Last edited 10 Dec 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The architecture of the Isle of Man

Manx architecture is distinctive, but the many distinguished buildings are at risk from neglect by the insular administration and a planning system not geared to supporting conservation.

Former fishermens cottages at Niarby Dalby.png
Former fishermen’s cottages at Niarby, Dalby, showing the distinctive Manx system of roping down the thatch to projecting stones set into the wall. Not many examples of thatching survive. Photo by Patricia Tutt.

The architecture of the Isle of Man is atypical of the British Isles in that its history with a non-resident landlord meant that there was little stimulus to produce buildings of architectural quality until the early 19th century. Before this date, socio-political conditions, coupled with the poor quality of Manx building stone and a shortage of timber, deterred any efforts other than the most basic in building vernacular dwellings and other rural buildings.

A limited range of typologies spanned the change from blackhouse and longhouse types to a debased neo-classical symmetry in single or two-storey forms. The latter may follow pattern books in the plan and elevational treatment, but the spare detailing, use of materials, and means of construction were usually vernacular in nature and in spirit (Tutt, 2012, 2013). Abandoned dwellings were never demolished or robbed, but left for ‘themselves’.[1] These ruins, known as tholtans, are a feature of the Manx rural landscape, although the old ways are being forgotten and many tholtans have been robbed of slate and stone in recent years.

The basic Manx cottage was a simple two-roomed structure with gable chimneys at both ends and a central doorway between two windows (Roeder, 1901). The parlour with the large stone chiollagh (cooking hearth) was larger than the room to the other side of the door, which may have contained a box bed, but this disappeared once the walls were raised. There is no evidence for the out-shunt box bed, as was common in Scotland.

The floor finish was either hardened clay or stone flags (flaggyn). The central stable doorway (essynydorrys) had a slate lintol (claghlinteyr) over it. The loft (pronounced laf or lout) was used as a bedroom, usually for children, and was reached by steps or ladder (greeishynirreeseoseyn lout). The rafters (casscubbyl or nythie), were often salvaged in some way – driftwood found on the shore or bog oak taken from the curragh (bog). Roeder gives alternative terms for the scraa – the scaghynynthie or scregs. These were sods of turf, rolled up, two inches thick, or overlaid, on supporting timbers, gorse twigs or bracken under the thatch, and the straw thatch was sewn through with briars. Porches were a widespread later addition, some built from large slate slabs.

Unlike in Scotland, where many cottages remain single storey with squat dormer windows, most single-storey Manx cottages were raised to a second storey, often at the time when imported slate became available. Once imported Welsh slate became the normal roofing material a crude gable verge (often no more than a cement strip) was raised above the roofline and dressed over the first couple of slates to prevent them being whipped off by the wind. This simple form was used for anything from a basic low cottage to a two-storey, plus attic, five-bay farmhouse or rectory, although in the north sod structures persisted and many northern houses were built from clamp-fired brick. The latter were often of poor quality, necessitating slate-hanging as weather-protection on exposed gables.

The transition from the vernacular to the polite is marked by the loss of the traditional chiollagh, to be replaced by a much smaller stove, which permitted the more balanced placement of rooms about the central doorway. This coincided with the Georgian obsession with symmetry, evident in the many pattern books that were published in this period, especially by the likes of the Scot, John Claudius Loudon (1834), and with the interest in agricultural improvement that was brought to the island by incoming landowners, especially those from Scotland and by Anglo-Manxmen such as the MP John Christian Curwen. These men educated the Manx in improved land and animal husbandry, and instigated an improvement in farm building. In rare instances, the form of a Georgian Scottish steading was used.

Beyond the vernacular, and the castles and churches (the latter mostly quite modest), the development of style came late to the Isle of Man, with the Georgian period being the first to offer much of substance. Until the fourth Duke of Atholl built the Castle Mona, completed in 1803/4, there was no grand house to offer precedent or example. Similarly, later economic stagnation meant that the post-Victorian periods are often under-represented. The late-19th and early-20th-century promise offered by a phase of Edwardian architectural competitions that drew in architects from across the water, and the brief flourish from Mackey Hugh Baillie Scott and Armitage Rigby petered out somewhat. It was not really until the 1990s that buildings of better quality once again started to appear.

The Isle of Man is remarkably rich in Victorian and later stained glass, with some particularly fine twentieth-century examples.

Apart from limited archaeological survivals, such as at Rushen Abbey, and the simple forms of churches, the earliest substantial buildings are the ruins of old St German’s Cathedral and other structures within the curtain wall of Peel Castle, which has deteriorated rapidly since Bishop Wilson robbed the church roof of slate; and the lower elements of Castle Rushen in Castletown. Rushen is well-maintained, following somewhat imaginative early-20th-century reconstruction by Armitage Rigby. St German’s has the remains of some distinctive chevron banding – a common Norman detail, tentatively dated as 13th century.

There are intimations of the baroque in Bishop Wilson’s rustic recast west front at the Old St Mary de Ballaugh church, which date from 1717. The dual external stair over the porch that gave access to a musicians’ west gallery has long gone, but the surviving later steps at Old St Runius, Marown, give an idea of what they may have looked like. The baroque does not resurface again on the Isle of Man until its brief revival in the Edwardian era.

During the Georgian period, immigration, urban expansion, improved roads with bridges (scarce before this period), the availability of pattern books, increased opportunity to travel off-island, the expansion of the middle class and a rise in successful trade all fuelled a building boom which made it possible for the Georgian and, subsequently, the Victorian, styles to spread. The Georgian portmanteau embraced a wide range of stylistic revivals, but it is only the neo-classical and gothic revivals that have had much lasting impact in the Isle of Man, plus a small number of modest detours into Regency and Greek revival.

The Castle Mona (1803/4) was commissioned by the Duke of Athol in the mistaken belief that the Crown would pay for his gubernatorial residence. [2] It was a marked departure for the Isle of Man. His architect, George Steuart, [3] used severe formal geometry (the cube and double-cube, and the cylinder), clad the building with stone imported from the Isle of Arran, and employed Scottish masons and workmen. A drawing produced for the syndicate which later purchased it shows the original magnificence of the setting, now destroyed by encroaching urbanisation following disposal of much of the land in the estate. The building itself has been much abused and neglected, and has recently been sold.

Steuart was responsible for a number of Manx buildings (Tutt, 2013). The third and fourth Dukes were both John Murray (1729–1774 and 1755–1830). Some of Steuart’s drawings survive in the Manx National Heritage archive. They illustrate his penchant for Coadestone medallions, designed to his specification with Atholl (Murray) insignia, as used on the Castle Mona and the Murray memorial obelisk at Kirk Braddan.

Castle Mona’s modest crenellation triggered a frenzy of enthusiasm for mock castles throughout the island. The slender columns, either single or clustered, which can be found in the porch, on the principal elevation and in the central hall of the Castle Mona, recurred in the works of Thomas Brine at Lorne House, St Mary’s (Catholic) church and the lost interior of St Mary’s (Anglican) church in Castletown, and in the doorcase of Kentraugh, one of the Manx gentry houses. Kentraugh appears to have been an older five-bay farmhouse that was enlarged in the period 1815–1820 to become one of the island’s premier estates. The magnificent stone portico in Mostyn freestone from North Wales dates from this period, as does the splendid plasterwork inside the house.

Thomas Brine (1776-1840) was surveyor at the Barracks Office, Castle Rushen, and later practiced as an architect, mainly in Castletown. His old House of Keys (c1820) is pure early Georgian neo-classicism, if a little laboured. Lorne House (1827) attributed to Brine on stylistic grounds, with a Regency bow front and verandah, was the tenanted residence of two lieutenant governors (Tutt, 2010). The Nunnery, by John Pinch the Younger, of Bath, dating from 1832, is the largest Manx house, also crenellated, representing a fashionable interpretation of faux castle that can be found throughout the British Isles, and much farther afield in Europe.

Other names to be aware of are John Robinson, Ewan Christian, Joseph Henry Christian, John Loughborough Pearson, William John Rennison and Frank Matcham (architect of the Gaiety Theatre, a fine recent restoration) and, as mentioned, Armitage Rigby and Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott (1865–1945), who spent part of his early career in Douglas. Baillie Scott’s Falcon Cliff Terrace marks his transition from whimsy to modernism in elevational treatment while retaining his innovative space planning.

The Edwardian era competition wins include the baroque revival Municipal Buildings in Douglas by Ardron and Dawson of Leeds (1889) and the Isle of Man Bank headquarters (1902) by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie (from Aberdeen), arguably the Isle of Man’s finest building. Together with his son, Alexander George Robertson Mackenzie, he designed Australia House and the Waldorf Hotel in London. Giles Gilbert Scott designed the Roman Catholic church of Our Lady Star of the Sea and St Maughold, Ramsey (1910), a significant early work.

John Robinson, in buildings from 1837 to 1869, favoured two styles, using castellated forms for Greeba Castle and Greeba Towers (1849) and the neo-classical for Oddfellows’ Hall (1841) and the Esplanade (1846). When designing terraces, he often formed a palace front.

All these buildings are at risk, or have been subjected to inappropriate change. Manx architecture has always been poorly served by the insular administration. There is no longer a conservation officer, and the planning system is geared to facilitate the arrival of new residents of high net worth, however they may wish to change any building they may acquire.

This article originally appeared as ‘From blackhouse to Baillie Scott’ in IHBC’s Context 153, published in March 2018. It was written by Patricia Tutt, an architect, lecturer and photographer, who prepares conservation and registered building reports for the Isle of Man Government. She has written a PhD on the vernacular architecture of the island and a substantial book on the island’s architecture.


  • [1] The little people – one of the many Manx superstitions was never to refer to them as fairies.
  • [2] Atholl Papers, Manx National Heritage, Book 85. The Duke’s personal account of how he was misled regarding the funding of the Castle Mona
  • [3] The architect of two very fine churches in Shropshire: St Chads, Shrewsbury (Grade I listed) and Wellington, Telford (Grade II*) – both very progressive early Georgian

Further reading

  • Roeder, C (1901) Contributions to the Folk Lore of the Isle of Man in YnLioarManninach, Vol 3 (1895–1901).
  • Tutt, Patricia (2010) Lorne House: A Manx survivor, Ramsey, Lily Publications.
  • Tutt, Patricia (2012) An Insular Architecture: rural vernacular architecture of the Isle of Man and the unique influencing factors that have shaped its form, PhD, University of Liverpool.
  • Tutt, Patricia (2013) An Introduction to the Architecture of the Isle of Man, Ramsey, Lily Publications.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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