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Marown Old Church

Dedication : St Runius      Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                            Principal Features : A rare surviving country church in the IOM; Celtic Cross Slab

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The Isle of Man does not, in truth, have a great deal to interest the church crawler. Most of the churches were re-built in Victorian times and are of interest only to the Victorian era afficionado or as repositories for the wonderful Celtic/Viking crosses and grave slabs that are in themselves ample reason for visiting the island.

St Runius, like Kirk Lonan, is a rare survivor of the pre-Victorian period and shares with that church the prefix “Old” to denote that it has been superseded by something larger and grander. Both churches, however, remain consecrated and loved by their custodians. St Runius has undergone many changes so it is not an original first millennium church but it does have remnants of the original. The main reason for visiting it, however, is simply that it has a beguiling rural simplicity that transcends architectural considerations. It’s just a lovely place to visit.

Don’t, however, under-estimate its place in history. There was a place of worship here since the seventh century. This would have been a “keeil”: a tiny building of stone and earth administered by a monk probably from Ireland. Grave slabs dated to that period have been found. By the twelfth century that would have been replaced by a more substantial stone building, a little of which is traceable in the present church. The church was, according to the Church Guide, never a parish church but always a monastic chantry.

Another gem from the Church Guide is its explanation for why this church has never had windows in its north side. In some of my webpages you will see references to the north sides of churches being seen by both Church and, in particular, parishioners as being the “Devil’s side”. The Church Guide here traces this to a reference, which I was unaware of,  to the Book of Jeremiah which talked of evil coming from the north. This was seen to have been born out by the Viking invasion that in in the Isle of Man also came from the north. Many English parish churches had north doors that were never used for ingress and egress except for evil spirits exorcised by baptism. At Marown the north doorway is also blocked - exorcism no longer being seen as part of the sacrament of baptism - but in being windowless the Manx people here took things a step further!

We know that the church was extended fifteen feet to the west in the seventeen fifties. At the same time that most fashionable of features, a west gallery, was also added. The entrance to the gallery - now blocked - can be seen at the west end. Steps either side led up to it and the outer entrance to the church is cut through it to form what I reckon is a nearly unique type of porch. The west gallery doorway itself - now blocked - is startlingly and misleadingly Romanesque in its profile and it is believed that its jambs were taken from the ruins of the twlefth century St Trinians Church a mile or so away. The bell cote is, of course quite modern and it all adds up to a fairly unique west end.

Another curiosity - to say the least - is a blocked and very large doorway in the east end. This was the result of the new Marown parish church being built in 1853. At this point St Runius became a mortuary chapel and the east door was inserted to allow the passage of coffins. This, again, has a Romanesque profile as do the south windows.

What part of this church is original? Well, the Church Guide says it is the eastern half. Another description I have seen says the north side is the oldest and that the east end is quite recent! Just to confuse things even more, the Church Guide also says that there was an original doorway in the south west of the church which everyone seems to agree is eighteenth century. The south wall is of uniformly massive thickness so I surmise that some part of this was original. It’s all very odd. Does it matter? Not really.

Inside the church is quite charming. Not least of its curiosities are that it has two font bowls in the north west corner, the larger one sitting on a plinth, the other set into the west wall. This larger font was actually removed at some point and put outside the north wall with the now-blocked window above it! This made room for the “Vicar’s pew” you can still see in this north west area. The smaller “font” - originally a holy water stoup - was then used for baptism. Now both fonts are on the inside. There’s also a very rustic reading desk at the east end. That end also has two of Man’s celebrated collection of ancient crosses. The best was found serving as a lintel in 1906. It is believed to be seventh century and its incised cross is  considered to be unique amongst those on the island.

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Left: The north side presents a totally blank view to the visitor, although there is a blocked north door at the west end. Note also the very unusual blocked doorway in the east end. Right: The interior looking west. There is no sign of the west gallery now except its filled-in door high on the west wall. It must have made the church quite claustrophobic. Note the two fonts in the north west corner and the little vestry on the opposite side.

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Left: Looking towards the east end. The two cross slabs are visible to the right of the little altar table. Beyond the yellow curtain is the blocked and highly unusual east doorway. Second Left: The seventh century cross. It is No.50 in the island’s catalogue of its Celtic crosses. Second Left: Cross No.16 has little or no design still visible. Right: The blocked east door from the outside.

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Left: The north west corner is full of interest. The two fonts are here within the vicar’s pew. Beyond the larger font the now-blocked opening to the outside is clearly visible. Right: The font inset into the wall was originally a holy water stoup. The Church Guide is silent on the provenance of the larger of the two fonts but it looks very old indeed and surely no later than the the twelfth century building.

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Left: The west gallery doorway. Centre: The very unorthodox west end. The very low entrance is via a tunnel-like porch cut into the west gallery staircases on either side. The west gallery door itself is clearly visible in the middle of the wall. Right: The blocked north doorway that surely belonged to the twelfth century building.

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Left: The very unusual pulpit/reading desk. It would look equally at home in a Victorian school! To its left are the two crosses. From this angle you can see rather better that the right hand cross slab has a raised area that was presumably decorated. Right: As far as i could see the only lighting here is by candles. If there was any electric supply here I didn’t see it. It is the ageless simplicity of this church that is such a delight. I always feel that if you want to look for God then places like St Runius are where you should go. We know there has been worship here for fourteen hundred years but finery and ostentation have passed this little church by leaving it as a church should be: a place of spirituality, prayer and contemplation. You can keep your monuments to the not-very-great and far-from-good and the grandiose excrescences that they funded. I love all of Britain’s church heritage but whereas I can admire the grandeur of the great town churches it is places like St Runius that lift my soul. Here endeth the lesson....

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Left: Just look at the depth of these walls! It makes you scratch your head really. This is the sort of massive masonry you would expect to see on a Norman-era church. Yet nobody seems to think this is the oldest part of the church. You can only surmise that they were forced to build like this simply to properly blend it into the original parts. Those window openings, of course, are far too large to be original so somebody had the monumental task of cutting them into the walls. Having talked of the “Norman era” we need to remind ourselves that there was no Norman invasion of Man and that it had Viking rulers until 1266 when it was ceded to Scotland. So at St Runius (and at Kirk Lonan) you are seeing something very rare: a church that was built under Viking rule at a time when Christianity completely held sway. This is not a church with Viking influence but a product of Viking-Celt Christianity the like of which could not exist on the mainland where the Anglo-Saxons had long ago driven the Celts into Wales, Scotland and Cornwall. Right: The rickety little vestry at the south east corner of the church.

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Left: Some church visitors get their kicks from searching out unusual or poignant headstone inscriptions. That’s “not my bag” at all but I liked this little plaque - the only one here -  to Henry Clucas (a common surname on the island) from 1732. He died aged only 23 but he was a “virtuous” and “notable youth”, and “academick student of this isle”. I can only hope that Henry found time for a bit of wine, women and song as well before his untimely death. Nobody should die that virtuous! Centre: I can’t for the life of me work out what this recess in the south wall was for. Does anybody out there know? Right: What could be more rustic than this? Moss-grown and fern-strewn steps to the blocked entrance to the now-vanished west gallery. Trailing down is the rather dirty rope for ringing the bells in the little bell cote. At St Runius “unpretentious” is on a different scale to elsewhere.

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Our car on the left is parked outside the gate to the churchyard. This picture gives you some idea of how rural this spot is.

St Patrick’s Chair

We haven’t finished with Marown just yet. Less than a mile away, up a not very well signposted track covered in sheep poo and surrounded by sheep is St Patrick’s Chair. It’s not a chair, of course, and it’s unlikely St Patrick was ever there but nevertheless that’s its name.

There are three standing (actually leaning!) granite stones and two that have fallen over completely. Two of those standing have inscribed Christian crosses. Nobody knows how long the stones have been here but it seems likely that they are ancient stones, possibly forming a burial site, appropriated for Christian purposes probably between AD600 and 800.  Bear in mind that early Christianity was quite comfortable with re-using sites of earlier spiritual significance. Indeed, it was seen as a valuable weapon in the conversion of pagans.

The original keeil at what is now Marown Old Church itself dates from the seventh century. It would hardly have justified the word “church” but it does rather beg the question of why anyone would create another Christian site so close by? Maybe it was a place of Christian gathering before the keeil was built, in the manner of a preaching cross because there is absolutely no way of knowing when these crosses were carved. Maybe it was simply a case of religious appropriation. SS Runius, Connachan and Lonan, all bishops, are known to have lived in the Marown area so perhaps they decided to inscribe the crosses. We can’t know. Just in passing, those three names give us some idea of the changing notions of sainthood. Here you have three men, surely of unimpeachable piety and presumably ferociously evangelical, of whom we know barely anything who were created saints by nobody knows who. Compare that with St Mother Theresa of Calcutta whose achievements we can all know and admire, beatified in a blaze of publicity for what seemed to be - excuse my cynicism - a campaign conducted by the Vatican PR department and which  would, I feel, have embarrassed the lady herself!

A former friend of mine used to rib me about my perceived predilection for taking pictures of “piles of stones”. That’s literally true on this occasion. You might wonder why you should go out of your way to negotiate the poo, the ruts and the farm gates. Well, as with St Runius Church, maybe you will be able to sense the simple piety of the Celtic Christianity of this period. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but if you want to understand church architecture as a manifestation of social history rather than just as a manifestation of changes to art or design then you need to understand something of the evolution of the religious institution. St Patrick’s Chair will make you think about those early centuries when simple monks preached their message in the fields and hamlets of Britain.

By the way. Don’t under-estimate the poo. It’s not just those little hard pellets on the ground it’s also wet and messy. I was wearing nice light-coloured cotton chinos. Don’t make the same mistake! Have a change of shoes in your boot as well.

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The Braaid

I’m afraid this is a bit more “mission creep” and I have to confess that Braaid - just two miles or so from Marown - has no direct connection with Christianity. This is a site that contains remains of a neolithic round house and two Viking longhouses. We don’t know precisely how old any of these buildings are but there is more than a chance that the Vikings who lived here were or became Christians and would have been familiar with the keeil at Marown and even with St Patrick’s Chair. I find that thought quite delicious and I hope you do too. Or maybe they still adhered to the old ways and thought that thunder and lightning were the result of Thor and his hammer? Or, a distinct possibility, they thought that the Christian God and Odin were interchangeable - as many of the Celtic-Scandinavian crosses on the island show. Either way, these houses are part of Marown’s Celtic-Viking narrative that is a microcosm of the early history of Man.

It is believed that the roundhouse which is about 16.5 metres in diameter was built about 3000 years ago in the Iron Age. How thought-provoking that these Vikings decided that what had been a good site for those early folk would be a good site for them. Plus, of course, they had an building that probably needed just a bit of rebuilding and re-roofing. Perhaps, though, some Celtic people were already living here? It seems likely. In which case did the Vikings drive out the inhabitants? Or did a warrior marry a Celtic bride and settle here with his people?

The Vikings built two longhouses here. The larger had double walls in-filled with earth. Its walls were bowed outwards to help take the strain of the roof. The other was smaller and had parallel walls. Archaeologists say it was subdivided into stalls for cattle. The main longhouse is 20 metres long by 9 metres wide. By my reckoning that’s about the floor area of a modern detached two-story English house. The Vikings would have had no use need for the personal space we demand today so we can assume that the building housed a number of people. Although only three stone houses have been discovered we should not assume that this was the extent of the settlement. Undoubtedly there would have been a number of wood and turf buildings around them so the longhouses would have been the centres of a substantial settlement. Of course, in saying this we are emphasising again that the Vikings of Man were primarily agricultural settlers, not the raping and pillaging murderers in horned helmets of popular legend.

To reach The Braaid you have to follow a decent path of a couple of hundred metres away from the road. There are sheep around again but your clothes will be in far less danger than at St Patrick’s Chair and there is a lay-by for your car nearby. On a summer’s afternoon it is a most delightful place to be, with lovely countryside and a deep sense of history. You can take in the Braaid, St Patrick’s Chair and St Runius in one leisurely afternoon. You won’t regret it. Unless you wear light coloured chinos, that is....

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Left: The site as you approach it from the footpath. Right: The smaller of the Viking longhouses that was used for cattle.

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Left Above and Below: The larger of the longhouses with an artist’s impression of its original form. Note the double row of stones to the left of the ruin with the intervening turf area. All of this was one of the outer walls. You can see from the artist’s impression that the end walls were of comparatively thin timber construction. The side walls, therefore, had to shoulder an inordinate proportion of the weight of the roof that wall directed to the sides by its lateral timbers. Right Above and Below: The remains of the Iron Age circular building and an artist’s impression of its use by the Vikings. Note the wattle cattle pen within the building and the large stones forming the entrance.

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Left: A closer look at one of the walls of the larger longhouse. Its thickness is quite remarkable. Right: Ferns and Ancient Stones

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The site from behind the smaller of the two longhouses

 

 

 

 

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