Island of adventure

Crime writer Chris Ewan’s latest novel is set on the Isle of Man. He shares his experiences of his adopted home

Local legend has it that the Isle of Man is protected by a sea god, Manannán, who conceals the island from outside threats by cloaking it in a veil of mist. It’s a great excuse for lousy weather. It’s also a fitting myth for an island that’s often overlooked, even forgotten, but that contains countless secrets.

What lurks behind the fog? One answer is a stark yet spectacularly beautiful rock in the middle of the Irish Sea, 32 miles long by 14 miles wide, with 80,000 people clinging to it. The real answer is a land of contradictions.

Take the island’s political status. Although fiercely independent, with its own parliament and police force, it’s also a British Crown Dependency and the head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, who holds the title of Lord of Mann. In practical terms, this means the UK is responsible for the island’s defence and has a role in overseeing its government, while the island can pass its own laws – such as its infamously low tax rates.

Then there’s the island’s best-known spectacle, the TT (Tourist Trophy) motorbike races, held over a fortnight every June on a track covering 37.7 miles of public roads. Leading competitors can reach top speeds in excess of 200 mph and average lap speeds of over 131 mph. Billed as the ultimate test of man and machine and a major revenue spinner for the island, it’s also a highly controversial event, with high numbers of serious crashes and fatalities.

Chris Ewan: "a place like no other"
Chris Ewan: “a place like no other”

I’ve lived on the Isle of Man since 2003, destined always to be known as a ‘come over’ in Manx terms – unlike my wife, whose family are ‘Manx as the hills’. Sometimes the quirks of the place escape even me.

It took a visit from my London-based editor before one oddity struck home: at the end of the horseshoe-shaped bay of Douglas, the island’s capital, stands a towering set of letters that are reminiscent of the iconic Hollywood sign. They proudly spell the words ‘Electric Railway’, as if somehow a team of Manx boffins have only just stumbled upon this new and previously unheralded power source. And yet, the island can stake a claim to being technologically advanced. The headquarters of PokerStars, the online gambling giant, is located just above that anachronistic billboard, and the island boasts a thriving private space industry – it was named in 2010 as the fifth most likely nation (after the US, Russia, China and India) to be next on the moon.

In fairness, the sign for the Electric Railway dates back to Victorian times, when the Isle of Man was a hugely popular tourist destination, attracting up to 600,000 visitors a year and running the kinds of holiday camps that first inspired Billy Butlin. Nowadays, tourists are a little thinner on the ground, but if rumours are to be believed, other visitors are more frequent. Ever since I’ve lived on the Isle of Man, I’ve heard talk of it being used as a place to relocate people involved in UK witness protection schemes, which makes sense when you consider how the island seems to fly under the radar of many people’s consciousness – a subject I explored in my novel Safe House.

One area that’s always marked the island out as separate is its cultural myths and traditions

Some days it feels as if the island enjoys its hidden status. Other times, I get the impression the Manx relish the opportunity to shout about their home being wilfully different from ‘across’ (I learned early on never to refer to the UK as the mainland). For me, one area that’s always marked the island out as separate is its cultural myths and traditions, and at the heart of them all is Hop-tu-naa, the subject of my new novel, Dark Tides.

If you’ve never heard of Hop-tu-naa before, you’re not alone. I hadn’t heard of it before I moved here. Depending on who you believe, Hop-tu-naa is either the originator of Halloween or a fascinating variant, but one thing’s for sure – it’s certainly unique.

Like Halloween, Hop-tu-naa takes place on 31 October, although its origins are as a form of Celtic New Year’s festival, not unlike the Scottish Hogmanay. Not surprising, then, that a lot of the older Hop-tu-naa customs are linked to prophesying. One divination custom was that in days gone by, Manx families would spread out the ashes of a fire late on Hop-tu-naa with the expectation of finding a footprint the following morning. If a footprint appeared that pointed in towards the hearth, it augured well for a birth in the family. If, however, the footprint pointed out towards a door, then somebody would die. It was this custom that led to the idea behind Dark Tides.

But there’s more to Hop-tu-naa than soothsaying. No self-respecting Manxie would carve a pumpkin on Hop-tu-naa, since turnip lanterns are much more the thing. And Manx kids don’t go trick or treating – they call from door to door performing ‘nonsense songs’ instead. Nonsense songs vary across the island, but as the name suggests, they all feature peculiar, often rhyming and frequently sinister lyrics, as is the case with the most popular song, Jinny the Witch:

My mother’s gone away,
And she won’t be back until the morning,
Jinny the witch flew over the house,
To fetch the stick,
To lather the mouse,
My mother’s gone away,
And she won’t be back until the morning.”

But don’t be too spooked. With Hop-tu-naa and its creepy customs gone for another year, now is a great time to come and explore the secrets behind Manannán’s veil – jaw-dropping coastal terrain, stunning glens, dense plantations, beachside medieval castles and wonderful seafood (most notably the Queen Scallop, known locally as the Manx Queenie). Forgotten, overlooked or perhaps just ignored, the Isle of Man truly is a place like no other.

Dark Tides by Chris Ewan is out now, £14.99 (Faber & Faber). Main photo: the harbour at Port St Mary

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