A slightly different version of this article was first published in the Isle of Man Examiner.
In 1897, a man named Philip Kermode found an elk in the Isle of Man. As he was chairman of the Isle of Man Elk Committee at the time, this made him very happy. Well, I say ‘happy’, but Kermode was, by many accounts, a rather dry and serious man. His idea of a good time involved cataloguing stone crosses of the early Christian period. His sister Josephine, who published poetry under the pen-name ‘Cushag’ sounds tons more fun.
Various bones from prehistoric deer had been found around the Island, leading to the committee being formed to try and find stronger evidence that the Island had once been home to the fabled Irish Elk. A marl pit near St Johns yielded what they were looking for – an almost-intact skeleton of an adult male of the species. (The ‘Irish’ Elk wasn’t exclusive to the land that would later be called Ireland, but sometimes a name sticks like marl.)
Strictly speaking, such a discovery would have been classed as property of the crown. Happily, the Lieutenant-Governor wrote to Mr Kermode on Queen Victoria’s behalf, assuring him that the elderly monarch had no interest in claiming a pile of manky old moose bones. The matter was resolved with a gentleman’s agreement, and fifty quid changing hands. Plus ca bloomin’ change.
In 1922 Mr Kermode became the first curator of the Manx Museum. In 1925, the Elk followed him there from Castle Rushen, where the assembled skeleton had first been displayed. At the museum he’s remained, with a daily routine of frightening small children. (The Elk, not Party Boy Kermode.)
The Elk has always been my favourite exhibit at the Museum and a restoration a few years ago has left him looking better than he has since the day he tumbled into the marl. The huge beast, head forever rearing up to flaunt that crown of antlers is a crowd-pleaser and strikes a pose that suggests he knows it. Some Latin names from natural history are obscure and hard to understand. His is Megaloceros giganteus.
At around fifteen thousand years, he’s mind-bogglingly old. He lived in the Isle of Man five millennia before any human did. How did he get here? He walked – he was here before the Island was an island. He was already ancient and had lain in his swamp for ten thousand years when somebody in Egypt said “Y’know, a few pyramids would really zhoosh up Giza.”
If it’s been a while since you last visited Kermode’s bony giant or if you’re just looking for a way to traumatise the kids on a wet afternoon, then head for the Manx Museum. After all, where else in central Douglas can you meet a prehistoric creature for free?
Who just said “Tynwald?”