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I went to the Isle of Man in search of Viking rune stones. I’d seen runes in Sweden last year, and wanted to explore them further. But it wasn’t long before I realised that the story was much more complicated than I thought. The Manx runes were part of a much bigger picture, encompassing the island’s early Celtic history and the coming of the Norse invaders. It is a story that is told through approximately 200 Manx crosses, or decorated gravemarkers, throughout the island. Some of these have rune markings; others have equally mysterious symbols.

Cross House at Maughold, Isle of Man

Manx crosses in the churchyard at Maughold, Isle of Man

The Unique Culture of the Isle of Man

But, first, there are a few things you need to know about the Isle of Man. For those who are not familiar with it, it is a small island in the Irish Sea with a chequered political history. Subject to invasions and power grabs, it was at various times ruled by the Scottish or the English. And at one point it was the centre of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles, which also included many of the Scottish islands. Today the Isle of Man has a slightly anomalous status. It has its own government (the Tynwald), but depends on the UK for matters such as defence. However, it is not a part of either the UK or the European Union.

All of this means that the Isle of Man has a unique culture of its own. As you travel around the island you come across plenty of evidence of its earliest inhabitants (more about them in my next post) and of the later Celtic settlers and Norse invaders. Which brings us back to the Manx crosses. Celtic crosses can be found across the British Isles, but there seems to be a particular abundance in the Isle of Man. And what makes the Manx crosses particularly interesting is the juxtaposition of Celtic and Norse traditions.

Dragon Cross, Kirk Michael

Pinnable image of the Dragon Cross at Kirk Michael

Manx Crosses and Oghams

The crosses are part of the early Christian heritage of the Isle of Man. Christianity arrived around the 5th century, probably with St Patrick or his followers. There was a brief hiatus in the 9th century when the Vikings invaded, bringing their pagan beliefs with them. But it wasn’t long before the Vikings adopted the local religion, and Christianity flourished again.

Gravestone at Maughold, Isle of Man

The classic Celtic cross – the design is still used for gravestones

In the very earliest times there were no churches but numerous keeills (small chapels that could accommodate a handful of worshippers). It was around this time that the tradition of erecting carved stone grave markers arose. The very first cross slabs had simple designs but later ones used the classic Celtic structure of a cross with a ring at the top. If they had inscriptions they would be written with oghams, the ancient Celtic alphabet.

Norse Runes and Mythology

The crosses changed their appearance when the Vikings arrived. For one thing, inscriptions were carved (often along the narrow sides of the stones) in runic letters. And for another, the stones incorporated pictures from Norse mythology. Although the Viking crosses are very different from the Scandinavian rune stones I encountered in Sweden, they have some of the same characteristic design features.

Cross at Andreas, Isle of Man

A fragment of a cross at Andreas shows the Norse hero Sigurd roasting the heart of a dragon (look closely and you can see him licking his finger!)

A particularly interesting stone is Thorwalds’s Cross, at Kirk Andreas, which includes both Christian and pagan traditions. One side shows an image of the god Odin being devoured by a wolf, and the other has Christian symbols including a cross, a fish and a serpent. A runic inscription down the side of the cross reads: “Thorwald raised this cross”.

Thorwald's Cross, Andreas, Isle of Man

Thorwads’s Cross – the god Odin is devoured by a wolf

Where to See Manx Crosses

Most of the crosses have been collected into churches across the island (sometimes they in the churchyard, more often inside the church itself). In my search for Nordic runes I discovered that there are around 26 surviving crosses with runes, mainly from the 10th century. Particularly good collections are in the churches at Kirk Michael, Braddan Old Kirk and Andreas. A particularly famous stone is Gaut’s Cross at Kirk Michael with its runic inscription and intricate design including twists and plaits.

Gaut's Cross, Kirk Michael

Gaut’s Cross includes characteristic Norse design features and runes are carved into the side

But the best single site must be the church at Maughold, not far from Ramsey. A covered Cross House in the churchyard contains more than 40 crosses. These include the oldest Manx cross slab, a stone with both ogham and runic characters, and a rare representation of a Viking ship. Inside the church is the 14th century Maughold Parish Cross, which bears the earliest known image of the “three legs of Man”, which is still the official symbol of the Isle of Man. And there’s more… the remains of three keeills in the churchyard and, just beyond it, the site of Iron Age hill fort.

Keeill at Maughold, Isle of Man

Remains of a keeill (early Celtic chapel) in Maughold churchyard. Note the site of an Iron Age hill fort in the background

The churchyard itself was full of notable Manx citizens (some of them marked with more modern Celtic crosses). As I stood and admired the view, I felt as if I was surrounded by the whole history of the Isle of Man.

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