The old Manx people had a saying that there were three places where you could make a living – in the curraghs, on the hills and by the sea.
In the first two, they could find many of the necessary materials for living, for building their houses, and because many people had little or no transport, they built them in these out-of-the-way places so that they would be in walking distance of their source of supply. Their greatest need, apart from a roof over their heads, was fuel for cooking and heating: light they could do without, and often had to, but fire they had to have. Though many used sticks gathered from the hedges for their fires, especially gorse ‘bons’, the fuel generally used was turf and there were two kinds that people could get – one that was dug out of the curraghs, often in very wet situations, and the mountain turf which was preferred as it could be cut under drier and pleasanter conditions and was of better quality. The annual turf excursion to the turf ground was one of the great social working occasions and even when turf was no longer burned and the need for it was gone, the labours and pleasures of the day became proverbial so that when anyone was engaged in strenuous work beyond their usual routine, they would say they were having ‘a big turf-mountain day’.
Whole families set out for the turf ground on the first day of May to cut the year’s supply of fuel and each district had its own particular ground. There was always keen competition for a good site and a start had to be made at daybreak or before, to get there in time.
The usual means of travel was in horse-drawn carts and whole convoys of a dozen or more would be seen setting off for the mountain in the early morning and returning at night, though some camped on the mountainside.
The following is a good account of what it was like:
“To be first on the ground meant the choice of the best cuttings and long before dawm the whole country was up and away to be on the spot by sunrise. It was a jollification of hard work and of feasting – a bivouac on the brown mountain waste of hundreds of country carts and many folk, fires blazing, kettles steaming, frying pans hissing, round-bottomed pots bubbling, universal hailings, greetings, laughter, courtings – for women, girls and children are all there by right.
The folk from the distant northern plain camp all night on the mountainside, each family with a cartload of bedding and a sailcloth rigged over their carts. These night campers are all the envy. The song is sung and the tale told with pipes and stone jars of ale around the fires; and the old men are to the fore recounting the doings that went on in past days.”
(source: The Folklore of the Isle of Man by Margaret Killip (1975); photograph, c.1880, is courtesy of the imuseum.im and is of “Turf cutting at Giarrey Moain, Ballavolley, Ballaugh, where the Wildlife Park is now. The men are James Ellison, Robert Christory, Tom Wade, Thomas Goldie, Tom Gill, William Cleator, John Cleator, Jack Shimmin, Jack Curphey, John Corlett, and John Kelly. The cultivated fields in the background belonged to David Brew the butcher of Ballaugh.”)