King Orry, the three-legged giant

Thu, 23 May 2019


In the fifth in our series of articles about Manx folklore and calendar customs, this pieces looks at the most famous figure of Manx Norse history, King Orry, who has left his mark all over the Island's placenames and folklore. This was recently published in the Manx Independent:

King Orry, the three-legged giant

Throwing rocks on North Barrule, a giant in St. John’s, a murder in Laxey – you know you’re in for a good story when King Orry is involved.

We are familiar with Godred “Orry” Crovan as a figure in history, whose arrival established Tynwald government and the Island’s celebrated place within the Norse world. But it is perhaps this historical importance which puts him in so much folklore.

Of course, there is King Orry’s Grave on the edge of Laxey. The name could seem strange attached to a Neolithic tomb, but it’s not to be dismissed.

The association was so important in the 1850s that an English visitor was forced to stay in Ramsey as no amount of bribey would induce a coach driver to go along that stretch of the road after dark. The reason was that this was the supposed site of the great king’s murder, and presumably the darkness connected to the murder still haunted the area.

This isn’t the only supposed resting place of Orry – ‘King Orry’s Grave’ is an alternative local name for ‘the Giant’s Grave’ behind Tynwald Hill in St. John’s.

This link between King Orry and giants comes up regularly. Perhaps his stature as ‘the big man’ of Manx history blurs into his being an actual giant. (The Manx word ‘mooar’ can mean either big or important).

This makes sense of how it is King Orry who is supposed to have been the giant who threw a rock from North Barrule into Bulgham Bay. Three times the rock made its own way back up the hill, only for Orry to throw it back again, until the fourth time, when it remained where it stands today.

But things get even more complicated here as the Manx name of this rock is Creg Vanannan. Translating as ‘Manannan’s Rock,’ King Orry is now confused with that other great Manx figure; Manannan.

This explains a story told by labourers in Douglas harbour in 1855, of the ancient wizard king who hid the Island from invaders with his magical mist. This sounds like Manannan, until we hear that the wizard was also a giant, with three legs, called ‘King Horry’!

Orry, it seems, can be found everywhere. He’s even in the stars.

It is said that when he first landed in the Isle of Man it was at the Lhen. The Manx asked him where he had come from and he pointed to the Milky Way, the way-marker towards his home in the North. Even even today a Manx phrase for the galaxy remains ‘Raad Mooar Ree Gorree’ (King Orry’s Big Road).

Today Orry’s name remains all around us, but one tale assures us that he is actually still alive. Having been spellbound he has lain slumbering for over 1,000 years in the Devil’s Den close to South Barrule. But one day he will awaken to once more rule this land.

Perhaps then we’ll see if he really is a giant with three legs!

The article will soon be 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.