Seven hundred years ago and three added on to that, and on a midsummer day, Corna Dale lay bathed in the morning sun. The thunder storm of the previous night had left the air fresh and cool and in the rarefied atmosphere every feature was sharply defined, the most distant points appearing to be within easy hail. Away on the eastern horizon as viewed from the land below, the Cumberland hills stood out as though they bounded the other side of a still blue lake, but, through the windings of the dale, no outlet could be seen, nothing but a narrow green basin, seemingly set high up in the mountains far from the noise and struggle of life.
The fair, small valley, with its grassy banks steeply rising, then more gently sloping up to the hills on either side, seemed to open out and to be carried far beyond its three mile stretch to the purple haze which half concealed the Clagh Ard at its head. A gentle breeze was wafted in from the sea lifting the soft mantle of mist which still clung to the summit of Barrule, magnifying his stature and his massive bulk. No sound disturbed the stillness but the bleating of the goats and the almost human wailing of their kids. Small flocks of sheep were scattered over the slopes, and, lower down, were herds of mountain cattle. From high in the heavens the lark, a nearly invisible speck, poured forth his morning psalm of praise. Spirals of thin blue smoke rising here and there, spoke of human dwellings, but so small were they and so intimately harmonious with their surroundings, that their presence would not otherwise be revealed; Sights and sounds all told of peace; only from far up the dale, the hoarse bark of the ravens wheeling round Mull y Kerrey served to remind of the tragedy which had passed.
A mile and more away, below the entrance to the dale the broad shallow valley spread out its summer verdure from Port Lewaigue to the Port Mooar, and, sweeping down from Maughold Head to the Jalloo, thence up the craggy slopes to Ballajora, Ballagilley, and Slieau Lewaigue, with clumps of trees round the dwellings in its hollows, patches of gorse and heath upon its crags, looked up smiling to the sun.
Here a solitary form was to be seen, high-stepping through the wet grass. Bare-headed, clad in a cassock, his right hand gripping a stout ashen staff, under his arm a small bundle, Juan Priest was making his way with quiet ease and deceptive speed to baptize a dying child. His ruddy clean-shaven countenance and long black hair, his supple limbs, lean form and athletic build took quite ten off his forty summers.
It needed no dial to tell him that this was the hour of Tierce, as approaching the desolate burial ground of Ballagilley with its neglected Keeill, he lifted the wooden bar and entered the enclosure, then, stepping to the doorway protected only by a scaa ‘sy dhorlish or bush of gorse, and stooping low he passed into the damp and chilly darkness. The rain had penetrated the broken thatch leaving puddles on the floor. The little rubble altar illumined by the feeble light from the narrow unglazed window in the gable, and a similar one in the south wall, was green with moss. Here, kneeling on the damp stones, he offered up his morning prayer.
Returning to the light of day, Juan continued up the hill for another mile to Thorkell’s cabin on Barrule. A rudely built stone fence buried in nettles, and grass, and creepers, protected about two acres of land which had been laboriously tilled and sown with oats. Within this a sod hedge as broad as it was high surrounded the street in which were one or two small buildings, if so they might be called, formed of sods, their foundations surrounded by large boulders, and thatched with rushes. At the entrance grew the Tramman (elder) tree and by the shallow brook which found its way down the street, a stunted Keirn or mountain-ash with feathery leaves and clusters of berries already formed.
In the byre, now empty, Thorkell kept two milking cows and his aged horse; from another shed the gauinee or yearlings had been driven out and now were being herded by his first-born, little Paul. A mother goose with her brood no longer golden ran hissing at him as he passed, and two lean and long-legged pigs, loose in the street, came grunting to his side, as reaching the door he uttered the accustomed greeting, “God bless all in this house.” And “God’s blessing on your Reverence” replied the Ben Thie (woman of the house), coming forth to meet him.
“How goes it with the child ?”
“Indeed, I’m thinking it will not long be with us.”
“Let me see him,” said Juan, stepping in to the dark building, which to him fresh from his walk seemed stuffy and unsweet.
The floor was of mud with a hearth in the middle, on which smouldered a fire of peat; such light and ventilation as there was came from the doorway, only closed at night, and the wide chimney in the middle of the roof., against the gable were a few shelves of adze-hewn logs containing wooden bowls and platters and rude horn drinking cups, with some crocks below; in the corner and a sheaf of arrows hanging by the shelves, and in other corner some lines and fishing gear. Thorkell’s, wife was on her knees at the “losh,” a smooth flag on the floor near the hearth, kneading the dough for his oaten bread: a quern, or hand mill, in which she had ground the meal stood by its side. In the further corner was the bed, a low bench of stone and rubble covered with rushes over which was thrown a home-spun blanket. This end of the house was divided off by a wooden partition, broken at the north wall by a half-door, over which one could see a young calf and some scraggy fowls, the latter as often as not, on the floor of the living room, which the pigs too freely entered. By the hearth was a litter of dead ferns and loons. In the south wall was a small light-hole stuffed in the winter-time with straw. The “door” consisted of a scraa made of a faggot of willow saplings bound around with twisted stems of ring: through the stronger band in the middle a stout stick was passed end twisted so that each end caught against the side of the doorway and held the scraa securely when closed at night. The woman, bare-footed, wore the ancient costume, a woollen garment reaching to the ankles, and over it a tunic bound round the waist by a cryss, or girdle.
When his eyes had got accustomed to the reek, Juan distinguished a small and much-wrapped bundle on the bed.
“This is your seventh child, he belongs to God.”
Humbly the woman crossed herself, “If the blessed Mother will not take him to herself.”
Lifting the limp form, which scarcely seemed to breathe, the Priest bore it to the door and looked for long at the pallid face with its closed eyes. “It may be,” he said, “that God will take him home while yet his unstained soul is sweet with the dew of heaven; but I tell you woman, what this babe wants is God’s fresh air, and God’s bright sun; with that I do not doubt that he will live, who has been sent to you in the day of our humiliation to do God’s work and to sing His praise. Where now is Thorkell? Come, let us go and I will baptize him.”
“Alas,” said she, “Thorkell is afraid, for the Wise Woman was speering, and ‘a short life’ said she, ‘for your seventh, Thorkell, and water will be the end of him, and a queer ending too’ and that was all she would say.”
“Tut, tut, woman, you must not listen to that old Caillagh-Gueshag (witch/woman who performs spells); the devil puts the words into her mouth, and she knows not the meaning of what she says; but this babe, please God, shall live to bring men into His fold and to drive the devil from our land.”
Then, laying his hand on the sunny locks of her little girl who was standing by, “Bahie shall lead me to him; go you, fetch a little milk and honey and a taste of salt, bring a clean white hap for the child and meet us at the struan (stream).”
So the Priest went out with the child and Thorkell, who had been keeping out of his way, fearing that he would be convinced against his will by the good Saggyrt (priest), who was held in reverence by all, was shortly found and duly persuaded. Little Paul and Bahie came with them, and a neighbour woman who met them on the way.
At the stream, some distance from the house, they found the mother and her babe, with the other four little ones clinging almost naked to her skirts. Here, in the living waters of the running stream did the infant become Christ’s soldier, Thorkell and Juan himself being godfathers.
Taking him from his mother, the Priest stripped off his swaddling clothes, and “Enmys-jee yn Lhiannoo Shoh… ‘,
“Michael” answered the father.
Then, “discreetly, and warily” dipping him thrice in the cold, bright, water “Michael ta mee dy dyt vashtey ayns Ennym yn Ayr asy Vac as y Spyrryd Noo,” and, he signed him with the sign of the cross, and handed him back to his mother. She gently rubbed him with a cloth then wrapped him loosely in the clean linen. Honey and milk were put into his mouth, and a little taste of salt upon his tongue.
“Fear not,” said the Saggyrt, “to let him feel the healing sun and the fresh air of heaven, for these be full of life, and, if God wills that he live, see that on next Feast of the Epiphany ye bring him to us at Olaf’s Kirk there to be received into the congregation.” So they took the infant home and Juan went upon his way.
Presently he passed the Gob ny Scuit, whence a few hours before the shrieks of demons thrilled the night. He looked up at the damp, grey rocks, grown with moss and lichen on which the drops shone in the sun like jewels, and he crossed himself. Soon he got into the track rounding the eastern shoulder of the hill, and crossing Cardle, followed it along the southern slope much in the line of the old mountain-road, now leading to Park Llewellyn. And as he moved along and the sweet green dale opened out to his view, his thoughts grew sad within him for the heavy sorrows which had fallen on the Island and the losses it had suffered at the rough hands of strangers.
A little while ago the Islanders had been looking forward to a season of peace and plenty. They had much to be thankful for; the cruel Interdict which had lain so long on England had in no wise affected them: Norway was a long way off and they had no cause to fear the English King, to whom Reginald had but lately rendered homage, and with whom he had made his peace. Yet, when a rumour spread that King John had sailed with fifty ships to Ireland, watch and ward had been more strictly kept, and, when on an evening ships were seen sailing in from the west there had been some disquiet. For the Island forces were now sadly reduced.
Five years ago, King Reginald had taken the pick of his fighting men, and sailed with his sister’s husband, John de Courcy, when they put in at Strangford Lough, and laid siege to Rath, or Dundrum Castle. They took things easily and gaily, but Walter de Lacy had come upon them unawares and overwhelmed them; the siege was raised and Reginald returned with the loss of more than half his men. Now he had raised another force and sailed to the western Isles. If, then, these were hostile ships it would be impossible to prevent a landing or to save the Island from a plundering raid. The Beacon was lighted in the South, followed by one on Cronk ny Irree Lha, in Rushen; this was answered from the Haugh at Peel, whence it was carried to Cronk Mooar, Jurby: from Jurby to Cronk ny Irree Lha in Bride, and from Bride to Scacafell and Slieau Dhoo overlooking Ramsey Bay; and so to Maughold Head, and from point to point all down the coast, ringing the land in flame, – but these were not the fires of Saint John. The excommunicated King asking his revenge for the ignominy to which he had brought his affairs on the continent, and, seeking to make a show of power and give some lustre to his government by carrying fire sad sword through his own dominions, had made successful expeditions into Scotland and Wales, and now having landed at Waterford was marching on to Dublin, thence to proceed to Carrick Fergus. Anticipating that some of those he sought might take refuge in the Isle of Mann, he had detached certain ships to proceed there and meet him afterwards in the north of Ireland. Several of these made direct to Ronaldsway, which they reached in time to cut off and secure the earthwork fort on S. Michael’s Isle.
The southlanders took refuge in Reginald’s strong castle at Rushen and the Forts at Hango and Balladoole, but most of them fled with their women and sent their children to the great camp on Warfell (South Barrule). Other ships came up the coast. St Patrick’s Isle was guarded by Reginald’s Tower, but they landed in the Bay and passed, burning and plundering, to the south. A small force landed at the Lhen, and made for the Sulby Pass while others from Ramsey Bay marched to Scacafell and so by Snaefell to meet their fellows coming up the glen The defenders at Bow and Arrow Hedge,outnumbered and attacked in front and rear, were put to flight, and the raiders passed upon their way, all gathering eventually at the south, where, having devastated the Island for a fortnight, they re-embarked with their booty, carrying off hostages.
Such fighting men as were left in the Island had gathered in their clans, and having first secured the chief forts, made for the mountains to follow on the enemy’s track, cut off roving bands and stragglers, and harass him so far as they were able.
When the Fiery-Cross (the Crosh Vusta/Mustering Cross) went round, the men of Maughold had manned the Fort at Gob ny Rona, and were able to prevent a landing there; others were sent to Gob y Garvane at the southern end of Port Mooar. But few were left for Corna Dale, and these, meeting at the old field of assembly on Magher Breck, where, in later days, parish was to meet parish in friendly rivalry at the butts in archery contests, marched to the Lieh Eayst, a little earthwork fort at the head of the dale, armed with bows, with axes, and with spears. Finding the raiders were passing on the other side of the Clagh Ard, and making for the south by Keppel Gate, they hung upon their rear and relieved them of some of their booty.
Among them was young Mac Aloe, of Cardle, and he was taken and carried off as a hostage. Mac Kristen, leader of the band attempted to rescue him, but was, crushed by a great stone hurled at him by a leather capped giant, who directly afterwards received an arrow in the face; many more were wounded, but the captors got away without loss of life.
At night they brought Mac Kristen down to the fort where he had lingered for a few days; though he scarcely recovered consciousness, Juan who had known him all his life, with loving regard helped him with his confession that he might not go unshriven to his Maker. He had seen him pass peacefully away and now was on his way to bury him.
Coming to the head of Glion Barrule, he made use of his staff as a leaping-pole and sprang across, flushing a snipe in the narrow glen. His quick eye caught a movement in the grass as the young birds scattered to hide themselves, while their artful mother to protect her little ones hovered over his head, then mounted high and circled round with downward shoots and upward flings, bleating and tinkling on the mountain side till she felt she had driven him away. Half a mile further on he descended the slope opposite the streamlet pouring down with white and sparkling foam between Slieau Ouyre and Slieau Lheam. Here, due west of the modern farm buildings of Corna may still be seen the ruins of the Keeill Wooirey (Mary’s Chapel), set on a grassy ledge of the mountain, which descends in a series of billowy folds and falls another hundred feet to the stream below.
The lonely graveyard, about a quarter of an acre in extent, is protected by a low broad bank which had been raised and strengthened for defensive purposes. Here the sheep had been gathered at the first alarm, and the women and the children were prepared to take refuge in the Keeill, had any of the raiders shown themselves in the dale. Nor did they think so much of their earthern rampart as of the charm they knew that Juan Priest had some where placed within the building. What it was they knew not but Mac Aloe, a learned man, who it was known could read if he could not even write, had told them there were signs-cut by the Priest upon a stone which he could not read, but that a wise friend whom he had brought once to see it, said, they were like those cut on the sides of his father. But Juan had forbidden him to call for vengeance and his mother was glad; instead he came forward himself and offered up a prayer for the dead man’s soul; then, as they raised the bier he lifted up his voice, ringing like a silver bell far down the dale, chanting comfortable psalms: “Domine refugium nostrum es perpetui seculis.”
At the entrance to the Rhuillic, he turned, and in loud clear tones began the solemn service for the dead, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Leading round with the sun to the east end of the Keeill, the Office was continued at the side of the stone-lined grave. This was by a rude but venerable slab on which was carved a cross, marking the place of a saint who six centuries before, had there been laid to rest. The body, wrapped around in fine linen, was gently lowered by the hands of life-long friends, the mourners pressed around to receive a sprinkling of the holy water, each warrior and each old comrade coming in turn to drop into the grave a round white pebble from the beach.
The ceremony over, all the people quietly moved away and walked to the home in Glion y Spreeagh, where Juan shortly followed them to the funeral feast and witnessed MacAloe, as guardian, take the boy and set him in his father’s seat. Later, when men had eaten and drunken and tongues began to be loosened, he had slipped away and resumed to his Keeill.
Once on a sunny day in spring, Juan, who had been mending the thatch of his Keeill, finishing his frugal dinner of oaten bread and water-cress with a morsel of cheese, had rested on the back against the south wall, and fell to musing of the past. He thought of his flock, and who would have been here before them; of the builders of this little cell, and how the first to preach the faith had fared with their forefathers. He thought of the world in heathen darkness and of the “Word made flesh”, and of the wondrous spread of His glorious gospel; of Patrick who brought it to the Irish Celts, with whom the Manx were one people.
And then he thought of the long years when they had been cut off from the church elsewhere, and how strange customs had grown up and superstition had crept in, and the folk seemed drifting from the one true fold; then came Malachy, the great reformer, and, reconciling Celt and Dane, brought them again into communion with the Catholic Church. But Juan must be doing something with his hands, and, as he lay a-thinking he saw by his side a rough piece of slate stone about two feet long, by one in width, unshapen and undressed. He fingered it, then took his knife and, while he thought, began to cut the name of “Christ.” Now Juan was no great scholar, but he had some knowledge of the Norse speech, which still was sometimes heard in the Island, as well as of his native Manx and the more scholastic Irish, and, what was more remarkable, he was one of the very few who knew the curious characters called runes, and he could read the Norse inscriptions in them carved on many an ancient cross throughout the land, when therefore he took his knife he cut the sacred Name in runes, then hid the stone within the Keeill and went upon his way. And often in his daily rounds he pondered on his work and when he came again he took the stone and lay upon the bank and looked upon it. Then with his knife he wrote the name of the saint whose work and life he most admired, and with it that of the Apostle to the Irish Celts, “Malachy and Patrick.” Again he thought that he should add another saintly name. Long before the days of Malachy, Adamnan or Columkill had striven to bring the Celtic Church to conform with that of Rome and his name was not unknown to Manxmen. The clan Church in a neighbouring district was called after him, though now the sound had changed and they spoke of it as Keeill Onon. Thus it came that he added Adamnan’s name, and this had brought his runes to the end of the line. Then he took the stone in and laid it upon the Altar where it had been seen by many, but he told no man what was written on it.
So now when Juan came to the Keeill he once more took the stone, and for a long time lay and carved more words, with many a prayer. So still he lay and so quietly he worked that a little lizard, which had been dozing in the sun, lay still, and blinking once or twice, was satisfied that this being was a friend, as indeed he was, for Juan loved all living things, and all dumb creatures turned to him as to a friend. The morning mists had long since disappeared, and the hill-tops stood out sharply against the sky; light clouds floated in the south and west; the damp had been drawn up out of the ground. The markym-jeelym was at play, the hot air quivering in the sun, but Juan minded not. At last he rose and the lizard slipped away to disappoint a kestrel hovering overhead. He carried the stone into the Keeill and set it on the altar against the wall where it reached an inch or two above the little windowsill. Then he prayed for Mac Kristen’s soul and for his widow and for his only child; he prayed for his friend Mac Aloe and his son carried off to a foreign land; he prayed for the babe he had christened, and for all the members of his flock, and that he might be to them a faithful shepherd. And this is what he wrote in Norse upon the stone, below the names of Christ and of the saints:
“Of all the sheep is Juan Priest in Kurna dal.”
He fastened the scraa in the doorway, and paid a farewell visit to Mac Kristen’s resting place; then, taking up his bundle and his staff, he went down to the stream below. When he came to the spot where the water from Glion Barrule flowed into the stream, a solitary heron rose up from his fishing, and lazily flapping his great grey wings, spread out his long legs and headed further up the dale; he went down into the deep glen, followed the stream to the bend below Ballaglass then, climbing the steep hill, passed by Keeill Cronk y Noe to Ballajora, and down the winding track through the rich meadowland of the Jalloo home to Maughold Head.
The friends and neighbours at the funeral feast had heard and told all they knew of the hero they had lost, and of his father, and his father’s father, and all his kith and kin; they told too of the wickedness of the foreigners and the jeel (damage) that was done: and, how a galley had gone out to carry the news to Reginald, who was dreaded by his foes and held to be the greatest Viking of his day; and how the foreigners were gathering now and shipping their plunder, and getting ready to make sail. Then they left the lad with his mother, who went round to see the cattle folded, the sheep in the pens, and all things gathered in and guarded, for the danger was not over till the last of the raiders had left the land behind.
The sun went down, the evening breeze came softly off the land driving loose clouds before it, and curling and twisting in fantastic shapes the grey mist creeping to the tops of the hills on either side of the narrow dale,- and when the moon-beams silvered the thatch of the little Keeill, and sparkled in the dancing stream, it could not well be said which was land and which was mist and which was the sky above. Corna Dale was severed from the human world and given over to the night and the wind, to the Faeries and the Buggane.