Standing on the summit of South Barrule on a clear day, it is possible to see to the west the mountains of Mourne, to the north the Mull of Galloway, to the east the mountains of the Lake District and to the south the mountains of Snowdonia.
Around you is evidence of the hill fort built by late Bronze-age people, descendants of the Mesolithic settlers who arrived when the ice melted and the Neolithic who left their traces in many burial sites around the island. These people were able to obtain copper and lead from the abundant ore in the hills and by 1,000BC were importing the tin to make bronze from Cornwall or Spain. They also domesticated the strange brown-coated, four-horned Loaghtan sheep still seen on the island today.
The rural landscape you look over is characterised by small farms and glens, the fields enclosed by sod fences, tall walls comprising peat sods over a rough stone core, enclosures dating back to the time when the smelting of local iron ore heralded the start of the Iron Age and its round houses. Looking again westwards, over Cronk ny Arrey Lhaa there is a keeil or small chapel dating from the 5th century AD, one of many bits of evidence of the introduction of Christianity from Ireland to replace the Druidic practices that preceded it. Many stone crosses with inscriptions in Ogham and Manx Gaelic have been found in the Island.
The Isle of Man was never invaded by the Romans, so a settled Iron Age population remained right up to 798 AD when the Norse Vikings arrived as raiders; within two years they had taken the island over. Their parliament, Tynwald (assembly field) dates back to 979 when the island was part of the Norse kingdom of the Sudoer, which included the Hebrides.
Successively the island had been ruled by kings of Ireland and Norway from 450AD until about 1070 when Godred, a Manxman who had served with King Harold prior to the Battle of Hastings and is known to the Manx as King Orry, returned to the island and installed himself as King by force of arms. Thereafter Man and the Isles were a kingdom, much disputed in civil war between Norwegian kings until in 1266 it was sold to King Alexander III of Scotland. On his death the infant Margaret, maid of Norway, was briefly Queen but over the period of wars between Scotland and England the Isle of Man became a pawn and was ruled by Edward I and II, Robert the Bruce, and finally Edward III. During his reign the title of Lord of Mann was granted to English and (after the accession of James VI to the English throne) Scottish nobles, notably the Earls of Derby and Dukes of Athol. Finally George III assumed the title for the British sovereign, so Queen Elizabeth is now Lord of Mann.
The Bronze-age people, looking out from South Barrule, could see the whole world, or what we now call the United Kingdom. They knew from trade that other worlds existed but did not foresee the invasion of the Vikings that was to replace much of their culture save their Christianity (the bishopric is still called Sodor and Man). That invasion and subsequent disputes over what was a strategically important refuge as sea trade developed led to several hundred years of war until relative peace was restored by the British monarchy.
Thereafter, the Manx settled into their traditional industries of farming, fishing, mining, linen making and smuggling until the onset of tourism in Victorian times and more recently international finance. But with all this change, the essential Manx character inherited from the Viking settlers and their Celtic predecessors remains the same – self-reliant, trusting, accepting everyone as equal, and sturdily independent.
Did I say smuggling? Yes, the Manxman looking out from South Barrule also sees a sixth realm, the sea, until very recently the major trade route for the whole world. From the earliest days the Manx were seafarers and traders. Trade may be free but often countries place tariffs and taxes; most readers will, I suspect, have been tempted to take restricted goods through the 'nothing to declare' exit from the airport. Smuggling was rife in the British Isles from the 13th century because of England’s wool taxes, whereas the Isle of Man had no tariffs and could import and export anything.
Initially smuggling was a minor activity by fishermen but after the Act of Union the British Government introduced import taxes, and smuggling became a major business for the Manx and fortunes were made. One specially-made smuggling boat, built in 1789, has been preserved where it was found in Castletown, close to the mediaeval Castle Rushen.
In the early 19th century tourism started to become an important source of revenue particularly when the week's unpaid holiday for factory workers was introduced and this continued well into the early 1970s when package holidays to Spain and the Mediterranean countries took over and mass-tourism declined. During the mid-1960s the island started to develop as a tax haven and with the demise of tourism and other traditional industries such as fishing and farming this became an increasingly important sector and now contributes almost 40% of its GDP. However pressure from the UK government, the EU and other international quasi-governmental organisations over the years has meant that the island has had to adopt a more transparent view of its activities in this area. Its change of branding from 'tax haven' to 'international finance centre', its willingness to enter into tax agreements with other jurisdictions, and global competition has resulted in a slowdown in this sector.
Notwithstanding this the island has worked hard to grow new business opportunities. It has among other initiatives developed a highly regarded international shipping and aircraft registry, a hi-tech manufacturing industry making products for the airline and oil and gas industries, and other well-regulated niche financial service activities. The island was at the forefront of the developing online economy and now hosts many international names that are active in online gaming and other sectors.
Constitutionally, the Isle of Man is a self-governing dependency of the Crown, neither in the UK nor Great Britain, but part of the British Isles, making its own laws subject to royal assent exercised by a lieutenant governor who is the Queen's representative. It is not in the EU but through its relationship with the UK is regarded as part of the customs territory of the EU and as such has free movement of manufactured and agricultural goods. Its relationship with the EU is very limited and it neither contributes to nor receives anything from the funds of EU; however this longstanding free trade agreement is important to the economy of the island. Being outside the EU and the UK enables it to retain its ability to continue to operate as an offshore financial centre.
If the Manx have a parent or grandparent of UK nationality, they are entitled to a UK passport and can travel freely at present in the EU. These privileges are currently at risk, but through war and financial crises this small nation of 88,000 folk has proved flexible and resilient. Manx people have migrated over the world when times have been hard. One of them, 52 years ago, took the drastic step of marrying me and in doing so introduced Manx, Irish and Welsh genes into our children. She also introduced me to one of the most interesting and beautiful small countries you can imagine.
In the words of the national anthem in English and Manx Gaellic:
O land of our birth, O Halloo nym ghooie
O gem of God’s earth O Chliegeen ny s’bwaaie
O Island so strong and so fair; Ry gheddyn er ooir aalin Yee;
Built firm as Barrule, Myr Baarool ern y hoie
Thy throne of Home Rule Ta dt’ Ardstoyl Reill-Thie
Makes us free as thy sweet mountain air. Dy reayll shin ayns seyrsnys as shee.
But, like us in Scotland and the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man’s future depends on the whims of our increasingly irrational and disputatious politicians, and the Manx didn’t have a vote in the referendum. Perhaps, when my children and grandchildren stand on the summit of South Barrule, they’ll see five little countries, all waging trade wars with each other and fearful of invasion from the rest of the world, as the sea-level rises and climate change puts an end to our economies. I do hope not.