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Celtic And Norse Crosses In Howstrake


The earliest written records on the Isle of Man are in Ogham and Runic letters and are found inscribed on stones and cross-slabs. About five examples bearing the Ogham form of writing have been discovered. Ogham script is thought to have originated in southern Ireland in about the 5th century but one of the Manx Ogham stones dates from as late as about the 11th or 12th centuries. None has been found in Onchan.

Runes were a Germanic form of script adapted from the Latin alphabet and much used on Scandinavian memorial stones. Their purpose was to eliminate curved lines and so simplify the carving of inscriptions. Runes were in use from about the 3rd century until mediaeval times and are found on many Manx cross-slabs.

The Celtic and Norse cross-slabs usually included a simple representation of the Christian cross and were normally memorials to the dead. Celtic crosses would date from about the fifth or sixth centuries. Norse, or Scandinavian crosses, date from perhaps the middle of the tenth century and were sometimes carved with runic inscriptions. Six cross-slabs have survived at Onchan but of these only one has runes.

Onchan parish church is probably built on the site of an early keeill and the Onchan crosses almost certainly formed part of the graveyard of this keeill. The present church, erected in 1833, replaced an earlier building which is reputed to be of the 12th. century.

Six crosses found in Onchan are listed in P.M.C. Kermode's "Manx Crosses", published in 1907 and reprinted in 1994. The first identifying number shown is the Manx Museum Cross Register number, a system devised by Kermode in 1928. This number appears on a bronze disk affixed to the cross. The second, shown in brackets, is an earlier numbering system used by Kermode in his work of 1907, e.g. 25[11]. Kermode's original system of numbering, that shown in brackets, e.g. [11], was based on his opinion of the age of the cross. He reckoned that five of the Onchan crosses were Pre-Scandinavian, or Celtic, and that one was from the Norse period. Modern scholarship takes a different view.

Sir David M. Wilson, on page XVIII of his Introduction to the 1994 reprint of Kermode's "Manx Crosses", assigns Scandinavian period dates, rather than Celtic ones, to fifteen of the crosses listed by Kermode. This view would result in there being only one Celtic cross amongst the Onchan cross-slabs. This is 25[11] the slab found in use as a lintel in an outbuilding at the Vicarage. However, the sequence of the Onchan crosses listed here is based on Kermode's original numbering and coincides with his "Manx Crosses".

Our forefathers thought little of these relics and sometimes used them as building stone. One with a twist and ring pattern, No. 85[59], had been used as a lintel in the old church at Onchan which existed before 1833. Another, No. 25[11], which may be the oldest of the Onchan crosses, was found by the Vicar of Onchan in 1890. This was in use as a lintel in an out-building at the Vicarage and was carved on slate with a cross within a circle. There are early references to other cross-slabs from Onchan churchyard being broken up and used as channeling for a roadside gutter. Two cross-slabs which had been taken from the churchyard and set up on display in the garden of St. Catherine's house, off Avondale Road, were even offered for sale at an auction of household furniture in 1849.

Joseph Train in his "Account of the Isle of Man", published in 1845, made a plea for the "..establishment of an institution as a public museum..". He suggested that "..the runic monuments taken sacrilegiously from every church-yard in Man, and converted into stiles, gate-posts, and such like purposes.." might thereby have been preserved. A step towards the protection of the Island's antiquities came with the passing of the Manx Museum and Ancient Monuments Act in 1886. Although displays were mounted at Castle Rushen in 1905, it was not until 1922 that the present museum was founded. The policy as far as cross-slabs is concerned is that they are exhibited in or near the parish church with which they are associated. Thus, the cross-slabs which belonged to the keeill of the treen of Howstrake may be seen in the porch of St. Peter's church, Onchan.

Early sources of information regarding the Onchan cross-slabs include Richard Townley in his "Journal kept in the Isle of Man" in 1789: John Feltham in his records of the monumental inscriptions which he noted in the churchyards of the Island in 1797 and which were subsequently published in 1868 by The Manx Society: William Kinnebrook in his "Etchings of the Runic Monuments in the Isle of Man" of 1841: and the Rev. J.G. Cumming in "The Runic and other Monumental Remains of the Isle of Man" published in 1857. The Onchan cross-slabs are also mentioned in Thwaite's History of the Island of 1863 and in Guides by Kerruish of 1858, by Kneale of 1871, by Jenkinson of 1878 and by Black's in 1888.

Readers who may wish to delve further into the Onchan crosses should note that the printers of Kinnebrook's 1841 etchings transposed the descriptive texts of his plates numbered 17 and 18. These were etchings of 92[62], which depicts a pair of dog-headed monsters, one on either side of the shaft of the cross, and 85[59] which has a twist and ring pattern. (Cumming's 1857 plates of these two cross-slabs have correct texts). The error makes it appear that 92[62] was used as a lintel in the old church of prior to 1833 and was the cross-slab which, in 1841, was lying on the ground in the churchyard. In reality, the cross which served as a lintel was 85[59]. Kermode's "Manx Crosses" of 1907 perpetuated the effects of this printer's error.

It is probable that Onchan church was originally dedicated to Conchanus (or Connaghyn). The late J.J. Kneen, in Manx Place Names, 1926, drew attention to the three dog-headed cross-slabs found at Onchan and identified Connaghyn with St. Christopher, pointing out that the Irish form of "Christopher" is "Conchenn" or "dog-head". The late Canon Stenning appeared to support this idea and suggested that " is possible, therefore, that the dedication [of Onchan church] should be to St. Christopher..". He continued: "..This interesting theory is supported by the fact that the [parish] festival and fair used to occur in the week following St. Christopher's Day..".

However, Kneen's proposal regarding Conchenn and the dog-headed St. Christopher depends entirely on the animals featured on three of the six Onchan cross-slabs being identified as dogs. This is by no means certain. Although they are commonly referred to as being dog-headed, the use of this term is probably a matter of convenience. They were frequently called grotesque or monstrous animals. Of the early writers who were specific as to their identity, Townley thought that the one he saw in Onchan churchyard resembled an ape. Both Kinnebrook and Cumming suggested that the animals were cats although Cumming also described them as weasels and thought that one of them was like a dog. Thwaite identified them as weasels. In modern times, Mr. A.M. Cubbon, in THE ART OF THE MANX CROSSES has described the animals on cross-slab 92[62] " two dog-headed figures with gaping jaws, thought to represent a local Manx version of the lion..". There is also a similarity to the creatures referred to as dragons and found on the Kirk Michael crosses. Dogs, in fact, are rather low on the list.

The most recent and most authoritative work on St. Conchan is by Mr B.R.S. Megaw, a former Director of the Manx Museum. This appeared in The Journal of the Manx Museum, Volume 6, pages 187-192 entitled "Who was St. Conchan? - A Reconsideration of Manx Christian Origins".

Megaw, whilst agreeing with Kneen's proposal that the names Conchend and Conchan are formally the same, does not subscribe to identifying Conchend with the dog-headed St. Christopher. Megaw states that "..the dog-headed figures on the Onchan cross-slabs...appear elsewhere, for example, at Kirk Michael, and again on cross-slabs in the Pictish regions of Eastern Scotland, and nowhere (apart from Onchan) in association with either Christopher or Conchan dedications..".

Megaw concluded that "..recent work on the early Christian history and archaeology of the Celtic regions suggests that, where a church has from time immemorial borne the name of a more or less obscure insular saint, this probably commemorates the actual founder of the building, whose tomb was venerated there....Names like German, Carbery, Malew, Marown, Santan, Braddan, Conchan, Lonan, and others, can certainly be matched among the saints across the narrow seas: they represent once common personal names in areas of common speech...Where we meet with old Celtic names, such as St. is well-nigh certain that we are in the shadowy presence of the veritable founders of the Manx Church...In the meantime we shall probably not be far from the truth if we think of them as members of the ruling Manx families in the fifth and sixth centuries, whose bones lie under the ancient churches that bear their name to this day..". And so it appears that Conchan may well have been a member of the ruling family of the treen of Howstrake way back in the fifth century when Christianity was first established on the Island.


This may be the oldest of the Onchan crosses and was found by the Vicar of Onchan, the Rev. John Howard, in 1890. It was in use as a lintel in an out-building at the Vicarage and was carved on clay-slate with a cross within an oval shape. The four limbs of the cross terminate in crosslets. The upper and lower limbs have their crosslets enclosed within circles.

Dr. Larch Garrad of the Manx Museum suggests that this stone is a "leacht", a type of cross used to mark a grave which became a place of pilgrimage and attracted special penitentional devotions. A further leacht-style cross, now missing but numbered [12] by Kermode, was at Braddan churchyard and there may have been a series of these crosses marking a pilgrimage route.


This is the largest of the Onchan cross-slabs. It was illustrated as Plate 18 by Kinnebrook in 1841. There were printer's errors to plates 17 and 18 in Kinnebrook's "Etchings of the Runic Monuments" and the descriptive text to plate 18 should have read - "In Onchan Church-yard, lying on the ground, on the north side of the Church. It is five feet on the longest side, and twenty six inches wide. This was one of the lintels in the old Church".

With a thickness of around six inches it would have made a substantial lintel. Whether it formed part of the original stone church which replaced the old keeill in about the 12th. century is not known. It is probable that at that period the builders would not have desecrated a memorial to their forebears. However, at some time past it was incorporated into the fabric of the building and there the slab remained until the old church was demolished and replaced by the present building in 1833. The cross-slab was then returned to the churchyard and there left lying on the ground.

This cross-slab is carved on both sides with a shafted cross and a circle. The shaft is decorated with a plait or twist and ring pattern and dates from about the late 10th century.



This fragment had an equal-limbed cross with two concentric circles, the outer circle ornamented by a plait and the inner by a twist pattern. A sunk panel beneath the cross contains the figures of two dog-like monsters, although not in the same style as on 92[62] or 93[63].



Although perhaps dating from the 10th century, this cross-slab is Celtic in its style rather than Norse. The slab is very similar in its design to the incomplete slab with the single dog-headed monster, 93[63]. Had the latter survived intact it would probably have formed a twin to 92[62]. Kinnebrook noted the likeness in 1841 and it is highly likely that both crosses were executed by the same craftsman.

In 1797 John Feltham visited the Island and subsequently published his "Tour through the Island of Mann". He also recorded the monumental inscriptions to be found at that time in the parish churchyards, (Manx Society Volume XIV. 1868). He noted that in Onchan churchyard there stood what he described as "A large Danish monument, with an ornamental cross on it; fixed in the groove of a large round stone about 6 feet high". He used the word Danish to indicate the type of monument although we would now refer to it as either a Celtic, or a Norse, cross.

A drawing by William Kinnebrook which appeared in his "Etchings of the Runic Monuments in the Isle of Man", published in 1841, depicted a cross-slab set in a socket on a circular stone base. This plate, numbered 17, undoubtedly portrayed the cross-slab numbered 92[62] and depicted a pair of dog-headed monsters, one on either side of the shaft. If allowance is made for the transposing of Kinnebrook's texts to his plates 17 and 18, previously mentioned, the text would have read - "In Onchan Church-yard, a short distance to the north of the tower. The carving is rendered very indistinct by being covered with lichens. It is four feet ten inches high, and one foot seven inches wide".

Feltham's record in 1797 of "A large Danish monument, with an ornamental cross on it; fixed in the groove of a large round stone.." would be an apt description of the cross-slab 92[62] with its pair of dog-headed figures and the distinctive Fylfot design which is similar in appearance to the swastika symbol. The Fylfot was a decorative form of the Cross and was used in Christian art, including manuscripts and metalwork, and less frequently, in stonework. The writer believes that 92[62] is the cross which stood on the circular socket-stone base which Feltham described in 1797 and which was marked in Onchan churchyard on the Ordnance Survey's original 25 inch to the mile map of the 1860s.

92[62] thus appears to have been the only Onchan cross-slab to have remained in the original position in which it was set up in the churchyard of the old Howstrake keeill about one thousand years ago. It is a distinctive and decorative slab and, because of the dog-headed monsters, it is thought to have particular associations with Onchan. It is the most complete of the three crosses depicting these figures.



Richard Townley in a "Journal kept in the Isle of Man" in 1789, records in Volume II, pages 166-167, that " going into Kirk Onchan church-yard, this morning, I noticed a rude carving upon the highest step; the figure of a Danish warrior, in complete armour, with a number of Runic characters on one side of the stone. The other side of the stone had received considerable damage...It had been (no doubt) a grave covering stone...". The entrance to the churchyard at that time was at the lowermost portion of the churchyard wall adjacent to tne terrace of modern houses, opposite to Welch House. Townley's description does sound a little fanciful although it should be noted that near Loch Finlaggan on the Isle of Islay a similarly carved stone may be seen. The Onchan stone of the "Danish warrior", if it existed, appears not to have survived

However, Townley went on to say that "..Whilst I was attending to this discovery, the clerk of the parish came up to me, and showed me a stone in the church-yard, with an uncouth figure of an animal chisseled upon it. It was evidently intended to represent the figure of an ape, resting upon its posteriors, its jaws widely extended..". Of the three Onchan crosses which feature animals, this description might possibly apply to the single dog-headed monster on the fragment of a cross numbered 93[63]. However, Thwaite's History of 1863 claimed that this fragment, together with Thurith's cross, had formed part of the steeple of the old Onchan church which was demolished in 1833.

In 1841 Kinnebrook recorded the cross with the single monster as being in "..Mrs. Quane's garden.." at St Catherine's house. In 1849 this cross was advertised for sale, along with Thurith's cross, in an auction of furniture at St Catherine's. Evidently, it was not disposed of and was recorded in Black's Guide of 1888 as still being at St Catherine's.

In July 1892 the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society made an excursion to Onchan and the Proceedings of the Society recorded that "..the old Crosses in the churchyard were examined and remarked upon..". The account continued that " Hawthorn Ville (sic) Mr Callow exhibited two other crosses recently removed from St Catherine's garden..". One of these was the fragment with the single dog figure, 93[63]. The other cross was Thurith's, 141[113]. Hawthorn Villa was the home of the Callow family, owners, at the time of this excursion, of the Howstrake estate. It is now the offices of the Onchan District Commissioners.

Kermode recorded of this fragment, 93[63], that in "..about 1895, the proprietor, Mr Callow, returned it to the parish churchyard, whence, no doubt, it had been removed..".



This cross was first recorded by Kinnebrook in 1841 as standing in Mrs Martha Quane's garden at St Catherine's house in Onchan along with the single dog-headed monster cross, 93[63]. Rev. Cumming described Thurith's cross in 1861 as "..a slab of blue clay schist very rudely carved with crosses and scrawled over with Runes..". Thwaite's History of 1863 states that both this cross and 93[63] were built into the steeple of the old parish church

The runes which appear on either side of this slab have been read on one side as THE CROSS - JESUS CHRIST THURITH CARVED THESE RUNES and on the other side as ---SON ERECTED [this cross] TO THE MEMORY OF HIS WIFE MURIEL---UKIFAT AND RATHFRID.

Along with 93[63], Thurith's cross was offered for sale by auction in 1849 at St Catherine's but was still at that site in 1888. In July 1892 it was recorded at the Callow family home at Hawthorn Villa on the Main Road. Kermode stated that " December, 1892, it was placed by Mr F. Callow, the proprietor, in the church..".

Thurith's cross is one of perhaps only four Manx cross-slabs to include the Norse word "Runer", meaning runes, in its inscription. Part of its inscription reads THURITH RAIST RUNER, or Thurith carved these runes. The inscription on a cross at St John's church, German, 107 [81], includes the Norse "RAIST RUNAR". Michael 110 [85], the "Skull and Crossbones" gravestone, has the word RUNER cut along one edge. Maughold 115 [145} has the inscription UAN BRIST RAISTI THISIR RUNUR (John [the] priest cut these runes).

Runes from Thurith's cross representing the words KRUS ISU KRIST are reproduced on the modern lectern of St. Mary's Church at Hill Street in Douglas.

The six Onchan cross-slabs may be seen in the porch of St Peter's church along with a gable-cross, ascribed to the 12th century and presumably from the earlier parish church.

We have noted John Feltham's record of 1797 that in Onchan churchyard there stood what he described as "..A large Danish monument, with an ornamental cross on it; fixed in the groove of a large round stone about 6 feet high..". In September 1994 the compiler's researches led him to re-discover the socket-stone which Feltham mentioned. The ornamental cross, which the compiler believes to be that with the two dog-headed figures, 92[62], had been taken up and removed to the porch of the church. The socket-stone was left in situ and, in time, became lost.

The socket measures around 41 inches in diameter and the groove, which Feltham mentioned, is 23 inches in length by 3 inches in width. It is located about 20 yards north of the footpath at the corner of the church near to the door. It has been fashioned from a glacier-borne boulder of igneous rock, almost certainly brought from nearby Banks Howe.

Dr Ross Trench-Jellicoe commented, in a letter to the compiler, "..that socket stones are unusual in so far as they were often of little interest in comparison with the monuments they supported and so were either left in the ground and 'lost' as in the case of your find or were dug out and reused.." as building or walling material. "..Most Manx examples seem to be of the Lonan type...being a flat slab or chunk of slate rather than a deep shaped or stepped type as in northern Britain..". This Onchan socket-stone is shaped and is probably unique of its type in the Island. A considerable amount of work has been involved in creating it into an oval shape and with a relatively smooth and regular surface. The groove itself has been cut into this hard stone in an especially careful manner.

Coupled with the cross-slab of the two dog-headed monsters, this monument must mark the resting place of an eminent inhabitant in the hierarchy of tenth century Howstrake.

Throughout these notes on the Onchan cross-slabs, the name of Mrs Martha Quane frequently occurs along with mention of her garden. The house known as St Catherine's, which still exists on the corner of Avondale Road and St Catherine's Terrace in Onchan village was purchased in February 1832 from a Thomas Braid by John Quane, a wealthy merchant of Douglas. John Quane's will dated 27th August 1833, shortly before his death, provided that his estates were to be held in trust. The net income was to be paid, not as one might have expected, to his son John Joseph Quane, but to his son's wife Martha. During his lifetime, John Quane had advanced over £6,000 to his son who appears not to have been a good manager. The 1841 Census lists Martha, but not John Joseph Quane, as living at St Catherine's.

The first Ordnance Survey, published in the 1860s, had the legend "Sculptured Stones" in the vicinity of St Catherine's house. As well as the bell-turret and the gable cross together with its socket from the old church, these stones included Thurith's cross and the portion of a cross featuring one dog-headed monster. If Thwaites' History of 1863 is correct, both these cross-slabs had formed part of the structure of the old church's steeple. It thus appears that the "Sculptured Stones" at St Catherine's house were by-products of the demolition of the old church. Consecration of the present church took place on 5th September 1833 and presumably the demolition of the old church would have been after that date. This would coincide with Martha Quane taking over St Catherine's house on the death of her father-in-law. The compiler of these notes suggests that the Vicar made a gift to her of what was considered to be worthless building rubble which she incorporated into the landscaping of her garden at St Catherine's. The twist and ring pattern slab, 85[59], which had been used as a lintel in the old church was not removed to Martha's garden either because it had not at that stage been discovered, or because of its size and weight.

Jenkinson's Guide of 1878 describes the scene - "..In a private garden fronting St Catharine's fixed the old bell-turret of the church, surmounted by a cross; and in a rockery under a tree close by, are two ancient slabs..".

The bell-turret remains at St Catherine's, built into a section of the boundary wall of the property fronting onto St Catherine's Terrace.