Situated at the north end of Langness which divides Castletown Bay to its west from Derby Haven to its north, St Michael’s Isle (or Fort Island) is a distinctive and small 5.14 ha rocky island off the south-east coast of the Isle of Man. Managed by Manx National Heritage since 1984, only from the late 18th century has the island been connected to Langness by a causeway. It bears two distinctive archaeological components that speak in different ways of its strategic situation.
St Michael’s Chapel
Regarded as 12th century and composed of limestone blocks and originally slate-roofed, it is a three-cell rectangular structure and a bell-cote at the western end.
It was surrounded with a burial ground in use until the late 19th century for the burial of shipwreck victims and by the Catholic community on the island. In doing so, it persisted in a funerary use for centuries, perhaps as early as the Early Middle Ages. The earliest graves discovered from the site were of ‘lintel’ type (cist graves: although the equation of cist graves as diagnostically early medieval is now surely disputed).
Visiting last year, I noticed that the site is still a focus for memorialisation: there were floral offerings placed within the locked chapel interior.
I did appreciate the historic sign, dating the structure to the 11th century.
The fort protected the two main approaches to Derby Haven from the east, built by order of Henry VIII in the 1540s. Linear earthworks nearby on Langness are thought to represent earlier defences at this spot, perhaps as early as the Viking Age if not before.
In summary, my brief visit got me thinking about maritime surveillance and defence, as well as the religious dimensions to maritime landscapes and their enduring significance into recent centuries. Again, we find these beautiful, isolated locales, remaining as occasional foci for floral offerings to this day.