The best-known fact about the 32½-mile-long Isle of Man in the Irish Sea is that the cats there have no tails. But the 60,000 Manxmen (as the inhabitants are called) would prefer to be recognized for having the world’s oldest continuous parliament, called by its Norse name, the Tynwald. On July 5 it will be 1,000 years old. (By contrast, the British Parliament is a relative stripling at 714.)
On that day Queen Elizabeth II, who is also Lord of Man, is expected to attend a special open-air meeting of the Tynwald to co-sign the 20 or so laws passed during the last year. The proudest among those watching will be 61-year-old Charles Kerruish, who, as both Speaker of the Tynwald and a sheep farmer whose ancestry reaches far back in the island’s history, is the main man of Man.
For the past 17 years Kerruish has been head of the Tynwald’s 24-member House of Keys and chairman of some 15 committees, but that barely conveys his island standing. The Tynwald, for all its longevity, is a loosely run place where power is determined not by party but by personality—something Kerruish has in abundance. Over the years his combination of persuasion and pugnaciousness helped gain for Man its own coinage, control of its postal service and Britain’s only public gambling casino and paved the way for the island’s growing tourist business. “As a crown dependency [since 1827] we’ll never have complete autonomy,” Kerruish acknowledges, “but we no longer accept the proposition that good government has to come from Westminster. Especially,” he adds grumpily, “since in many ways our government is better than that of the sovereign territory.”
When it comes to roots, few islanders can match Kerruish. He considers it a “reasonable supposition” that his Norwegian-Scots family has been residing on the isle since the 12th century. Local records confirm that they’ve been tilling the sheep-dotted hills around his present home of Ballafayle for 400_years. One sign that he’s a true Manxman is the-ish ending of his name, which also identifies America’s best-known Manx descendant, the Plymouth Colony’s Captain Miles Standish.
As rural-minded as the majority of his constituents, Kerruish has never let politics interfere with his farming. An only child, he “loathed school because I was so used to the freedom of the countryside.” At 16 he left to work on the family stead and was soon snapping up prizes for sheepshearing, plowing and livestock judging. The 100 acres he inherited have gradually grown to 6,000, with a sheep for every acre, plus a herd of 500 cattle. A traditional Manxman, Kerruish lives in the same white house he was born in. Before heading the 17 miles to the capital city of Douglas in his Jaguar each workday, he puts in two hours around the farm.
He also entertains constantly at Ballafayle, mixing politicians, diplomats, farmers and motorcyclists who periodically swarm the island for road races (Kerruish himself owns three of the powerful machines). “He just loves people and drags them in,” says his wife, Kay, 56, a former educator and graduate of St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. Kerruish’s first wife died in 1970 after a 28-year marriage. Their three daughters and a son are now all grown and live on the Isle of Man.
Kerruish says he plans to remain Speaker for “as long as the electorate wants me.” His efforts have hardly gone unnoticed on high. Just in time for the millennium, Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. “I’m the most surprised person of all,” huffed the obviously pleased Sir Charles.