The low, sandy north-western shores of the Isle of Man provide a good approach for flat-bottomed boats as the Vikings discovered some twelve hundred years ago, and one of the best landing places on the coast is the Lhen beach in Andreas, which faces straight up the North Channel towards Iceland and the other northern lands whence the Vikings came to our country. Their arrival was seldom peaceable and both our early history and oral tradition tell of fierce battles and forays; but there were peaceable landings sometimes too; and one of the most widely spread and firmly held traditions, especially in the north of the Island, is that of King Orry and his flotilla of Viking ships landing quietly by night on the Lhen beach, met and parleyed with by the men of Mann, who asked the Viking whence he came. Whereupon he pointed up to the Milky Way blazing in the night sky and told them: “That is the way to my country,” and how, because of this incident, the Milky Way is still called in the Manx Gaelic ‘YN RAAD MOOAR REE GORRY’, the Great Road of King Orry.
Now, if we are to accept this legend as having even a modicum of truth in it – as I believe most firmly established legends have – it indicates either a Norse chieftain who already had some knowledge of Gaelic (as would be quite possible through previous excursions in the Hebrides), or else previous Norse settlers in Mann who had made the Norse language understood there.
However that may be, there is an atmosphere about Andreas which seems, somehow, more definitely Norse than anywhere else in the Island. The Celtic strain is there too of course, but it is as though in this parish we actually see that mingling of the Celtic and Norse races which gave us the Norse-Manx Kings of Mann and the Isles – the marriage of Norse sailors with Manx women who later, as mothers, made, in William Cubbon’s favourite phrase, “Manxmen of the Vikings”. One can easily imagine the dark-haired charming daughter of a Manx farmer, probably a good singer and dancer and able to play old Manx tunes on the small Celtic harp which is one of the most glamorous instruments for a woman, having a strong attraction for a vigorous Norse sailor looking for adventures – and perhaps the girl herself would be happy to meet halfway someone completely new with the romance of the sailor and the warrior about him! And so the Vikings not only landed on this northern coast, they also settled and colonised and here they seem to have stayed longest and left their strongest influence.
A fascinating glimpse of such a settlement was revealed in 1927 by PMC Kermode when he excavated the tumulus known as Knock-y-Dooney and found within it, the relics of a Norse ship-burial from which it was possible to reconstruct something of the way of life in Andreas over a thousand years ago.
The relics included 260 iron bolts with fragments of wood attached to them lying where they had dropped as the wooden ship decayed, so more or less outlining its circumference; and from this it was deduced that the boat had been 30 feet long by 6 feet wide.
Most of the human and animal remains had decayed into powder but pieces of bone recognisable as the man’s skull and that of a horse, bits of the horse’s harness being still intract. And there were traces of dog’s remains. An iron ax-head was found, a broken sword 32 inches long with part of its wooden sheath; a cup-shaped boss of a shield and the socket-head of a spear 12 inches long. Fragments of the man’s clothing were also recognisable; a small buckle and other bits of bronze ornaments, a bronze cloak-pin which had borne enamel and some leather straps showing that he had been belted and wrapped in his woollen cloak for burial. There were tools too: a couple of knives, a fishing weight and a smith’s hammer and tongs, not unlike those still in use by country blacksmiths.
From these and his knowledge of the period, PMC Kermode constructed the following picture which brings vividly before us the life of the Viking settlers:
“The Norseman buried here must have been the owner of the land round about, and holdings in those days of small population and very small cultivation were much larger than in our times. We may suppose him to have had not only the Treen recorded in 1515 as Balynessar, but also those of Smeale Mooar and Beg on the east and south, and of Leodest on the south. This would allow a good sheep-run with grazing for cattle and horses and a sufficiency of corn land. It was well-watered and the owner would find plenty of wild fowl and fish to keep his larder supplied. With its southern aspect it must have made a choice holding, though precisely where the house and steading were set we have no indication.
When he ‘fared to Odin’ (as the Norsemen would express it), the owner was placed in his own small boat, which would have been brought up from the beach opposite what is now the Ballakinnag road and furnished for the voyage. His sword and spear and shield were set ready to his hand, his great axe, his fishing gear and leaden weight were put in, and because of his renown as a smith – a most important and honoured craft in those days – his hammer and tongs were added. Then his horse was harnessed to the boat and having drawn it to the top of the hill was sacrificed as an acceptable offering to the Father of the Gods – and his faithful dog was honoured by being laid in the same mound. No traces of any secondary burial was found and this suggests a date at the very end of our Scandanavian heathendom, his sons, when their time came, being laid to rest in a Christian cemetery. . . On these same sandhills, only about a quarter of a mile westward, there was at one time, and had been for centuries, a little Christian place of worship with its surrounding cemetery. . . the full name of the Treen being recorded in the Lord’s Books as ‘Balynessar and Kyrke Asston,’ which can only refer to the keeill where we found a bilingual Ogham inscription reading: ‘Ammecat son of Rocat’. . . And at Kirk Michael we have a cross handsomely carved by our first Norse sculptor, Gaut, the inscription of which tells us that it was set up by ‘MAELBRIDGE, SON OF ATHACAN THE SMITH, FOR THE GOOD OF HIS SOUL.’
This is the only example we have of this formula and one reason for its use may be that Maelbridge was a recent convert to Christianity. . . The date of this inscription would be about 960 CE and I suggest that here at Knock-y-Dooney is the burial-place of his father, ATHACAN THE SMITH.”
A comment by JJ Kneen is: “The Treen on which Athacan’s mauseleum was erected was part of his patrimony, and had probably belonged to his ancestors for generations. . . this is amply proved by the name of his homestead, Balley ny Seyr (Balynessar) meaning ‘the homestead of the craftsman’.”
Kneen also suggests that the keeil known as Kyrke Asston was dedicated to an Irish bishop-saint and martyr of Donegal named Ascon (Irish Easconn) because “the Irish ‘sc’ invariably palatises into ‘st’ in Manx names.” This saint was associated with Columba and it is in Andreas that we also find a Ballacolum, Columba’s steading, near the Lhen, and the tradition that thereabouts was an ancient keeill “where girls went in search of beeds.” Columba, of course, would be a familiar Saint to the Christianised Vikings, from his long residence and missionary work in Iona, so it is appropriate that there should be an association with him, even at second hand, in this Norse settlement bridging pagan and early Christian days in Mann.
Two other ship burials were found later in this district by Professor Bersu (in 1945-6), and both follow the same pattern as that of Knocky-y-Dooney: in all three, the man laid to rest had, apparently, been a farmer-warrior, and with him were interred implements of his calling and animals which had been sacrificed in order to provide him with suitable equipment in the next world; for the Norseman, like the ancient Egyptian, had a deeply rooted belief that such provision was necessary. Weapons, jewellery and clothing were also included, and from the remains of these can be gathered a fair idea of what the man wore and used. There was evidently a widespread community of these farmer-warriors in that district in the tenth century; and it is curious that one of these Viking ship-burials at Ballateare, was carried out above a prehistoric cemetary dating from a period before 1000 BCE, seeming to indicate that the site was venerated from far earlier times as a habitation of the dead.
(source: We Call it Ellan Vannin by Mona Douglas (1970); artwork is Viking Village by Vladimir Teneslav)