family remained in the Island and are recorded in the Manorial Roll of 1601 as holding a farm in Rushen. Later in 1703, a Samuel Wattleworth was Archdeacon of Mann and his son Thomas married Margaret Christian, one of the ‘Ten Fair Maids of Milntown.’

Kerruish is a name that has been prominent in Manx affairs for a long time, even in its present form, but how many people know that it came to the Island originally through the marriage of a Manx king?

King Olaf, son of Godred Crovan, who came to the Manx throne in 1114 CE, married Auffrica, daughter of Fergus, Prince of Galloway, and Auffrica had a brother Fergus Mac Fhearghus who settled in Maughold. The earliest form of this name is Vergustus, meaning super, or highest choice – i.e. the first chosen one. This became in Old Irish, Fergus, then in Middle Irish it took the form Fearghus, with the ‘gh’ silent, giving the pronunciation ‘Ferroosh,’ the original Manx form. In the Gaelic a name prefixed by ‘Mac’ (son of ) aspirated its initial consonant, and when this consonant is ‘f’ it doesn’t sound at all – and so we get Mac(f)errosh as the Manx pronunciation, later written Kerruish. By 1417 one of the Galloway Fergus’s descendants, John MacFearghus, had become a member of the House of Keys.

In the Middle Ages, connection between the Isle of Man and Galloway were close and frequent, though not always amicable, probably owing partly to the above mentioned marriage, partly to the fact that the Gaelic then spoken in both countries was practically identical, and partly to sheer proximity, with only 16 miles of water between the Point of Ayre and the Mull. In the late 13th or early 14th century, two Galloway men, Donald Fitzcane and Cuthbert McCane of Dumfries, settled in Mannin, possibly for political reasons, and the estate of one of them, in Ballaugh, is still known as Ballacain. They were followers of Duncan MacDowal who was involved in various feuds and battles with Robert Bruce and had an estate in the south of the Island which still bears his name – Balladoole. He was the cause of Bruce’s expedition to the Island in 1313, which was not as has sometimes been said, an invasion of the Isle of Man in an attempt to seize the Lordship for himself, but a punitive expedition against MacDowal, who had taken refuge in Castle Rushen in the hope of escaping Bruce’s vengeance for the death of his two brothers, whom MacDowal had betrayed to the English king and who had been executed. The two Canes had been closely associated with MacDowal in that business and no doubt felt that the Isle of Man, after Bruce had subdued Castle Rushen and left, was a healthier climate for them than Scotland.

Now to return to the Seven Mollys – probably the best known is the Mylecharane of the ballad, who tradition places firmly in Jurby Curragh. The name is by no means confined to that parish. There was a Mac Gilla Ciaran (son of the servant of St Ciaran), the original form of the name, at Rushen Abbey in the 13th century and a Mac Gilcrayne listed as a tenant of Lonan Abbey Lands in 1511.

Mylechreest of course is still well represented in the Island; the Peel Morrisons are still often spoken of as the Mylevoirreys, and this form of the name is retained by a connection of the family to a house name. There is a tendency amongst Manx students to revive the more musical form Mylevreeshey instead of Bridson and to use Myleyeesey instead of Leece but so far as general usage goes, these two old forms of the names have been quite superseded by their modern descendants.

Mylrea and Mylroi have been luckier. They have lost their middle syllable in the written form but often retain it in living speech, and have survived without further alteration since the start of the 18th century – and like Mylecharane and Mylechreest, they are still borne by living persons.

Mylrea, in its original form, meant son of the Grey Brother’s servant, and may be connected with the Franciscan Grey Friars of Arbory.

Mylroi, however, meaning son of the servant of St Moelrua, seems to have had no recent connections with the Church. The main branch of the family in recent years was domiciled in Laxey and owned land in the parish of Lonan – some of it Abbey Lands which may be a rather tenuous ecclesiastical connection.

And the other two ‘Mollys’? Alas, both Mylevartin and Mylecolum have disappeared completely – unless we can trace them as has been tentatively suggested, in the modern Martin and Qualtrough.


(source: They Lived in Ellan Vannin by Mona Douglas (g1968))

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