Part 2 History

The "Seed of Isaac" is an essential book for those investigating the Kissack family name. Written by Revd Rex Kissack in the 1980's and published here by kind permission of his widow Elizabeth Kissack.

Here is Part 2:

Manx Nomenclature

Genealogy is an impossible art where there is no established system of family names. Forces that undermine the stability of marriage and the necessity of its registration threaten the Family Historian very seriously. But of course for long ages there was no system of surnames and no recorded registration. Camden in the l6th century wrote that there was no evidence of hereditary surnames in England before the Conquest. He suggested that they then originated in the South of the country about the end of the 11th century, though in the North they were hardly universal till the beginning of the 15th. In Wales surnames were occasionally ignored up to the end of the 18th century. In Scotland Lowlanders began to favour them in the 12th century, though the process was not completed till the 16th or 17th. Isaac Taylor tells us that they usually began with Barons and Franklins, next they were adopted by tradesmen and artisans, and lastly by labourers - a pattern that suggests it was property and privilege they were designed to protect.

In Ireland however, patronymics have been found at the beginning of the 10th century, and developed over the next two. A more elementary protection was being sought here - that of existence itself. Blood is thicker than water and makes the best cement for defence. Here and in the highlands the patronymic banded together groups and clans that shared a common ancestry, e.g., O'Neills. Where then does the Isle of Man fit into all this?

No one has ever been able to explain the origins and ethnic make-up of the population of the Island. Orosius (c.416) says it was inhabited by a race of Scots. Bede, 200 years later, says it had a population of upward of 300 families (as against Anglesey's 960). Any pattern of natural expansion must have been shattered by the Norse invasions. Some scholars have suggested on linguistic and physiological grounds that on perhaps two occasions the whole population was exterminated and replaced. When the Island was under Norse control between 1095 and 1266, intermarriage replaced apartheid, and we expect the Island would have followed the Norse system of the variable patronymic of son or daughter of the father. On linguistic grounds, and probably with more justification, it has been suggested that there was a considerable immigration of Gaelic speakers from Scotland after 1266, whilst the Island was under Scots hegemony.

If this period influenced the Island, it never gave it a Clan system to match the Scots or Irish. Some Manx students, however, have thought they could detect traces of some such system in the concentration of certain family names in certain parts of the Island, particularly in those blocks of land held under the same patronymic, as found in the earliest landowning records at the end of the 15th century. These concentrations show particularly clearly in the northern parishes of Andreas, Bride, Lezayre, Jurby and Maughold, where the two families of McTeres and McNeils held between them a total area equivalent to the parish of Jurby.

The only light that can be thrown on the process of the development of the Manx surname comes from such documents. Certainly the first recorded names of those 15th century land-holders almost universally carry the prefix Mac. J. J. Kneen records such forms earlier, MacKerthac (1238), MacIotlin (1116) and MacMaras (1098). The same applies to the l6th century, but the Rolls which begin early in the 17th century show only 7 names out of 134 carrying a Mac. Instead the Mac has been reduced to an opening C or some other guttural, and most names are recognisable, despite varieties of spelling, as mainly the Manx surnames of today.

Another feature of these 15th century documents is the rich abundance of forenames, almost all of which evolve later into typical surnames. One such is Hawley McIssac. Hawley is a most unusual Christian name, but with Mac added it reveals itself as Cowley, a common Manx surname This coupling of seeming forenames by the prefix Mac, on the one hand, and the emergence of surnames so created, on the other, could well suggest that the start of the Stanley regime in 1405 marked the final stages of the adoption of family patronymics. Certainly if the new monarch was to establish a firm order of government after 150 years of relative laisser-faire, some system of surnames on the English pattern would be a pre-requisite for roll-making and taxation. In fact one of his early Tynwalds (in 1422), was interrupted by an armed intervention, allegedly against the imposition of a poll-tax, and in it Hawley and Donald MacIsaac were heavily involved.

But what of the origin of our particular family name ?

The title of this study, SEED OF ISAAC, is a double-entendre. My first personal family research revealed that I came of a sept of the family that began with an illegitimate child born in 1765 and intriguingly and uniquely baptised as Isaac. But the family name itself seems to mean Seed of Isaac too.

As such the name has forms all over the world. In Singapore I came across a Muslim ben Itzak. Israel has it's Yitzaks too. The Christian Church counts it among the Bible names it uses for forenames. Probably it is the root behind Hungarian and Czech names like Husak and Cizek.

J. J. Kneen's Manx Personal Names regards Kissack as so deriving and categorises it simply as a Bible name. Yet this is to overlook the fact that no other Old Testament name has become a common Manx surname (obviously to disregard Cain). Is this then an oversimplification? Could the name derive through some other, more particular, personality ?

For one possibility we need look no further afield than the Calendar of the Saints of the Celtic Church. Here is an 8th century St. Kessog, who has his feast on March 10th, and his own piece of hagiography. Born at Cashel in Munster, son of the king, who would be one of the two high-kings of Ireland, he became a Culdee, a product of the early Celtic monasteries, who alternated monastic life with missionary journeys. One of these took him to Inch-ta-Vannach, an island in Loch Lomond. Ultimately he suffered martyrdom at Bandry, where there is still a stone to commemorate him, called Carn-na-Chessaig, in the parish of Luss, where also the church is dedicated to him. Other areas also have associations with him. Perthshire, Inverness, Caithness, Lennox. Soldiers had a special veneration for him and he is portrayed in military dress with arrows and a bended bow. As late as 1695 his Bell, a sacred relic was listed among the feudal investitures of the Earldom of Perth.

Such a figure would be sufficient to account for the name MacKissock in Scotland. Not, naturally, to claim descent from him, for although celibacy was not a rigid rule in Celtic lands, converts would be more likely to take the name of the missionary as a new, Christian, name.

But if we wish to explain the presence of the name of Kissack in the Isle of Man as having entered the north of the Island in the era of Scots ascendancy, we should expect that the Scots element of the family would outnumber the Manx. But this is hardly justified by figures. The Mormon microfiches which index the parish records of both Scotland and the Isle of Man enable a comparison for the 18th and 19th centuries to be made. Taking all the entries in the Scots registers of surnames that reflect a McIsaac root in some form, and setting them against the Manx figures for the same period, there are in all 345 entries for all Scotland, 41 of which lack the Mac. For the Island there are 2,550 entries, which if anything might imply that the Manx had perhaps originated the Scots branches. But no one would want to claim that, although most of the plain (non-Mac) Kissock entries are found in South-west Scotland. Later we shall see evidence of one Kirkcudbright family which did cultivate relations with a Manx family.

What of an Irish connection? An Irish priest serving St. Mary's Catholic Church in Douglas in 1861 in recording a marriage of the family, not only latinised, as duty demanded, James into Jacobus, but hibernised Kissack into Cusack. Edward MacLysaght in his The Surnames of Ireland distinguishes between a MacKissack line and a Cusack one, recognising an older Celtic root for the first, but assigning an Anglo-Norman origin to the latter. Even so de Keussac is an interesting name, perhaps enshrining a Breton name which itself relates to the same root. But I cannot but wonder whether Edward MacLysaght's own name may not itself be a derivation of the same root. In Irish the vestigial 'I' can indicate the elision of Gilli-, (servant of). The basic root then is revealed as Ysaght, a form very close to the oldest form of the word in relation to the Isle of Man.

This is found in a document of 1377, a bull of Pope Gregory XI from Avignon, in which he confirms the rector of Moliwe (Malew) in his benefice. His name is Malcolm Ysage. At least that is how scholars now transliterate the 14th century script. Volume xxiii of the Manx Society Publications (produced last century) then printed the word as Ysaye - Isaiah rather than Isaac. Later decyphering, however, has preferred 'g' to 'y', no doubt because thus it corresponded to a known Manx name.

In Ireland between 1792 and 1854 microfiche records show in Ulster 7 entries of different forms of the plain name Kissack. These will be considered in connection with the presence in N. Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars of a regiment of Manx Fencibles. Unfortunately the reduced state of Irish records pre-empt any detailed study of the name in Ireland.

It is to the script of the earliest Manx records that appeal must be made in any judgment of Paris between Patriarch Isaac and St. Kessog. MacKissock is a form where the initial Mac could mask whether the root name began with a vowel or with a gutteral which would be lost in the 'c' of the prefix. But the early Manx documents so write the prefix as to show that the stem name begins with a vowel, Ysag (or more usually, Isag or Issak). Kessog then must be ruled out, and if the uniqueness of an Old Testament name forming a Manx patronymic causes concern, we must make what we can of the fruitless speculation that perhaps a medieval Jewish family once settled in the Island, and produced Catholic priests.

There are many spellings of the name in those early manuscripts : MacIsaak and MacIssake (1418); MacKissage (1429); MacIssaak (1511); Kissag (1610); Kissaige, Kissag, Kissauge, (1610); Kissage (1807); Kissaack (1812). When spelt with a 'g', (even 'ge'), it was always pronounced hard. The variety of spellings suggests that the accent was then always on the last syllable. With illiterates, records were always made by word of mouth and so spelling depended on the ear and whim of the clerk.

When Lezayre needed a new parish clerk in the 1770s, three John Kissacks set their marks to the petition; all spelt their names in different ways, yet this did not prove a clue to differentiate themselves and their families, for when in 1774, Ewan the old miller of Lezayre and his wife Mary Corkish made their will, Ewan on one line set his mark by the spelling Kissage, and Mary sets hers on the line below to the spelling Kissagg.

Nor can one find significance in the fact that while the Mac forms used a k-ending, the non-Mac forms developed a g-ending. Nor that other forms like Kisig or Kisag, (found usually in parts of the Island where the family was rarer than in Lezayre and the North), can be set in a gradual transition until about 1800 when the modern form again with a 'k' ending finally prevailed. For in a document of 1705, of some importance to this history, and to be found elsewhere in exteso, the name is spelt Kissack. In Ramsey seemingly the k-ending continued through the 17th century. Normally this study will use the modern form and ignore all variations.

It was not until 1598 that it became a rule for parish priests to keep records of baptisms, marriages and deaths. Not unnaturally it was the two parishes adjacent to the bishop's palace, Ballaugh and Michael, that seem to have taken the order most to heart. Others, (unfortunately including Lezayre and Marown) with Kissack connections, have long lacunas. These registers show a great contrast in respect of the fewness of forenames as against the profusion of these in the l5th and l6th century records. During 200 years Kissacks were to use only some 36 male and rather more female names. Feltham, that tireless visitor to the Island in about 1800, who copied the monumental inscriptions in every churchyard except Braddan, states that he had not found 20 instances of anyone bearing a second Christian name. About 1830 an explosion of more exotic second names appear, and the 20th century saw the forename really come into its own, trebles and even quartets of names.

But in the 17th, 18th and most of the 19th century Kissacks made the name John serve for 148 of their scions, William 127, Robert 67, Thomas 43, James 35, and Edward 38. Among the girls the top seven were Catherine, Elleanor, Margaret, Ann, Jane, Elizabeth and Isabel. At the other end of the scale one wonders why Molly Kissack called the illegitimate child she bore at Ramsey in 1785, Selathiel (and indeed whatever became of him?).

But then he would not have been a Kissack. It was a custom in the Isle of Man that an illegitimate child bore his father's surname, if he acknowledged him. The custom lasted till in the 1870's the compulsory registration of births was made law, and it was directed that from then on illegitimate children should be registered in the mother's name. It was a custom that had irritated the 7th Earl of Derby in the middle of the 17th century. He expressed himself to his son about it when he was warning him to take good care in regard to the Christian family, who took advantage of it to "form a faction", as he called it :

'One once said (in a pleasant humour) he thought the Deemster (Christian) did not get so many bastards for lust's sake, as in policy - to make the name of Christians flourish . It is not so much that so many be called Christian, but they have made themselves chief here, they are crept into the principle places of power; they be seated round about the country and in the heart of it; they are matched with the best families; have the best livings; and must not be neglected . . .

'It be very true there be many bastards here in this Isle and he is to be wondered at who wonders at it. But sure it would be very well if that law were here as in other places, that all known bastards be called after their mother's names. And there is more reason f or it here, in respect they are subject to make factions. Men of one name side with one another against anybody. Nor do they love or esteem less because their friend, brothers or sisters be base born.'

But few mothers had so broad a taste for names as Selathiel's. Consequently the genealogist faces endless frustration. For if his task is impossible without surnames, it is still extremely difficult if the adoption of surnames is to mean a diminution in the variety of Christian names. (It is also ponderable whether the imposition of the surname system was not a step in the process of depersonalisation; when a man had no surname his personal name was indeed a noun; but with surnames, the forename tends to become merely adjectival - a convenient enumeration to distinguish siblings.)

Gerald Hamilton-Edwards in his In Search of Scottish Ancestry comments on the Scots as developing a well-accepted pattern of naming children, the eldest and second sons after paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively, the eldest and second daughters after maternal and then paternal grandmothers, the third son and daughter after their parents. There seems no trace of any such habit in the Kissack family, nor I believe generally in any Manx family. Families tended to use the same group of names, thus intensifying the limitation of names and the escalation of namesakes. Ewan was a name used often in the family in Lezayre and Maughold in the 17th and 18th centuries, but hardly elsewhere. John and William however were popular in all branches. Sometimes the same name was used more than once in the same family. In 1715 the will of William Kissag, junior, of Onchan leaves his sheep 'to his three brothers, John Paul and William'. And of course if one child bearer of a name died, it was not considered taboo to use it for a later birth. There was a tendency for eldest sons to be named after their father.

The Isle of Man and its People

Though modern communications with the Mainland are usually via Liverpool, 70 miles away, there are only 21 miles of water that separate the Point of Ayr from the Mull of Galloway, and 16 from Burrow Head. The town of Kirkcudbright is only 24 miles distant, and Whitehaven 28. Strangford Lough in Ireland is 27 miles from Peel. So even when ships were relatively primitive, communications were always possible, and when neighbouring parts of England, Scotland or Ireland were the theatres of political or military activity, the Isle of Man was likely to be involved.

The Island is some 30 miles long and 11 wide. It consists of some 140,000 acres, of which about one fifth are mountain and moor. A chain of mountains, reaching 2,000 feet at their highest, runs from south of Ramsey in the north-east to the south-western tip. This backbone is broken by a central cross-valley with Douglas at the east, and Peel at the western end, once a strait dividing the two islands. Today the Manx regard the valley as distinguishing Northside from Southside. but historically it was the mountain chain that separated what was called South from North, a fact to be born in mind by historians, when old South might mean modern East, and old North, West.

There are 17 parishes in the Island, rather more extensive than the English ecclesiastical parish, and they have a political and civic origin. They are grouped into 6 Sheadings, and boundaries run from the mountain crests down to the sea. These ancient divisions give each parish access both to the mountain resources of peat and grazing and to the wrack and fish of the seas. Only one parish, Marown, has no coast, and Bride, Jurby and Andreas, the parishes of the northern alluvial plain, do not touch the highlands. Marown was probably once linked with Santon, and the northern parishes contain 'curragh', i.e., bog, with its own peat deposits.

The climate has been called mild and genial. The mean annual summer temperature is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the mean winter one only some 8 degrees lower, and so is one of the most equable climates in Europe, and some of the physical and psychological characteristics of the Manx may reflect this. A 17th century description of the land reads:

"The soil in the north parts is very healthy, sandy and gravely, and the north-east has a large part of meadow, called Curraghs, which was formerly under water, but is now drained and well-improved; but in the South there are good meadows and pastures . . ."

"All parts will produce store of wheat, barley, rye and oats of late since they have learned the art of liming their lands, and manuring them with sea-weeds; and some places have plenty or honey, flax and hemp, and export yearly some fish-oil . . .

"They have cattle of all sorts; but their meat and horses are small and poor. Their sheep thrive well, are fat and well-tasted; and their wool is very good, especially that which they call Laughton wool, which when carefully dressed makes a cloth near a hare colour, which is one of the greatest natural rarities of the country . . .

"They have plenty of goats and hogs of the ordinary sort, besides a small kind which live wild on the mountains, called purs, which are admirable meat; and some red deer on the mountains, but they belong to the Lord of the Isle, the Earl of Derby. They have no wood on the Isle, nor is there a tree to be seen, though in former times there was plenty, and timber is to be found in their bogs. They have not yet discovered any sea-coal for firing in their soil, yet they have plenty imported. The poorer sort make use of gorse, heath, ling and broom, and a coarse sort of turf or peat in digging."

A century later another visitor put it :

"The place itself may be called properly enough a rocky mountain; little space being left either for Arable or Pasture, and nothing of Wood or Forest in the whole Island. You may ride many miles and see nothing but a Thorn Tree, which is either fenced round, or some other precaution taken, that so great a rarity may receive no Prejudice. Hedges they have none, but what are made of clay; but they have a great quantity of Fern and Goss that serves them to bake their bread instead of wood . . . Yet notwithstanding the present scarcity of timber, the natives tell you it was once a very wooded country . . . but this is supposed to be before the Flood . . the Flow of waters might on leaving it, have thrown up the Earth in such mountains and buried the Trees beneath their monstrous Weight . . ."

Facts are that in 1629 Whipping was the enacted penalty for breaking trees or quick-sets, a penalty which later became to plant 5 trees for every one hurt for the first offence, and 10 for a second. The third meant prison. The preciousness of timber is often revealed in the records of sales annexed to Wills in the inventories of 18th century deceased's effects. Far instance at the Kella farm, Lezayre, in 1770 a spinning-wheel sold for 4/6d., while a 'piece of Cedar' brought in 13/6d.

In such an environment how did the Manx of the last three centuries live? Again let us hear our 18th century Waldron in 1731 :

"The Island being very rocky, the buildings are mostly of stone : I mean those which are inhabited by the Gentry; as for the others, they are no more than Cabins built of sods and covered with the same, except a few belonging to the better sort of farmers, which are thatched with Straw . They have two Conveniences . . . the finest Brooks in the world continually running near them, and Turf, which makes very sweet firing at their doors.

A visitor in 1820 found Manx life as :

"They are not a gracious people; they are slow in their apprehensions, and somewhat cold-hearted in manner, if not in reality, towards strangers . . What an English peasant would consider as a state of actual starvation is scarcely regarded by a Manxman as including any particular deprivation. From birth they are habituated without effort or design to live very hardily. Herring, potatoes, oatmeal, and these in very moderate quantities, are the general fare, equally of the small farmer and the labourer."

"The latter resides contentedly in a cottage of mud, under a roof of straw so low that a man of middling stature can hardly stand erect in any part of it. If to the common necessaries above stated the good people add a stock of turf for the fire, and a cow fed in the lanes and hedges, they enjoy the utmost abundance of which they have any idea. A chaff bed for the whole family, a stool and a wooden table constitute the furniture of the mansion; And here they vegetate in heaps."

And again :

"Their horses are generally fleet, but small and very hardy. They wear no shoes, eat no corn, nor ever go into a stable, but when they come off a journey, though the weather be never so bad, are only turned loose to graze before their doors or in an adjoining field. Their owners, or the greater part of them, go bare foot except on Sundays, or when they are at work in the field, and have only small pieces of Cows' or Horses' hide at the bottom of their feet, tied on with packthread, which they call 'carrans'."

"Their food is commonly Herring and Potatoes or Bread made of Potatoes : for notwithstanding the great plenty of Salmon, Cod, Eel, Rabbits and Wild Fowl of all sorts, the ordinary people either cannot or will not afford themselves anything else. They are however strong. 1 have seen a little woman tuck up her petticoats and carry a very lusty man on her back through the river."

We can gain some idea of their dress from so me 17th century prints of Castletown. In the then administrative capital of the Island the bourgeois civil servant mixed with the countryman. These last can be detected as figures draped in sleeveless wraps like Highland plaids, a form of dress the Manx would once have shared with the Gaelic peoples of Ireland and Scotland, though they had neither tartan or kilt. Their plaid would be of plain wool. A 1629 document refers to 'the farmer's Sunday blanket', which would normally be white, and presumably he would have had a work-a-day one too. Beneath would be trews or breeches, waistcoats and stockings, sometimes footless, sometimes looped round the toe. Footwear was, of course, those carranes of untanned cowhide with the hair outside, and worn mostly as protective footwear while at work. Town and better class dress took its style from England, and garments were treasured for more than one generation of wearer.

William Kissag, dictating his will in 1683 leaves to his brother Hugh his 'best serge coat and undercoat, his white stockings and hat'. Isabel Kissage enlivened her deathbed by awarding her dresses to eager and anxious cronies. In February, 1732, John Kissag left to his step-son Thomas Corlett 'all his shaped clothes', but not his shoes. These, he said, would not do him good, and 'so his loving wife should take 'em'.

By the 18th century, a Manxwoman would wear a petticoat of homespun, often dark red, drawn in at the waist with large pleats, worn with a linen broad-collared bodice. A small checked linen apron was worn over the skirt, a white kerchief round the neck and a mob cap or sun bonnet. Outdoors she wore a long semi-circular cloak of homespun with a wide hood.

These commentators of past centuries remark on two national characteristics of the Manx - longevity and litigiousness. When Feltham did his mammoth task of recording the monumental inscriptions in Manx churchyards at the end of the 18th century he expressed amazement at some of the ages recorded: 'In Lezayre churchyard are buried 32 persons between 71 and 80, 7 between 81 and 88, and one of 96. A poor woman of the parish had entered her 100th year.'

And our 18th century commentator writes :-

"The longevity of the inhabitants is proverbial: but it is chiefly confined to those only who pass their lives in rural occupations, breathing the mountain air, habituated to early hours, living on a simple diet, remote from the populous towns, and unsophisticated by the refinements and luxuries of high life."

As for lawsuits :

" . . . they are neither expensive nor tedious, but that draws on a Misfortune of as bad, if not worse, consequence than either of the others : which is that over-cheapness renders them frequent."


"The love of litigation is almost wholly confined to the lower orders. The peasant has been accustomed from infancy to consider the deemster as the guardian of his rights and an infallible decider of all disagreements."

The Manxman feels that this officer has a close and local knowledge of the character, family history and circumstances of every client in his little district."

It was not unknown for men in dispute to waylay the deemster and have him settle their case by the roadside.

On the whole Kissacks seem to have been more litigated against than litigating. They did however in Lezayre have neighbours notoriously the other way inclined, and would occasionally feature as witnesses. Michael Kissage found himself in 1770 in a battle royal between two such ferocious local litigists of the day, as Standish Christian (of the family that produced the Pilgrim's captain) and Margaret Brew, over a family will of john Cowle of the Kella. Standish claimed that Margaret (the deceased's sister) had unduly influenced him against the interests of his other sisters, one of whom Standish was married to. Michael who was the miller of the Kella was asked whether Margaret had not besotted him with drink, only to reply that on the contrary, on his daily visits he had heard John constantly complain that she would be putting too much water in his spirits. This case cost Standish some £13 in costs.

Perhaps the most significant feature of Manx society was its absence of class. The Manx have never had any hereditary nobility. In the 17th century an observer remarked how a common outlook

"... pervaded all classes, or rather the one great class; for with the exception of the officers sent over by Lord Derby . . the residue of the population were alike subject to the sudden depression of poverty."

True, as the 18th century went on certain families, notably the Christians, the Castletown Quayles and the Moores, worked up great wealth through trade, intermarried with each other and with the squirearchy of the north of England, and established an aristocracy of wealth. There was also an indefinable status division that shows itself in the rough working documents of the period - parish assessments, auction accounts, etc., - between those who were given a Mr. or Mrs. to their names, and those who were plain John Corlett or Mark Kissag. The only branch of Kissacks that I know of who attained this accolade was the branch who went into commerce in Ramsey about the end of the 18th century. But William I of the ilk needed to be worth £10,000 at his death in 1813 before he and his wife were so referred to, and his son William II after him. But Standish Christian and Margaret Brew had been in that bracket for a generation.

Waldron, our 18th century observer, was an English civil servant sent to keep an eye on the Revenue interest of the British government in an anomalous fiscal situation which could be exploited by Manx smugglers very profitably. He writes of the Manx manners and way of life (perhaps with a jaundiced eye):

"... knives forks and spoons are Things in so little use that at those houses which are accounted the best you shall not find above 3 or 4 knives at a table where perhaps there are 20 guests, and as for forks nothing may seem more awkward than their attempting to make use of them. They are admirable dextrous in dissecting a Fowl with their Fingers, and if the Operation happens to be more than ordinarily difficult, they take one quarter in their Teeth, and with both their Hands wrench the Limbs asunder. This I have seen done among very wealthy People, and who would not deny themselves these Conveniences if they thought them of any Consequence."

"...The only diversion of the Better sort of People is Drinking; the best wines and rum and brandy being excessively cheap, by reason of their paying no Custom for it, and a Man may drink himself dead without much expense to his Family ..."

"... The Poor and the Parsimonious may live as cheap and as miserable as they wish: and People who have full Pockets and excellent Taste need want nothing to indulge the luxury of the most Epicurian appetite."

The great social occasions were weddings and christenings, the celebration of Christmas and the Queen of the May. He says :

"£20 is a good Portion for a Mountaineer's daughter. Notice is given to all friends and relations. None fails except in case of sickness to come and bring something for the Feast . . . a dozen of Capons on one Platter, and 6 or 8 fat geese on another. Sheep and hogs are roasted whole, an ox divided into quarters."

Waldron writes of the Amusements and Pastimes of his day:

"The young men are great shooters with Bows and Arrows with frequent shooting matches, parish against parish."

Of indoor activities he is less complimentary:

"Dancing, if I may call it so - Jumping and Turning round at least, to the Fiddle and Bass Viol - is their great diversion."

Funerals too stinted nothing; it all came out of the estate. It cost £8-18-9d. to lay John Cowle away in Lezayre in 1770. £1-18-6d. went on brandy at 5/6d a gallon, and 21/- on ales. There were 31 lbs of sugarloaf at 8d a pound, 12 lbs of Ham of Bacon at 3d per lb., 24 fowls at 2d each, 4 loaves at 7d, and 'a Lamb for the Funeral' 3/6. So much for a "Mister". At the other end of the scale, Hugh Kissag (brother of John of the Curragh) who died young and poor in 1718, cost only 15/3.5d to bury. His account reads: "Candles 5d, Sheet 5/10, Ale 3/6, Shirt 2/9, Tobacco 7.5d, Buriall 2/-'.

Morality and the Spiritual Courts

Waldron concluded his description of Manx jollifications with the cryptic sentence: "After such times there never fails to be some work made for Kirk Jarmyns." His reference is to the Manx Spiritual Laws, a system that put parochial affairs almost entirely into the hands of the Clergy Chapter Courts. These had their own code of moral behaviour and ways of inculcating it.

Each year the Vicar and his Wardens appointed a 'Quest' of four men to help them seek out and 'present' any offenders before the parish court. Issues of marriage and sexual aberration, witchcraft, disregard of worship and holy days, drunkenness, slander, cursing and brawling made up the bulk of their work, and the rough scribbled agenda and findings surviving from the mid-17th to the early 19th centuries shed a remarkable light on the shadier side of Manx life and manners. Similar systems had prevailed earlier on the mainland, but the Manx outlasted even the Scottish by almost a century.

The sanctions of these Courts included tongue-bridles, ducking stools, even dragging behind boats, as well as the humiliating public exposure of penance. But behind all was "the strong argument called Kirk Jaronyms", the Bishop's prison in the crypt of St. German's Cathedral in Peel Castle. Let Waldron speak:

"The stairs descending to the Place of Terrors are not above 30, but so steep and narrow that they are very difficult to go down, a Child of 8 or 9 years not being able to pass them but sideways. Within it are 13 Pillars on which the whole Chapell is supported. They have a superstition that whatsoever Stranger goes to see this Cavern out of Curiosity, and omits to count the Pillars, shall do something to occasion being con fined there . . . There are places for Penance also under the other Churches containing very dark and horrid cells : some have nothing in them either to sit on, lie down on, others a small piece of brickwork : some are lower and more dark than others, but all of them in my opinion dreadful enough for almost any Crime Humanity is capable of being guilty of . . That under the Bishops Chappell is the common and only Prison for all Offences in the Spiritual Court."

It was Waldron's judgment that the Clergy had a tyrannical jurisdiction over the people, and that the temporal power -- and not least the soldiery who had to execute the sentences - were at pains to soften it. Thomas Wilson, bishop 1698-1755, who in so many ways was responsible for bringing the Island out of a medieval into a contemporary mentality, is often blamed for the rigour of the system. But his own testimony was that "long and uninterrupted custom" had made the spiritual courts such an essential part of the discipline of Manx life that "should he derogate from it he would be in great danger of public opposition". "I comply with it," he said, "rather than approve it."

But, (Waldron again) :

"How little the methods taken by the Court to prevent Fornication have succeeded, may be known by the great number of offenders which are every Sunday doing Penance for it in their Churches".

Dragging behind a boat was the ultimate deterrent for women guilty of persistent sexual misbehaviour. There are some 15 recorded cases. It was especially repugnant to the military, and the last sentence passed in 1734 was never carried out. But among them was that of Jane Kissage in 1705. A scrap of paper, the order to the Sumner to put it into effect alone survives. It reads :

"The within Jane Kissage, for a prentended fornication, etc., is to be dragged in Ramsey burn at full sea for ye space of an hour, and her mother for burying a block under pretence o f her daughter's child is to stand on ye shore in pentential manner whilst the said Jane her daughter is dragged after a boat".

What scenarios can be written to that! But the chief of male Kissack sinners is surely found here in the very same year. Headed Bishopscourt, dated Nov., 28, 1705, the sentence reads :

"In Nomine Dei,

Whereas William Kissack of Kirk Christ, Lezayre, hath committed adultery with his wife's sisters daughter, Anne Christian to the great dishonour of God and of His Holy Church, and damnation of his immortal soul without the great mercy of God upon his sincere repentance, is therefore censured as followeth.

To be committed a month in St. German's Prison, and before his release to give Bonds to perform the ensuing censure, vizt. To make one Sunday's penance at the Church door of every Parish, and at ye Market Cross of every Town within this Isle, in the habit and manner following. That he be ready at the ringing of the last peale to Morning Prayer, to begin his penance, bare-footed and bare-legged and bare-headed, covered over with a white linen sheet, and a small white wan(d) in his hand; and so to stand during the Going in and the Coming out of the Parishioners; and also to stand at ye said Market Crosses f or ye space of two hours (on ye Market Days) from nine to eleven in the forenoon, with a Schedule on his breast intimating his crime, which is to be read by the Ministers of the respective Parishes, and to be repeated by the offender, as followeth:

"Good Christian People,

I am thus most justly censured for my abominable Sin of Adultery and Incest with my Wife's Sister's Daughter, Ann Christian, whereby I am grievously fallen, and have given great offence to all good Christians here present, and to all who shall hear thereof, and therefor I do most humbly and penitentially pray from the bottom of my heart, and upon my bended knee beseech God in his Son Christ's name, who shed his blood for all Sinners that do truly repent and believe in him, to forgive me all my sins, but this especially. And I earnestly desire you and ye whole Church of Christ to forgive this scandal given to the Christian Religion, and that you offer up your fervent prayers to Almighty God our merciful father that he would raise me up again by true repentance, and give me the assistance of His Holy Spirit, and that (if it be his Blessed Will) I may be restored to an happy state of salvation, and by the idulgence of the Church may be received into the communion and fellowship of its members. So that I may both in body and soul be sanctified here on earth, and with you be glorified hereafter in Heaven. And therefor Good Christian People, I beseech you to pray with me, saying: Our Father, which art in Heaven, etc. (see Note 1)

Tho. Sodor
Sam. Wattleworth
Robt. Parr
Jon. Curghey

To the General Sumner or his Deputy, to see this duly executed and certifcated returned herewith of the performance thereof, to be recorded."

How many of the 21 public penance appearances above prescribed he actually performed we do not know, but often there was a remission of maybe half. Nor how he fared in St. German's. The popular impression that prisoners were penned scores at a time in the dungeon crypt, only 34 feet by 13, is probably overdrawn. Waldron implies that already in his time the garrison would allow prisoners more tolerable quarters in the Castle, no doubt at a price. The dungeon was last used in 1780.

In the mid-19th century a curate of Lezayre kept a table of illegitimate births in the parish from 1800 to 1848, by 7-year periods. The total baptisms in those periods were :- 386, 441, 430, 419, 455, 492 and 489. and the corresponding illegitimacies :- 22, 28, 39, 47, 56, 58 and 30 an overall proportion of 3112:280, an average of 9%, with a variation between 5.5% in periods between 1800 and 1814, and 12.5% between 1821 and 1841.

However, the Spiritual Courts spent much more time on settling the estates of the deceased than on the sins of the living. The Wills of the wealthy might be legally-prepared documents, occasionally with copperplate calligraphy and red seal appended, yet these stand out in the files among the scribbled Manx quartos like picture hats in a village market. The wills of the illiterate were normally nuncupatory, i.e., spoken out, wherever possible in the presence of the Parish Clark, who would write it down before witnesses. Occasionally there was no clerk, perhaps even none who could write. Then the Parish Quest took sworn statements from those present, and sifted out of them the relevant intentions of the deceased. But frequently there was no will of any sort. Then the Quest would meet, appoint four honest men to make an inventory of the estate, and then divide it among the heirs. A wife automatically owned half of the property, and could not be dispossessed of any of it without her consent. So inventories constantly record items such as Half a Cow or Half a Spade. Where there was land, the heir was always the eldest son, or the eldest daughter if there were no sons. Inherited land was by law so entailed and could not be willed to another. Property personally acquired could be left at will. But mostly among the poor there was just nothing to leave.

It is from Wills that inferences can be drawn about the social status of a family. It may be possible to indicate something of the standing of the various Kissack families from statistics of wills. How many of them had anything to leave? How did their social position differ from parish to parish? I have made a rough tabulation of the respective numbers of family wills, baptisms and burials for 5 parishes where our presence was significant, Lezayre, Maughold, Jurby, Santon and Patrick, divided into 18th and 19th centuries. Patrick and Jurby had relatively small family presences in the 18th century, and so figure only in the later one. In the 18th century the ratio of Wills to Burials were : slightly above 1 in 2 for Santon; and 1 in 3 for Lezayre and Maughold. In the 19th century, above 1 in 2 in Patrick; 1 in 2 in Maughold and Santon; 1 in 3 in Lezayre, but 1 in 13 in Jurby. The ratio of Wills to Baptisms are (for the 18th century only) :above 1 to 2 in Santon; 1 to 3 in Lezayre and Maughold; 1 to 3 in Patrick, and 1 to 11 in Jurby. The implications for Jurby can be assessed later.

Note 1 - Correspondence received casts some doubt on Rex's conclusion - read more


Until a century ago, in common with all Manx families, quite 95 % of Kissacks would never write even their own names. Literacy lagged quite two generations behind the mainland. Yet in the 17th century, both Bishop and Lord had tried to remedy the situation. James, the seventh Earl, the only one to spend any great time or interest on the Island, and so known as Stanlagh Moar (the great Stanley), wanted to found a University there. But in the Civil War he lost all, even his head. After the Restoration, his son far a time used Bishop Barrow as his Governor also. He began to set aside funds for a College, and "the erection of Free Schools and Pettie Schools in the parish churches." But the people were "backward to make use of them". The frequency of subsequent rebukes and enactments prove the law that the more attention governments seem to give to an issue, the surer the current popular resistance to it. Yet for those who wanted it, schooling was available from the 17th century on.

The first wife of Ewan Kissage, the miller, of Lezayre died in 1731 while her children were in their teens. Mary Kinread could not write her own name, but her will provided for their schooling. Michael the eldest had three months with the Vicar, and a quarter-century later at the Kella case, (so the manuscript testimony suggests) he takes the pen and laboriously writes 'Michael', under his testimony whereat the clerk seems impatiently to have taken it from him, and added 'Kissage' himself. When he died in 1774, he charged his daughters to see his youngest son get schooling. Yet his father Ewan was using a cross to the end of his life. Indeed when James, his great-grandson (and my great-grandfather), married in 1851, he indeed signed his name, but not his bride. Edward Kissack, of Santon might be farming 120 acres in the 19th century, and be Parish Churchwarden himself but when his daughter Catherine married in 1850, even she made her mark.

In Maughold another miller, Robert Kissag of Purt-y-Vullen, directed in his will of 1749 that his eldest son should serve apprenticeship to Ewan Curghey the Cooper, and specified that all his three sons were to have 3 years schooling. In those days the costs were, 6d a quarter to be taught to read, and 9d to write, English.

Waldron held the clergy to blame for this sluggard progress. He asked two of the younger clergy why, for all the talk, so little had been done to publish the Scriptures in Manx. "They agreed in their answer : That it was happy for the people that the Scriptures were locked up from them, for it prevented divisions in the interpretations of them". There was another negative factor too. Education was wholly aimed at teaching English. (Bishop Wilson's concern in 1700 had been that only two-thirds of the population could speak English). The result was a confused and retarded people. It helps explain why, unlike Wales, the Isle of Man has no genuine Manx literature, and why its linguistic distinction (so well expressed by T. E. Brown the 19th century poet) was a dialect language of the 'pigeon' type, combining words and phrase-structures of the Gaelic Manx with English grammatical structure and vocabulary. A general comment of the people when they finally got the Scriptures in their own Manx language, was that now they felt they really understood their bible. As a result the production of the Manx Bible triggered of a great desire for education. It stimulated both the desire to learn to read, and to read Manx as well as English.

But the cost to family life and feelings that the general illiteracy of the 18th century imposed, allied with the necessity of children being compelled to leave the Island to make a living, is poignantly revealed in the Wills of the time. Edward Kissag (LzXI), dying in 1774, wills his land and money to his children : . . .

"To my eldest daughter Christian the bed clothes and furniture To Marty a choice sheep and yearling. To Ellinor all my part of the Bees that I have out in holdings of other people in the Halves. To John the featherbed in which he usually lay : To my wife Isabel all my part of the household goods and utensils under the roofs of our houses."

Then he pauses and the codicil comes :

"I call to mind that I had two sons, namely Edward and William Kissage, who went abroad some years ago, and since reported to be dead. But in case they or either of them do happen to be alive and come to this Isle I leave to them the sum of 24s. apiece as legacy".

And in 1795 the daughters of Michael the Miller petition the Courts that their four brothers, John, William, Michael and Phillip Kissage, having departed the Island above 17 years ago, and not heard from or of since, should be deemed dead and the girls declared their heirs. (LzXVII).

Over a century later, Fred Kissack, two generations on in the family, a carpenter who had done well in Cleveland, Ohio, whither he had emigrated from Cronk-y-Voddy some 20 years earlier, came hurrying home in 1903 hoping to see James his dying father. He sent back to his American wife in diary form his thoughts on passing again the village school :

"As I look my mind goes back to the first day I entered it, to the day I left; and how near I came to being a teacher, had my folks allowed it. I often wonder why, but it is too late to know now."

Reading it 80 years later, Jimmie Kissack his nephew, 95 years old, who (also a carpenter) had followed him to Cleveland, recalled how he had returned from school in Peel one day to be told by his mother that she had apprenticed him to a joiner, and how he had gone out, found a lonely spot on the headlands and wept, for he too had set his heart on being a teacher.

Though legal provision for full popular education had existed since 1878, it only became an actuality about 1890 when it was made free. In general the end of schooling was just to learn a trade. I have found only one Kissack who was a schoolmaster before the 20th century, old Hugh of Andreas (1772-1867), though at least two Kissack daughters in the 19th century taught in parish schools.


The 19th century concern for every son to have a trade rooted in the pervading deep disillusion in agriculture as an economic way of life. As far. back as the 17th century the Stanlagh Moar had similarly despaired . 'This Isle will never flourish until some trading be'. But it was Christian-Curwen both an MHK. and an MP, a shrewd agricultural economist with one foot in Cumbria an another in his ancestral Mann, to offer an early 19th century assessment of Manx agriculture. Since the Kissacks were almost completely employed on the land in those centuries it is worth quoting what he reported to the Manx branch of the Workington Agricultural Society about the time of Waterloo.

His theme was that an upturn in Island affairs had indeed begun with the Revestment - the re-assumption of sovereignty by the British Crown in 1765. From some 20,000 in 1755 the population had risen to 35,000. Trade benefited more than just the smuggling Community who had so successfully exploited the Freeport status of the old regime. There was an increase of residents escaping the mounting luxury and taxation in Great Britain. The shortages had made the farmers prosperous, and induced a "general spirit of speculation". There were visible signs too. "Everywhere the mud-walled cabins and thatched roofs give way to erections of brick or stone with slated roofs."

But of greater interest is his analysis of the conditions of the past:

"For the present highly-improved state of the country the Manx are certainly indebted to those of their fellow-subjects whom they are too fond of separating from themselves by the offensive designation of "Strangers". It is those strangers who have ascertained the grateful nature of the soil, called forth and applied the various species of manure which nature had for ages offered in vain to native indolence or prejudice. To the same class of visitors may also be ascribed the revival of planting trees which, if it proceed a few pears more as rapidly as it has done the last 20 years, will render the legend of naked valleys and unclothed hills of Man incredible to future ages....

"The generality of the land, in a good situation and well-cultivated, will give of oats 40-50 bushels per acre. Thirty years ago the instruments of agriculture were so few that scarcely 20 carts were to be found on the Island, and farmers had no, mode of carrying their corn, but in kreils fixed on their horses backs.... A person who occupied 400 acres of his own estate had only one plough and one harrow. In abundant years the estate produced bread-corn, i.e. oats and barley, for the family, in failing years not that. The
cattle depended on gorse and furze for food and shelter. The same estate now is let to a thriving tenant for a rent of £800 p.a....

"There is a tract of excellent land within 3 miles of Douglas, the owner so bigoted in his ancient habits that if out of 300 acres he can raise enough to supply the instant needs of his family and retain seed for the coming year, he thinks he has done all that foresight and industry can require . .

"The estate by the laws of the land must descend to the next heir, the rest of the progeny during the lives of their parents will live at home in unthinking and inactive stupidity, and at their death must turn out with no provision but their own labour for support. The proprietor does as his father before him: he himself has enjoyed the estate as his due; and his brothers who were brought up with him are now in extreme age, spending the remains o f their strength as daily labourers on the roads or in the neighbouring farms . . :

The Manx have always combined farming and fishing, but Curwen calls the practice an impediment to agriculture :-

"At a time when an increase of hands are most wanted, the cultivator is left wholly to the aid he can derive from feminine assistance, by which alone he can carry in the harvest, while hundreds of stout young men are waiting the arrival of the fish in listless idleness."

My own great-aunts would speak in like vein of their father and his boat. It had gained the epithet of the Buttermilk Boat, because his moral principles had insisted he launch it without the customary alcoholic celebrations :- "It was always us women who brought in the harvest on the croft".

My great-grandfather actually owned some 20 acres briefly in the 1890s, but they had been mortgaged away when he died in 1903. Indeed, apart from their houses and gardens, few Kissacks were land-owners by then. One of his uncles owned some mountain pasture on South Barrule, and the Rhenab Kissacks in Maughold, and possibly some of the Ballakissack family had reasonably large acreages.

Two centuries before, the Lezayre Kissacks had held between them nearly one third of the rich Abbeylands that stretched from Sulby to Lezayre Church. Their neighbours were Christians, Standishes and Garretts, and already English-sounding names, such as Frissells and Llewellyns, allied by marriage to the Christians, and well-apprised of the un-profitability of land 'unless there trading be'. The second half of the 17th century marked only deepening trouble for the family, and formed the sad background to the pleas of inability to pay the Lord's Rent, to the sales and mortgages, the marriages of convenience, and other devices 'to keep up the name of Kissage' on the Kerrowmoar, under which it was 'antiently held'. Hence the dealings with John MacKissack of Mutehill Grange in Kirkcudbright, and the half dozen marriages of Kissack with Kissack within a bare decade.

William and his son Ewan were still desperately staving off bankruptcy when in 1703 the Act of Settlement was passed, and at last the Earls of Derby recognised that Manxmen held their lands under him by freehold, and not in any form of feudal feoffage. But liberty for a family to deal with its own entails merely conjured up the temptation to solve their insolvencies by parting with their fields. And as will be seen, the Kerrowmoars were fatally caught in the general economic torrent.'

Please note that the copyright of the "Seed of Isaac" and "The MacIsaacs" remains with the family of Rex Kissack and no part may be reproduced from this site without their permission.

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