Tholtans of Mann

Photo credit: Cerys Lowe

There’s a particular place in the Isle of Man; an endless avenue of fuchsia trees, which in most seasons is like any other country lane, but in summer becomes a tunnel of purple and pink flowers. The scent of them saturates the air.

At the end of this lane is a house. Not like any house I’ve ever seen in England. The house is built of stone. Its roof, when it had one, would have been thatch. Now that is long gone. Ivy climbs the walls, clinging and embracing, welcoming the stone back into nature. There is no glass in the windows, and the wooden frames have very nearly rotted into non-existence. The door has vanished completely. A single internal wall still stands, waist high, shrouded in stinging nettles. No trace of paint, or plaster, or furnishings. Just plain stone walls, quietly crumbling among the fuschia trees.

This house is a tholtan.

My grandparents moved to the Isle of Man when I was two, or thereabouts; I don’t remember exactly. They rented a cottage, for a while, on the seafront at Port Erin. There was a mousehole on the stairs; my brother convinced me that a big, hairy spider lived in it. That I do remember exactly.

They bought a house later; an old farmhouse at the wrong end of a mile-long single track dead-end road. They made a self-contained flat above their double garage, for my great-grandfather to live in. He peremptorily announced that he wouldn’t take their damned charity, and then died — to nobody’s immense heartbreak.

We went there most summers; my parents, my brother and I, to stay in that little flat. It is smell that can take me back there most swiftly; the dark wood smell of the dining room, the clean paint smell of the hall, the pantry with a cold smell I have come to associate inexorably with terracotta tiles, even though I’m not entirely sure that terracotta tiles even have a smell. These smells are my grandparents’ house; these smells are Mann. These are the smells that can transport me through thirty years and two hundred miles, to an island where it is always summer.

There is a glass-fronted bookcase in the small sitting room in the flat, full of books carefully selected by Granny from her library as being the most suitable for her clutch of grandchildren. I sit cross-legged on the pale green carpet in front of it, cherishing the old-book smell that wafts out whenever I open one of the creaky old doors. I reach inside as though into a shrine, a tabernacle for the books, my grandmother’s books, the stories of Mann.

The story of Manannan Mac-Y-Leirr, the first Lord of Mann, who could conjure entire armies out of thin air to scare away invaders, and shroud the island in fog to hide it from marauding Vikings.

The stories of the Buggane, the Fynoderee, the Moddey Dhoo; creatures designed by the deep needs of the human psyche to scare, or explain strange things, or simply entertain the children on a long winter’s night when the wind blows the rain in off the sea.

But more than any of these — the Little People, the Small Folk. I know of them already, of course. We have to say hello to them every time we drive across the Fairy Bridge, just outside Douglas. They can get very cross if you don’t say hello to them. You must never be rude about them, just in case they are round the next corner, listening. And they need places to live. So, whenever a hill farmer leaves his farm, to move to the city or to another country or even just down the road, and there is nobody else to move into his farmhouse, it will be left for the Small Folk. And, given a few decades, the roof will fall in, and the window frames will rot, and maybe a tree will grow through the walls, and the brambles will take over. But that house is never to be lived in by us, the Big Folk, again, because then the Small Folk might get angry, and to make the Small Folk angry would be the worst kind of luck in the world.

And the houses of the Small Folk are the tholtans of Mann.

Grandpa takes me up the hill behind their house to show me the view. I am seven, or thereabouts. It is impressed upon me that we must not startle the sheep, and then we set off, him carefully matching his stumping stride to my eager trot. Twice he must help me climb over a gate, and my small hand disappears entirely inside his firm surgeon’s grip.

From the top of the rise we can see the sea, rippled with waves. We can see Castletown, grey houses clustered around the harbour. Castle Rushen sits among them like a lonely brick of Lego. We can see Langness Point jutting out to sea. A rising line of white steam shows a train puff-puffing its way from Port Erin to Douglas.

Directly beneath us, there is the house, and beyond it a little way is a tholtan; Abigail’s Cottage. Granny has told me about Abigail, on one of the hot afternoons when I help her make lemonade, sugar and lemon juice sticky on my hands. Abigail, who lived out there beyond the end of the road on her own, without mains water or electric, lighting her gas lamps at night and pumping water from her little well until the day she died. Nobody had wanted to move into her old-fashioned little cottage then, and it was left for the Small Folk. Granny has told me about Abigail, but I have never seen her house before.

The next day Granny takes me up the lane to Abigail’s Cottage. Her hand when she takes mine is softer and cooler than Grandpa’s. We can’t go too close to the tholtan; it’s not safe. I can look, though, and imagine the tough old lady pumping her water, refusing to give in to a softer way of life.

I walk through a tunnel of blazing pink and purple fuchsia, thousands of tiny flowers hanging down from the tangled branches of trees high above my head. The track beneath my feet is rutted, mud baked hard in the summer heat. I walk in the path of a tractor, the last vehicle to come down here when the ground was soft. Could have been weeks ago. I am nine, or thereabouts.

I come to the end, to where a tholtan stands quietly in a small meadow, and a tiny trickle of water meanders its way beside the path. This is not Abigail’s Cottage, it is older than that, and anything that’s going to fall down anytime soon has already fallen. I can go right up to it and rest my hand on the warm, lichen-covered stone. I can walk around it, my feet squishing in the boggy ground. There is housing for a small water-wheel on the back of the tholtan, though no longer any water running beneath it. A handful of sheep are grazing; I know that I must not startle them.

This is the middle of nowhere. This is where a realistic parent, trusting in a modicum of common sense and homing ability in their child, doesn’t necessarily worry when she doesn’t come back from a walk quite as quickly as expected. I scramble over the rough wall, and drop down inside the house.

The walls provide shade here; it is cool. I find a stone to sit on, surrounded by sprays of white flowers on brambles. There will be good blackberrying in the autumn. I can hear the buzzing of flies, and somewhere there is a cricket chirruping.

I pull my knees up underneath my chin, and watch the clouds of midges float over the tall, reedy grass of the bog. I hear the trickle of water singing to itself, and think of the Small Folk. The sunlight sits heavily in the air, and cloud-shadows flit across the slopes high above me. The sea is not so far away; I can hear seagulls calling, and the breeze rustling the bracken. I close my eyes and let the sounds draw me into another world, one where Manannan watches over his kingdom, his jewel in the Irish Sea.

My parents have raised me to not be superstitious. A black cat is just a black cat, and if you break a mirror then just be careful you don’t cut yourself. Nevertheless.

An English artist buys Abigail’s Cottage, when I am thirteen, or thereabouts. He renames it Willow Cottage, despite the obvious lack of willows in the area, puts a roof and a door back on it, has it connected to the mains water and electric, and starts to live there. When I take a walk up on my own one day to see what it is like, he shouts at me that I am trespassing. I walk away, and silently wish him all the bad luck in the world.

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