Home History Port Erin 1860s

Port Erin 1860s

by Bernadette Weyde
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Below is the final chapter from Lancashire Sketches (third edition) published by Edwin Waugh in 1869.  It is quite lengthy but a delightful read.  I do not know how accurate it is and perhaps there is some fanciful artistic licence here and there.  If so, it has contributed to its charm.

The shores of the Isle of Man are remarkable for their variety of indentation, especially at the southern end of the island. There its most interesting scenery may be found; bold, rugged headlands, beautiful bays and savage ravines, where the wild ocean churns and thunders in majestic fury. But from the ruin-crested rock of Peel so rich in venerable memorials of the past all round the shores of “the fairy isle,” there is not a more charming spot than Port Erin, a little crag-defended bay at the southern end of the island, about five miles west of Castletown. The outer shores of this part of the island are wildly fantastic; the mountains cluster grandest there and the inland scenery is fertile and picturesque.

Bold and rugged as the entrance to Port Erin is from the sea, all is quiet, and sweet, and sheltered at the head of the bay. The contrast is striking, and pleasing to the mind. The little fishing hamlet looks out contemplatively between those wild, flanking rocks at the entrance, across the blue waters, to where the mountains of Morne and Wicklow, in Ireland, show their faint outlines in the west. The bay, from the point where the headlands Bradda on the north side, and The Cassels on the south side of the entrance front each other, like sentinels placed to guard the little nest beyond from all ravage of the sea, is about half a mile across, and about a mile inland. From that point up to the hamlet at the head of the water, Port Erin is a pleasant seclusion, sweetly retired, even on the landward side, from bustle of any kind, except such as the sea makes when a strong west wind brings Neptune’s white-maned horses into the little bay in full career. Then, indeed, Port Erin wears an aspect of a nobler and more spirit-stirring kind. But, even then, when the spray is flying over the thatched roofs of the fishermen’s cottages, low down, near to the beach, the briny tumult is mere child’s play in a nursery nook, compared to the roaring majesty with which the billows of the Atlantic wilderness rage among the creeks and chasms and craggy headlands outside. At such a time, the thunders of the sea in the Sound, which divides the Calf Island from the main land, and amongst the storm-worn headlands that overfrown the ocean immediately beyond the entrance to Port Erin, come upon the ear of the listener, in his pleasant shelter at the head of the bay, like the boom of distant war. But when the wind is still, the clear tide fondles up the beach at the foot of the village, as if it was glad to see that quiet nook of Mona’s Isle once more. Lipping the delicately-mottled strand with liquid grace, it creeps lovingly up towards Port Erin’s green shore. Full of beautiful sounds, and hues, and motions, it comes, with tender caresses, croodling its dreamy sea-song, and, as it rises in gentle sweeps nearer and nearer to the cottages where fishermen dwell, at the foot of the villaged slope, it flings fresh shells upon the sand with every surge, like a fond traveller returning home laden with memorials of his journey, which show that he has been thinking of those he loved, when far away.

But let us sit down upon some pleasant “coigne of vantage” at the head of the bay, and look at the quaint little village there. The hotel, called the “Falcon’s Nest,” looks right out to sea from the head of the bay. It crowns a green slope of grass-bound sand, which rises from behind an irregular line of old thatched cottages upon the beach, not far from the head of the tide. There is a green terrace in front of the hotel at the head of the slope, where I have many a time sat and looked about me with delight upon a summer’s day. At one end of the terrace there is a sun-dial; at the other a rusty old cannon, a relic of the Spanish Armada. It was found in the water below Spanish Head, hard by Port Erin, where part of that famous armament “came to grief.” Great piles of fantastic sea-worn rock, partly overgrown with greenery, stand, here and there, upon the terrace and ornamental seats are placed there for the use of visitors when the weather is fine. The chimney tops and thatched roofs of fishermen’s cottages, greened over with wind-sown verdure, peep up from the foot of the slope, which is crowned by the terrace. It is very pleasant to saunter about there on a fine summer’s day or on any other day, to one who loves nature in all her moods. It is, perhaps, better still to sit down, and look lovingly upon the scene. The witchery of peace is on all around, when the wind is still; the smoke from cottage chimneys rises idly into the pure air idle as Ludlam’s dog that leaned against a wall to bark. It rises, here and there, in lazy blue rings lounging curls of fat blue smoke, that seem over-fed, and “done up” with pleasant lassitude, as if they had just finished a good dinner and would rather have a nap before going out.

The cottages of the village are picturesquely strewn about, as if they had been dropped through holes in a sack, by somebody who happened to be flying over the place. But they chiefly cluster on the south side at the head of the bay, about the bottom of the hill; not far from high water. They then straggle up the southern hill-side like school children out for a holiday – one on this shelf of green land; another in a nook of the hill; another on the nose of a breezy bit of crag; others, in and out, dotting the sides of the mountain road, which leads through the hamlet of Creag-y-N’eash, in the direction of Spanish Head, and The Chasms, the most remarkable bit of coast scenery in all the island.

About the middle of the scattered village, a whitewashed chapel stands, in a little patch of ground, enclosed by low walls. It stands there, sweet and simple, by the side of the mountain road, about one hundred feet above the head of the tide and it is a pleasing feature in the scene.

The village is all under the eye from the place where I am sitting, and the quiet play of outdoor life going on there is novel and dreamy-looking. The whole scene is picturesquely-varied. The wild mountain tops, clustered in the direction of Fleshwick, as if in solemn council; the dark, craggy headlands at the mouth of the bay, with the blue sea heaving between; the smooth beach, where the clear tide is singing and surging up; the quiet, wandering village; and the green plain, rolling away between the hills, in picturesque undulations, landward. Port Erin is enchanted ground.  There are secluded nooks about it, that seem as if:

Some congregation of the elves,
To sport by summer moons, had shaped them for themselves

The village is all under the eye. Down in the lowmost part, where the cottages are nearest to the water, a blue-clad fisherman leans against his door cheek, smoking and gazing dreamily out to sea. I wonder what the old man is thinking of? In front of another cottage, a stout matron, with browned face and brawny arms, is hanging up strips of conger eel, to dry in the sun; whilst a little barefooted lass, about five years old, staggers about the doorway, under the weight of a fat baby. A little below the sun-dial, which stands at the end of the green terrace, upon which I am sitting, a knot of Manx fishermen are lounging upon the grass, around a pitcher of the thin Manx ale, called “jough.” Now they are very merry and they laugh and chatter in full chorus, with great glee. Now their mirth subsides and they draw around an ancient mariner who is telling a tale of an adventure he had with the fairies, as he came over the mountain from Fleshwick Bay one night. It is wonderful how firmly these islanders believe in fairies. Scratch deep enough into any Manxman, and you will find fairies, dancing by moonlight, amongst a world of other weird imaginations. But we will let the old seaman go on with his story.

The village is all under the eye; and it is such a homely spot, that if one stays a few days there, and is at all disposed to be communicative, one begins to know everybody “by headmark,” as the saying is “Billy this,” and “Johnny that,” and “Neddy Omragh;” and the old wanderer from the neighbourhood of Pool Vash, who invariably recites a little epitaph he wrote upon some notable person in that quarter a few years ago; and who invariably expects something for reciting it. One begins to know the village folk “by headmark,” as I have said before, and they stop and salute you kindly, and chat about the weather, the fishing, the crops and such like; and there is something very homely and pleasant in feeling one’s self thus linked in a kindly way to the rest of the human race wherever they go. …

The village is all under the eye; and Port Erin is enchanted ground. The voices of nature are not drowned there in a roar of human tumult. It is true that the unceasing murmur of the tide fills all the air with its wild under-song; but its influence is so fine and unobtrusive, that every sound of life in the little village comes upon the untroubled sense distinctly framed in the quietude which pervades that dreamy nook of Mona’s Isle, when the wind is low. . . .

Let us look around, and be silent; that one may hear what is going on. Behind me is the cheerful hotel, the Falcon’s Nest. The landlord stands upon the door-step, giving directions about the stabling of certain horses which have come up from Castletown. The horses are taken round to the stables and the landlord goes back into his nest. Snatches of the old man’s fairy tales come upon the wind when it blows towards me. I hear broken bits of his story while his mates stand listening around him in silent wonder:

“I wass not thinking about nawthin’, when I think I hear somethin’, an’ I look, an’ there was a little fellow close to my leg. He was dressed in green an’ red, with silver buckles on his shooce. He wass about the sice of eight yearce. I make a grab to get howlt of him, so; an’ then, I get a hand-full of wind. I cannot see nawthin’. He is gone. . . .”

 

“I wass wan day makin’ a hedge. It was up in Brada. There wass nobody but myself. It was wonderful!  Up in the air, I hear them, shouting an’ laughing. I know in a minute it is the fairies.  I hear them before, in the same place. They wass hunting. I hear the cap’en (captain) o’ the fairies. He give a shout, an’ all was silence. Then the noice begin again, like people in a fair. I hear them so well as I do see my hant. They wass hunting. They have horses, an’ dawgs. I hear them very well. The whips wass cracking, an’ horns wass blowing, an’ I hear the little dawgs going wif! wif ! wif!   It wass wonderful! 

 

Then the cap’en give a shout a-gain, an’ all wass silence. Then there wass music. It wass so fine that I cannot hear it.  But, I feel there wass music playing up in the air. … I know it is the fairies; and I say, ‘I think it is time to be going home.’ So, I come a-way. . . .”

 

“Another time, when I wass coming down from Craig-y-N’eash, it come on dark, all at once, so dark as pitch. I look at my side. There wass a little fellow.  He wass just here (laying his hand upon his hip). He wass about so big as my leg. I know it was a fairy. It was not a body at all. He come to stale my boots.”

And so on. But we let the old man finish his tale. . . .

I can now hear the footfall of a lonely traveller, as he stumps along the road behind me, stick in hand. He is a stout, old, weather-beaten Manxman, with grey hair; and he is dressed in coarse blue woollen cloth. I can hear every footfall as he works his way along the silent road towards the mountain side, in the direction of Fleshwick Bay; and, now that I turn round to look at him again, I see that the old man is wiping his forehead, as he stumps along, stick in hand. I can hear women talking at their doors below the slope, and upon the cottage-sprinkled hill-side, in the direction of Creag-y-N’eash. I can hear the prattle of little bare-legged lads, who are sailing their tiny, chip-built ships, and clamorously discussing their relative qualities, as they watch how they fare among the eddies and rapids of the stream which runs down the green crease about the middle of the village. I can hear the cackle of a large family of very clean and very fat ducks, as they waddle and paddle, and splash the water about, and open their wings, and wag their dumpy tails with delight, upon the slushy margin of a pool, where the same streamlet has been dammed up, for their especial pleasure. I can hear the opening and shutting of cottage doors, in different parts of the village; and I can hear something of the wild fringe of an old Manx song, which a fisherman is crooning, as he saunters along the strand towards his boat which lies, high and dry, in a sheltered nook, under the craggy cliff, at the south side of the bay. I can hear the call of the Manx shepherd to his dog, upon the dark mountain side, towards Brada Head. Each sound is distinctly-framed in the pervading quietness of the scene. At an open bow-window of the hotel behind me, two elderly gentlemen sit talking together, and evidently enjoying what little breeze there is from the sea. I have got it into my head, somehow, that they are men of learning. One of them is a stout, hearty-looking gentleman, who wears a black velvet skullcap; and likes to dine in his own room, “because he has a good deal of writing to do.” I wonder what he is writing about. He is talking in a sonorous tone of voice, to a dignified old friend of his, whose manners at table, I have noticed, always evince the self-possession, the graceful, quiet action, and kindliness which mark a cultivated gentleman. He is tall and thin and his noble aquiline nose sustains a pair of gold spectacles. Perhaps the black velvet skullcap and the gold spectacles have something to do with my notion that they are learned men; but I believe I am right, nevertheless.  They are talking about the history of the island, and about the geology of this part of it; especially about the mines at Bradda Head. I begin to think they have some interest in those Brada mines; for they are talking of the projected breakwater, and the possible future of Port Erin. I can hear them plain enough. Not that I like “eaves-dropping;” but there they sit, at the open window, and they see me; and they evidently don’t care a rap who hears them. …

At another window, a little farther off, two sunny-haired young ladies come and go, like wandering posies, “freshening and refreshing all the scene” with their sweet presence. They belong to some well-to-do family of cultivated people, who have come to Port Erin to bathe themselves in quietness, and in the fresh sea-breeze. I am sure it is so, for a noble-looking man, considerably past the noon of life, shows himself at the window, now and then, with two more of these pretty trailers clinging to him. He is dressed in black, and he wears a gold-framed double eye-glass and his fine countenance is lighted up with a quiet smile, as he paces to and fro, listening to the prattle of the two lovely young women who have hold of him body and soul. It is very evident that their prattle is music in his ears. . . .

Now the mother comes!  I am quite sure that placid, handsome, matronly woman, in the black silk dress, is the mother. She is a well-grown, sweet-looking, sound-constitutioned dame; round as an apple, and clear-skinned, and quietly-rosy; and kind-hearted, as anybody may see, at the first glance, with half an eye. I durst bet a thousand pounds she is a lady, in heart and thought.  She has seen enough of the world to enrich her experience; and without hardening her heart. She is a good, womanly soul; the kindliness of her nature breathes through every pore; and speaks with angelic eloquence in every line and dimple of her face. A few silver threads may be shining in her yet abundant auburn hair, but they only serve to give a new tinge of dignity to her appearance. She knows something of sorrow, too, no. doubt; for who can have lived so long in this world of ours as she has lived, without being touched by the divine wand of that noble refiner of the noble heart? But the clouds have long since gone; and her smiles, now, are not smiles

That might as well be tears.

She is, indeed, “one vast substantial smile,” from head to foot, a sunbeam of feminine goodness, raising the atmosphere of happiness around her, wherever she goes. Upon the whole, her lines have evidently “fallen in pleasant places,” and, “So mote it be, “say I, “to the end of a long life yet to come.” Now she sits down by the open window; and a handsome, light complexioned lad, about twelve years old, is teasing her in an affectionate way about something or another; whilst a beautiful, sunny-haired girl, of sixteen or so, leans over the other shoulder, and whispers, as she smooths the old lady’s hair with tender touches, “Mamma, dear, this!” and “Mamma, dear, that!”  And, oh, if there be an elysium on earth, that good old soul is in it now ! It is a beautiful glimpse of the smooth current of human life.

Now I hear the clatter of horses’ feet upon the road behind me, and a car comes up to the door of the hotel, laden with a company of young men, who are evidently ” in great spirits.”  They have, very likely, come across the island from Douglas, making a call or two on the way. If one may measure their enjoyment by the noise they make, they certainly ought to be very happy. They alight and enter the hotel, whilst the car is taken round to the stable yard and, in a few minutes, I hear a good deal more bell-ringing in the Falcon’s Nest.

But who is this strange, gaunt fellow, that comes paddling barefoot up the slope, from the low part of the village, muttering to himself as he gazes vaguely around. It is poor Johnny Daly, the affectionate, lunatic youth, who wanders over hill and dale, in all weathers, harmless and happy in his unconscious helplessness. He is a tall, strong, young man but quite a child in affectionate simplicity. Poor Johnny! He is only “mad nor-nor-west,” after all. If he knows you, he either likes you well or he doesn’t like you at all. If he takes to you, he comes quietly up and flutters about you like a pet dove with a broken wing; croodling all sorts of inarticulate kindnesses in a touching and not very demonstrative way; except that, now and then, as he listens to your talk no matter what you are talking of, nor how badly he suddenly clasps his hands and laughs boisterously; as if he had just discovered a great joke in the matter. If he likes you, he will sit down upon the grass beside you, quietly crooning some wild fragment of old Manx song, and looking shyly up into your face from time to time; unless he chances to spy the landlord of the hotel, or the owner of the one mansion at Port Erin. If he sees either of these anywhere about, it is a thousand to one that he will immediately leave you to your own devices and desires, for the poor fellow knows who is kind to him a great deal better than some of us do who think that we have all our wits about us. Poor Johnny!  He is fond of a penny, like most of the world; and he needs it more than some people do; although He “who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb” has scattered a few kind hearts about the wanderer’s way that will not see him want for any needful thing. But I have seen people that Johnny would not accept a penny from and I have many a time wondered at the curious principle of selection which seemed to lurk in some corner of his disordered mind. I remember a little excursion we made, one fine summer’s day, over the mountain on the south side of Port Erin and among the wild cliffs near the Sound, which divides the Isle of Man from The Calf. It was a company of six and amongst them was the landlord of the hotel a kind-hearted and intelligent Englishman. Johnny followed him, barefoot, all the rugged way, with the affectionate instinct of a faithful dog.  As we returned homeward, by wandering, and sometimes dangerous tracks, along the edge of the precipices, on the south side of the bay where the sea roared and dashed majestically among lonely creeks two or three hundred feet below, and the cormorant and seagull wheeled about the dark crags, and screamed with delight in the breeze, half-way down between us and the water our host disappeared from the company for a little while, in search of something among the rocks, whilst Johnny was picking his way carefully up the prickly path ahead. Turning round, Johnny missed his friend and after he had looked for him again and again through the company, and all over the scene, he sat himself down amongst the heather, and gazing quietly at the blue sea, he murmured, in a plaintive tone, “Now, he is gone! He is gone!” . . .

In a minute or two, he kneeled down among the heather, and, clasping his hands, like a child at its mother’s knee, he muttered a few broken sentences of the Lord’s prayer, and then he sat down and gazed silently at the sea again. And we could not get him to rise until his friend reappeared from behind a rock; when he instantly rose and clapped his great brown hands and trotted after us, with painful steps, through the prickly bush, stopping, now and then, to laugh aloud. . . Poor Johnny!  As he comes paddling up the road from the village, he hears the voice of the landlord who is talking to the ostler at the house end and away he goes, in full trot towards his friend, with whom he is a great favourite.

And now, mild evening begins to draw her delicate curtains over the drowsy world. All things below the sky are softening into shade and the pensive spell deepens the charm that pervades this sleepy seaside nook of “Mona the lone, where the silver mist gathers.” The quiet life of the village is sinking to repose. Barefooted lasses are fetching water from the ancient well of Saint Catherine, a beautiful spring, at the foot of the sandy slope at the head of the bay; and an object of great veneration to the inhabitants of the island.

Lovers are stealing off to quiet nooks outside the village where they can whisper unseen.  Boats are coming in from the Sound and from the blue sea beyond. The fishermen haul them ashore in a sheltered shingly nook under the craggy southern cliffs and then they saunter homeward along the smooth beach, laden with fish and fishing tackle; some of them singing drowsily as they saunter along. 

The murmurs of the sea become more distinct, filling all the air with a slumbrous influence. . . . Now the fisher’s wife beats up her cottage fire, sweeps the hearth and puts the kettle on to cheer her sea-beaten mate on his return from the wild waters; and, here and there, fresh smoke is rising again from cottage chimneys; bluer and more briskly than in the glowing afternoon. . . .

The old fisherman and his village companions are mustering upon the grass at the end of the terrace again.  He has long since finished the story about his adventure with the fairies among the mountains and he has been carousing with his comrades in the taproom of the Falcon’s Nest. They have brought another pitcher of “jough” out with them. And, listen! They are beginning to sing, in chorus, the plaintive old Manx song, called “Molly Charrane!” The strange melody floats up, weird and sweet, blending beautifully with the murmurs of the rising tide, and waking up remembrances of the wild history and wilder legends of “Mona’s fairy isle.”

The broad glare of day is gone. The air is clearer; the green fields look greener; and the hues of the landscape are richer and more distinct than before. The sun has “steeped his glowing axle” in the sea. The gorgeous hues which linger over his track still glow upon the wide waters; but “the line of light that plays along the smooth wave toward the burning west,” is slowly retiring in the wake of the sunken sun. Let me look out while there is yet light, for the eye has glorious scope to roam in from the place where I am sitting. …

At the head of the bay the scattered village and the green land, green all along the slopes of the hills and all over the fertile undulant plain between, stretching away inland, towards Castletown. It is a pleasant nook of seaside life at the head of the bay. But, as I look seaward, the flanking headlands grow wilder as they recede, ending in scenes of savage grandeur among the storm-worn crags which front the open sea.

The cliffs and promontories there,
Front to front, and broad and bare,
Each beyond each, with giant feet
Advancing, as in haste to meet.
The shattered fortress, whence the Dane
Blew his loud blast, and rushed in vain,
Tyrant of the drear domain.

Those grim sentinels have seen strange scenes of storm, and battle, and shipwreck, during their long watch over the entrance to Port Erin. Oft has the ancient Dane steered his “nailed bark,” laden with sea-robbers, into that little bay; and he has oft been wrecked upon that craggy coast. Spanish Head overfrowned the destruction of part of the great Armada. One of the guns of that armament now lies upon the terrace in front of the hotel at Port Erin, thickly encrusted with rust. Many a noble ship has gone down in the Sound between the Island and the Calf of Man. …

As twilight deepens down, the breeze freshens and the blue waves begin to heave with life. Great white-winged ships glide majestically by, some near, some far off; and some almost lost to sight in the distance. Far away, in the west, the outlines of the mountains of Morne and Wicklow are fading away from view. It is a bewitching hour!  It is a bewitching scene!  But now the Irish mountains have disappeared in the shade and the distant sea grows dim to the eye. The village about me is sinking to rest and candle-lights begin to glimmer through cottage windows. The old fisherman and his companions have gone back into the taproom of the Falcon’s Nest. 

The wind is rising still and the air grows cold. I, too, will retire until the world has donned its night-dress, and so good-bye to this fairy scene for a while!

The moon rises at ten! Perhaps I may come forth to look around me once more, when the world lies sleeping beneath her quiet smile.  If not, then farewell to thee, Port Erin!

When scenes less beautiful attract my gaze,
I shall recall thy quiet loveliness;
When harsher tones are round me, I shall dream
Of those mysterious notes, whose thrilling sounds
Peopled the solitude.


Source: Lancashire Sketches (third edition) 1869 by Edwin Waugh; artwork is Port Erin c.1870 by John Miller Nicholson, courtesy of imuseum.

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