Cregneash Folk Village is a real village with real inhabitants and at the same time a museum, albeit a living one, reflecting crofting community life on the Isle of Man in the 19th century. The traditional way of life—customs, skills, crafts, and farming—was preserved here as the village is located in an isolated position above Spanish Head on the coastal Mull hills overlooking the Calf of Man. Modern technology passed the village, and its status as a living museum preserves the Manx crofting traditions.
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Cregneash (called Cronknesse in the early centuries) developed in 1511 from three farms whose occupiers were listed as Henry and Alice Gall, John Waterson and Jenkin McNele together, and Wiliam McCaken, a total of four houses. From c1640 the first croft emerged. This croft was occupied by the Cregneash poet Edward Faragher in the late 19th century.
In 1643 one quarter of the land belonged to the Lord and by 1682 it all belonged to him due to failure to pay rent and poverty. It was at this time that the community of small crofters and farmers developed. The village is built almost in a circle. The fields are long and narrow as they were divided into thirds.
Most of the families participated in both farming and fishing. It was a way of life sustaining the crofting economy. During the week the men would be away fishing so it was up to the women and children to labour in the fields. At harvest time everyone worked in the fields as the fishing season was over. Labour and equipment were shared out among all the villagers. Oats and barley were the main crops. Potatoes were grown to accompany the roasted salt herring, a diet staple. Turnips were fed to the livestock. Flax, spun by the women and children, was grown to use for making into clothing and blankets.
After harvesting the grain was built into round stacks (thurrans) with conical thatched tops. These were placed in the farmyards where a small shed would be located. During the winter, the men could easily move it to the shed for threshing with their hand flails.
Each crofter generally had a small flock of sheep, pigs, poultry, and a cow or two. Eggs, milk, and butter were provided by the animals. Common lands located on Meayll Hill and Spanish Head were used for grazing cattle. Breeds were native to the island until the end of the 18th century when new ones were imported. The black native Manx cattle were small and deep-chested and had upward curving horns. A large croft or farm might have horses.
In the late 19th century the fishing industry declined, and farming and fishing became separate livelihoods. Thatching, lobster pot making, net making, and twisting of “suggane” straw ropes were all skills needed and also used for income.
In the village is a building with old photographs of Cregneash. The last house to be built in the village dates from the beginning of the 20th century—it is a two storey one above the main settlement on the road to Port St Mary. Some stone cottages were in the 19th century raised from single to double storey. Some of the houses are ruins.
First stop when you visit the village is the small museum in a house where an audio-visual presentation and displays fill you in on the history and way of life of the community. Walk around the village and, depending on the time of year, see the fields being farmed with horse-drawn equipment, roofs being thatched, and wool going through the steps of spinning and weaving. A resident black smith and wood turner show off their trades as does a seamstress. Everyone who lives in the village must be a working contributor and “museum” guide.
Harry Kelly’s (a long time resident) cottage was the beginning of the “museum” in 1938. The Manx National Heritage wanted to preserve the traditional way of life. Look inside the cottage for a flavour of the traditional way of living. It’s a typical two roomed crofter cottage consisting of a bedroom and kitchen. A half-loft or cockloft reached by ladder added storage or sleeping accommodation.
The straw thatched roof’s foundation is strips of sod (scraa). Traditional Cregneash thatch was held in place by herring nets and secured by ropes twisted from straw. These were tied to stones along the tops of the walls or sometimes weighed down by stones. Wattle and gorse windbreaks were often used at the doors. The floor of the cottage was of locally dug clay, puddled until smooth, then beaten down.
Local quarries provided the stone for the chimneys and Spanish Head had slate stone for lintels. The open hearth (chiollagh) was used for cooking and warmth. An iron cauldron hung from a chain above a turf fire, and the food was cooked in it or on an iron griddle. Susan Hidson, village inhabitant, offers fresh baked scones and other traditional baked goods to visitors.
It was the last quarter of the 19th century before Cregneash had its own church. Before that time services were held on a week night in one of the village cottages. The site for the church was a gift, and the labour was given free by the local people. The stone was quarried from a nearby hill. The entire cost therefore was only £150. The foundation stone was laid on August 12, 1878; five months later on December 13 the dedication service took place. Services were held on Sunday afternoon and evening by a parson from Rushen. During the week the building was used as a school. In 1905 a new pulpit, lectern, and reading desk were placed in the church, and the floor within the communion rails was lowered.
A visit to Cregneash is a fascinating and interesting peek into the past. Don’t miss it when visiting the Isle of Man.
Open: April-end Oct, daily, 10am-5pm.
Located on the A31 from Port St Mary on the far south-west tip of the Isle of Man
All photos © by Barbara Ballard
except exterior of Harry Kelly cottage courtesy Isle of Man tourism