Manx Tholtans Search of iMuseum

Manx Tholtans

Tholtans, the Manx word for describing the ruins of an old home, are rapidly disappearing from the Island’s landscape. In this exhibition, the beauty of these fascinating buildings is  discovered through the eyes of talented Manx photographer Ray Kelly and his partner, multimedia artist Niamh Kelly, with the addition of objects and archives from the Manx National Heritage collections.

The definition of a tholtan in Archibald Cregeen’s A Dictionary of the Manks Language (1835) is “a house in ruins or in a ruinous state, a house left to have holes in its roof.”

Goat herding by William Hoggatt, early 20th century (ref. 2016-0046)


LONE little tholtan, left by the wayside,
Where have they wandered that loved thee of old?
Where are the children that played by the fireside?
Poor little chiollagh, forlorn and cold!

The Tholtan by Josephine Kermode ‘Cushag’ (1907)


Billy Fred Christian (father) and Fred Christian (son) at Lhergyrhenny (ref. PG 12234). See the archive record here.


Capturing the Old Ways

Ray Kelly is a Manxman long associated with farming and interested in keeping the heritage of the Isle of Man alive. He began photographically recording the Island’s tholtans some thirty years ago, feeling compelled to document them before they disappeared. Ray published Manx Tholtans Volume 1 in 2016 and Manx Tholtans Volume 2 in 2017. His photographic journey has taken him all over the Island and he continues to record tholtans for future research.

Niamh Kelly is a multimedia artist whose works include ceramics and abstract paintings inspired by visits to tholtans and Manx scenery. Having accompanied Ray Kelly on many of his walks her work encapsulates the feelings awakened by the places they have visited. The ceramic tholtans are a record of their current state and embody the reclamation process of nature.


Life on a Manx Croft

From a show-piece plate to a wooden trencher, all of these objects were an important part of the Manx croft; domestic utensils brought food to the table, goods to the market, and even kept ‘the fairies’ or Little People sweet, with nightly offerings of food and drink. Visit the exhibition to see the full range of objects, some of which include:

‘Crosh Bollan’ or fisherman’s charm (ref. 1954-1713). See the object record here.

It was common for crofters to supplement their income by ‘going to the fishing’ during the herring season. Mr Christian of Sulby Glen says: “I have seen as many as fifty men on the station at Sulby, all waiting to go away to the fishing.” Like all sailors, the men feared being lost in fog and to help prevent this they would have on them a bollan crosh – the cross-shaped bone from the mouth of a Bollan Wrasse fish.

‘Crosh Cuirn’ used to protect the house at May Eve (ref. 1995-0056). See the object record here.

Twigs of rowan were tied together in the form of a cross and placed over doorways for luck, or tucked into the tails of cattle to ensure a good supply of milk. Mr Arthur Christian from Sulby Glen recalls: “The people had an awful belief in witchcraft. In Corrody they were leaving supper for the fairies on the table, and it was never touched but they were hearing them in the house at night, rattlin’ the dishes and all.”

George Quayle tells us in Legends of a Lifetime “It was survival of the fittest, and the fittest survived, almost in spite of themselves, by the fact that the food they ate was taken direct from Mother Earth, unadulterated, nothing added, nothing taken away.” 

George Quayle, Close na Mona, Lezayre, 1970-1973 (ref. PG/14444/2/12). See the archive record here.

“Walking in these remote places, the feeling of tranquillity is overwhelming, but I am mindful of the hardship that these folks endured to survive and make a living.” Ray Kelly, Manx Tholtans Volume 1 (2016)

Woman entering Thatched Cottage, Sulby, Isle of Man, 1900 (ref. PGN 00544). See the archive record here.


Tools of the Trade

Many a labourer handled these tools as they worked the farms around the Isle of Man.

It was hard work, but sweat and pain ensured survival along with another year’s harvest.

A farm tool would often be made by the local blacksmith and measured especially for the person who was going to be using it. The people who made and used these objects tell their stories to us in the Manx Folk Life Survey, recorded by the Manx Museum and National Trust from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Hedging implement known as a ‘Manks Spade’ (ref. 1954-6451). See the full object record here.

The Manks Spade was used for cutting blocks of turf to form sod hedges.  It is a uniquely Manx agricultural tool. The Journal of the Manx Museum reports in 1939 “during a recent investigation of the ruined homestead of the Quayles of Craig mooar…two of the old type of Hedge Spade fortunately came to light…the spades from Craig mooar are examples of the long forgotten Manks spade.”

Smithy-made suggane twister used to make straw rope (ref. 1954-2270). See the full object record here.

Suggane is the Manx word for straw rope. In the 19th century, suggane twisters would be hand-made by the village blacksmith. Suggane rope was used for roping down the thatch on cottages and thurrans (stacks of hay and corn) and for making lankets to ‘hobble’ animals. The home-made straw rope was replaced in the 20th century with commercially-made ‘coir’ rope and then by plastic binder twine.


Killabregga Farm

Killabregga Farm sits on the hilltops above Sulby Glen. The Kinrade family farmed at Killabregga from at least 1851. John Kinrade recalls “the ‘new’ dwelling house was built for my grandfather when he married: the old folk continued in the big old house, so for a while there were two families working the farm” he says “I remember the roof on the old house, but latterly it was used for keeping animals in. I built up the back door myself.”

Seeing the ruins of Killabregga today, overgrown with gorse and bracken, it is hard to believe crops once grew – but there were advantages to upland farming. Thomas Kelly of Ballavitchell says these farms were “near the mountains where there would be no scarcity of fuel (plenty of turf) and pasture for sheep was free and abundant.”

Mr Kneen of Sulby Glen noted “there’s usually good drying (for crops) up there – not like low lying fields in the valley.”

Mr Christian of Sulby Glen observes when the weather is good, “Sharragh Vane, Killabregga and Creg Mooar get sun all day long.”

The last inhabitants were John and Lisa Kinrade in the early 20th century. They moved down to the bottom of the hill to live at Killabregga Cottage. John Kinrade still climbed the ‘zig-zag path’ every day to feed his hens until the 1940s.

In 1996 the site was purchased by Manx National Heritage.

The Old House, Killabregga, Lezayre, 1943, by Leonard McCombe (ref. PG/4584/2a). See the archive record here.

“Killabregga is at the limit of agricultural practicability and contains evidence for the success and failure of human intervention.” Andrew Johnson, The Upper Sulby Valley: An Abandoned Landscape (1994)

Killabrega, Lezayre, 1943, by Leonard McCombe (ref. PG/4584/5). See the archive record here.

“The Kinrades from Killabregga could speak and read Manx. They’d be singing Manx carvals (carols) from a book. They were speaking Manx to each other at home too, and singing at the service in church every Sunday.” Mr Kneen, Sulby Glen (1957).

Mr John Kinrade and Mr A. H. Karran walking in fields, 1943 (ref. PG/12995). See the archive record here.


The Community of Tholt y Will

The Cowley and Quayle families farmed in the upland community of Tholt y Will in Sulby for centuries. Find out where these families lived in our Map of Tholt y Will.

Stories about these families have now passed into folklore. Elizabeth Cowley (Eliza Crammag) records in her diary of 1919 that William Cowley of the Close (Illiam y Close) “was one of the first local preachers on the Island and was for some time gamekeeper to the Duke of Atholl.”

In Legends of a Lifetime George Quayle regales “a ship was wrecked off Jurby shore; there were three survivors, brothers of the name Quayle. When they reached the shore they made a solemn vow that they would quit the sea forever and settle down as far from the sea as possible, so they settled at the top of Sulby Glen.”

The Cowleys were a well-known family in the upland community of Tholt y Will.

Their home, Crammag, was one of the last occupied farms in the area. The Ramsey Courier of March 1935 says Crammag was “one of the oldest farmsteads in the North” and that “the late Mr John Cowley was possessed of a fine intellect…he was a man with whom it was a great pleasure to converse.”

Robert Cowley with three generations of his family (the Southwards and Stevensons), late 19th century (ref. PG/13276). See the archive record here.

Quayle is a prominent name in the Sulby area – the family were already well settled by 1643.

George Quayle in Legends of a Lifetime says “The farms of Block Eairey, Ballaskelley, the Creggans, Lhergy Rhennie, Sherragh Vane and the Creg Mooar were all occupied by Quayles.”

Bill and Jem Quayle at Cregmooar, Lezayre, late 19th century (ref. PG/12753). See the archive record here.


Upper Grange Farm

The Allen family lived at Upper Grange Farm in Narradale from the 1880s to the 1910s. Alfred Allen, whose grandfather moved from Scotland to settle at the farm, recalls “I was born at the Upper Grange. It was never lonely up there…at one time there was a little house in almost every field…the old people said it was a town up there then.”

The area in the image above was probably the scullery. This room was connected to the house by a door linking through to the kitchen. The fireplace in the corner provided hot water for the laundry, and allowed the swill to be boiled up before it was fed to the pigs. It may have been used intermittently for some dairying.

‘Couple sitting before an open chiollagh’ by John Miller Nicholson, late 19th century (ref. 1993-0241/1). See the object record here.

“The fire was never out in Upper Grange. At night you just pulled the ashes over it tight and next morning you just gave it a stir and in a moment you had a red, hot, glowing fire.” Mr Alfred Allan, Manx Museum Folklife Survey (1952)


Farmhouse Interior, Cooilbane, Sulby by Beatrice Annie Fairless (ref. 1954-5677)


Mapping the Tholtans

Exhibition includes a 3D map of the Isle of Man on which tholtans from Ray Kelly’s books, Manx Tholtans Volume 1 and 2 are pinpointed.


Now the River runs sad in the glen theer,

An’ the birds gives theer li’l lonely trills;

While Barrule seems to look down with Sorra

On the tholtans spread over them hills

Kathleen Faragher, This Purple Misted Isle, Manx Poems (1957)

Glen Rushen, Patrick by George Goodwin, late 19th century (ref. 1956-0161). See the object record here.

“Far from being isolated, tholtans are very often within a community. Looking across the hills and valleys they are in visual contact with each other, which would have been important in providing support when needed.” Ray Kelly, Manx Tholtans Volume 1 (2016)

View from Montpelier House towards Brandywell, Druidale, Michael, early 20th Century (ref. PG/10511). See the archive record here.


Looking Ahead

“Many of the younger people emigrated, others were swallowed up in the lowlands and towns, leaving only the old folk, who had to stay until they were carried down feet first.” George Quayle, Legends of a Lifetime (1973).

Mrs Kelly, Crosby, Isle of Man, 1890s (ref. PGN 02114). See the archive record here.

“A lot of the people went away from here to America. The Craines and the Quayles, the Killips and the people from Ballaskella, and from Crammag too.” Mr A. Christian, Manx Museum Folklife Survey (1961).

Boyde’s house at The Phurt, Glen Dhoo, Ballaugh in 1964 (ref. PG/5647/183). See the archive record here.


Boyde’s house in 2017. It has now been capped and preserved.


Have you found a Manx Tholtan?

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Manx Tholtans is open at the Manx Museum from 7th October 2017 to 27th January 2018.