A real Manx witch...

Thu, 31 Oct 2019

In the eleventh in our series of articles about Manx folklore and calendar customs, this piece looks at the pecularliarly Manx forms of witches, including the terrifying caillagh who can be found lurking in the bushes ready to eat you! This was recently published in the Manx Independent:


A real Manx witch…

The Isle of Man has a wealth of witches, and great ones too…

Most will have heard of the witch rolled down Slieu Whallian in a spiked-barrel, or Jinny the Witch flying over the house.

But we have much older and better tales of witches in the Isle of Man.

One remarkable tale is of Ada, a witch living during the reign of King Olaf Godredsson. It was her spell which caused the castle on South Barrule to set alight. In the rush to get back to his home from the Calf of Man, the evil Baron Kitter drowned when his boat struck Kitterland.

It was the desperate Manx who appealed to her for help. Ada was the wise woman consulted by the community and she frees them of their oppressive Norse ruler.

No pointy hats or broomsticks here!

Perhaps older than Ada would be a figure lurking behind the old Manx song, Berree Dhone.

Often referred to as a Maughold ‘witch,’ Manx and other Gaelic languages would call her a ‘caillagh.’

We all know of at least one obvious caillagh – in Hansel and Gretel.

An old woman living in the wilderness who eats people – she doesn’t cast magic spells and certainly doesn’t fly around or commune with the devil.

Stories of the ‘caillagh’ are particularly prevalent in the Gaelic-speaking countries, including the Isle of Man.

In fact, 150 years ago the Isle of Man was awash with stories of the caillagh.

The recently published book, ‘Ghosts, Bugganes & Fairy Pigs,’ is a collection of folklore from the 1900s and it has many stories of the caillagh. Most are far more scary than anything you would find on a broomstick.

Here is ‘An Old Grinning Hag at the Fistard’:

“A young man was in Glenchass one fine clear night until it was late. He made across a little field and he saw something black beside the hedge, and thinking it some article of clothing that had fallen on the bushes, he went toward it to lift it on again. But the thing got up of itself, and was in the form of an old woman, and came towards him grinning fearfully and opening her mouth wide enough to swallow him. He ran home as fast as he could, and was very bad for six to seven months after that.”


One caillagh is still with us in some parts of the Island at Hop tu Naa. A version of the song down north has Jinny eat a horse, cow, sheep, hog, cat, dog, ‘ringie,’ mouse, ‘and if you’re not careful she’ll eat you too’!

So, when the singers are at your door offering to chase her out, be sure to give them a penny!


The article is available to be enjoyed on the Isle of Man Newspapers' website.
More about the folklore and customs of the Isle of Man can be found amongst our Manx Year pages.