It would seem that the inhabitants of the Isle of Man and the other Western Isles of Scotland had acquired a reputation for magical powers at an early period. For the bard, who accompanied Hakon, king of Norway, in his expedition to these parts in 1203, wrote as follows – Now our deep inquiring sovereign encountered the horrid powers of enchantment and the abominations of an impious race. The troubled flood tore many fair gallies from their moorings, and swept them anchor less before the waves. A magic raised watery tempest blew upon our warriors, ambitious of conquest, and against the floating habitations of the brave.* Two centuries later, we are told by Ranulph Higden that “In the Ilonde of Mann is sortilege and witchcraft used; for women there sell to shipmen wynde as it were closed under three knottes of threde, so that the more wynde he would have the more knottes he must undo.”1  According to Sacheverell, Martholine, who was Governor of the Isle of Man in 1338, wrote a treatise againt the practice of witchcraft then prevalent there.


A profound belief in the power of Magic was one of the charactistics of Goidelic peoples, though indeed it was formerly all but universal. Their paganism was a kind of fetichism which considered the various objects of nature, especially the sun, as malignant beings, who had to be propitiated with offerings to avert their wrath. In connection with this worship, a class of persons arose called Druadh, who stood between the people and their deities, and acquired great power over the former by the influence they were supposed to be able to exert over the latter by their sacrifices and magic arts. St. Patrick, who is supposed to have driven the Druadh from Ireland, prays in a very old hymn attributed to him, to be protected


Against snares of demons
Against black laws of heathens,
Against spells of women, smiths, and Druads.


These Goidelic Druads* probably belonged to the same system as the Gaulish Druids at a very remote period; but, by Julius Caesar’s time, the latter had picked up a little Greek philosophy, and were probably comparatively well educated and superior men; while the Druadh in Britain, and more especially in Ireland and Man, being isolated from Continental influences, had shrunk into mere Magicians and Medicine-men. It was formerly supposed that they sacrficed to Baal on the cromlechs within the stone circles, but more recent research has shown that these mighty stone monuments are the memorials of a pre-historic race, and that the Goidels, who, before the introduction of Christianity, worshipped the heavenly bodies, hills, fire, wells, etc., had no knowledge of the Phoenician Baalor, indeed, of a personal God of any kind. With the introduction of Christianity these Druadh disappeared, but the beliefs they had inculcated survived in other forms, as it was believed that all the powers of evil were concentrated in the devil and his myrmidons, that he could delegate his powers to human beings who sold their souls to him, and who, according to the nature of their functions or their sex, were called Magicians, Enchanters or Enchantresses, Sorcerers or Sorceresses, Wizards or Witches. By their spells, or charms, they could bring all kinds of evil on human beings, but by counter-charms they could also alleviate those evils. The Magicians, Enchanters, and Enchantresses belonged to the higher order of these beings. They had spirits or demons at their command, and were proficient in the occult sciences, but would not condescend to the petty malignity occasionally practised by the Sorcerers and Sorceresses, the Wizards and the Witches. The only Magician who is remembered by name in the Isle of Man is the famous Manannan There is also the Enchantress Teki, and the Sorceress, or rather Prophetess, called Callagh-ny Ghueshag, a sort of Manx Mother Shipton, who appears to have been superior to most of her kind. To the lower and much more common order of these beings belong those who practised witchcraft, which may be defined to be a supernatural power which persons were formerly supposed to obtain by entering into compact with the devil. As soon as the bargain was concluded, the devil was said to deliver to the Wizard or Witch an imp or familar spirit, to be ready at call to do whatever it was directed. By the aid of this imp and the devil together, the Witch – who was almost always an old woman, the Wizard being comparatively uncommon – was enabled to transport herself through the air on a broomstick, and transform herself into various shapes, particularly those of cats and hares; to inflict diseases on whomsoever she chose, and to punish her enemies in various ways. The belief in witchcraft is very ancient, being common in Europe till the sixteenth century, and it maintained its ground till the middle of the seventeenth century; indeed it is not altogether extinct either in the Isle of Man, or elsewhere, at the present day. A special attribute of Sorcerers and Witches was the possession of the “Evil Eye.” This was supposed to be an influence in virtue of which its possessor could injure whomsoever he or she cast a hostile or envious eye upon, and to be the cause of many things going wrong. For instance, if anyone took suddenly ill, if a cow was diseased, or any difficulty occurred in churning, if the hens did not lay well, etc, the operation of the “Evil Eye” was at once suspected. Before curing any of these complaints, it was first necessary to discover the operator. One of the most approved methods of doing this, in the case of a diseased animal, is to burn it; when, as Train remarks, “The first person that passes that way after the fire is kindled, is recognised as the witch or wizard.” Fire, indeed, was considered generally efficacious against Witches and their wiles, and was used at special seasons, as we shall see later, when they were supposed to be more powerful than usual. When the possessor of the “Evil Eye” was discovered, the next step was to cure the disease, and this was frequently effected by picking up the dust from beneath the feet or from the threshold of the suspected Witch, and rubbing it on her victim.


But there were cases in which the popular and well-known methods failed, when recourse was had to the practitioners called” Charmers,” or “Witch-doctors.” These Charmers – Fer-obbee, “Men-charmers,” and Ben-obbee, “Women-charmers,” as they might be either men or women – used certain formulas and practised various ceremonies for the purpose of curing diseases, or, occasionally, of causing them; and they also made use of their powers to counteract the spells of Fairies as well as those of the malevolent Sorcerers or Witches. For diseases, in addition to using charms, they administered medicinal herbs and applied fasting spittle, in the virtues of which there was a very general belief; but to accomplish the more recondite branch of their profession they used charms and incantations* only. They were all more or less tainted with the suspicion of dabbling a little in sorcery and witchcraft on their own account, but, as their powers were on the whole used for good purposes, they were tolerated.


One of the best known of these Witch-doctors was Teare, of Ballawhane, who was described by Train as follows:– The Seer is a little man, far advanced into the vale of life; in appearance he was healthy and active; he wore a low-crown slouched hat, evidently too large for his head, with a broad brim; his coat, of an old-fashioned make, with his vest and breeches, were all of loughtyn wool, which had never undergone any process of dyeing; his shoes, also, were of a colour not to be distinguished from his stockings, which were likewise of loughtyn wool.  He was said to have been the most powerful of all these practitioners, and when their prescriptions had failed in producing the desired effect, he was applied to. The messenger that was despatched to him on such occasions was neither to eat nor to drink by the way, nor even to tell any person his mission. The recovery was supposed to be perceptible from the time the case was stated to him.


These powers were supposed to be hereditary, and were handed down in the same family for generations. There, is for instance, a daughter of Teare’s still practising the same art, and she is resorted to by the fishermen for the sake of having their nets charmed, and so cause them to be lucky in their fishing.+ To preserve these powers intact from generation to generation, it was supposed to be necessary to hand them down from a man to a woman, but in the next generation from a woman to a man, and so on. Having thus referred to the methods of detecting Witches and of protecting and curing those that were attacked by them, we will now proceed to show how they were punished. The Law with regard to witchcraft and kindred practices was very severe in every part of Europe, and, it is said, that in England alone, no less than 30,000 Wizards and Witches have suffered at the stake. Blackstone writes with regard to the law on this subject in England as follows:


Our law once included in the list of crime, that of actual witchcraft or intercourse with evil spirits; and though it has now no longer a place among them, its exclusion is not to be understood as implying a denial of the possibility of such an offence. To deny this, would be to contradict the revealed word of God in various passages both of the Old and New Testament; and the thing itself is a truth to which every nation hath in its turn borne testimony; either by examples seemingly well attested, or by prohibitory laws, which at least suppose the possibility of a commerce with evil spirits * * *


By the Statute 33, Henry VIII., all witchcraft and sorcery were declared to be ‘felony without benefit of clergy,’ and by 1. Jac. I, ‘all persons invoking any evil spirits, or consulting, covenanting with, entertaining, employing, feeding or rewarding any evil spirit;… for killing, or hurting any person by such infernal arts; should be guilty of felony and suffer death; and if any person should attempt, by sorcery, to discover hidden treasure, or to restore stolen goods, or to provoke unlawful love, or to hurt any man or beast, he, or she, should suffer imprisonment and pillory for the first offence, and death for the second.’ These acts long continued in force, to the terror of all antient females in the kingdom; and many poor wretches were sacrificed thereby to the prejudice of their neighbours and their own illusions; not a few having confessed the fact at the gallows.’ In the Isle of Man, too, legislation on this subject was not neglected, for we find, by the 50th Spiritual Law, that “all such as are suspected for sorcerie and witchcraft are to be presented to the Chapter Quest, then the Ordinary in such cases finding any suspicion is to impannel a jury of honest men within the same parish and the party suspected in the meantime to be committed to the Bishop’s Prison, and all the offences and crimes the jury doth find the Ordinary shall write, and if the jury can prove any notorious fault or crime done by the same person, then the Ordinary to deliver him out of the Bishop’s Prison to the Lord’s Jail and Court.” It is supposed that in old times the usual result of the legal procedure against Witches was that they were subjected to two so-called forms of ordeal, but which were really means of putting them to death, as, if they survived the first, the second would almost certainly prove fatal, for they were said to have been thrown into the middle of the Curragh Glass, or “green bog” pool, in the valley below Greeba mountain. If they sank, their bodies were taken out of the water, carried home, waked, and received a Christian burial; but if to save themselves from drowning, they managed to paddle to either side, they were instantly declared guilty of the crime of which they were charged, and were consequently either burned alive as unconvicted witches. or rolled from the top of Slieau Whallian in spiked barrels.  Thus literally was followed the Scripture maxim, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”


The following extracts from the Manx Episcopal and Civil Records show, however, that our forefathers dealt with these poor creatures in the seventeenth century, and later, in a milder fashion than they did, according to tradition, at an earlier date:


1638 – Whereas Jony Tear hath been presented by the Chapter Quest upon information given them that she was seen together with an Irish woman in a gill pulling strange herbs, and whereas the said Jony Tear hath cleared herself, her slanderers had to ask her forgiveness before the congregation.


The following entry, taken from the Liber Scaccar, or Exchequer Book, appears in the Malew Register in 1659. It affords an instance of the enforcement of Church discipline by the temporal ruler who took the Bishop’s place during the time of the Commonwealth:


Bishop’s Court, 30th September, 1659 – Whereas Mrs Jane Cesar hath been accused upon suspicion of witchcraft, charminge or sorscerie, where upon certaine examinacons have been taken. And the said case being putt to the triall of a jurie, they the said jurors (after examinacon of the business) have this day cleared and acquitted ye said Jane Cesar of the accusacon aforesaid as by theire Answere may appeare. Nevertheles that the said Jane Cesar may declare her inocencie of such practizes and that shee doth renounce the same as diabolicall and wicked; she is hereby ordered to acknowledge the same before the Congregacon off (sic.) Kk. Malew Parish on the next Lord’s day to the end that others may be admonished to relinquish detest and abhor such delusions which are of great inducement to greater temptacons and are too frequently practised in this Island as is dayly observed. Of which if any one shalt be hereafter accused and the same lawfully proved such persons are to be severely fined and punished, or otherwise proceeded against accordinge as the law doth provide in such cases. (Signed) Jam. Chaloner.


To Sr. Tho. Parr minister of Kk Malew who is to read ye before his Congregacon the next Sabbath in English and Manxe and to return this Order with the acknowledgment made as aforesaid into the Comptrouleres office afterwards. True Coppie agreeinge with ye originall.

October the 2th, 1659 (Signed) J. Woods.


It is certainly remarkable that this unfortunate woman, after being acquitted by the jury of the offence alleged against her, should be ordered “to acknowledge the same before the congregation,” and at the same time “to declare her innocence.”


The following, in 1690, is from the Archideaconal Register:


We, whose names are hereunder written, being sworn in a jury of inquiry to take evidence in some difference between Gilbert Moore and John Steon about witchcraft, picking of herbs, and strikening them unknown, do give in our verdict as followeth: – Ann Callister, alias Karran, and Grace Cowley, being sworn and examined say that John Steon said unto Ann Callister thou b and w that little fat that thou has gotten upon thee I will take it oft thee in a short time, and since that time she has lost very many of her goods, and furtb: saith not, Ann Callister further saith that John Steon’s wife said unto her that she knew an herb, that if a man drank of the drink of it be would forget himself, but if one drank of it twice he would forget himself for ever–and further saith not. John Corlet and William Tear swore that Daniel Quayle told them that John Steon gave him an herb to put to his eyes and he never saw afterward, and further saith not. Gilbert Callister and Ann Callister declared that the said Daniel Quayle’S wife told them the same words, and further saith not. Dollin Gawn sworn, examined, saith that himself and John Steon chid (sic) and the said John Steon promised to give him loss, and shortly after he received it, & furth: saith not, Dollin Gawn’s wife sworn, examined, saith that the same John Steon told her that he knew that none of her children should inherit that little place they had, and since that time one of her child dyed and another is now a cripple at her fire side, and furth: saith not. Adam Callister sworn, examined, saith that he came with John Corlett and John Steon from church and John Corlett told Steon he would present him to the great inquest, and the said Steon answered that he could not tell whether he would be able to do so, but that he might be sick and have need to be washed in tobacco water and swines broth, and further saith not. Ann Cowle sworn, examined, saith that John Steon said unto her he would deceive her and blind her, and strike her unknown. Adam Callister sworn, examined, saith that the said Steon told him thst he would strike him unawares, and John Corlett declared that that was the common report he had heard of John Steon that he would strike people unknown and furth: saith not. Gilbert Moore sworn, examined, saith that the said Steon came to his house and said to his wife and children that he would strike them unawares so that they should not know of it, and since that time he lost abundance (sic) of his goods, and furth: saith not. Gilbert Moore likewise and Pat. Cowley sworn, examined, say John Steon came to the plough to Gilbert Moore for the lone (sic) of a Manks spade, and the said Moore denyed him, whereupon Steon told bins he would do him a mischief and that shortly and within a while after one of his oxen were struck lame so the said Moore sent to Steon to come to see the Ox, and Steon coming spit upon the Ox and handled him and he recovered, and further saith not. Mrs. Nelson sworn, examined, saith that John Steon told her that he knew she would be willing to deliver up her land unto Grinsey and Richard Cannell, and the said Mrs. Nelson asked him how did he know, whereupon the said Steon replyed that he knew she would be willing to give them payment for taking it from her and they would not accept of it, and further saith not. Pat. Cannell sworn and examined saith that he came upon John Steons daughter picking of herbs in the Court land where corn was sowen on our Lady day in Lent a little after break of day. Ellior Cannell sworn, examined, saith as abovesd, Jaine Quayle examined saith that she saw an herb with John Steon’s daughter, and asked what that was for and she said to preserve her from the flux and seeing something else with her she said it was to preserve her from the feaver.–Having taken the above depositions we find said Steon to be guilty, and leave him to the discretion of the Court for fine and punishment. Jo. Quayle his mrk. x, Gilbt. Callistr his mrk. x, Pat, Caine his mrk. x, and Wm. Quayle his mrk. x.


At Kirk Michael, July 31, 1712, one Alice Knakill, alias Moor, of Kirk Lonan, confessed to a charge of having taken up some earth from under a neighbour’s door, and burnt it to ashes, which she gave to her cattle, “with an intention, as she owns, to make them give more milk. Also another woman declares that the said Alice Knakill cut a piece out of her petticoat and burnt it to powder, which she drank with a design, as she confessed, to recover her health, and procure sleep. Both which charms she owns to have been taught her by an Irishwoman.” She was sentenced to three Sundays’ penance in the neighbouring churches. In the following year, Alice Cowley, of Ballaugh, a regular dealer in charms, and known as such far and wide in the Island, was brought before the Consistory Court. It was then deposed that this old crone, “addressed herself to a youth, and told him, if he would give her a ninepenny piece, she would give him something that would make a young woman fall in love with him, which proves to be a powder in a paper, which he believes to be the powder of some of the bright stones that are at Foxdale.” Her dealings with married women, under the pretence of removing barreness; with farmers for procuring a crop of corn, or making the herd fruitful; with young women for procuring lovers; and with parents for the recovery of a sick child were also deposed to; the mischief in each case being implied to be the witch’s doing, and thought to be remedied by drawing blood fiom her. All these charges were proved, and Alice was sentenced, by the Bishop and Vicars.  General, to ‘thirty days’ imprisonment, and before releasement to give sufficient security to stand two hours in a white sheet, a white wand in her right hand, and these words, ‘for charming and sorcery,’ in capital letters on her breast, in the four market towns of this Island, at the public cross, in the height of the market; and afterwards to do penance in Ballaugh Church.”


In 1716, a woman from Jurby complained to Vicar-General Walker that she and her husband had been “suspected to have been out early in the morning last May-day, walking on the dew in their neighbours’ fields, with a design to prejudice them in the increase of their crop,” and that though this calumny had been disproved by evidence, it was still repeated. It was, therefore, ordered by the Court, in order “to discourage such vile and unchristian thoughts of one neighbour receiving damage from another, by any trivial, foolish customs of that kind, which betray great weakness of faith and trust in God,” that a fine of £3, and imprisonment for forty days, besides further punishment at the Ordinary’s discretion, should be im posed on anyone reviving the story.


Bishop Wilson evidently viewed the practice of charming with abhorrence, as we find him writing about it, in 1741, as follows:


There is a cursed practice carried on secretly by Satan and his instruments, which I beseech you, my brethren, take this proper occasion* to speak upon: both to terrify those that practice it, and to confirm people’s faith in God, against any hurt the devil or his agents can do them. Many complaints have been brought into our courts against people using foolish and wicked charms and arts, either to injure their neighbour in his goods, or to transfer them to themselves, to the great dishonour of God, who alone can increase the fruits of the earth to our comfort, or withhold them for our sins; and, indeed, it is for want of a true faith in God’s power and goodness that makes men afraid of what such wretched instruments of Satan can do .. .


There are many other similar presentments to be found in the Records during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but we will content ourselves with mentioning two cases which have come into the Courts in the present century. In the Manx Sun newspaper of the 5th of January, 1838, it is reported that “a case of sorcery was recently brought into and solemnly heard in one of the Courts of Law.” About the same time the then Deemster McHutchin was applied to for a warrant against a Witch on the charge of depriving cows of their milk, and causing them to sicken. He, however, wisely asked a veterinary surgeon to supply a remedy, and thus put a stop to the prosecution.


The following account was published in the Mona’s Herald newspaper of the 10th of January, 1844, concerning the proceedings against a suspected Witch:


A farmer in the parish of Marown, having lost in succession, a heifer, a cow, and a horse, attributed the death of these animals to the influence of witch craft. Consequently he obtained a trespass warrant from one of the Deemsters, under authority of which a jury was sworn, and a number of persons summoned as witnesses and examined. Such questions as the following were put: ‘Did you ever witch Quine’s cattle?’ ‘Do you bear malice against Quine?’ ‘Did you hear anybody talking about Quine before his cattle died, and seeming to grudge him what he possessed?’ Among those who were sworn was Quine’s sister-in-law, and on being asked if she ever came in any sha,g5e or jorm to do Quine or his goods an injury, she confessed ‘that she had once passed through Quine’s fields without leave.’ The poor woman was frightened into paying the costs in consequence of this. While the case was going on someone let loose a wild rabbit in the room. On the appearance of this unexpected visitor all became terrified, crying, ‘The Witch, the Witch!’ This continued for several minutes, till one of the party, more courageous than the rest, seized the supposed Witch, and, while depriving the harm less creatuie of existence, triumphantly exclaimed, ‘You shall not trouble poor Quine again.”‘


* Poem of Snorro Sturison (Johostone’s Translation.)

+Polychronicon, A. D. 5487. Rolls Series.

* The genitive of this word, droafa, has been deciphered by Professor Rhys in the Ogam character on a stone at Ballaqueeney, near Port St. Mary.

* Specimens of these are given at the end of this chapter.

+ Even now it is no uncommon thing for any one who has a cut, or a burn, to seek the nearest Charmer and have a charm put on it.’

*During the perambulations of the parishes on Ascension Day.


(source: The Folklore of the Isle of Man by AW Moore (1891)



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