Birds in Manx folklore

Thu, 21 Nov 2019

In the twelth in our series of articles about Manx folklore and calendar customs, this piece looks at the place of birds in Manx folklore - enchantresses in disguise, helpers of saints, or protectors of the poor against unscrupulous millers - their appearances are often surprising and wonderful! This was recently published in the Manx Independent:


Birds in Manx folklore

You have heard of the Moddey Dhoo of Peel Castle, but how about St. Catherine’s hen of Colby?

Although there are many animals in Manx folklore, it is birds which start to dominate at this time of year.

Of course, the most important is the ‘King of All Birds.’ When all the birds held a competition to determine who should be king, it was the eagle who flew higher than all the others, but it was the clever wren who hid under his wing and flew a short space above him!

This is mentioned at the end of the Hunt the Wren song: ‘The wren, the wren, the king of all birds / Was caught St. Stephen’s Day in the furze / Although he is little, his family is great / We pray you, good dame, to give us a treat!’

Another Hunt the Wren story is of the enchantress whose beauty mesmerised all the Manxmen. But inevitably she grew tired of them and tricked them into drowning in a stream. She then changed herself into a wren and escaped the vengeance of the Manx women. In memory of this, the Manx people go out dancing and singing around the wren on St. Stephen’s Day (26 December).

Another popular bird in Manx folklore is the lhondhoo (blackbird), who features in a lovely Manx song.

‘Lhondhoo, lhondoo / Vel oo cheet? Vel oo cheet?’ – ‘Blackbird, are you coming?’ sings the mother sadly on her nest. But there she waits as her husband fails to return to help with the children. If you listen closely to the bird’s song in the wild, you will still be able to hear her singing this song.

The lhondhoo also caught out a crooked miller in Baldwin. It spotted him taking a double measure of corn and cried out noisily in Manx from the bush outside: ‘The miller of Baldwin is a bad rascal / He is the biggest thief on the earth!’ The miller hastily put back the stolen corn!

Another worthy bird was the curlew, who helped St. Patrick when he was lost in mist at sea with a sea-beast after him. The curlew called out from Peel Hill, ‘Come you! Come you!’ and, recognising the call, St. Patrick leapt to safety on the hill. In repayment, the saint declared that no one would ever find the curlew’s nest.

Rather less fortunate was the hen at Colby.

A group of young men used to walk around the Colby fair on 6 December carrying a dead hen whilst singing its sad song. This mock funeral was for Kiark Catreeney (Catherine’s Hen), who the men eventually chopped up and buried the head and feet. The rest they took to the pub, where they enjoyed a chicken dinner and a lot of ale!

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.