Blue-badge guide and member of the Guild of Manx Registered Tour Guides, Chris Callow of Island Heritage Tours, introduces us to the wonderful world of Manx tholtans. Although they are rapidly disappearing from the Island’s landscape there are still many to be found whilst exploring the Island.

Our Island is blessed with wide-open spaces, and with many enjoying domestic staycations and recognising the importance of exercise and wellness, more and more of us are venturing into the Manx countryside. As we explore country lanes, moorland tracks, glens and plantations, we come across abandoned buildings; some standing tall, perhaps the roof sagging, others no more than a tumble of stones.

If you’re like me, you want to know who lived there? What was their life like? And why did they leave? In the Isle of Man we call these places ‘tholtans’, which means simply ruined buildings, generally former dwellings. Often in beautiful and remote locations, they have a strange fascination because they offer us a tangible link to the simpler lives of our ancestors.  Lamenting the abandonment of traditional Manx ways in the 19th century our National Poet T. E. Brown wrote: ‘Old Manx is waning, she’s dying in the tholtan’.

But there is currently a surge of interest in these old places. Recently Ray Kelly has published a series of books with fine photography of tholtans all over the Island following Mike Goldie’s earlier work, ‘Tholtans of the Manx Crofter’, and in 2017 the Manx Museum mounted a very popular special exhibition on Manx Tholtans. In recent weeks Manx Radio have broadcast a short series of visits with Ray to some tholtan sites. Ray has estimated that when he started visiting tholtans there were around 400 sites, now he is concerned that perhaps half that number remain.

So how do you set about tholtan-bagging? A good place to start is the Facebook group Tholtans Isle of Man where enthusiasts post pictures of places they have visited, often leading to discussions bringing out a lot of information to enhance your visits. But before heading for the hills, do be aware that many of the sites listed in the books and on-line are on private land with no public right of access. A very useful tool is the Isle of Man Outdoor Leisure Map (1:25,000) which colour codes public land open to ramblage and public rights of way.

For an easy taster head up to Glen Dhoo in the North of the Island, a nature reserve maintained by the Manx Wildlife Trust. Use the car-park behind Ravensdale House in Ballaugh Glen and walk the short track up the valley to view ‘the Purt’, a roofless ruin set idyllically by a bubbling stream. For the more adventurous a walk further up the valley reveals the remains of another farmhouse and a mill.

One of my favorite tholtans is the remote Crammag farm, visible from the Sulby Reservoir car park. Here in 1896 was born my grandmother Bessie Cowley, the last of a long line of that family to be born there. Studying recently at University College Isle of Man for a degree in History & Heritage, I wrote my dissertation on these isolated upland farms in Sulby Glen, learning to extract from land records, parish registers and census returns the stories of the families that lived there, often for unbroken generations.

As a blue-badge guide I enjoy taking visitors and locals to some of the less-accessible ruins, explaining their origins, how they were built and farmed, and what led to their abandonment. I think there is a lot we can learn from the simple lives these people lived in harmony with their surroundings.